Don Riggs

Don Riggs • May 2009

Don Riggs

Born in Seattle in 1936, Don Riggs graduated from Bellevue High School in 1954, where he was reporter, writer, newspaper editor and active in stage productions.  

At the UW school of Radio/TV, he worked on KUOW and was among the first booth announcers when KCTS went on the air, while part-time at KISW.  After graduation in 1958, Riggs worked at KULE, Ephrata, then was drafted.  He spent most of his Army time in a propaganda unit producing radio shows.

Back home in 1962, he worked for Sea-First Bank and then to KQOT in Yakima for 3 years.  He married his wife, Maria, in 1964.  Returning to Seattle, he passed through KTW, KREN, KVI, KIRO, KXA 1967-70, KFKF/KBES 1970-75 and then to KMPS, 1975-2008 where he was legend.

I set my goals (i.e.: got into a rut) early, in 6th grade, deciding this radio stuff looked like a pretty good way to make a living with actually working. The scary thing called TV was new, unproven, and probably wouldn’t last. That’s an early look at my grasp of the situation. In the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, radio was still the big thing, and I figured hosting, telling jokes, or reading the news didn’t take any special talent. That had “me” written all over it.

I remember my parents taking me to a “live studio audience” show at KJR, in the Cobb Building downtown, and to a “Clifford and Clark” show on KIRO, high atop Queen Anne Hill. I was more fascinated by the broadcast part than the performances.

By high school (Bellevue High School, class of ’54…go Wolverines, even though we didn’t really know what a wolverine was), I hadn’t changed my mind, and started getting more in to it. I remember visiting Wally’s Wax Works, with Wally Nelskog, on KAYO. And several visits to KIRO Paging, with Dave Page. He was the first pro to spend much time giving me helpful advice, beyond “get a something real.” I was impressed with KJR’s two Dicks (oh, quit smirking). Stokke, for his free-wheeling DJ ways, and Keplinger for his slightly bombastic news presentation. It was a special kick to run across Stokke later at KFKF when I was sniffing around there, and at KXA, where we worked together. I also admired the work of KJR newsman Lou Gillette, and appreciated working with him years later at KFKF.

After high school, it was off to the UW. School of Radio-TV. (I had been editor of the high school paper, and my parents sort of expected me to sign up for journalism. I think they accepted that I didn’t, although my mother kept scanning the papers for my by-line.) I wonder now how many lives Ken Kager touched. He was the manager of KUOW at the time, and I managed to score a board shift my first quarter there, and every quarter all the way through. He was the best kind of cajoler, nudger, teacher.

While there, I picked up a part-time weekend job at KISW (I was told the ISW stood for “in Seattle, Washington”) when it was playing classical music from what was described as a musical bus stop at 92nd and Roosevelt. My first paid radio gig!

Back in the day, the accepted way to fame and fortune usually involved a dusty, desert road somewhere. In my case, it was at KULE in Ephrata. Bob Moore was manager, and apparently had some sort of blackmail over Kager, and had him send what they convinced me was the “best available” air personality over to those boonies. Of course, I learned more about the business in my first month there than I had in four years at the UW. Spent a year there (turned 21 in the process, which was good, since there wasn’t a lot to do there expect drink), doing what you do in small-town radio: everything, including riding the fire truck in the annual parade, broadcasting from a furniture store window, writing copy, schmoozing advertisers, and such. Worked mornings mostly, so I didn’t have to sweep up much.

The Army came and got me, taking me away from that barren paradise to an exotic overseas location, where I spent a couple of years doing radio production work for the United Nations Command, broadcasting good ol’ American propaganda to the North Koreans and Communist Chinese. And coming way to close to going to Laos during the first “military adviser” days that became the Viet Nam war. I also worked part-time at a locally-owned commercial station on Okinawa, KSBK, pulling two weekend shifts and taping a two-hour mid-day weekday show. This was way before voice-tracking, when taping a two-hour show took…two hours. It was at once disconcerting and educational to be able to go to lunch and listen to myself every day.

Got back to Seattle in time for the 1962 World’s Fair, and, thanks to well-connected family friends, worked for Sea-First bank at its Fair branch in a low-level managerial job. Great way for a young, single guy to spend that summer.

The above-mentioned Bob Moore had contacted me shortly after my return to reality, wanting me to sign on his new radio station in Yakima, KQOT, which would be happening about the time the Fair was ending. So, it was off to another barren paradise, for three years. It was more small-town radio, trying to work my “News Director” title in with a six-hour six-days-a-week dj shift. (Along with playing organ in a bar, Zarley’s, owned by the father of the to-become-famous golfer Kermit), six nights a week. A co-worker and roommate for a while was Terry Allen (last name: Glasscock. For some reason, he chose not to use that on the air.) He worked for a while later in Bellingham before returning to Yakima. It was not easy for me to do a quick story on his death from a heart attack at age 68. While in Yakima, a group of four young nursing-school graduates moved into the apartment next door. Bo-nan-za! I married one of them less than a year later, in 1964, but, keeping my options open, gave cigar-band engagement rings to the other three. “The Girls” still get together at least once a year. One of them still has the cigar band…apparently keeping her options open, too.

After enough of Yakima, it was back home to Seattle, knocking on doors and dropping off tapes. I picked up part-time work at KVI when it was a powerhouse of personality radio…Bob Hardwick, Dave Clarke, Johnny Carver, Buddy Webber, Jack Morton, Big Don Furhman…what a cast! I did production work, a couple of weekend shifts, and was main fill-in for Morton and Fuhrman. The earlier-mentioned Lou, the Dicks (Hey, I said stop that!), Dave, along with national figures like Paul Harvey and David Brinkley, without even knowing it, had influenced my attitudes about what should be on the air. Smooshing little pieces of all of them together, became my “style.” And my time at KVI helped perfect it.

Still looking for full-time work, I ended up all-nights at KTW for a while, then moved to KREN in Renton, back to being News Director while pulling a six-hour dj shift. Also PD and Asst. Mgr. Lots of titles…not much money. Being a daytimer in the shadow of Seattle was not the key to big-money success.

Among the doors earlier knocked on was KXA, playing classical music. PD John Sherman called about a year later, saying they were lightening up and wanted a personality morning man. First time I know of that a PD actually kept a tape and made a decision based on it. The revised format was having some success, with fairly heavy emphasis on news and sports coverage. Finally, I was News Director doing only a three or four-hour dj shift, actually giving me time to cover news. I never had a big desire to get into sports, but I did a lot there. With the help of a wire service, I was able to tell owners of the Pilots that Major League Baseball had approved their plan. That got me in good for their brief life. And, the Sonics’ offices were about two blocks from the station, so covering them was pretty easy. A couple more personalities were hired for other day-parts. Broadcasting was finally catching up with the idea of hiring minorities and those with special challenges. That’s why Del Olney, previously at KIXI, came aboard and figured they’d never fire him, since he was a crippled Indian (polio…Yakima). Lloyd Allen came over from a religious station to do afternoons. The amazing Bill O’Mara briefly pulled weekend shifts. After three years of decent ratings, the absentee owner, whom I’d never met, decided to shut it down. It was 1970…I had jockeyed my last disc…with no regrets.

Radio was changing, as more stations narrowed their demographic targets, and programmers put more emphasis on music, and began hiring djs who were good actors, who could read the lines prepared for them, but stay within narrowing limits on what else they could do. I came to feel I had more freedom to be “me” through news and commentary.

So, it was back to part-time at KVI, this time on the news side. The search for full-time ended at KIRO TV, as a reporter. I didn’t warm that much to the medium. For one thing, too many other people could make you look bad on air, either on purpose or, usually, otherwise. At the end of a probation period, we mutually agreed this was not for me.

Back to unemployment…this time for one day. John Dubuque, the Chief Engineer at KFKF, and former Chief at KXA, called and said morning anchor Johnny Forrest had had a heart attack, and could I come over and learn what buttons to push and start tomorrow? The format was drive-time news blocks, with music in between. Manager Kemper Freeman, Jr., liked to call his air staff “news jockeys.” It was a nice fit. Bill O’Mara was there, back to doing what he should, sports. After a couple of years, the station was sold, the format changed to personality dj’s, with new call letters, KBES. Somehow, I survived that change, and worked with morning man Dick Cross, other great jocks, afternoon newsman Kevin Kelly and sports guy Mark Kaufman. Some of the best radio that hardly anybody listened to. A new manager came aboard and made some “improvements” that pretty much took away all the fun. Then came another format change. I did not survive that one.

Back to part-time at KIRO, this time as weekend anchor on radio. I had listened to the Round Mound of Sound for a while, and now, here I was, working right next to Wayne Cody. It’s said the camera adds ten pounds. Not so with Wayne. I think he actually looked bigger in person. Sitting there on his specially-reinforced stool. A lot of fun to work with.

While there, KOL News Director George Garrett called and said his afternoon newsman had had a heart attack, and could I come over an learn what buttons to push and start tomorrow? Sound familiar? The two jobs I was longest at started with somebody having a heart attack, and me being available. The day I started, the sale of the station was announced and the manager quit. My future there seemed, at best, shaky. I hung on to the weekend gig at KIRO for a while…now working seven days a week. But, after six weeks of that, the new owner, Manning Slater, took over and changed the call letters from KOL to KMPS. And I was invited to stay, full-time. Bye Bye KIRO. In fact, amazingly for an ownership and format change, there was not a clean sweep. Slater invited all the rock jocks to stay and try country. About half of them declined…the other half were tired of it and gone by the first year, but, nobody had been fired!

By his thinking, Slater figured it would take three years to make any dent against the formidable competition of KAYO. But, their franchise player, B-Butterball Buck Ritchey, died. Sad for him, his family, his many fans, but good for KMPS. That three-year benchmark took less than a year. Led by PD-morning man Ric Stewart, up from Slater’s station in Sacramento, ratings started a slow, steady rise. I worked afternoons with Lee Rogers, doing what he called a “morning-type” show…again heavy on the personality. It was wonderful. Meanwhile, Ric was being advised to give up one of his two jobs. He chose to remain as PD. There was a succession of morning men for a while on KMPS-AM. Meanwhile, over on the FM side, KEUT was playing beautiful elevator music, with not a great deal of success. The decision was made to create KMPS-FM, make it country, and see what happened. Among the KEUT babysitters was Phil Harper, recently from KING and sort-a passing through until something real happened. PD Ron Norwood decided to pair Harper with me, and overnight babysitter-AM news lady Carolyn Duncan, and throw us all together on a new morning show. Turns out Phil and I had basically the same ideas about what personality radio should be, and we clicked like nothing before. The wonderful Carolyn made it complete. However, she moved on, and was replaced by Patti Par (who happened to be going with, and later married to, PD Norwood…hmmm). Putting her wacky self into the mix created what at least one knowledgeable writer called the best morning team EVER in Seattle radio. To this day, I would not disagree.

When I walked in the door at KMPS, did I think it would be 33 years before I walked out? In broadcasting? You kiddin’? The early team of jocks, Gary Vance, Jim Williams, Art Lind, Big Ed Dunaway, Dewey Boynton, Charley Parker, Becky Brenner, and many others, made that station go. The only distressing part for me was to watch the shrinking of the news department. The fact that it was happening at many music stations didn’t help. We began with a six-person news department providing twice-an-hour newscasts 24 hours a day, with separate sports reports during traffic time. True, the night-time news people also were babysitting KEUT, so when it disappeared, so did at least a couple of news people. Then, one by one, it got whittled down to just one. Fortunately for me, that “one” was me. But it’s still bothersome that time for radio news has been so severely restricted except for the all-newsers. A valuable service to music listeners has been decimated. We ceded news junkies to the all-newsers, but hoped to give the rest of the listeners enough news that they didn’t feel that had to tune away to find out what was happening. That’s still being done, but it’s more difficult. Sometimes, headlines just aren’t enough.

There came the time Harper got tired of getting up so darned early (we can all relate), and he decided to move more heavily into free-lancing, picking up most of that market. After the obligatory nationwide search, he was replaced by Jay Lawrence. Let’s just say that didn’t work out too well. The super-talented Ichabod Caine was brought on board to do afternoons, with, I suspect, an alternate plan. Eight months after being hired, Lawrence was out, and Ick moved to mornings. More absolutely great morning radio followed for several years. Then he left for greener pastures, and it took two people to replace him, Greg Thunder and John Hiefield. Three years later, Ick found the pastures not quite as green as he thought, and he returned. It was all up hill from there. Becky returned to the company, as Program Director, and has been recognized nationally several times for her talent, and by me as the most equal of the three best PD’s I worked with there. Jaye (then Jay) Albright was another one. As I told the PSRBA Soundies audience, go ahead and guess who the third one was. I’ll add here his first name begins with “R,” and he was mentioned earlier. It’s a standard thing to say that any successful operation wins because of its people and its management. KMPS is living proof of that.

I think being 33 years at one place was more than just being too lazy to look elsewhere. There were occasional offers, some with more money, but more restrictions. I came on board (or, more exactly, was inherited) with a track record and way of telling the stories, and was never successfully ordered to change and follow a particular method (not that it wasn’t tried a couple of times). I had quit and been fired from other places before, so the fact that I lasted that long shows I was doing something right, and so was the station, or we wouldn’t have put up with each other all that time. Much of the success was due to consistency from the top. There were only two general managers in the first 25 years, Jim McGovern and Fred Schumacher. Lisa Decker moved up to the job, shuffled elsewhere, then shuffled back. These people, along with a couple of short-termers between Lisa and Lisa, managed to keep the vagaries of east coast ownership from filtering down to us at lower levels. I suspect they took many hits for us. The first owner, Slater, was the last owner to show up with any regularity. I lost track of how many owners there were, complicated by the last one, or three..CBS, then Viacom, then CBS.

Over the last couple of years, I’d been trying to find a way to cut back a bit, but, for understandable programming reasons, we never came up with a good answer. And, with my now-retired wife singing the praises of that lifestyle, it finally became time to head out the door. The company came up with what Becky called an early retirement package. My only response was: I’m 71…it’s a little late for an “early” anything. But, I walked out smiling.

In doing our jobs, reporters cover community and governmental stories, and often want to go beyond just reporting on them, and actually do them. That’s why it’s not uncommon to find us on boards and commissions and such. For me, it began being appointed to a vacancy on the Sammamish Community Council in Bellevue, one of four such elected councils at that level in the state, sort of junior city councils for a part of town. Two of the four were in Bellevue. By being retained by voters three times, I put in 15 years before being appointed to the board building Meydenbauer Center. That took care of another six years of spare time. As a council member, I was on the advisory board for the Bellevue Downtown Park. These public service activities aren’t big bucks operations. My pay for being on the council: a gavel with my name inscribed on it. For the convention center, my name on a plaque on the wall. For the park, the name of the guy I replaced on a plaque. Maybe some day that will be fixed. We find these extra-curricular duties educational, occasionally exasperating, and always worthwhile.  

In the 60 or so years I’d been interested in, and the 55 years involved in the business, it has changed a lot. From emphasis on network programming to emphasis on local programming, moving from loosey-goosey personality shows to more tightly controlled formats. The medium had changed, and survived, instead of dying, like so many had predicted.The challenge continues…probably increases…to find young people who think radio is still fascinating and worthwhile. We’ve all run across high-schoolers who want to be disc jockeys so they can get paid to listen to their favorite rock stars. To some of them, I’ve shared the words passed along by Dave Page way back when: the hardest place in the world to listen to the radio is at the radio station. You’re always planning for what’s next.

Would I come back? As of this writing, yes, with the right conditions. There’s a lot to miss. Laughing and sharing your life and the world with thousands of people at once. Working alongside some of the most talented people around. Free t-shirts. There’s a lot not to miss. Getting up at 3 AM. Reading school snow closures. But, as I determined in the 6th grade, it’s a great way to make a living without actually working. I’m snickering up my sleeve realizing I got away with it for over half a century.