[This piece from the the Tacoma News Tribune, really captured the feeling of loss when Tacoma’s 850 AM was finally swallowed up by the out-of-towners and began simulcasting Seattle radio.]
The studios, the signs, the furniture and the handsome purple-gray and forest-green color scheme remain. But most of the 20-plus people who once worked at KHHO-AM 850 aren’t the re to enjoy the view from the lavish 12th-floor offices in the Rust Building at 950 Pacific Ave.
“If you don’t walk in the door with high spirits, you’re not going to get them here,” said Kerrington West, son of former KHHO co-owner Steve West.
The younger West is one of the few people still employed at 850, but now his paychecks come from the Ackerley Communications Group, which bought KHHO late last year for $2.5 million. The Ackerley Group is also majority owner of Seattle’s sports radio station KJR-AM 950, ’70s hits station KJR-FM and urban hits station KUBE-FM.
In December, 850 began partial simulcasts of KJR-AM. By the beginning of February, the Tacoma-based news-talk was gone completely – something that’s happened all too often to Pierce County broadcasters.
“For me, this worked out well. … I’m happy to work for sports radio,” said Kerrington West, a behind-the-scenes production guy who was putting together an ad as he spoke. “I’m sorry for Tacoma. … I can’t believe this didn’t work out.”
His dad was similarly surprised.
Steve West said he never wanted to sell the station, but when the business side of things – profits – failed to take off as fast as expected, the offer from Ackerley started to look really good to a majority of the investors.
KHHO had been doing its Tacoma-centric thing since April 1996, when Steve West, Dan Walker and about a dozen silent partners bought the station for $500,000 from Entertainment Corporation of Philadelphia. Since 1991, it had been simulcasting KMTT-FM (103.7) “The Mountain,” and before that was KTAC, which did the news-talk thing and, years ago, played hit music.
KJR program director Tom Lee said he wants to maintain the connection 850 has established in the South Puget Sound area, which is why 850 still broadcasts Tacoma Sabercats games and will air Tacoma Rainiers games as well (though some early Rainiers games will be broadcast on Tacoma’s KLAY-AM 1180 to make way for the Seattle SuperSonics, a team that just happens to be owned by Barry Ackerley).
“We don’t want it to be seen as a hostile takeover with nothing left for Tacoma, because that’s not what it is,” Lee said.
Lee said KJR has expanded its traffic reports to include the Tacoma area and plans for the station to have a presence at major South Sound events. Several salespeople will continue to work out of the office and sell local ads.
“The station is more local than it was when it was The Mountain AM,” West said.
Former KHHO morning personality and longtime local favorite Bruce Cannon was in a wistful mood recently as he packed up the office he used to share with news director Charlie Johnson.
“It was a nice place,” he said.
Cannon’s held a variety of jobs in the volatile radio business. He worked at 850 when it was the mighty KTAC and when it was just simulcasting The Mountain (before the station shut down its Tacoma studio). Now he’s looking for work again.
“I don’t know in what direction,” he said.
Steve West and Dan Walker, who ran the station and headed its ownership group, are in the same position.
West said he’s been busy dealing with the final details of transferring KHHO to Ackerley.
“I’ve got a lot of ideas,” West said. “Now I want to find time to work on them.”
Johnson, meanwhile, left radio for a job as assistant news director with KWTV, a CBS-TV affiliate in Oklahoma City.
He misses Tacoma, and many in Tacoma miss him. Before he worked at KHHO, Johnson spent 13 years in local TV as anchor and later news director at KSTW (Channel 11).
And though he’s now in a smaller market (Oklahoma City is 43rd in the nation, and Seattle-Tacoma is 13th), he said he’s enjoying his work at the “incredibly competitive” station.
As for KH2O, “I think it’s the county’s loss,” he said.
“I feel the community deserves its own voice. … Does Tacoma need KJR South? No.”
West is optimistic about South Sound radio.
“I thought we made a lot of progress,” he said. “I believe even more so now than I did when I started that our vision was correct. … You never can tell, it might happen again.”
[Stephanie Simons, The News Tribune SoundLife Mar 3, 1998]