KAYO: C&W Pioneer In Seattle

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Country-western was the music of our grandparents. For some of us, our parents, too. It was well before fancy radio programming format names like Adult Contemporary, Adult Oriented Rock, or certainly Current Hit Radio. Western music – later to be called “Country” – was always in the background until finally moving into mainstream radio in the early 1960s. It happened when a few broadcast owners and managers felt there was money to be made with that fiddlin’, pickin’ & singin’. And that’s the short version of how Seattle’s Kountry KAYO carved its place in radio history.

There were plenty of doubters when media entrepreneur Jessica Longston (with radio stations in Bellingham and Moses Lake) took number 2 ranked KAYO out of Seattle’s rock radio race. During and after the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, KAYO had actually done well with a rock format, out-running long-established KOL.

But KAYO was a distant second to fast-rising KJR, worrying Longston and station manager John R. DiMeo about listener and financial gains in a three-station race for a potential audience comprised largely of teenagers. After all, the over-35 demographic was the financial key to success and most of the market’s combined purchasing power and highly prized ad revenue. KVI started moving away from its country-western leanings a few years after Golden West’s purchase in 1959. So, the time was right to put full-time C & W in the growing Seattle-Tacoma market. And, so they did.

On April 23, 1963 KAYO became Kountry KAYO, boosted largely by the confidence of creative program director Chris Lane. He’d come to KAYO from WLS Chicago in October, 1961 and had assembled a strong KAYO lineup in the station’s final 18-month Top-40 run against KJR and KOL. He crafted KAYO’s switch to country, eager to build on KVI’s earlier country music format success.

The first thing Lane did was hire KVI’s well known singer and on-air star Marion “Buck” Ritchey, whose down-home, devil-may-care delivery likely brought most of KVI’s country audience to KAYO with him. Also hired was Bobby Wooten, another former country singer/musician who’s broadcasting and on-stage style put him at even stride with Ritchey’s talents. Suddenly, Kountry KAYO was attracting a lot of attention.

Trailblazers in Country KAYO’s success: Chris Lane, Buck Ritchey and “Bashful” Bobby Wooten

That was the start of a 15+ year success story which saw Kountry KAYO become Seattle’s – and probably the country’s – first 24-hour country station. It soon became the marvel of the industry by hanging onto a large market’s number 2 spot for several years, showing better listener ratings (in many time segments) than KING, KIRO, KOMO – even KVI.

Here’s time-warp Buck Ritchey audio, including Wooten voicing a historically-awesome Studebaker spot, and fellow jock Don Chapman with a heating oil commercial – unfathomable stuff from 1964.

Audio Buck Ritchey (Running time 13:26)

This is personality radio, Ritchie’s style and delivery unlike anything on the air. It was down-on-the farm in the big city. His B-Buck Show aired few songs and rarely a station jingle. But lots of cornball jokes and a hefty commercial load – sold out almost every hour – the envy of just about all of KAYO’s competitors. The talk-load clearly was not seen as detrimental to the spot-load in those early Kountry KAYO days.

It didn’t matter that Ritchey and Wooten were ornery, cantankerous and constantly goading each other with their homespun humor. Listeners loved it. And, typical of their lot, fans were loyal and turned out in droves for big Ritchey and Wooten-emceed country spectacular shows (Buck Owens, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, and many others), as well as endless local picnics, parades, live remotes and other events. In addition to Ritchey’s regular morning drive time show, many will remember his Saturday night “Heidelberg Hoedown,” another ratings bump.

Jessica Longston’s son picked the KAYO call letters when she bought the station in 1952

Chris Lane left at the end of ’64 for Chicago’s Country WJJD. KAYO’s program director duties went to Wooten, who held the job while the station’s fortunes and solid market position continued, even though radio’s well-known “star egos” issue began to surface. In his PD role, Wooten tried to get Ritchey to shorten his droll, lengthy on-air chit-chats. But Ritchey wasn’t about to learn new tricks. Some say those off-air discussions sometimes got heated.

After Lane left, and well into the mid-’60s, other staff jocks held up their end of the lineup pretty well. Among them was Dan Williams, Don Chapman, Eddie Briggs, Duke Martin and Paul Scott. Another, Ron Magers (from Toppenish, WA), later converted his KAYO weekend gig into a long and impressive news anchor job at Chicago’s WLS-TV.

Buck Ritchey at one of many KAYO MOO-sic events
Buck Ritchey
Bobby Wooten

Ritchey’s and Wooten’s country singing careers added authenticity to Kountry KAYO’s stature. In his KVI years, Ritchey had his own local country band, which featured steel-guitarist Paul Tutmarc and Tutrmarc’s singing wife Bonnie (who later became Bonnie Guitar). In Ritchey’s 3-hour daily broadcast, his group, the K-VI (“K-6”) Wranglers, benefited from the built-in promotion for themselves and other country performers.

Country singing legend Hank Snow credited Ritchey’s playing of his records as a prime reason for his career success. As for Wooten, he got impressive Nashville recording attention through the ’50s and ’60s. While playing with local bands, he started his radio career in San Jose, CA in 1952, and worked in Salt Lake City radio before coming to Kountry KAYO.

Here’s audio of two songs written and recorded early in their radio days. It starts with a clip of Ritchey’s Only the Moonman Knows, followed by a piece of Wooten’s Goin’ Deer Huntin’.

Audio Ritchey and Wooten (Running time 1:12)

Kountry KAYO was flying high, as evidenced by the classic 1966 Country Gentlemen/General Store photobelow. Ritchey and Wooten were the recognized mainstays, their popularity propelling the station for a decade and more. Equally important was the music – perhaps corny sh*t-kickin’ to some, but endeared by many – not regularly on the dial anywhere else. If you heard it on a passing car radio, you knew right way it was Kountry KAYO.

Standing, from left: Dick Osborn, Paul Scott, Bobby Wooten, Dan Williams, newsman Bill Goff. Seated, from left: Buck Ritchey, George Ritchey.

Williams, highly versatile but less publicized, started in the ’50s, and became one of Longston’s longest serving on-air talents. He worked all over the broadcast clock at more than one Longston station and spanned the Kountry KAYO run from 1963 to ’79. Newsman Bill Goff, who came over from KVI in ’64, logged 11 years at Kountry KAYO, which was a Mutual Radio affiliate before switching to ABC Entertainment in the late ’60s.

Also contributing to success was less frequent jock turnover – a high profile issue, particularly with its Seattle pop music competitors. The on-air chronology (late ’60s-to late ’70s) was George Richey, Gary Vance, Ed Howell, Don Lane, Gene Larson, Dick Ellingson and Jaynie Jo Royal Dillon. It added up to KAYO being one of Seattle’s most consistently stable operations – mostly for listeners.

From left: Don Chapman, Dan Williams, Gary Vance and Jaynie Jo Royal Dillon
Kountry KAYO music survey KAYO from February,1969

By 1973-’74, Kountry KAYO took on a more urban sound, as heard in this quick audio grab of 4 jingles from the mid-’70s . . .

Audio Kountry KAYO jingles (Running Time :34)

Two major factors contributed to Kountry KAYO’s eventual demise. The first was Buck Ritchey’s 1970 cancer diagnosis. He displayed a lot of public courage by continuing his early morning show – and openly telling listeners of his illness and how he was trying to cope with it – until a few weeks before his death. He passed at age 58 in December, ’73. His Seattle radio time (KVI and KAYO) totaled 32 years. Since 1943, he’d been the biggest country music influence in the Northwest.

The second game-changer in 1975 (when Bobby Wooten retired) saw Hercules Broadcasting acquire KOL and flip it to country KMPS. That was the start of KAYO’s first strong competition (other than smaller station challenges, such as KQIN). KMPS and KMPS-FM began drive-time simulcasting in early 1978, a fatal blow toward the station’s sale to Obie Broadcasting in ’79. The famous K-A-Y-O calls were gone in ’82 (after a near 30-year presence in Seattle) when Obie sold out to a Seattle investor group which changed the station to KSPL.

Kountry KAYO roll-call (1963-1979): Chris Lane, Dan Williams, Buck Ritchey, Bobby Wooten, Eddie Briggs, Jeff Mitchell, Don Hughes, Duke Martin, Don Chapman, Paul Scott, Bill Goff, Ron Magers, Tracy Smith, Gentleman George Richey, Dick Osborn, Chuck Winston, Ron Dini, Gary Vance, Ed Howell, Don Lane, Skip Piper, Brian Calkins, Tracy Smith, Gene Larson, Dakota Williams, Lou Gillette, Dennis Buckle, Kris Carpenter, Dave Young, Ben Peyton, Bo Wiley, Dick Ellingson and Jaynie Jo Royal Dillon, Seattle’s first female radio personality , 1977-’79

KAYO’s listener numbers waned somewhat by the early ’70s. But the station’s overall performance produced much discussion about reasons for its success. Some say KAYO had no real country competition. Others counter by praising KAYO’s conquests in a market some felt wasn’t really a country music town. KAYO showed it could be done, as would other local C & W’s who followed.

Perhaps a much better guess relates to a patient and enduring management set. The steady traits of station manager John R. DiMeo and only two program director changes says a lot about an operation that stayed runnerup in the Seattle-Tacoma market for nearly a decade. Sure, Ritchey and Wooten were country corny. But a large, loyal listener base loved – and expected it – just as they did the music and the solid performance from the rest of the on-air staff. Bottom line: Kountry KAYO delivered – consistently.

DiMeo was KAYO GM for nearly two decades, leaving the Longston group (Washington Telecasting) after 30 years (1980). In addition, KAYO radio enjoyed the consistency of program directors Chris Lane, 1961 through ’64, Bobby Wooten 1965-’75 and Ben Peyton 1976-’79. Lane made his mark in several large markets before his retirement and death in 2000. He was later inducted into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame.

Through its 16-year ride, Kountry KAYO enjoyed 10 years of Ritchey and 12 years of Wooten, who together were most instrumental in elevating KAYO to one of the nation’s more profitable full-time country operations.

And that proved again that satisfying loyal listener expectations isn’t just a part of the game, it IS the game!

Reference credit: Northwest Music Archives, Broadcasting Yearbook, Mrs. Dan Williams

 

 

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Ronald DeHart

Author: Ronald DeHart

Ron DeHart is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist and a retired Public Affairs Officer from both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve. His historical accounts of Pacific Northwest broadcasting are published by Puget Sound Media.  

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