Monday, July 6, 2009

Seattle's KOMO Radio Goes Old School . . . REALLY Old School


Seattle radio station KOMO Newsradio AM 1000 went old school—really old school—for the better part of 24 hours just before the Fourth of July holiday. After going off the air just after midnight the morning of Friday, July 3 following an electrical fire in Fisher Plaza (the building that houses their studios), KOMO-AM came back on just after 2:00 am from an improvised studio located beneath the KOMO TV transmitter atop Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.

It made for interesting microdrama, and absolutely fascinating local radio. I’d randomly tuned to KOMO a little before midnight while driving to drop off some DVDs that were due at my neighborhood video store at the Witching Hour. As I mindlessly scanned through the presets on my car radio, I stopped on 1000 AM, where KOMO Radio news anchor Art Sanders was on and sounding a little distressed, as he spoke via cellphone (that had been ingeniously patched into the board before Sanders and news editor Ryan Harris were, along with everyone else on KOMO’s TV side, evacuated from the building). As I drove, I heard Sanders and Harris explain why they were broadcasting from outside the KOMO building, and also give extemporaneous updates on other national and international stories they were following. Every few minutes, Sanders and Harris made references to being on “battery power” that might run out at any moment. For a radio nut like myself, it was compelling. I rushed home and began recording the KOMO signal with a Zoom H-4 Recorder, and ended up doing so for the next day or so.

At about 20 minutes past midnight, the batteries on Sanders’ cell phone apparently gave out, and KOMO was reduced to static. Click here to listen to the last 18 minutes or so before KOMO signed off. When broadcasting resumed around 2:13 am, news anchor Gary Burleigh had taken over, and brought listeners (if there were any listeners—I personally heard the recording many hours later) up to date. By this time, KOMO engineers had rigged a simple studio in the circa 1953 TV transmitter building at North Galer Street and Warren Avenue North, near the old Queen Anne High School (about a mile from Fisher Plaza). Joining Burleigh were editor Ryan Harris (still on duty) and traffic reporter Deanna Joy. Click here to listen to the first 18 minutes or so after KOMO signed back on.

While the simple studio was apparently equipped with a few microphones and the ability to patch in at least one phone call, there were no facilities for playing recordings. Thus, KOMO was commercial-free! Better yet, KOMO was also sounder-free—no signature effects, music, jingles, or anything accompanied the anchors as they went about reading the news or giving the weather forecast (I was personally happiest to be free of the thumping techno beat of the 90-Second Sports Ticker). The sound, tone and feel of KOMO was about as old-school (I’d peg it as circa late 1940s) as a commercial radio station could get in 2009.

KOMO’s impromptu remote operations continued for most of the day on Friday, July 3. With no means for playback (or perhaps with no way to access the material), a scheduled best-of broadcast of the midday talk show The Commentators was replaced with anchors Charlie Harger and Nancy Barrick providing commercial-free news as well as some long-form radio specials from ABC (perhaps coming in “live” from ABC via a network feed) as well as hourly news and special reports from ABC News (Sarah Palin's resignation). Traffic reports, ordinarily done live in-studio or perhaps via ISDN line from the Seattle office of Metro Traffic in the Columbia Tower, came in from KOMO traffic reporter Sara Johnson via telephone (camping out at Metro Traffic). By early afternoon, just when it seemed they couldn’t get any more old-school than this, KOMO went further back into radio’s past by occasionally thanking the sponsors whose commercial spots one would ordinarily hear during a regular broadcast. It was a flashback to KOMO’s Totem Broadcasters era of the 1920s, when, rather than individual commercial spots, large portions of the broadcasting day were “owned” by one of six members of a consortium of local businesses (including KOMO's founder Fisher Mills). For details about Totem Broadcasters, track down a copy of KOMO radio reporter and TV anchor Bill Brubaker’s excellent Masters Thesis on Seattle radio prior to 1927 (I'll plan on devoting a future posting to Brubaker's pioneering work documenting early radio history).

Because the drama unfolded late at night (and because the commercial- and sounder-free broadcasting took place during a day that was a holiday for many people), KOMO's audience was probably smaller than it would have been on a typical weekday. Depending on your perspective, this is a good thing, since few listeners were inconvenienced. I think it's a shame more people didn't hear the broadcast and missed out on really terrific local radio. Further, apart from providing some low-level drama and a fascinating format for awhile, KOMO’s travails were a priceless exercise in emergency preparedness. I’d venture to say that while KOMO (and other Fisher radio stations that left the air) suffered in the short term—by leaving the air for a few hours and by giving up more than a full day worth of advertising revenue—the lessons learned by scrambling to get back on the air after a minor catastrophe will someday pay off for KOMO and KOMO listeners, far beyond what anyone can imagine.

UPDATE FOR TUESDAY, JULY 7, 2009: KOMO editor Ryan Harris sent in the note below, including a link to a complete recording from before the KOMO Radio studio was evacuated to when they went off the air around 12:15 am on the morning of Friday, July 3. Thanks to Ryan for adding to the historical record!

First-hand account courtesy of Ryan Harris of KOMO News Radio . . .

Feliks - thanks for saying such nice things about us and thank you for having the presence of mind to record us when our own recording equipment was down. What happened after 2:00 AM would have been lost and heard only by someone on some distant planet otherwise.

The power went out around 11:15 Thursday night, but the generator kicked in right away. I can only assume that was the vault fire. That allowed Dan Lewis to run downstairs to the newsroom to anchor the second segment of KOMO-4 News from there, and then another from back upstairs before it went out again. Again, I can only assume that was when the sprinklers doused the generator and its safety features shut it down. However, KOMO Radio's board and computer system are on uninterrupted battery back-ups, so we never went off. Meanwhile, security tried to evacuate us once, but Art and I refused to go until it was absolutely necessary. We knew it was going to happen, but it bought us the time to stay on the air and discuss the plan to get us on by phone. I was there one Saturday morning very early when we had a small fire - and I was furious at myself because I thought of patching in a cell call AFTER we were already shut out of the building and off the air. I wasn't going to make that mistake twice.

[Editor's Note: Click here for a complete recording of the “remote” broadcast that took place from outside the building, courtesy of KOMO.]

Thankfully, we had a TV vehicle with a radio to let us know we were still on the air and everyone from Dan, Steve Pool, Luke Duecy, Battalion Chief Teffre, GM Jim Clayton and a cast of many to join us and help us stay on the air. We stopped just before 12:30 Thursday morning because we got permission from the boss to sign off until we were ready to resume.

When Gary Burleigh, Deanna Joy and I were able to meet at 'Fort KOMO, Queen Anne', all I had was that same cell phone (gotta give props to my T-Mobile G1) for Internet access until they got me a laptop with cellular Internet an hour later. It only allowed me to surf 2 windows, so that in tandem with the G1 helped us gather some information and keep some semblance of news reporting going. I have to confess, my first stock numbers were wrong - but it was on the only site I could get to give me any numbers under the circumstances. At least I had baseball scores and Wimbledon!

It was an amazing morning I'll never forget - a story I'll probably tell my grandkids. Most of the credit really belongs to Chief Engineer John Barrett and his staff - especially Gabe and Lou, who rode the 'bamboo bike' and kept us on the air.

 Thanks also to all of the loyal KOMO listeners who stuck with us.

Ryan Harris

KOMO News Radio


  1. Hey Feliks, thanks for this post! Great explanation of the situation, and great sound files. And thanks for including me, the lowly traffic reporter! :)

    Deanna Joy

  2. Awesome Sound Files!! Nice StuFF!! Thanks for it