Bryan Johnson

Bryan Johnson • Written May 2009

Bryan Johnson

Bryan Johnson was born near Bristol, UK, in the small town of Churchdown.  He came from a family that had worked, in various capacities, for W. D. and H.O. Wills, now Imperial Tobacco.  Had he stayed in England, he would probably still be a smoker and getting free cigarettes. 

But his life changed when he, his mother, and sister moved to Tacoma, WA. Graduating from Vashon Island High School at 15, with no idea of what the future held, Bryan enrolled at the University of Washington and hitchhiked there from Burton.

That proved too much and he found it easier to hitchhike south to Tahlequah and enroll at what is now Bates Vocational and Technical.  He enrolled in the Broadcast unit and with his thick British accent thought he would become an engineer. Nothing works out as planned!

He got his US citizenship and a 1st class Radiotelephone license and was hired three days later, not as an engineer alone, but also as a newscaster, and play-by-play sportscaster.

For the next 58 years, Bryan worked in radio and television.  53 of those years at KOMO Radio and TV.

He received his BA, Summa Cum Laude, at the UW while working full time.  His major was in Russian language and literature.  He then began a Masters/Doctoral program in Slavic Linguistics (a series of studies which became useful only twice in his broadcast career).

Bryan was more interested in politics and economics, which were his major fields as a reporter.  But reporting includes crime, weather, and personalities and Bryan approached each with curiosity and, when appropriate (which he deemed to be often), humor.  

He is a member of both the Gold and Silver Circles of NATAS and has won Better Understanding of Education awards from the WEA and  was the first winner of the Susan Hutchison Bosch Award for humanitarian service through Journalism. He also received a National Unity Award, two national ARBY awards for civil rights stories, as well as local Emmys and numerous awards from Sigma Delta Chi.

Bryan was one of the authors of Initiative 276 which established the “Right to Know and Open Records” laws of Washington State and the Public Disclosure Commission, and served as a member of the Commission on Electoral Reform, and on the King County Mental Health Board.

Fifty years. My God, it sounds like a long time. No, it is a long time: to be in one city, at one station, in what amounts to one job. I was asked to reflect on those fifty years, my industry, and its future.

I remember how news was once defined and how I defined it. It used to be what happened: North, East, West and South. I never liked that definition. I preferred: “news is information which helps people make decisions about their life, the life of their community, state and nation.” I lived news that way and so did we all.

Reporters covered city council meetings, state legislatures, candidate debates. It was all about cataloguing events and pointing to the options. Government was our beat. Some politicos didn’t get it. They just wished we would go away; they tried to make that happen. So, it was reporters, like Don McGaffin and I, who joined the League of Women Voters, Young Republicans, Young Democrats, and The American Association of University Women in writing our state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Sure we covered more than politics; we covered fires like the Ozark Hotel, Seventh Avenue Apartments, the Paul Keller arsons. But, fires were more than flames; we focused on the why and safety of people. We reported the lack of sprinklers, the open transoms, the lack of fire breaks. We questioned city fire codes including the way wooden decks were allowed on lanais in multi-story buildings and pointed to the danger such construction posed. The goal was not audience but action by those empowered to act. We were watchdogs, not lap dogs.

But sometime in the 1970’s, a San Francisco station, KGO, decided its call letters stood for kickers, guts and orgasms. This type of news, the “If it bleeds, it leads”, didn’t just work, it buried the competition. The TV station grabbed what was estimated to be about 41 percent of the audience.

The die was cast. Across the country, in local news, there was much more emphasis on body counts, accidents and sex. It may have brought more people into the tent, but it pushed the watchdog that we used to be into a special “investigative” unit. Once, all reporters were investigative. Many reporters, beginning as early as the 70’s, became chroniclers of the aberrant. It was still a noble profession, maybe just not AS noble.

TV was not always pretty, handsome, or dazzling. Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, even John Cameron Swayze with his boutonnières, were hardly matinee idols; neither were those of us plying the news business at the local level.

But with each year that passed, info-tainment became a buzz-word and reflected what appeared to be the tastes of the audience. But there still probes of government waste, stories that raised public consciousness about mental illness, still debates about the death penalty, sex offender treatment, flood control and highway needs. There was plenty to keep my interest.

But a funny thing happened on the way to rating success. The audience seemed to become immune to the “new news” that KGO started and FOX perfected. The audience seemed not to care as much or perhaps could not see the relevance to their lives. The calls for “good” news mounted as if they really were good and bad news, rather than just news.

If news did not titillate a sometimes fickle audience, well, there was titillation available on cable tv, and they moved. The reality of news somehow got replaced with the reality of the absurd from “Survivor” to “The Bachelor” from “Big Brother” to why bother. The prized, young demographic was disappearing into a miasma of entertainment glop. Others, it seemed, drifted to bars, pool halls, and Wii’s and away from news. As audiences and readers decreased, advertisers saw what was happening. Newspapers, news magazines, radio and television are all suffering.

When we hit the 21st century, I was one year below Social Security. The audience came back with the horror of 9-11. But the questioning of government, the questioning of government actions, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which might have been expected in the 60s, 70s, and 80s took a back seat to anger and gut reaction. Later questions surfaced; a new President was elected. But that change and the campaign was blogged, twittered and Instant Messaged into existence. Rather than being reassured by the awakening of the people, I am now more scared than I was after KGO, after the emergence of cable, or after the hypnotic effect of the internet.

Blogging may be the wave of the future, but there is no balance. There’s just a Rush-Limbaugh-style, ditto shouting and a shopping for opinions that agree with the blogger’s. That’s not a formula for an enlightened people, it is an invitation to an Orwellian world. We have all witnessed the tragedy of the death of the PI and its anemic rebirth as a web-based what is it.

I am still in the business because despite all the warts, despite all the emphasis on sex and violence, despite the shrinking audiences, we in tv, radio and newspaper remain the only real hope for a rational, marginally educated people.