Few know one of the oldest radio stations in the Pacific Northwest in continuous operation from the same City of License started in the garage of an auto repair shop at 2814 Rucker Avenue in Everett, Washington. Otto Leese and his brother Robert were business owners and mechanics, and the spare parts available to them in their shop enabled them to experiment with the most exciting and still relatively unknown technology known to America at the time: broadcast radio. A car battery, some vacuum tubes, a microphone, and a long piece of copper wire for an antenna allowed the Leese Brothers to create a land-based radio station to transmit voice instead of Morse code. On August 17, 1922 when it was finally officially licensed by the United States Department of Commerce (The Federal Communications Commission wasn't created until 1934), the Leese Brother’s experimental radio station received its first call-sign: KFBL. Later authorizations were provided under the signature of Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce. (Hoover went on to become President of the United States in 1929). The station was said to have enough battery power to run an electric chair!
While some believe the call-sign had particular significance as an acronym for “First Broadcast License” alluding to a long-held belief in the station’s heritage as the first on the air in the Northwest, it’s more likely that the call sign corresponded with the timing of the application review and approval by the Department of Commerce - shortly after another famous west coast radio station was assigned its call letters for the first time: KFBK, Sacramento. The fact that the Leese Brothers had been experimenting with their radio station since at least 1920 had nothing to do with their interesting call letter assignment. It was simply a function of assigning call letters in alphabetical order!
The Leese Brother’s license granted authorization to operate in a portion of the newly established radio spectrum reserved for “general entertainment” at 833 kHz and “…used for broadcasting news, concerts, lectures, and such matter.” Like virtually all stations on the air at this time, broadcasts were at irregular intervals, and KFBL shared this frequency with stations as close as Seattle. Receivers were still not widespread, and they were expensive. Hand-held radios weren't even possible, yet. By 1927, KFBL was assigned its first numerical frequency of 1340 kHz with 100 watts of operating power. The station evolved toward a more consistent programming schedule, but shared its time on the air with KXRO until almost 1929 when KFBL moved up the dial to 1370 sharing time with radio stations KVL and KKP.
The Leese Brothers operated their radio station until May 15, 1934 when they transferred control of the radio station to a staff member, Lee Mudgett. It was also in 1934 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by the Communications Act of 1934. Mudgett moved the main studio from Rucker to the Clark building on the corner of Wetmore and Hewitt Avenue, across from Everett’s famed “Speakers Corner” where every day at noon, people would gather to hear the thoughts of anyone bold enough to take the podium. On July 12, 1934, call-sign KFBL was retired and call-sign KRKO was assigned to the radio station. (Call-sign KFBL now resides with the United States Coast Guard.) In September, the studio and transmitter were moved to 1804 Hewitt Avenue.
Mudgett made a point of requesting special authorization from the FCC to operate the radio station during non-authorized times for the purposes of airing city, county, and national election returns. He also requested special authorization to broadcast the World Series.
Mudgett remained as the licensee for almost 10 years. During five of those years, he attempted to upgrade the facilities of KRKO, and he attempted to sell KRKO several times, but those upgrade efforts weren’t realized until he sold control of the radio station to another local Everett family led by William H. “Bill” Taft in 1940. Though not listed on the license, Bill’s wife, Thelma, played a major role in the station from the beginning. Thelma describes the first day at KRKO as “walking arm in arm” into what was to be a true business partnership as well as a marriage.
By 1941 the Taft family constructed KRKO’s first vertical antenna just north of the northeast corner of Wetmore and Wall Street and west of the First Presbyterian Church of Everett on land now occupied by a parking lot. KRKO moved farther up the dial from 1340 kHz and began to broadcast at 1400 kHz from the Clarke Building (now U.S. Bank). The station had a whopping 100 watts and later 250 watts during the four years it was located on Wetmore. The station used a single vertical antenna until they purchased the KEVE studios and transmitter site south of what's known as the Hilltop Drive-In in north Everett.
Those familiar with Everett know the area of the circa 1944 transmitter site as nearly midway down fairway 15 at Legion Memorial Golf Course. The Tafts donated land to Everett Community College to create access from Old Highway 99. The access road became known as Tower Road. It ran next to the transmitter site and exists today, a reminder of a long-gone facility. At the time, the area was a swamp with scattered homes to the west on the ridge in the area where Everett Community College now resides.
The Taft family wasn't able to finalize the acquisition of KRKO from Lee Mudgett until October 3, 1945 in the name of the Everett Broadcasting Company, Inc. Bill Taft and his brother Archie Taft, Jr. were listed as the licensees. With the transaction complete, Archie left Bill with KRKO and moved to Seattle to operate another legendary family owned radio station: KOL. Right about this time, long-time employee and local celebrity news staffer Shirley Bartholomew joined KRKO and began her nearly forty-year run at the radio station.
Documents from this era provide evidence of KRKO’s long-standing service record in the community and provide tantalizing insights into how different the economy of Everett was following World War II. Beginning at 6:00 a.m. on a weekday, the station broadcast a mix of music, a 15 minute block of farm report news including on-air classified ads for farmers wishing to buy and sell, farm market reports, and news from the Washington State Extension Bureau, followed by a 15 minute block of national news at 7:00 a.m., back to “…musical variety with a humorous slant” at 7:15. The station then aired recorded religious programming for a good portion of the morning, including shows like the Hebrew Christian Hour, Rings of Healing, and Dr. Talbot. Thelma Taft read news, handled much of the internal business operations, and began her annual tradition of reading Christmas letters from children over the air at noon as “Mrs. Clause.” Bill handled sales and management of the station.
In 1949, the Tafts received approval for a change to KRKO’s frequency again, moving it from 1400 to 1380, increasing the power from 250 watts to 1,000 watts, and adding a second vertical antenna to push (directionalize) the extra 750 watts northwest at night to protect other stations on the air to the east, south, and southeast. The north Everett transmitter site performed poorly and didn’t cover Everett’s expanding population to the south very well. The Tafts attempted to modify the night signal in 1951 to get better coverage but the effort must have been an exercise in futility. By 1957, the Tafts purchased land for a new transmitter site 1.3 miles south of Lowell along the Lowell-Larimer Road in rural farm land within the Everett city limits.
The Lowell transmitter site was a step-up for KRKO. Two modern 225-foot steel antennas were erected along with a new building, and the station was authorized to increase its power five-fold to operate at 5,000 watts 24-hours a day. Eight acres of farmland were cleared for a new building to house the business office, studios, and equipment. The studios, designed by Thelma Taft, were state of the art for the time featuring four turntables and a top-of-the-line RCA console. The transmitter was a brand new Gates - the best available in 1959.
The Larimer Road site serves as the emergency backup transmitter site for KRKO today and served the majority of it’s existence as the main office for both studios and sales until the main studios were relocated to the 14th floor of Key Tower on the corner of Colby and Everett Avenues, just two blocks from where the Leese Brothers hooked up car batteries to a home-made transmitter. The “state-of-the-art” 1959 Gates transmitter remains in place as the third back-up transmitter for KRKO and is used intermittently even today. The RCA console shown in the photo of the main studio of the new building was decommissioned in 1997 after serving its final years in an editing studio at the Larimer Road site.
KRKO transmits today from a state-of-the-art antenna system two miles south of Snohomish, a location shared with sister station KXA 1520. The FCC issued authority to KRKO to operate full-time at 50,000 Watts in September 2010. The studios and both the main and backup transmitter sites feature emergency backup power, and both transmitter sites feature a primary and backup transmitter. Programming is distributed to both transmitter sites on three different paths to ensure we remain on the air.
The call-sign of our radio station remains "KRKO" to this day. We are one of seven locally-owned, independent commercial radio stations left in the Snohomish, King, Pierce County area. 1230 AM in Everett, and 1450 AM in Puyallup target the Korean community as "Radio Hankook" and are owned by Jean Suh; 1420 AM and 1620 AM in Renton, and 1560 AM in Sumner are owned by Chris Bennett and target the African-American community. 1180 AM in Lakewood is owned by Clay Huntington (who chose the appropriate call-sign "KLAY") and serves the Tacoma area. All remaining commercial signals in the Seattle area are owned by large corporations or out-of-state entities with the exception of 94.5 FM KUOW, which is owned by the University of Washington. We're proud of our local heritage and of our local ownership. We look forward to serving Everett and its neighboring communities for many years to come.
Special thanks to James Snyder (National Archives research), the Towne family, Bob Huson, Thelma Taft, Sparky Taft, Xen Scott (FCC Microfiche), Barry Mishkind, Ben Mudgett, and KRKO listeners for providing us with access to station memorabilia or donating the memorabilia outright. If you contributed historical material and we did not mention your name, please write to us and we will gladly correct the situation. If you formerly worked for KRKO (alternately KRFE, KBAE, or KFBL), or if you have information about the history of this heritage radio station, we'd like to hear from you. Please click here to send us an email or call the station at 425-304-1381. We plan to upload more information to our website to share with the community.