This essay made possible by:
Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University, Pullman
By Peter Blecha
April 14, 2022
KJR-AM was the pioneering radio station in the Pacific Northwest, and its history mirrors the rise of the radio industry in general. Its origins trace to a tiny “dot-and-dash” Morse Code transmitter, before founder Vincent I. Kraft (1893-1971) received a formal broadcast license in 1922. But its core story is that of becoming the region’s powerhouse broadcaster, one that dominated the marketplace for decades. In the 1950s, Wally Nelskog (1919-2012) reportedly garnered an astounding 50 percent of area listenership with his Wally’s Music Makers show. In the 1960s, DJ and Program Manager Pat O’Day (1934-2020) led the way and KJR scored 37 percent at times. KJR also earned a nationwide reputation for breaking hits by introducing new records that went on to widespread hit status. KJR nurtured scores of on-air talents — singers, musicians, announcers, and DJs alike — who became stars. Although KJR enjoyed an outsized impact on the community for decades, it gradually lost ground to emerging FM stations — of both varieties, hipper and harder-rocking. Transforming itself, KJR earned a huge and loyal new audience for sports programming.
Arts and Kraft
KJR-AM’s century-long history is a complicated and magnificently tangled saga. Detailing every technological advance (it grew from a 5-watt baby to a 50,000-watt giant over the decades); every change of call letters and/or frequencies on the radio dial (a half-dozen times); every occasion that its offices, studios, or transmission facilities moved locations (a good dozen); or the many owners it had (another dozen or so) is beyond the scope of this feature. Instead it focuses mainly on the station’s contributions to the community, the most notable stars it nurtured, and its cultural impact.
The earliest years of radio experimentation saw significant activity across America and Europe. In Seattle, Vincent Kraft began serving as the director of Seattle’s YMCA School of Radio Telegraphy in 1917, and ran his first “dot-and-dash” Morse Code transmitter under the call letters 7AC.
In early 1920, Kraft and O. A. Dodson opened the Northwest Radio Service Company. With a Wonderphone brand microphone and a 5-watt de Forest transmitter, Kraft set up an experimental station above the Groceteria store at 5503 University Way NE in Seattle’s University District. That August it broadcast a musical program to most of the 200 local owners of wireless radio receivers — people who, The Seattle Times noted, “for the first time heard the human voice and music coming in” (“Three Broadcasters Busy”).
Over the year broadcasts continued. Kraft moved the operation into the tiny garage next to his Ravenna-area home (6838 19th Avenue NE). Having installed a 90-foot antenna wire, and hauled a phonograph and piano out there, Kraft applied for a license to operate an experimental station and was awarded the identity of 7XC at 1110 on the radio dial.
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A wonderful article. Living in Vancouver, BC, I listened to the station on occasion. I can still remember the distinctive identification, “KJR Seattle, channel 95.”