ROCKY MOUNTAIN AIR:
DENVER'S CHANNEL 9, 1952-1996
B.J., University of Missouri-Columbia, 1985
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
has been approved
Ryan, Tim (M.A., History)
Rocky Mountain Air: Denver's Channel 9, 1952-1996
Thesis directed by Professor Mark S. Foster
If something has to be around for a thousand years
to be the subject of history, television does not
qualify. Yet the American television business has
changed enough since it started 50 years ago that it
seems appropriate to examine the topic.
This work deals specifically with one television
station: Channel 9 in Denver. It examines the evolution
of the station, and the broadcasting business, both in
the context of Colorado broadcasting and the entire
industry, from 1952 to 1996. Channel 9 started with
crude equipment, limited programming and an almost
nonexistent local news presence and became a
sophisticated business with a broad impact on Denver and
Colorado. This thesis also looks toward the future for
Channel 9 and television in general, to see what might
lie in store for the next 50 years.
This abstract accurately represents the contents of the
candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.
Mark S. Foster
1. IN THE BEGINNING...................... 1
2. ADOLESCENCE.......................... 71
3. TOWARD THE TOP....................... 95
4. NEWS WAR............................ 125
5. THE SWITCH AND BEYOND.............. 158
6. REFLECTIONS OF A TELEVISION CHILD.. 182
IN THE BEGINNING
"A television show has been thought of like a
Kleenex. You use it for the eyes, and then you
throw it away. Nobody knew television was
going to be so big."1
Charles Kuralt, CBS News
If the people there at the beginning were
superstitious, Channel 9 might never have gone on the
air. After all, an airline losing the most important
piece of equipment necessary to operate a television
station is anything but a good sign.
But that is exactly what happened to Channel 9's
transmitter in the fall of 1952. Somehow, when United
Airlines shipped the RCA transmitter from Philadelphia,
someone forgot to unload it in Denver, and it wound up in
1 "When TV Was Young," CBS-TV, April 28, 1977.
San Francisco. "Now how you do that, I'm not sure I
know,"2 Channel 9 engineer Jim Butts later remembered.
Another engineer named Carl Bliesner remembered how
Channel 9's first general manager, Joe Herold, took the
news. "Joe Herold said he often wondered why he didn't
have any hair, and he said that was one reason. We could
have been on the air earlier, maybe a week earlier."3
But as it turned out, Channel 9 was "born" on Sunday,
October 12, 1952. It has been broadcasting every day
since, although what fills the Rocky Mountain airwaves
today is much different than it was in 1952.
Channel 9 was Denver's second television station.
Channel 2, at that time known as KFEL-TV, began
continuous broadcasting on July 21, 1952. Channels 4 and
7 both followed 2 and 9 on the air in 1953. Other
stations (6, 12, 20 and 31) followed in later years.
Denver was one of the last large American cities to get
television, the result of a government freeze on granting
2 Jim Butts in Ron Mitchell's, "Channel 9 40th
Anniversary series," KUSA-TV, April 20, 1992.
3 Ibid, Carl Bliesner.
licenses to people who wanted to start television
But long before TV finally did arrive in Denver, the
field of modern communications was slowly transforming
the world from a collection of disconnected and isolated
pockets of people to what we know today as "the global
community." Television was a key element in this
transformation, and many people considered it nothing
short of a modern miracle. "In terms of technology
alone, the ability to transmit and receive pictures and
sound is among the greatest human achievements of the
century."5 Actually, the origins of television go back
to Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone in
1876. The transmission of sound through telephone cables
evolved into being able to send sound through the air,
without any cables, by way of something called radio. A
young Italian named Gugliemo Marconi is generally
4 The freeze by the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) lasted from 1949 to 1952. Although it will be
dealt with in detail later, the reason the FCC gave for
the freeze was in order to determine how to allocate the
growing number of channel positions properly.
5 J. Fred McDonald, One Nation Under Television,
(Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1990), 5.
credited with inventing wireless radio transmission. By
1900 there were companies bearing his name in both Great
Britain and America. Although the first applications of
the new technology were for either military or
transportation needs, radio soon became a significant
commercial enterprise, foreshadowing the huge
broadcasting industry that exists today.
On November 21, 1920, KDKA Radio in Pittsburgh began
the country's first commercial radio broadcast. In
Denver, KLZ became the city's first radio station in
1922, KFEL followed in 1923 and KOA, also known as the
Rocky Mountain Broadcasting Station, started playing band
music and speeches on December 15, 1924. That same year
KLZ made history by broadcasting the first football game
Colorado listeners had ever heard. The two teams were
the University of Denver and the University of Colorado.6
By the 1950s, the owners of all three radio stations
would be involved in the new television phenomenon.
Unlike the telephone (Bell) and electricity
(Edison), the invention of television cannot be credited
6 Stephen J. Leonard and Thomas J. Noel, Denver,
Mining Camp to Metropolis, (Niwot, Colorado: University
Press of Colorado, 1990), 160-61.
to just one person. Instead, a series of inventors,
working either together or in competition, finally
developed the technology that made television possible.
In 1884 German inventor Paul Nipkow came up with
something called the "Nipkow disc" which held early
promise when it came to transmitting pictures. Among the
other early names in the race to get television going
were Ernst F.W. Alexanderson from Sweden, who advanced
the Nipkow disk at General Electric in the 1920s; radio
pioneer Lee de Forest, who patented the "Audion" voice
transmission tube in 1907; C.F. Jenkins, who helped
develop the motion picture projector in the 1890s and
demonstrated a television version in 1925; Philo T.
Farnsworth, who presented a public demonstration of
all-electronic TV in 1928, and engineer Edwin Armstrong,
who later became locked in a bitter legal struggle with
RCA over patent infringement.
But the name perhaps most associated with the
invention of television was a Russian-born engineer and
inventor named Vladimir K. Zworkin, who became known as
"the Father of Television." In a recent biography,
author Albert Abramson reflected on how Zworkin viewed
his position in the history of the medium. "Publicly he
professed to be bothered by the title, since he was only
too painfully aware that television had come about
through the efforts of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of
individuals who had slowly and methodically put the
pieces together to create the most powerful
communications medium in the world. Secretly, however,
he cherished that name."7 8 Whether television itself is
something to cherish or condemn has been the subject of
debate since its invention.
Zworkin's work advanced television technology to the
point that one research scientist predicted in 1925 that
all U.S. households would have TV sets by 1930. That was
more than a little optimistic, but the nation would see a
day when almost all households in the U.S. would have a
television set. As author Ken Auletta wrote in 1991,
"Television has become a basic American utility, like
water or electricity."6
7 Albert Abramson, Zworkin, Pioneer of Television,
(Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 1.
8 Ken Auletta, Three Blind Mice, (New York: Random
House, 1991), 3.
Zworkin himself likely gave little thought to the
implications of what he was inventing. He was an
engineer who focused on television's technical challenges
and left the business of how to use the technology to
others. But there is no denying that Zworkin contributed
two crucial pieces to the puzzle that would eventually
make up television. He invented something called an
iconoscope, which amounted to the first practical camera
tube that would allow programs to be broadcast, as well
as the kinescope, the picture tube that went inside
millions of television sets so that viewers at home could
actually receive what broadcasters sent.
Zworkin did all this work, not in his native Russia,
but rather in the laboratories of huge American
corporations that were rushing to take advantage of the
new technology. In the early 1920s, Zworkin worked for
Westinghouse. By the late 1920s, he was working for the
company that would become the driving force in the
television industry: RCA, or the Radio Corporation of
RCA was such an important factor in television
largely because of another prominent figure in
broadcasting who, unlike Vladimir Zworkin, did take an
interest not only in the technology of television, but
what could be done with it. His name was David Sarnoff.
"The General," as he became known, had a fierce
determination to make RCA the leader when it came to this
emerging technology. RCA was actually the creation of a
number of other corporations, including AT&T, General
Electric and Westinghouse, the latter two broadcasting
giants then and now. It also swallowed the company that
had been known as American Marconi.
By 1932, RCA was an independent company, and it
operated its own network, the National Broadcasting
Company or NBC. G.E., Westinghouse and RCA had
established NBC in 1926. At the time a "network" was
relevant only when it came to radio. But Sarnoff had a
vision of RCA and NBC playing a central role in the
emergence of television. As author Eric Barnouw points
out, "It became his central concern."9 Now on their own,
Sarnoff and RCA began to focus on what he believed to be
the inevitable wide-scale introduction of television into
9 Eric Barnouw, Tube of Plenty, (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1975), 72.
American life. It was also during this decade that
crucial decisions were made about how television would
operate once it became a practical reality.
The United States government always had a
significant interest in the business of broadcasting. In
fact, when radio was still a new invention and before
broadcast stations even existed, the U.S. Navy proposed
that radio be the exclusive property of the Navy. That
proposal died in Congress, but Navy brass set in motion
the creation of RCA (using the framework of American
Marconi), so that if radio were not to be
government-owned, it would at least be "a private
monopoly in congenial hands."10
The birth of RCA is particularly ironic given the
current level of distrust that exists between
broadcasters and the government, but at the time it
seemed like the best way for the military to keep at
least some degree of control over this emerging
technology. In 1927, Congress established the Federal
Radio Commission to regulate the fast growing industry.
In 1934 the FRC became the FCC, or the Federal
10 Ibid, 21.
Communications Commission, which still oversees
One of the most important early decisions about the
regulation of broadcasting was simple: The airwaves
belong to the public. And stations are required to serve
the "public interest, convenience, and necessity."11
Therefore, the FCC, as the people's agent, has the
responsibility to decide who should operate a television
station and who should not. This was both a political
and a technical issue, since it was clear from the
beginning that there were only so many channels to go
around. As George Comstock describes the government
argument, not regulating television "would do the public
a disservice by cluttering the airwaves with conflicting
signals from outlets with the barest resources to provide
quality service. The limitation of licenses to a few
channels that will not interfere with one another means
that those who do obtain the privilege to broadcast are
almost certain to make a profit. The privilege granted,
then, is economic."12 As we will see later when it comes
11 George Comstock, Television in America, (Newbury
Park: Sage Publications, 1991), 3.
12 Ibid, 4 .
to the development of Channel 9, the granting of a
television license was indeed an enormous economic
The development of local stations and their
relationship with the networks were fundamental aspects
of broadcasting almost from the beginning. In the case
of both radio and television, the way they were
distributed to the public relied on equipment that
transmitted the signal to an area surrounding the
transmitter. This would require stations in virtually
every part of the country, and that would require more
resources than any of the networks (NBC, and later CBS
and ABC) had at their disposal. The FCC also limited the
number of stations any network could own and operate,
forcing the diversification of station ownership.
As the country neared the end of the 1930s, it
seemed television was on the verge of becoming a reality.
Sarnoff and RCA demonstrated the technology at the 1939
World's Fair in New York. Three networks: NBC, CBS and
DuMont, were beginning to broadcast. By 1940 more than
twenty stations were on the air across the country,
although the programming was crude and limited.
But World War II would slow down the development and
distribution of television for almost a decade. First of
all, key figures like David Sarnoff became involved in
the war effort. Sarnoff was with allied troops when they
liberated Paris, and earned the rank of Brigadier
General, which resulted in his nickname of "the General."
But the most significant reason for the delay in bringing
television into American homes was the more urgent need
for the manufacture of weapons. The manufacture of
television sets stopped in 1942 and did not resume until
after the war. During World War II, as Barnouw suggests,
"Television was virtually forgotten."13
It might have been forgotten by the masses, but for
broadcasters like David Sarnoff, World War II was only a
distraction. When it was over, Sarnoff went back to work
to take television into America's homes. There was also
a list of circumstances that made television likely to
move rapidly into the spotlight:
Electronic assembly lines for making military
equipment could now be turned to making something
13 Barnouw, Tube of Plenty, 92.
Consumers had saved money during the war because of
uncertainty about how long shortages and rationing
would last; so they were ready to invest in the
Companies needed a new advertising medium to sell
their peacetime products.14
In 1945, the FCC again started issuing licenses to
local television stations. By July 1946 it had issued 24
new licenses, bringing the total number of stations in
the country to nearly 50. At about the same time, RCA
began selling black and white television sets to the
public. America was entering the final stages of its
Things were beginning to heat up in Denver as well.
In April 1948, three KOA Radio engineers spent $1,000 of
their own money to complete Denver's first video test.15
A year later, the Rocky Mountain News proclaimed that,
"Television Makes Its Denver Debut" when those same
14 Ibid, 99.
15 "3 KOA engineers complete first city video test,"
The Denver Post, April, 11, 1948, 3.
engineers conducted an experimental 40 minute broadcast
consisting of piano and organ music and a puppet show.16
More than two years later, eight people in Denver
watched President Harry S Truman deliver a speech about
the Japanese peace treaty in San Francisco. The picture
and sound came over a system of microwave towers
constructed across the country by telephone company AT&T.
Most of the handful of people watching were Mountain
States Telephone and Telegraph Company employees.
Although it was dark at 7:00 p.m. in Denver that day in
September 1951, the live broadcast showed a daylight
scene in San Francisco.17
KFEL Radio helped bring the 1951 World Series to
Denver with a closed circuit feed. In November of that
year, you could pay $2.40 for a ticket to the Broadway
Theater to watch the Colorado Buffaloes and the Nebraska
Cornhuskers play football. A huge crowd gathered at
16 Leo Zuckerman, "Television Makes Its Denver Debut,"
Rocky Mountain News, May 23, 1949, 1. This article
identifies four engineers responsible for the experiment:
C.M. Eining, Stanley Neal, K.N. Raymond and A.C.
17 Gene Lindberg, "Truman Treaty Talk Seen by 8 On
Denver TV," The Denver Post, September 5, 1951, 34.
Mammoth Gardens in Denver to watch the Rose Bowl on New
Year's Day, 1952. The Denver Post warned Coloradans that
"Video Here to Stay But It Won't Be Free."16
Even though people in Colorado were clamoring for
television, a TV executive and former University of
Denver student warned them that the new craze was not
without its negative side effects. "Television has a
revolutionary effect," Malcolm Boyd told the Rocky
Mountain News. "It turns home life and habits upside
down. It makes discipline of children very difficult.
Some communities have seen teachers give up assigning
homework because they can't compete with TV. Parents
have to go next door to watch their favorite television
show because the youngsters have taken over the set."19
Boyd was just touching the tip of the iceberg when it
came to the potential impact of television on American
society. But his warning apparently did very little to
18 "Video Here to Stay But It Won't Be Free," The
Denver Post, October 12, 1951, 1.
19 Malcolm Boyd, quoted by Sam Lusky in, "Denver Can
Find TV Nuisance, Visitor Warns," Rocky Mountain News,
March 22, 1951, 15.
dampen the enthusiasm of people in Denver and Colorado
who had been waiting for television to arrive.
The reason Colorado viewers were left without
television for so long was an FCC decision in 1949 to
stop granting licenses. The FCC claimed this was in
order to "examine more carefully how the spectrum space
should be allocated."20 In other words, deciding where to
put all the potential stations on the dial and how many
channels each city or "market" should get. Broadcasters
and the FCC had been arguing about how far apart stations
using the same channel had to be. If stations in Denver
and Colorado Springs, for instance, shared Channel 9,
they would interfere with each other. Because of a
disagreement over the distance, the FCC had licensed
stations on the same channel that were too close to each
other, which caused interference and prompted the FCC to
freeze granting licenses while it figured out how to
proceed. This left Colorado and 13 other states without
That is why the freeze started, but it does not
explain why it lasted so long. Communications scholar
20 Comstock, Television in America, 15.
Brian Winston says "a competent radio engineer with a
good map could have solved this problem in something less
than the 43 months it took the FCC."21 Winston claims the
FCC's real reason for freezing licenses was to allow the
networks to establish control over broadcasting in
America, since the freeze "worked to suppress television
as an area of exploitation for new interests" and allowed
NBC and CBS, the two dominant radio networks, to simply
take control of television before anyone else could.22
ABC barely survived and by 1955, DuMont was dead.
Whether or not this is what the FCC intended, it was
certainly the outcome. The relatively brief history of
television is dominated by the power of a few networks,
although in recent years it has begun to weaken
In spite of the freeze, television continued to
spread across the country as individuals or companies who
got their licenses before 1949 started broadcasting.
Broadcast legends were also making national names for
themselves. Edward R. Murrow and a producer named Fred
21 Brian Winston, Misunderstanding Media, (Cambridge,
Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 1986), 77.
22 Ibid, 80.
Friendly launched a show on CBS called "See It Now" in
November 1951. The first broadcast showed a split screen
with live pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge in San
Francisco on one side and the Brooklyn Bridge on the
other. Establishing the video line from California to
New York cost $3,000, but Murrow's words made the event
sound historic. "We for our part are considerably
impressed. For the first time, man has been able to sit
at home and look at two oceans at the same time. We're
impressed with the importance of this medium. We shall
hope to learn to use and not to abuse it."23
By the time the freeze ended in 1952, there were
more than 100 TV stations on the air in 60 markets, and
15 million Americans had television sets. Denver was now
one of the last large cities without television, and its
residents were keenly aware of that fact, given the pace
of the area's growth. "World War II triggered a
tremendous transformation in Denver. Massive federal
spending, an influx of newcomers, and a pent-up demand
for new cars and new housing unavailable during the war
23 "See It Now," CBS-TV, November 1951. (As shown in,
"Denver TV Then and Now," KBTV, August 20, 1981.)
led to a boom that changed a drowsy provincial city into
a sprawling metropolis."24 The Denver metropolitan area's
population rose from 384,372 in 1940 to 563,832 in 1950.
The decade of the 1950s would see the population grow
again by more than 350,000. Denver was a hot spot, but
it did not have this hot new technology, and that fact
frustrated both those trying to get TV licenses and
people at home who could not enjoy what their friends and
relatives in other parts of the country were talking
about. A January 28, 1952, Denver Post headline read:
"Write Your Congressman, Denverites Want TVNow."25
While groups of owners fought to be Denver's first
station, TV manufacturers were already pushing their sets
as the best. Majestic, Sylvania, Hoffman, Philco,
Motorola, Emerson, and Bendix all bombarded potential
customers with the advantages of buying their product.
Hoffman offered an "Easy-Vision Golden Lens" to protect
the eyes while Majestic had a rectangular "sight saver"
picture tube and "eagle-eye tuning."26 A full page ad by
24 Leonard and Noel, Denver, Mining Camp to Metropolis,
25 Gene Lindberg, "Write Your Congressman, Denverites
Want TV--Now," The Denver Post, January 28, 1952, 23.
Packard-Bell in The Denver Post on October 6, 1952, just
days before Channel 9 began broadcasting, urged consumers
to "Take Action" and buy a television in time for that
Saturday's football game between Michigan State and Texas
A & M on Channel 2. The ad offered a model 2721 with a
21 inch screen and 27 tubes for $419.95.26 27
As for the networks, NBC and CBS dominated. During
the freeze years the two networks had affiliates in
eighty percent of the more than sixty markets with
television.28 But there were also two other networks
struggling for survival. For many years, RCA actually
operated two NBC networks. One was the NBC "red"
network, the other the NBC "blue" network. In 1943, RCA
sold the "blue" network to Lifesaver king Edward J. Noble
for eight million dollars. It became the American
Broadcasting Company, or ABC, which would be affiliated
with Denver's Channel 9 for the first forty-three years
of the station's existence. The final player in the
network chess match was the DuMont network, which
26 Mike Tucker, "Remember When," Behind Bench 9
newsletter, April 1, 1988.
27 Advertisement, The Denver Post, October 6, 1952.
28 Comstock, Television in America, 15.
Denver's Channel 2 chose as its partner. As it turned
out, DuMont went out of business in 1955 and left Channel
2 as an independent station for all but the first few
years of its life.
But all this was still unknown to the men who were
waiting to launch television in Denver, including the
group of investors who would eventually put Channel 9 on
the air. Their primary concern was still simply getting
a license to operate. In April 1952, the FCC finally
lifted the freeze on granting new television licenses.
There were 11 applications for the six available
commercial channels in Denver, including an application
from the Colorado Television Corp. for Channel 9.
Colorado Television Corp. actually started in the
spring of 1951 when KVOD Radio owners W.D. Pyle and T.C.
Ekrem decided they would try this new thing called
television. In the span of a year, fourteen other
investors joined Ekrem and Pyle in backing the Channel 9
project, including advertising agency executive Max
Goldberg, who many would call the "father of Channel 9."
By 1952, Max Goldberg was already an experienced
media professional. He had started by selling newspapers
as a child on the streets of Denver to help support his
family after his father died in the worldwide flu
epidemic of 1918.29 By 1936 Goldberg had started his own
advertising agency in Denver, and began appearing on the
radio as well as writing for The Denver Post. But
television became Goldberg's passion in 1952, and if it
were not for his determination, Channel 9 might never
have existed. "He wasn't a technician. But he was still
interested in the business of keeping the show on the
road,"30 his widow, Miriam, says.
A 1950s salesman at Channel 9 named Bob Brown
backs up that view of Max Goldberg. "He was the one who
put the group together, but he had no knowledge of the
inner workings of the business."31 Still, Goldberg is an
important figure in the station's history for two
reasons. First, he worked to bring all the investors
together, who put up the roughly one million dollars it
took to get the station off the ground.32 Second, and
29 Miriam Goldberg, Interview by the author, November
31 Bob Brown, Interview by the author, November 10,
most important, was Goldberg's role in working with the
FCC to get Channel 9's license. This is where Goldberg's
connections were so important.
As his widow, Miriam Goldberg, remembers it, Max did
not contribute as much money to the project as the other
investors. Instead, "He made the contacts and did the
legwork. "j3 One of his most important contacts was a
Colorado politician named Ed Johnson, widely known simply
as "Big Ed." Johnson was a popular, if not tolerant
politician, who once criticized then Gov. Ralph Carr for
welcoming and defending Japanese-Americans in Colorado
during World War II. Johnson said Carr did not recognize
that "the normal human reaction of our own people is
hostility toward these brown men."32 33 34 If Johnson made such
a statement today, it would likely prevent him from being
32 According to the June 26, 1992, edition of the
Intermountain Jewish News, those investors included:
Edward Hirschfeld, former Colorado Attorney General Gail
Ireland, Garden Farm Dairy president John McEwen, Aksel
Nielson, Joseph Sunshine, Joseph Dyer, Harry Goldberg,
Robert Galbasin, Maurice Robineau, W.J. Robinson, Stephen
Russell, Charles C. Winocur, Jack Harris and KVOD Radio
owners W.D. Pyle and T.C. Ekrem.
33 Goldberg interview.
34 Colorado State Federation of Labor, Official
Colorado Victory Edition 1942 Yearbook, 21.
elected to anything, but he later defeated Carr in the
1946 U.S. senate race. After serving several terms as
governor and a U.S. senator, Johnson was arguably the
most powerful politician in Colorado from the 1930s
through the 1950s. This gave him enormous influence in
both Colorado and Washington.
Max Goldberg, with his advertising expertise, helped
Johnson with many of his campaigns. In 1952, Sen. Ed
Johnson introduced Goldberg to "people" in Washington to
make the case for granting a license for Colorado
Television Corp. to operate Channel 9. Well before that,
Johnson was deeply involved in television issues in
Washington. In 1951 he urged the FCC to make Channel 9 a
commercial channel, instead of designating it as the
Boulder educational station. Johnson won that battle,
although he also wanted Channel 6 in Denver designated as
commercial, while the FCC eventually established it as
the Denver Public Schools' TV station.
Goldberg made many trips back and forth between
Denver and Washington. Miriam remembers what those trips
were like for Max. "That was hard, tough. Ups, downs.
Felt excited one minute and then got disappointed the
next minute," she says. "No faxes, no modern day stuff.
There were many, many meetings and he was obliged, and
should have been, to report to the group of investors."35
The efforts paid off. In the summer of 1952, the
Colorado Television Corp. had a license from the FCC to
broadcast a station named KVOD-TV on Channel 9. KFEL-TV
Channel 2 and the Empire Coil Company's Channel 26 also
got licenses at the same time. Empire Coil at one point
competed with Colorado Television Corp. for the Channel 9
slot, but later gave up and applied for Channel 26, which
never went on the air.
When the licenses finally allowed stations to begin
broadcasting, Channel 2 was ready. KFEL-TV flashed a
test pattern to Denver viewers on July 18, then went on
the air on July 21, 1952, the beginning of Denver's
television age. State officials "gleefully predicted
that television held an implied promise of the greatest
tax bonanza for city and state agencies since the sales
" Goldberg interview.
'6 "Salute to KBTV, TV and Radio Weekly, July 11-17,
Now that a TV station was actually broadcasting,
consumers were finally willing to invest in the new
technology. Denver newspapers chronicled the growing
number of TV sets in the area.
July 1952: 4,000
August 1952: 8,500
October 1952: 21,735
November 1952: 40, 00037 38
And thousands more were pouring into stores as the
TV craze took hold. For a time in 1952 and 1953, the
City of Denver warned its residents they would have to
pay for a building permit in order to install the
antennas necessary to get adequate TV reception. After
much opposition and what appeared to be open defiance of
the permit requirement, Denver apparently backed down.'8
37 Lee Trainor, "4000 TV Sets Sold Here in Past Few
Days," Rocky Mountain News, July 22, 1952, 5. Dan
Partner, "Survey Shows TV Sales Gaining In Denver After
Short Slump," The Denver Post, August 17, 1952, 22A.
"Poll Reveals 21,735 Video Sets in City," The Denver
Post, October 9, 1952, 43. Earl Wennergren, "Latest
Television Tally Places 40,000 Sets in Denver Area
Homes," Rocky Mountain News, November 11, 1952, 45.
38Cherie de la Garza, "Television Invades 1952/53
Denver: Origins of the Video Revolution," (M.A. thesis,
University of Colorado at Denver, 1995), 83-88.
Since it was the only station on the air in Denver,
Channel 2 could choose programming from all four networks
operating at the time: ABC, NBC, CBS and DuMont. When
Channel 9 came on the air, it began broadcasting ABC and
CBS programming, while Channel 2 continued to use DuMont
and NBC. Then, Channel 7 took the CBS affiliation and
Channel 4 became the NBC station while Channel 9 stayed
with ABC. Channels 4, 7 and 9 kept these same network
affiliations until "the big switch" of 1995 when all the
stations changed networks. Why Channel 2 chose to form a
partnership with the ill-fated DuMont network is still
somewhat of a mystery, although some indications point to
a belief by the station's founder, Gene O'Fallon, that he
could simply make it on his own. "Gene was a rugged
individualist," former Channel 2 engineer and producer
Duncan Ross told the Rocky Mountain News. He "felt he
could make the grade without affiliating with a
O'Fallon was a Denver broadcasting veteran who made
KFEL the city's first radio station in 1922. His son
39 Duncan Ross, quoted by Walter Saunders in, "TV
beginning at Channel 2 remembered after 25 years," Rocky
Mountain News, July 18, 1977, 51.
Marty told the Rocky Mountain News in 1982 that, "Those
stories about Gene O'Fallon ignoring a chance to become
affiliated with CBS and NBC aren't quite true... Dad was
an independent cuss. And if he were alive today, he
would probably go along with stories about his
independence and his desire to work that way as a
broadcaster. But while he could be a hard-headed
broadcaster, he certainly was not stupid."40 Marty
O'Fallon attributes his father's decision to affiliate
with DuMont to the fact that Channel 7 executives had
connections with CBS while one of Channel 4's first
owners was entertainer Bob Hope, who was a fixture on
NBC. At the time, choosing between ABC and DuMont as the
network most likely to survive would have been a toss up.
In any case, Channel 2 has been an independent station
since DuMont went out of business in 1955. The Tribune
Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, bought Channel 2
40 Marty O'Fallon, quoted by Walter Saunders in, "TV
nostalgia abounds," Rocky Mountain News, July 21, 1982,
41 Channel 2 has also had more call letters than any
station in Denver: KFEL, KTVR, KTCO and finally KWGN,
for "World's Greatest Newspaper," the slogan for the
While Channel 2 introduced television to Denver and
proved that this new invention Coloradans had heard so
much about for so many years was the real thing, Channel
9's people worked furiously to get in the game. Just
before Channel 2 went on the air, Channel 9 engineers
predicted they could be on the air in two weeks. To back
up the promise, station officials announced financial
figures of $394,000 for construction costs, $445,000 for
operational costs, and an estimated revenue of $400,000
for its first year of operation.42 That prediction really
was too optimistic, as construction delays and technical
problems pushed back the first broadcast until
Next the station began to build its staff. The
investors chose Joe Herold to be KVOD-TV's station
manager. Herold had an engineering background, having
started at WOW-Radio in Omaha in 1930, where he worked
until moving to Cuba and South America. In 1950, Herold
was a television consultant for.Union Radio and
Television in Havana. In 1951 he worked for Radio
Televisiao in Brazil, then spent eight months as a TV
42 Mike Tucker, "Remember When, Behind Bench Nine
newsletter, March 18, 1988.
planning consultant for RCA before coming to work for
At about the same time, Jerry Lee became the
station's commercial manager, which would roughly
translate to a modern sales manager. Lee had network
experience with NBC and CBS as a producer and announcer.
He started the station's sales efforts with two other
salesmen besides himself. One of those salesmen was Bob
"I believed in television when I was in radio. I
never doubted for a second that television was going to
be the medium it is today,''43 Brown says. He also
remembers that "we were always looked at as kind of the
poor station in the market from a money standpoint."44
But that outlook would come along later when other
competitors joined 2 and 9 on the Denver TV battlefield.
In 1952, Channel 9 was just interested in getting on the
air in the first place, and that is where the work of a
number of key engineers came into play. Because of his
technical background, and because in the beginning
43 Brown interview.
television was primarily a technical challenge instead of
a marketing opportunity, Joe Herold served both as
station manager and chief engineer. He directed the
efforts of a number of other men, including Jim Butts,
George Barron and Carl Bliesner.
As studio manager, Butts was "in charge of
maintenance, anything technical."45 He remembers
distinctly how United Airlines sent Channel 9's first
transmitter to San Francisco by mistake. Barron was
Herold's assistant chief engineer, who remembers how
exciting television was in the beginning. "It was the
big thing. Pictures through the air,"46 he says.
But perhaps the most unusual engineering job, both
in 1952 and during the history of the station, belonged
to Carl Bliesner. He is the man who installed a 75 foot
tall antenna along with the station's first transmitter
on Lookout Mountain in the fall of 3-952, and cared for it
and its successors like a father would his children until
he retired in the mid 1970s.
45 Jim Butts, Interview by the author, November 9,
46 George Barron, Interview by the author, November 9,
Before coming to work for Channel 9, Bliesner worked
at a radio station in Kansas for 20 years. When TV came
along, he went to a school in Kansas City to learn about
it, and decided that was his future. "I didn't think it
(radio) would last as long as it did, 1,47 he says.
So, with a handful of employees, an FCC license and
a belief in this relatively new technology, Channel 9
moved into the Zook Building near Colfax and Speer and
got ready to be a television station. On September 12,
1952, the FCC agreed to change Channel 9's call letters
from KVOD-TV to KBTV-TV. The "B" stood for "better"
Between October 2 and October 8, Channel 9 began
experimental broadcasts and got reports of good reception
from Colorado Springs to Granby to Cheyenne, Wyoming.47 48
Then, at 3:00 p.m. on October 12, 1952, KBTV sent out a
test pattern. From that point on Channel 9 started
broadcasting a mixture of ABC and CBS programs, local
news and other programming from 2:30 p.m. to 11:15 p.m.
47 Carl Bliesner, Interview by the author, November 9,
48 "Salute to KBTV," TV and Radio Weekly, July 11-17,
each day. Page five of the Rocky Mountain News the next
day included the following two headlines: "Gen.
Eisenhower Prepares For Windup of Campaign," and "TV
Reception from station KBTV lauded."49 50 That page of the
newspaper foreshadowed the strange marriage between
television and politics that would come along later.
That first day on Channel 9 included the following
lineup: 2:30 p.m., "Quiz Kids" (CBS); 3:00 P.M., "Super
Circus" (ABC); 3:30 p.m. "Super Circus" (ABC); 5:00 p.m.,
"You Asked for it" (ABC); 5:30 p.m., "Jack Benny;"20 6:00
p.m., "Variety Films," 7:00 p.m., "Fred Waring" (CBS);
7:30 p.m., "Break the Bank" (CBS); 8:00 p.m., "The Web"
(CBS); 8:30 p.m., "What's My Line" (CBS), 9:00 p.m,
"Film;" 9:15 p.m., "Hour of Decision" (ABC); 9:30 p.m.,
"The Big Picture;" 10:00 p.m. "Walter Winchell" (ABC);
and finally at 10:15 p.m., the feature film "Topper,"
starring Roland Young and Constance Bennett.51 The
station signed off at 11:30 p.m.
49 The Denver Post, October 6, 1952, 5.
50 This was added to the lineup just hours before
airtime. "TV Reception from station KBTV lauded," Rocky
Mountain News, October 13, 1952, 5.
51 TV listings, Rocky Mountain News, October 12, 1952.
Although Channel 9 stayed in the Zook Building for
less than a year, those who were at the station when it
began broadcasting have very distinct memories of the
location, mostly because of another tenant the building
had. After all, having a worm farm in the basement is
not easy to forget.
"The joke they used to tell each other was that they
were the only TV station in the country written up in
Field and Stream, "52 Channel 9 reporter Ron Mitchell later
said in a series of reports on the station's 40th
anniversary. The worms were grown in the basement of the
building for use as fishing bait.
"I never saw it, but I was told it was down there,"
assistant chief engineer George Barron says. "You'd walk
around the projection room and the floor would bounce and
the picture would go up and down."53 Barron might not
have seen the worm farm, but program director Jim Butts
experienced it firsthand.
"I was sitting at home one night... And I noticed
the picture all of the sudden sway side to side. Now
52 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 20, 1992.
5:1 Barron interview.
there ain't no way that can happen, but it did. I said,
now wait a minute, that can't happen."54 So Butts and
commercial manager Jerry Lee went to investigate. Butts'
office was in the projection room, which had "everything
you needed to be on the air."55 The movement of the floor
of the projection room was causing the picture to sway,
but what was causing the floor to move? When Butts and
Lee went down to the basement, they discovered that "we
were slowly sinking into the worms. The whole slab was
sinking... We had to get some four by four boards to save
The smell was also a bit of a distraction for
Channel 9's first group of employees, and it was clear
the Zook Building was not big enough to handle the
station's long-term needs, so Channel 9's owners started
looking for a new home. They found it in the form of the
Lowen-Thomson Packard dealership at 1089 Bannock Street,
built in January 1932.^ A phone book advertisement
57 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 23, 1992.
called it the "Largest Packard Dealer in Rocky Mountain
Region." Before that it was a leather tannery.58 KBTV's
board of directors agreed to buy the 30,000 square foot
building in November 1952.
The old Packard dealership would be Channel 9's home
for nearly 40 years. By the time the station moved to a
new building in 1992, most employees considered the old
building cramped and behind the times. But in 1953,
moving to 1089 Bannock was a big deal. In fact, the
cover of the July 11-17, 1953, edition of TV and Radio
Weekly says "Salute to KBTV." Inside, the headline
proclaims, "All is Fine At Channel 9."59
The staff was expanding and the owners invested in a
new transmitter to replace the old low-power equipment
that had been in use less than a year. The new
transmitter was the latest in RCA technology, which would
allow Channel 9 to use up to 240,000 watts, making it
"one of the most powerful television stations in the
58 Thea Rock, "KUSA targets February, '92 debut of new
headquarters," NATAS Monthly, January 1990, 5.
59 "Salute to KBTV," TV and Radio Weekly, July 11-17,
Transmitter supervisor Carl Bliesner remembers that
even though the new equipment was a big improvement over
the little 2,000 watt transmitter that first got the
station on the air, it was far from perfect. "We could
get it on, but the instruction book came to us about a
year later,"60 61 Bliesner said. For one thing, it was not
built for the elevation of Lookout Mountain. A
transmitter needs fans, or "blowers" to keep it cool
enough to operate effectively. "We couldn't get enough
air to keep the thing cool... It would just shut down,"62
Bliesner says. "Somebody had to be on duty the entire
time we were on the air."
For more than 20 years, that someone was Carl
Bliesner. In the beginning, one of the biggest problems
was simply getting to the transmitter on Lookout Mountain
when the weather got bad. So, like any good engineer,
Bliesner came up with a solution. He had a house built
next to the transmitter and moved his family there, so he
could always get to work.
60 Ibid, 39.
61 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 20, 1992.
62 Bliesner interview.
It was a unique job at the television station,
because he only occasionally went into Denver to the
station itself. In fact, he remembers why he did not
visit the station much after his retirement. "I sort of
avoided going down there after I retired. Because people
would say, 'Who in the hell is that?'"63
Bliesner's solution to the cooling problem was
bigger blowers that could keep the transmitter cool at
more than a mile high. Over time, transmitter problems
became less common and after Bliesner retired, the
station stopped the practice of having someone on duty at
the transmitter all the time. Channel 9 was not the only
Denver station to have technical problems. Wind knocked
down the Channel 4 tower at least twice in the 1950s,
once causing the station to go off the air for five hours
before engineers could repair it.64 While Bliesner was
trying to keep Channel 9's transmitter cool, those who
worked at 1089 Bannock had the same problem themselves.
There was no air conditioning in the building from 1953
64 Bill Jones, "High Winds Hurl TV Tower from
Mountain," Rocky Mountain News, March 11, 1955, 11.
Meanwhile, there was the matter of what was actually
on Channel 9. When the station moved to 1089 Bannock, it
was still one of only two Denver TV stations
broadcasting, so Channel 9 and Channel 2 had their choice
of what network programming to use. In fact, they would
occasionally choose to run the same shows at the same
time, which was a very short-lived practice.
The television listings for July 1953 showed that
Channel 9 would start its broadcast day at either 11:00
or 11:30 a.m., sometimes with nothing more than a test
pattern. Fred Arthur, who worked as a booth announcer at
Channel 9 in the late 1950s, remembers that one of his
jobs was simply to read the list of programs that would
air that day, shortly after the station signed on.65 He
made two dollars an hour, and got $3.50 for doing an
On Wednesday, July 15, Channel 9 aired a CBS show
called "House Party" with Art Linkletter at 11:30 a.m.,
then an NBC quiz show called "Big Payoff" at noon. The
first local newscast of the day was at 12:30 p.m., and
featured Channel 9's only news person, a former KFEL
65 Fred Arthur, Interview by the author, November 17,
Radio personality named Bill Michaelson. This lasted for
fifteen minutes, followed by a weather report from Vince
Monforte for ten minutes and a short grain and livestock
market report until 1:00 o'clock.
"Kaffee Klatsch" was a fifteen minute interview show
with Hal Taft that came on at 2:00 o'clock. Fifteen
minute programs were common during the early days of
television, but gradually gave way to standard 30 minute
or hour-long shows.
A few of television's first soap operas appeared in
the afternoon. "Search for Tomorrow" and "Love of Life"
were on each weekday at 3:45 p.m. and 4:00 o'clock. The
afternoon news consisted of a ten minute report from Bill
Michaelson at 5:45 p.m., followed by sports with Hal
Davis at 5:55 p.m. Today Channel 9 has two hours of news
in the afternoon.
At 10:00 o'clock, Bill Michaelson was back on the
air for a fifteen minute newscast followed once again by
Vince Monforte's weather report at 10:15, then some kind
of sports report that varied from a horse racing show to
filmed sports highlights to something called "Leo
Brunetti Sings," which presumably had nothing at all to
do with sports.
"Movies Till Midnight" was a regular feature on
Channel 9, but would come on anywhere from 10:20 p.m. to
10:35, depending on what kind of sports or singing show
was scheduled. That week in July 1953, the movies
included, "Give Me The Story," "Crashing Thru Danger,"
"Turn of the Tide," "Waltz Time," and "Hearts of
Humanity." Today, these titles do not particularly
spring to mind as classics. The station would sign off
at midnight every day.
Although Channel 9 did not have much news on the air
in the 1950s, there was plenty of live local programming.
Once a month, the station aired a program called "Your
Lease on Life," about medical problems faced by "average
families." Channel 9 engineer Mike Tucker remembers
being part of a live remote at a hospital during one
show, when one of the cameramen fainted as doctors were
getting ready to perform a cesarean section. "The
medical team that was going to perform the operation had
to stop what they were doing and revive the cameraman.
The live insert was delayed until the cameraman was able
to regain his composure and return to his camera.
Twenty-one minutes later the segment was televised
without a hitch!"66
As for the news, Bill Michaelson remembers that
there was not much involved in preparing it each day.
"Since it was a rip-and-read operation, news was still
primarily radio. And really what we were doing was just
a guy reading the radio news,"67 he told Channel 9
reporter Ron Mitchell in 1992. "Rip and read" meant
simply ripping wire copy off the teletype machine and
reading it on the air. Channel 9 salesman Bob Brown
remembers that, "We were doing local news, but we weren't
doing a whole lot of it. Our whole attitude at that time
was just programming and just trying to stay alive."68
In TV and Radio Weekly a picture of Michaelson shows
a King Soopers grocery store sign on the set. In the
early days of TV news, it was common for newscasters to
read some stories, then promptly do a live commercial for
a product. Channel 7 sportscaster Starr Yellend, who
66 Mike Tucker, "Remember When," Behind Bench 9
newsletter, May 26, 1989.
67 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 20, 1992.
68 Brown interview.
became one of the most prominent television personalities
in Denver, remembers getting 50 cents for doing a Supreme
Bakers commercial, his very first commercial fee.69
Max Goldberg had a show on Channel 9 from 1953 to
1958 called "On the Spot," where he would interview
various newsmakers on Thursday evening. When Goldberg
left Channel 9, "On the Spot" moved to Channel 7. He
interviewed people who were among the most prominent of
their day, including John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King
Jr. and Adlai Stephenson. "He addressed sensitive
issues,"70 his wife Miriam said. "It wasn't for
The foundation of commercial television has always
been the idea that if enough people watch a program, you
could sell advertising time during that program, and make
money. That fact means that, at least generally, if
television stations and networks want to make more money,
they have to get more people to watch. Only the most
popular programs survive, so producers make shows that
will appeal to the largest possible audience. Some
69 "Denver Television, Then and Now," KBTV, 1981.
70 Goldberg interview.
critics, like author J. Fred MacDonald, think this is a
bad thing. "Network TV failed the nation because of its
fixation on popularity... The networks never allowed to
television to be all it might have been."'1 MacDonald is
entitled to his opinion, but attracting a mass audience
and being successful in broadcasting are impossible to
Bob Brown remembers that not everyone bought into
the the TV business right away. "I called on one fellow
and he said to me one day, 'You know, television is a
passing fad.' And I looked at him like he had bad
sense."71 72 Brown was right. It might be a fad, but
television was far from passing. Brown remembers
suggesting to general manager Joe Herold that they should
try to sell advertising based on rating points. Although
audience measurement was a crude science at the time,
they gave it a try, but the success of that strategy was
limited. For one thing, there were not enough TV sets in
the early years to make ratings important. Although he
71 J. Fred MacDonald, One Nation Under Television,
(Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1990), 125.
72 Brown interview.
is not personally responsible for the widespread use of
ratings to determine advertising rates, Bob Brown
certainly offered Joe Herold a glimpse into the future.
Today rating points are the primary means used to
determine the value of commercial time. "We used to be
able to carry our first ratings books around in our coat
pockets, and now you'd get a hernia if you tried to pick
one up,"'3 Brown says. He might be exaggerating a little,
but there is no question that audience measurement is
more sophisticated and detailed today than it was then.
The ratings business is a surprisingly small field.
Author Hugh M. Beville, Jr. says, "Probably few fields of
commercial activity owe their development to such a small
coterie of individuals as does broadcast audience
measurement."73 74 Only seven companies have ever measured
the audiences of local TV stations. From the 1960s
through the 1980s there were just two. Today there is
one, the A.C. Nielsen Company. Although there is little
competition in the audience measurement business, there
74 Hugh M. Beville, Jr., Audience Ratings: Radio,
Television and Cable, (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1988), 23.
is no question about how important it is. As Beville
says, "Ratings with their feedback element are the nerve
system that largely controls what is broadcast."'5
In 1939, NBC offered to mail a weekly program
schedule to any viewer who wanted it. The postcard had
boxes on it for viewers to check which programs they
watched, as well as a space for comments or suggestions.16
This represented the first attempt at measuring audience
size. C.E. Hooper, who pioneered radio ratings, offered
a television ratings service from 1947 until he died in
1954. In 1955, the American Research Bureau bought
Hooper's company and combined it with its own ratings
service. ARB changed its name to Arbitron in 1973
because company president Ted Shaker thought American
Research Bureau sounded too much like a government
agency.75 77 Arbitron was one of two companies that measured
local audience ratings until it quit the television
ratings business to focus on radio in 1993. November
75 Ibid, xi.
~6 Ibid, 62 .
77 Ibid, 68.
1993, was the last Arbitron ratings book for Denver. The
other company was founded by a man named A.C. Nielsen.
Nielsen convinced C.E. Hooper to sell him Hooper's
network TV ratings service in 1950. In 1961, Nielsen's
only competitor in the network audience measurement
business, Trendex, stopped its service, leaving Nielsen
as the only choice for rating nationwide audiences.
Since Arbitron quit the local TV business in 1993,
Nielsen now has a monopoly on basic TV audience
measurement for both the networks and local stations.78
The methodology used by audience measurement
companies is an imperfect science. Beville says,
"Ratings by their very nature are estimates and are
therefore subject to errors and variations of all
types."79 Ratings services have used telephone surveys,
personal interviews and direct mail questionnaires to
find out who is watching what when. But the methodology
that has survived and remains in use today falls into two
categories: The "diary" and the "meter."
78 Since the beginning of TV, there have been a handful
of other companies that measured local TV ratings.
Beville lists them as: Videodex, Tele-Pulse, Telerad
System, TPI Ratings and Sindlinger.
79 Beville, Audience Ratings, 83.
The diary requires viewers to fill out each day what
program they are watching and who in the household is
watching it. The meter records only what station the TV
set is tuned to at a particular time. The meter also
allows for instant tabulation of basic ratings
information, but only the diary is able to measure
demographic information about the viewer's age and sex.
Nielsen uses another device called the "peoplemeter"
which is able to calculate demographic information, but
it is used largely for network audience measurement, and
is not in use in Denver.80
Because measuring the entire audience, through
either diaries or meters, would be impossible, Nielsen
"sweeps" only a sampling of each market. In the November
1996, ratings period, for instance, Nielsen tabulated the
results from 365 meters and 11 hundred diaries. This
"sample" is only a tiny fraction of the market, which has
1.185 million households. Each household averages two to
three people.81 Although Nielsen used meters to measure
80 Laura Perry, A.C. Nielsen Co. account executive,
Interview by the author, January 9, 1997.
81 Nielsen "In-Tab Tracking Report," November 1996,
Also, Perry interview, January 8, 1997.
local ratings in New York City as early as 1959, Denver
did not get them until 1985. These numbers soon became
referred to as "overnights." In a sense, they represent
an instant report card on the success or failure of a
particular program, at least as far as ratings are
concerned. Nielsen notifies stations well in advance
about when their audiences will be measured, but never
tells them who is doing the measuring. In other words,
stations are not supposed to know who has a diary or a
meter. If they did, the urge to influence the small
sample of viewers might lead to unethical and even
During the years when both Arbitron and Nielsen
provided local ratings, TV sales and promotion people had
the luxury of choosing the report that cast them in the
best light, promoting those ratings, and ignoring the
other, less favorable report.
Back in Denver in 1953, the concept of ratings
relative to the competition was about to become a lot
more important. In July, Channel 9 began broadcasting
from a new building, with a new transmitter and an
aggressive publicity campaign. By the end of the year,
there were two more stations on the air that would make
up the core of Denver broadcasting from that point
The group that owned and operated KLZ Radio, Aladdin
Broadcasting, got a license to operate a TV station on
Channel 7. On November 1, 1953, Channel 7 went on the
air from 131 Speer Boulevard in Denver, in a building
close to where Channel 7 stands today. Some of the key
people involved in Channel 7 included Aladdin president
Hugh B. Terry, who ran the station from the time it went
on the air until 1975, John Elroy McCaw of Centralia,
Washington, Theodore R. Gamble of Portland, Oregon, and
Aladdin chairman Harry A. Huffman, a former executive for
Then, Metropolitan Television Co., with backing from
businessman William Grant, Denver Mayor Quigg Newton and
NBC star Bob Hope, started broadcasting KOA-TV on Channel
4. Others involved in organizing the station included
Richard M. Davis, Gifford Phillips, Morrison Shafroth,
John Wolfberg and Harris P. Wolfberg.83 The Wolfbergs
92 "Denver TV Opens Bid for Outlet, The Denver Post,
October 9, 1952, 43.
93 "Mayor, 6 Others Form New Television Firm," Rocky
operated a number of movie theaters and drive-ins in
Denver. Before long, however, they left Metropolitan
Television and launched their own effort to get a license
for Channel 7 and operate a "prestige station" which
would set aside 20 percent of its programming for
non-commercial purposes. This company, called Denver
Television, eventually lost the fight for Channel 7 to
Aladdin Broadcasting. Metropolitan Television had to
compete with KMYR Radio for Channel 4's license, and won
that prize after a lengthy and bitter battle before the
FCC.* 84 Many involved in Metropolitan Television's efforts
to get Channel 4 believed that Sen. Ed Johnson backed
KMYR's group, but Mayor Newton and Bob Hope prevailed,
even against the political power of "Bid Ed."85
Former Kansas Governor Alf Landon, who also won the
Republican nomination for president but lost in a
landslide to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, was
actually the first person in Colorado to apply for a
Mountain News, January 9, 1949, 5. The Grants, Newtons
and Shafroths were all prominent families in the history
of politics and business in Denver.
84 de la Garza, "Television Invades," 57-61.
85 Ibid, 117-119.
television license in 1948.86 But by the time the freeze
ended, Landon's effort failed and he stayed with the
broadcasting business in his native Kansas.
The first program on Channel 4 appeared at 6:30 p.m.
on Christmas Eve, 1953. The program consisted largely of
pictures of the Virgin Mary and the bible,87 but Channel 4
was on the air, and there was now a four way fight for
Denver TV viewers. Except for an education station on
Channel 6 which began broadcasting on January 30, 1956,
the four Denver commercial stations had the market to
themselves until the 1980s.
The number of people with television sets able to
watch those four stations was simply exploding. In 1949,
only 6% of U.S. homes had television. By 1956, 76%
did.88 * In Denver and across the country, the television
86 Cherie de la Garza, "Television Comes to Denver,"
University of Colorado at Denver Historical Studies
Journal, Spring, 1994, 4.
87 "KOA-TV, 4th Denver station, goes on air," The
Denver Post, December 25, 1953, 27.
88 John E. O'Conner, ed., American History/American
Television: Interpreting the Video Past, (New York:
Frederick Unger publishing, 1983), 25.
set was on its way to becoming as common a household
appliance as a stove or a telephone.
But in Denver, whether it was the competition, or
the tremendous start-up costs or simply uncertainty about
the future of television, Channel 9's investors became
increasingly nervous about their money. They were
reportedly losing $25,000 a month, with no relief in
sight.89 So in February 1955, the original 16 investors
sold Channel 9 to a man named John Mullins for $900,000.90
He had a partner in the venture named Frank Leu, who
stayed with Mullins for less than a year. The sale price
was less than the one million dollars it took to get the
station on the air in the first place. Of all the
investors, only Max Goldberg resisted selling the
station. "Max was really upset over that," Bob Brown
remembers. "He never did get over it. He didn't want to
sell. He saw the potential, the survival of television
and the future of television."91 But at the time, it was
only potential, and Goldberg could not convince the other
89 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 21, 1992.
90 "Owners of KBTV Buy Webb and Knapp's Share," Rocky
Mountain News, August 9, 1961, 5.
91 Brown interview.
men on KBTV's board of directors to stick with it. John
Mullins was now in charge.
Mullins grew up in Oklahoma. His first big business
venture was buying the Crystal City amusement park in
Tulsa in 1938. Ten years later, Mullins invested in
KPHO-TV in Phoenix and eventually bought the entire
station before selling it 1952, reportedly for three
times as much as he paid for it. By 1955, he was ready
to get back into television, so he moved to Colorado,
bought Channel 9 and tried to make as big a mark as
possible on the Denver community.
Mullins went to school in Oklahoma with two
prominent men. One was Paul Harvey, who would become one
of the most popular radio newsmen in history. The other
was evangelist Oral Roberts, who helped Mullins finance
his purchase of Channel 9.
In December 1955, a New York investor named William
Zeckendorf bought Frank Leu's 50% share in Channel 9.
Zeckendorf also owned property in downtown Denver called
Zeckendorf Plaza, which replaced the old Courthouse
Square and took up two blocks at 16th and Court Place.
He built Denver's first skyscraper, the Mile High Center
at 17th and Broadway, which is now part of the Norwest
For a time, Mullins and Zeckendorf planned to move
Channel 9 from 1089 Bannock to the Hilton Hotel92 in
Zeckendorf Plaza. In fact, Ron Mitchell says there are
springs under the Hilton's ballroom, because it was to
have been Channel 9's studio, and needed the enormous
springs to keep the cameras level. When Zeckendorf sold
Zeckendorf Plaza, the two men abandoned the idea of
moving the station.
Even though Zeckendorf owned half of Channel 9,
Mullins essentially ran the station. Finally, in 1961,
Zeckendorf sold his share of Channel 9 to Mullins for a
reported $2.4 million. Mullins ran the station until he
died in 1969.
Mullins was a colorful character who impressed
different people in different ways. To some, he was a
brilliant businessman and a "nice guy." To others, he
was almost obsessive about his place in Denver society
and went to great lengths to make himself prominent.
92 The Hilton Hotel later became the Radisson, and
finally the Adam's Mark.
"John Mullins was a social climber, 1,93 Jim Butts
Clark Secrest, who worked in the Channel 9 news
department for less than two years in the early 1960s,
remembers what Mullins would do when Walt Disney came to
Denver. "Every time he (Disney) came to town, he would
dress Charley the janitor up in a chauffeur's uniform and
go out to Stapleton and get Disney." After driving to
Mullins' home in the Polo Grounds, "they would walk up to
the front door and Charley would run around to the back
door and change into a chef's uniform and meet 'em at the
door. "93 94
Being in the company of stars and politicians was
important to Mullins. He entertained people like Vice
President Hubert Humphrey at his home. Mullins also
established a "walk of fame" on the sidewalk in front of
1089 Bannock where Hollywood stars would either put
footprints in wet cement or sign their names. Among the
93 Butts interview.
94 Clark Secrest, Interview by the author, November 9,
actors on the walk of fame were Jane Mansfield, Chuck
Conners, Roy Rogers, Charlton Heston and Jerry Lewis.95
Clark Secrest also remembers that Mullins could be
tough to work for. "He struck fear into the hearts of
everybody who worked there... There were two things he
could not stand to see when he walked into the station.
He couldn't stand to see an empty pop bottle on a desk
and he couldn't stand to see a coat thrown over the back
of a chair. And everybody knew that if he saw either of
these those two things, he would just go into a fury, so
we just didn't do it."96 Fred Arthur says Mullins was
pompous. "I remember lining up for our Thanksgiving
turkeys one time, the company Christmas present. I felt
like I was at the Denver Rescue Mission."97
Joe Franzgrote, who would eventually become Channel
9's general manager in 1989, started out as a salesman in
the 1960s. One day he arranged a meeting with a May D
and F department store executive about the possibility of
advertising on Channel 9. Franzgrote thought that
95 Mitchell, "Anniversary series," April 20, 1992.
96 Secrest interview.
97 Arthur interview.
Mullins was out of town, so when the receptionist said
someone had parked under a canopy next to the station,
where Mullins himself usually parked, and the car needed
to be moved, Franzgrote asked the May D and F man to go
move his car. It occurred to Franzgrote too late that
perhaps Mullins was not out of town after all, and by the
time he got to them, Mullins had verbally assaulted the
poor man so severely for parking in his spot that it took
years for the station to get any more business with May D
Jim Butts says he knew when he was in trouble with
Mullins anytime the owner called him "Mr. Butts." One of
those times happened because of an annual broadcast of
the Central City Opera. Butts says Mullins started
broadcasting the opera's opening night in about 1956. It
was a live broadcast, including the Central City mayor
and other dignitaries. According to Butts, it was
Then Channel 9 got a new production truck that
allowed them to videotape events and play them back
later. One year, they used it for the Central City Opera
98 Joe Franzgrote, Interview by the author, November
broadcast, hoping it would make the show a little more
exciting. So they recorded it on a Saturday, brought the
tape back to Denver and stayed up all night editing it
for 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Butts says the fancy new truck
and all the editing did not help much. "It was still a
pretty deadly dull show."99
Now normally, Mullins would not have even seen the
broadcast, since he always attended the opera's opening.
But this time, he got to watch the show because it was
tape delayed. The next time Mullins saw Jim Butts, "He
told me, 'If I ever have another show like that on my
television station, you'll be fired.'"100 101
Butts says Mullins rarely had practical suggestions
about how to make television better, he just wanted the
people who worked for him to do it. "Mullins used to
have the saying that he didn't know how to make an apple
pie, but he sure as hell knew whether it was a good one
99 Butts interview.
101 Jim Butts in Mitchell's "Anniversary series," April
According to Clark Secrest, Mullins was also
eccentric. He tells the story of Mullins and his wife,
on vacation in Italy, when they passed by a large,
beautiful marble fountain. "He said, 'I want that taken
apart and shipped to Denver for my office' ... So they
took the fountain apart and shipped it to Denver. They
had to tear out a wall to put it in there. It went on
for weeks. Then he took a look at it and said, 'I don't
like it. Get it out of here.'"102
Mullins' office is legendary. "It was like a movie
set,"103 Channel 9 reporter Ron Mitchell says. His desk
sat on a pedestal so anyone talking to Mullins would have
to look up at him. The office was filled with "the most
outlandish group of paintings and artifacts from the
world... They didn't match at all."
Mitchell says that once, during union negotiations,
Mullins would walk around the office with a popgun,
shooting at various objects. It is not clear what
effect, if any, this tactic had on the negotiations or
even what Mullins intended by it. In spite of these
* Secrest interview.
103 Mitchell interview.
eccentricities, Bob Brown, who became Channel 9's general
sales manager under Mullins' ownership, has a kinder
recollection of the man. "John Mullins was one of the
nicest men I ever knew," he says. "He was a
non-broadcaster. His broadcasting knowledge was not past
the point of looking in like a stockholder would. Now he
was at the station every day. He could understand
things. But he was of the nature of, where's my money
going? And I think the guy always did a very good
Whatever his personal eccentricities, or
inconsistencies when it came to dealing with people, John
Mullins was apparently a very good businessman. Channel
9 grew and prospered under his ownership. One thing that
Mullins did not believe in, was spending money on a news
department. His competition in Denver had a different
It is ironic that Channel 7 dominated local news in
Denver almost from the time it went on the air until
1976, since Channel 7 has usually been either the second
or third rated station ever since then. But in the early
104 Brown interview.
days, some key personalities helped Channel 7 establish
itself as the most-watched station in Denver, one of whom
later played a key role when Channel 9 moved to the top.
KLZ Radio hired a young man from Texas named Carl
Akers in June 1948, just after he graduated from the
University of Missouri School of Journalism. Akers made
$55 a week to do radio news. Hugh Terry, a longtime
manager for KLZ Radio and TV, remembers that, "We took
Ed's (Missouri professor Ed Lambert's) recommendation for
Carl without an interview or an audition."105 When asked
if Akers was an overnight success, Terry responded,
"Well, it would have been a long night."106
Akers may not have set Denver on fire right away,
but his longevity and popularity as a newscaster is
unrivaled, even today. He started doing television when
Channel 7 went on the air in 1953, even though Hugh Terry
claims Akers did not like the medium. Akers would
eventually anchor more than 22,000 newscasts. In the
1950s, he established Channel 7 as the most watched and
105 Hugh Terry, "Carl Akers 25th Anniversary, KBTV,
most trusted news station in Denver. TV Review put Akers
on the cover of its September 2-8, 1961, issue with the
headline, "Denver's Top Newscaster."107
A research project conducted for Channel 7 by Frank
N. Magid Associates in about 1960 backs up that claim.
The Magid report showed that 34.8% of all Denver viewers
considered Akers their "favorite local television
newscaster."108 The next closest name was Channel 7's
John Rayburn, who worked for both Channel 4 and Channel 7
before coming to Channel 9 in 1971, and at the time of
the Magid report, Rayburn registered with only 7.5%.
In fact, the top six names viewers in Denver listed
as their favorites all worked at Channel 7. Newscasters
from Channels 2, 4 and 9 combined added up to only 7.9%
of the audience.109 This was an early indication of the
importance of the personalities and perceived talent of
television newscasters. Stations lived and died with
107 "Denver's Top Newscaster," TV Review, September 2-8,
i0B Frank N. Magid Associates. The Role of Television
in the Denver Metropolitan Area: Study in Depth,
approximately 1960, 25.
109 Ibid, 25.
their anchors, known today simply as "talent."
then, the people who owned and operated television
stations realized that one of the keys to success was in
finding the "right" talent and managing it properly.
When Akers and Rayburn worked at competing stations
in the late 1950s, Akers sent Rayburn a box with a chess
piece in it, with a note inside that read, "'I don't know
about you, but I feel like a pawn.'"110 To a certain
extent at least, being a pawn is an occupational hazard
of being in front of the camera. For his part, Rayburn
boasts that, "One of my major contributions to the
business was not anything to do with talent or abilities,
but I had an innate ability to needle the brass. And
that was good for their character."111 In spite of their
status as rivals, early Denver broadcasters got along
pretty well. "We've never really fought among
ourselves," Akers said. "But we did fight with the
newspaper people in the early days. Because they thought
we were interlopers, Johnny-come-lately and so forth."112
"10 John Rayburn, Interview by the author, November 11,
112 Carl Akers, "Denver TV Then and Now," KBTV, August
Not surprisingly, the popularity of Channel 7's
newscasters made the station the most popular one to
watch in Denver. Channel 7 was the favorite news station
for 47.8% of viewers, more than all other stations
combined. Channel 4 scored 24%, Channel 9 scored 10.8%,
Channel 2 registered with 3.5%. Almost 13% of those
surveyed either did not know which station was their
favorite or did not answer the question.113
Nearly half of those surveyed for the Magid report
said Channel 7 was their preferred station for weather
information.114 And, in what is perhaps the most
innovative way to measure the popularity of a television
station, 46.7% of those surveyed responded with Channel 7
when asked: "If all but one channel were to go out of
order in your set (or sets), which one would you want to
remain in working order?"115 Magid, which was of course
paid by Channel 7 to do the report in the first place,
reported that, "The unusually high regard held by viewers
113 Magid report, 22.
114 Ibid, 21.
115 Ibid, 41.
for KLZ-TV dramatically reflects its ability to meet the
viewers' demands for consistently superior television in
all phases of programming and community affairs."116
Channel 7 no doubt had a distinct advantage over its
competition because of the station's ownership. Unlike
Channels 2, 4 and 9, Channel 7 was owned by a big company
from 1954 forward, when Time-Life Broadcasting bought the
station from Aladdin Broadcasting, the group of local
people who put the station on the air in the first place.
The Tribune Company bought Channel 2 in 1966; General
Electric bought Channel 4 in 1968; and Combined
Communications bought Channel 9 in 1971. But before that
Channel 7's competition did not have the resources to
compete on the same level with a company the size of
Time-Life. Channel 7 general manager Hugh Terry ran the
station for most of that time and earned a reputation as
an excellent broadcaster who "had little trouble keeping
company (Time-Life) bureaucrats away from his station."117
Channel 7, then, had two key ingredients for success: An
117 Dusty Saunders, "Denver's TV news war," Rocky
Mountain News, December 2, 1990, 132.
owner with deep pockets and a strong, protective local
Much like today, having a strong network partner was
also important with regard to Channel 7's success.
Although NBC was certainly a powerful network in the
1940s and 1950s, CBS programming, particularly news shows
like Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" captured the
attention of Denver television viewers. Channel 9, in
addition to an almost non-existent news department, was
connected with the weakest of the three networks, ABC,
which at that time was still struggling just to survive.
Channel 7 sportscaster Starr Yelland remembers when
he thinks Channel 7 took the lead in Denver. In 1957, a
man named John Gilbert Graham planted a bomb on board a
United Airlines plane in order to kill his mother, who
was on board, and collect money from her life insurance
policy. The plane crashed near Longmont, and Channel 7's
news team sprang into action.
In those days, there were no "live trucks" or
helicopters. The only way to get the story was to go get
it and bring it back. Yelland remembers that a
photographer named Jim Bennett (who would later become
Channel 7's news director) got a camera, went to the
scene, shot film of the crash and drove it back to the
station. Yelland recounted what happened next in a
conversation with Carl Akers for a 1981 television show
called "Denver TV, Then and Now."
"We all waited in the newsroom. You (Akers) were on
the air live and while you were on the air live, somebody
said, 'Bennett's within the city limits, he's coming...'
And about 10:38, Bennett walked in with these wet
pictures and he held 'em up, they were dripping and he
held 'em up and said, Carl this is what it is up there
and that was the night that Channel 7 came of age.118
Yellend remembers the feeling people who worked at
Channel 7 had about being number one. "We were number
one for twenty-two years. And we were proud of that."119
At the time, Channel 9 barely had a news department,
and it was the same "rip and read" operation that existed
when the station first signed on the air. In the context
of today's newsgathering resources, being faced with a
119 Starr Yelland, "Denver TV, Then and Now, KB TV,
story of that magnitude with a one-person news department
Channel 7 was winning in the early decades of
Denver's news war, but that would not last forever.
After Channel 4 came on the air in December 1953, all
four stations settled in with their own network partner.
Channel 7 went with CBS, Channel 4 with NBC, Channel 2
with DuMont, and Channel 9 signed up with ABC, the
youngest and least powerful of what would become the "big
In About Television, author Martin Mayer says,
"Network affiliation has been the fundament of profits in
television."120 These words were true when Mayer wrote
them in 1972 and they are true today, for the same
reasons. First of all, even today, the major broadcast
networks still distribute the most popular programming on
television, from major sporting events to weekly dramas
and comedies. Therefore, the advertising time on network
affiliates is naturally worth more money because more
people are watching. Also, independent stations have to
pay for virtually all the programming they need to fill
120 Martin Mayer, About Television, (New York: Harper
and Row, 1972), 279.
their schedules, while the networks actually pay the
local stations to air network programming. This "network
compensation" is a relatively small amount of money
compared to revenue from commercial advertising time, but
it is still money a station has coming in instead of
going out. It is certainly true that network affiliation
would play a tremendous role for Channel 9 when it
finally became the number one station in Denver in 1976,
and then again when all Denver network affiliates
switched networks in 1995.
In the late 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower was finishing
his second term as president, the country was at peace,
and Channel 9 owner John Mullins was thinking less about
being number one, and more about his primary concern:
"It seems to me that television is: The
literature of the illiterate, the culture of
the lowbrow, the wealth of the poor, the
privilege of the underprivileged, and the
exclusive club of the excluded masses."121
Lee Loevinger, FCC Commissioner, 1966
On Wednesday, September 6, 1961, Channel 9's
broadcast day started at 8:00 a.m. with an episode of
"Abbott and Costello" and ended at midnight after a "Star
Theatre" movie called "Blaze of Noon" starring William
Holden.122 In between, there were local newscasts at 9:00
a.m. (30 minutes), noon (15 minutes), 5:45 p.m. (again 15
minutes) and 10:00 p.m. (ten minutes, with a five minute
121 FCC Commissioner Lee Loevinger, quoted by Martin
Mayer in, About Television, (New York: Harper and Row,
122 TV Review, September 2-8, 1961.
weather report), for a total of an hour and fifteen
minutes of news and weather a day.
Other local programming found its place on Channel
9's schedule. A thirty minute children's show called
"Sheriff Scotty" with Ed Scott came on at 4:45 p.m.
Except for newscasts, the show was the longest running
local television show in Denver history. It started out
on Channel 7 when that station started broadcasting in
November 1953, and then moved to Channel 9 in 1957. When
Sheriff Scotty offered memberships in his "posse," 28,000
kids responded in the first month alone. He called his
shows "posse meetings" and required kids to "mind their
parents, uphold the law and attend posse meetings."123
Channel 7, still by far the most popular station in
Denver, had about the same local news time as Channel 9,
except that there was a regular half hour of news,
weather and sports at 5:00 and 10:00 p.m. Although Carl
Akers joked that his job at Channel 7 was still
"temporary," even after eight years on the job, a TV
Review writer said, "You can bet Perry Mason's briefcase
123 David Freed, "Graduates of an innocent age, Rocky
Mountain News, July 11, 1982, 30.
that KLZ-TV hasn't the slightest idea of replacing King
The article went on to quote an unnamed manager at
an unnamed rival station. "The sonovagun is fabulous...
Of all the personalities in Denver, Akers would be the
one I'd want if I owned my own station. For my dough,
he's the best in the businessnationally or local."125
We do not know whether that admirer worked for Channel 9
or not, but the comments would prove to be prophetic
before the 1960s were over.
John Mullins, the businessman who bought Channel 9
in 1955, ran into a bit of a problem in the early 1960s.
Many people who worked at Channel 9 at the time believe
the FCC actually threatened Channel 9's license unless he
got more serious about a news department. How serious
was the threat? And did it exist at all? The answers
likely died along with John Mullins in 1969, but there is
no denying that its license is the single most important
asset a television station has. So Channel 9 expanded.
1,4 Denver's Top Newscaster," TV Review, September 2-8,
Clark Secrest joined Channel 9 in January 1961. He
remembers that the newly expanded news department now
included himself, news director and anchor Art Smith,
George Stratton, Pete Richardson and Steve Katy. This
was tiny by today's standards but in the context of what
Channel 9 had before, at least it was something.
The first newsroom was in an unfinished part of the
building on the second floor at 1089 Bannock. The floors
were still concrete. They hung drapes made of burlap to
partition off an area and call it a newsroom. There was
a teletype ticker that supplied wire reports from the
Associated Press and United Press (later United Press
International or UPI).
This is also when Channel 9 first started routinely
gathering news in the field by shooting film. According
to Secrest, they had one hand held film camera with a one
hundred foot load of 16 millimeter film. One hundred
feet of film amounted to just a few minutes worth, so
Secrest says, "If you couldn't do a story with one
hundred feet, you were pretty much screwed."126 The news
department did not have a vehicle, so when they needed to
126 Secrest interview.
drive to a story, they would borrow an old station wagon
from the production department.
Shooting news on film has implications that made
newsgathering much different in those days than it is
today. First of all, shooting film means you have to get
it developed, which takes time. When photographers shoot
stories on videotape, it is available the moment the
photographer is done shooting. But in 1961, when Clark
Secrest shot a story on his one hundred feet of film, he
would go to a processing lab called United Film at 10th
and Acoma, along with photographers from all the other
stations. None of the stations, even Channel 7, had a
film processor. As Secrest remembers it, there was an
informal arrangement among all the competing news
photographers when they gathered to get the film
processed each afternoon. "If you missed something, one
of your buddies from the other stations would take care
of you."127 Today's competition would make such an
arrangement difficult, if not impossible.
The early days of Channel 9 news were crude and
chaotic. "We really didn't know what we were doing,"
Secrest says. Secrest and his fellow employees at
Channel 9 were not the only ones. The entire industry
was trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.
In 1961, newly elected President John F. Kennedy
appointed a young lawyer named Newton Minow as chairman
of the FCC. That year, Minow gave a speech to the
National Association of Broadcasters, the foremost
television and radio organization in the country. It is
a speech that still echoes today. Minow recognized that
television can be very good.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse.
I invite you to sit down in front of your
television set when your station goes on the
air and stay there without a book, magazine,
newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book
to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to
that set until the station signs off. I can
assure you that you will observe a vast
wasteland (italics added). You will see a
procession of game shows, violence, audience
participation shows, formula comedies about
totally unbelievable families, blood and
thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder,
western badmen, western good men, private eyes,
gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And
endlessly, commercials--many screaming,
cajoling and offending... Is there one person
is this room who claims that broadcasting can't
do better?... Gentlemen, your trust accounting
with your beneficiaries is overdue. Never have
so few owed so much to so many... I understand
that many people feel that in the past licenses
were often renewed pro forma. I say to you
now: renewal will not be pro forma in the
future. There is nothing permanent or sacred
about a broadcast license.128
There was no wholesale license revocation following
Minow's ominous speech in 1961. For his part, the FCC
chairman worked to strengthen non-commercial television
by encouraging new public stations in major cities.
KRMA-TV in Denver was already established by the Denver
School Board in 1956 on Channel 6, then giving Denver
five television stations.129
The networks responded to the apparent government
menace by programming a wider variety of shows, some that
could qualify as "good" television, like "Exploring" and
"Discovery." A drama called "The Defenders" found its
way into the 1961-62 season with thoughtful examination
of current issues. The 1960s are in a sense television's
most important decade, not because of the way television
did what it did, but because of events that thrust the
medium far more deeply into American culture.
John Kennedy is responsible for two of those events.
His September 26, 1960, debate with Richard Nixon
128 Newton Minow, quoted by Barnouw in, Tube of Plenty,
129 Jack Gaskie, "Denver ETV Makes Quiet Debut, Rocky
Mountain News, January 31, 1956, 6.
demonstrated the influence of television in the modern
political process. As Barnouw suggests, it had much less
to do with what Kennedy and Nixon said during the debate,
but rather how they said it, and even more importantly
what the two men looked like when they were not talking.
"A glimpse of the listening Kennedy showed him attentive,
alert, with a suggestion of a smile on his lips. A Nixon
glimpse showed him haggard; the lines on his face seemed
like gashes and gave a fearful look. Toward the end,
perspiration streaked the Lazy-Shave."130 Lazy-Shave was
a product used to make a man's face look more
The impact of that first televised debate has been
itself debated for many years. But Barnouw points out
that after the debate, larger crowds gathered at Kennedy
campaign appearances, and that polls indicated an impact
with previously undecided voters. Barnouw calls it a
Whatever the specific impact of that particular
event, it certainly marked a change in the way American
130 Barnouw, Tube of Plenty, 273-274.
131 Ibid, 274.
politicians, particularly presidential candidates,
approached running for office. Appearance became more
important. "Sound bites," or short, memorable clips of
speeches or news conferences, became more important. Was
this good or bad for democracy? There are critics on
both sides. Some believe television "glorified traits
having no relationship to the presidency" while others
think the "public ordeal of the debates" demonstrated "a
relevance to leadership in an age of instant crisis and
But it was another Kennedy event that thrust
television into the spotlight of American life, where it
remains today. After a narrow victory in the 1960
election, aided perhaps by his televised debate with
Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy served as president for
less than three years when, on November 22, 1963, he was
shot and killed while riding in a motorcade through
Dallas, Texas. What followed is what Barnouw describes
as "the most moving spectacular ever broadcast."132 133
132 Ibid, 275.
133 Ibid, 331.
Television viewers in Denver and across the country-
gathered around television sets to watch the drama
unfold. First there were scenes of the chaos in Dallas;
conflicting reports about the president's condition;
finally, news of his death at Parkland Hospital. Then
the body was taken to Washington for a televised funeral
procession, while back in Dallas, NBC cameras were
showing live pictures of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald's
transfer from the city jail to the county jail when Jack
Ruby appeared suddenly, then shot and killed Oswald.
Again, all this was live on television, the first live
murder ever broadcast.
Television itself may have contributed to that
chapter of the story, since Dallas police decided against
a secret night transfer of Oswald, instead moving him at
noon on a Sunday so all the cameras could record the
event. Barnouw suggests that "police were not merely
cooperative, but apparently eager to surrender to
television requests and whims."134 Within an hour of
Kennedy's assassination, approximately 80% of all
television sets in the country were on, and there was
very little to see but the developing story. Television
had proven to be a sort of instant community meeting for
the country in a time of crisis.
Many other events in the 1960s influenced, and were
influenced by, television. Vietnam was not just a war,
it was a "living room war," where the people back home
saw firsthand, in their living rooms, how horrible war
could be thanks to filmed footage of the fighting.
Television coverage of Vietnam is either credited for
bringing the war to a faster conclusion, or criticized
for contributing to a weakening of domestic support,
causing the U.S. to "lose" its first war ever.
Even before that, the country experienced the fear
of global holocaust with the Cuban missile crisis of
October 1962. At 5:00 p.m. Denver time on October 22,
1962, President Kennedy spoke to the nation about
missiles the Soviet Union had placed just ninety miles
from Florida on the island nation of Cuba. Denver and
the nation watched as the standoff seemed to reach a
point of no return, then cooled down and finally
The 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention
in Chicago, and Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon in July
1969, demonstrated the extreme ends of the scale when it
came to the tragedy and triumph television brought to
daily American life. Viewers saw many of these images on
newly expanded 30 minute network news broadcasts each
evening, starting in 1963. Before that, network news had
been only 15 minutes a day, if that. But now television
news was serious business, and began to have a serious
impact on the country.
Technology was advancing as well. One of the
reasons the networks decided to expand their evening
newscasts was the launch of the Telstar I communications
satellite in July 1962. Now, instead of depending on
clumsy and crowded phone lines or a series of microwave
towers to transmit programming, the networks suddenly had
another option that would one day become the primary
means of distributing programming around the world.
In addition to sending movies and situation comedies
to their affiliates, satellite technology allowed
networks to, in theory at least, cover a story anywhere
in the world, as long as they could get a satellite dish
there. Twenty more years would pass before large numbers
of local stations took advantage of the technology, but
the networks began to use it as soon as it was available.
The "Early Bird" communications satellite went into
orbit in 1965. That year, CBS used it to conduct a
"global roundtable" with Walter Cronkite moderating a
discussion including former President Dwight D.
Eisenhower and British World War II hero, Field Marshall
Sir Bernard Montgomery. On the air, CBS proudly labeled
Montgomery's feed from London, "VIA EARLY BIRD.""35
But perhaps the most significant technological
development of the 1960s for local stations like Channel
9 was color TV. Since the beginning, the art of
television had only partially imitated life, since the
images seen on TV screens were black and white.
Like almost everything else connected with
television, there were two issues when it came to color.
One was figuring out how to broadcast in color; the other
was in inventing, marketing and getting consumers to buy
the TVs necessary to watch color TV. If they were lucky
enough to own a color TV set, Denver viewers could have 135
135 Ibid, 312.
seen a color program as early as New Year's Day, 1954,
when Channel 4 broadcast the Tournament of Roses Parade
in color.136 But the quality of early color television
was marginal, and widespread use of the technique was
still years away.
In the early 1960s, Clark Secrest remembers walking
into the control room and seeing big wooden boxes sitting
all over the place. When he asked one of the engineers
what was going on, he responded, "'That's color
equipment.'" Secrest was surprised. "But there are no
color television sets!" he said. "'But there will be,'"
the engineer responded. "'And Mullins wants to be
Television technicians had been working on color TV
since television was invented. It would have been
possible to convert the industry to color in the 1950s,
but the cost of producing and transmitting programming in
color, and the cost of buying sets that could receive
color programming, delayed its widespread use. So the
36 Gene Lindberg, "Denverites see First Color TV
Program," The Denver Post, January 1, 1954, 13.
*37 Secrest interview.
1960s became "the decade of color."138 In 1960, less than
1% of all households had color TV sets. By 1969, the
figure was more than 30%. By 1979, it was about 80%.139
For obvious reasons, color TV had enormous
implications for the viewer. There were even some
potential not-so-obvious effects. When TV news crews
switched to using color film on news stories in 1965-66,
it affected coverage of the Vietnam War. "Mud and blood
were indistinguishable in black and white; in color,
blood was blood."140 It is unlikely that John Mullins and
his team at Channel 9 gave much thought to ramifications
like that. Color was better, and that was that.
The 1960s saw a gradual rise in the fortunes of
Channel 9. First, longtime Channel 7 newscaster Carl
Akers quit his job in September 1966, after 18 years with
KLZ Radio and TV. When asked years later to explain why,
Akers responded that, "I just got tired. Just got
physically and mentally beat, so I quit for a year and
l3B Comstock, Television in America, 37.
140 Barnouw, Tube of Plenty, 401.
At the time, Akers planned to research and write
about Colorado history with his wife, which he did. But
he also told The Denver Post when he resigned that, "This
is not to say that I won't be back in television."141 142
After his brief hiatus from broadcasting, Channel 9
general manager A1 Flanagan (a significant figure himself
in the history of the station), convinced Akers to come
to work at Channel 9 doing documentaries. It was an
association that would last for 20 years and help propel
the station to first place in the Denver market.
Cecil Walker, who came to Channel 9 in 1969 as the
station's business manager after working for Mullins
Outdoor Advertising for four years, remembers what it
meant for the station to have Akers on board. "It made a
difference simply because the minute that Carl Akers
decided to come to Channel 9, he made a statement that
Channel 9 was committed to doing news."143 Although he
started out just doing documentaries, Akers soon went
back on the air as an anchor. In 1969, he also became
141 "This is Carl Akers," KUSA-TV, 1987.
142 Carl Akers, quoted in, "Carl Akers Resigns TV Post,"
The Denver Post, August 31, 1966, 2.
143 Cecil Walker in, "This is Carl Akers."
KBTV's news director. He later remembered his reign as
news director as "the worst nine years of my life."144 In
1974, Akers once again gave up the anchor desk, saying he
was "burnt out."145 He spent 12 more years at the station
in management and doing commentaries before he retired.
What made Carl Akers so valuable? He did not
possess "TV star" looks. In fact, when he retired from
Channel 9 in 1986, he said, "If those TV consultants were
around in my early TV years, I probably wouldn't have
gotten a job as a janitor, let alone a news anchor."146
But his long career on Channel 7 established him as a
credible newscaster to Denver viewers. Channel 9
reporter Ron Mitchell, who grew up watching Akers as a
child in Denver remembers working next to him as a young
reporter in the early 1970s. "I was in awe of him,
always," Mitchell says. "It never went away. Because I
saw him on television beginning in about 1954 or
144 Ibid, quoted by Ed Sardella.
145 Walter Saunders, "Akers to give up news anchorman
spot," Rocky Mountain News, August 7, 1974, 40.
146 Carl Akers, quoted by Dusty Saunders in,
"'Ultra-slick' just wasn't Carl Akers' style," Rocky
Mountain News, December 21, 1986, 23.
whenever. And all of my growing up, you know, it was
Carl Akers. I told him that once and he was genuinely
offended because he wasn't interested in hearing how old
But there was more to it than that. Cecil Walker
tried to identify it. "He walks in front of the
television camera and he communicates. And he's Carl
Akers. He's not a different individual... He's left a
very definite mark among other broadcasters, because the
one thing they all recognize is that he can walk through
that television tube, that television set, into someone's
A1 Flanagan said, "I've never heard Carl Akers ever
read a bad line, even if it was written by somebody other
than him."149 And when it came to writing for television,
there were not many better than Carl Akers. John Conners
worked with Akers at Channel 7. "Carl can say more in
twenty five words," Conners said, "than the wire services
can say in fifty or sixty, if you know what I mean."150
47 Mitchell interview.
148 Cecil Walker in, "This is Carl Akers."
149 Ibid, A1 Flanagan.
The audience, which seemed to respond to Akers throughout
his career no matter which station he worked for,
certainly did seem to understand what Conners meant.
Akers was a journalist. He took his responsibility
seriously. "If only one individual tuned in that night,
it was my responsibility to tell him, to the best of my
ability, what the hell was going on."150 151 And he was
uncomfortable doing news in a medium that demanded so
much show business. Still, whether he admitted it or
not, Akers was a showman himself. "There is a bit of
showmanship there, a little extra something that comes
through,"152 Ron Mitchell says. Akers would end his
newscasts and commentaries with a phrase borrowed from
the way newspaper reporters ended their stories by
saying, "That's 30, this is Carl Akers."
John Rayburn, who spent most of the 1970s anchoring
Channel 9 newscasts, says "Carl Akers used to insist that
he was not a performer. But we were a little of both."
Much like John Conners, Rayburn identified writing and
150 Ibid, John Conners.
151 Ibid, Carl Akers.
152 Ibid, Ron Mitchell.
copy editing as the abilities that made Carl Akers stand
out for so long. "He was the best editor I've ever
seen,"153 Rayburn says.
Ed Sardella joined Channel 9 in 1974 as a
sportscaster and would later become the station's most
popular and prominent newscaster. Sardella describes
Akers as "the ultimate country boy. I think he
epitomized probably what Denver was like and what the
media was like, really in the early, infancy days. He
was very down to earth."154 Sardella remembers hearing
the story that Akers never owned a tie. "He had two
clip-on ties and he had an old coat rack in his office.
And those clip-on ties sat on that coat rack so that he
never walked out of the building with a tie on."
Akers also never really grasped all of the technical
aspects of television news, even after doing it for
twenty years. Sardella remembers working with Akers when
the station still used film in its newscasts. "And you
had to put the film on a reel in the order you were going
153 Rayburn interview.
154 Ed Sardella, Interview by the author, November 16,
to play it," Sardella says. "Carl never understood
that... So he'd pick up the phone and tell the frustrated
director, 'Stay with me, I'm going to change the order a
little bit.' Never taking into account that you couldn't
change the order of the films."155
And, Sardella says, Akers was old fashioned. "He
was very old fashioned. He was very committed to
content. Did not buy into the cosmetic, production,
audience oriented kinds of changes."156 He might have
frustrated directors, but Carl Akers was always popular
with Denver's television viewers. When asked to explain
this popularity himself, Akers said, "If you like people,
and you enjoy talking with them, that comes across on
television. And I think maybe that is part of the reason
that I've stayed around so long."157 Akers lived only
seven years after his final retirement from the news
business. He died at the age of 71 on January 7, 1993.
Sardella sums up Akers contribution to television news:
"During his career, he has left vivid impressions on
is Carl Akers."
management and his co-workers. They said he was
bullheaded, which he was, and they said he always liked
to do things his own way, which he did. But they respect
Carl as a man, and they admire his talent."158
About a week after Carl Akers died, Channel 9 lost
another on-air legend whose personality was as exuberant
as Akers' was reserved. Meteorologist Leon "Stormy"
Rottman joined KBTV in 1968, the same year Carl Akers
came out of retirement. Rottman was a long-time Air
Force meteorologist who admitted that predicting the
weather was a tricky business. "I want to keep my mouth
shut," he once told The Denver Post, "but the public
wants to know, and I've got to try to tell them."159
Stormy, whose nickname fit his chosen profession
perfectly, told them for 19 years before he retired in
1988. Ed Sardella said the computerized changes in TV
weather technology were "very traumatic" for Rottman.160
Even so, those who worked with him at Channel 9
159 Ibid, Ed Sardella.
159 Stormy Rottman, quoted by Joanne Ostrow in, "Denver
TV's Stormy Rottman is dead at age 74," The Denver Post,
January 16, 1993, 2B.
160 Ibid, Ed Sardella.
remembered Stormy as a bright personality who was no
doubt a factor in the station's ratings rise of the
But when Akers and Rottman came to work for Channel
9 in 1968, all of that was still in the future. Channel
9 was still in third place, still far behind Channel 7.
There were, however, positive signs. The most popular
and talented newscaster in Denver was now working at
Channel 9. A1 Flanagan, who went on to establish a
reputation as one of the best broadcasters in the
country, was running the station. And the ABC network
had gone from an organization simply trying to survive to
competing effectively with CBS and NBC.
As the 1960s drew to a close, another development
would prove to be perhaps the most significant event
since the station signed on. In August 1969, John
Mullins died, leaving Channel 9 and a growing mini media
empire behind. Besides KBTV, Mullins owned KBTR Radio,
KARK-TV and KAK Radio in Little Rock as well as other,
smaller companies that handled everything from outdoor
advertising to electric signs to film production. There
was no immediate decision by the Mullins family about
what to do with these businesses.
So as the decade of the 1970s began, Richard Nixon
was president, the United States was trying to find a way
out of Vietnam and Channel 9 saw both uncertainty and
opportunity. If the 1960s were the most important decade
for the development of the television industry, the 1970s
would prove to be the most important years yet for
TOWARD THE TOP
"In a very real sense, television is American
John E. O'Conner
Much like the actor who works in obscurity for years
before becoming a success, Channel 9 rose to the top of
the Denver television market gradually during the course
of the 1970s. The station's success was the-result of
many factors, undoubtedly beginning with the change of
ownership that happened in 1971.
After John Mullins died in 1969, his family decided
not to keep the business. So, on Monday, April 7, 1971,
the Mullins estate announced an agreement to sell KBTV
and the rest of the Mullins media collection to a company
161 John E. O'Conner, ed., American History/American
Television: Interpreting the Video Past, (New York:
Frederick Unger Publishing, 1983), introduction.