John Christopher Kowsky: Pacific NW Broadcaster

John Christopher Kowsky

Editor’s note: John Christopher Kowsky recently checked in with us at Puget Sound Media. You can see his latest update by clicking HERE. John is doing well at KPND-FM, a radio station that serves Spokane-Coeur d’Alene. It seems this would be a good time to profile John’s impressive career in Pacific Northwest broadcasting. Since I was raised in Bellingham, and John Kowsky was too, we share some common memories. For example, both of us worked at Bellingham’s Top-40 radio station KPUG.

Beginnings: KPUG-Bellingham

I first heard John Christopher Kowsky when he was a young DJ at KPUG. It was 1967 and Kowsky was still at Sehome High School (class of 1969). I was a year behind him (Class of ’70) and across town at Bellingham High. In addition to his being an on-air personality, John covered high school sports — often teamed up with Bob (O’Neil) Tria, the longtime KPUG program director (PD). Cable TV was a startup in Bellingham back then and Kowsky was on the ground floor, a part-timer at community access Channel 10. A youth, who was looking forward to creating more adventures in broadcasting, John Christopher Kowsky departed Bellingham in 1969 and headed for Eastern Washington.

KMEL-Wenatchee

Relocating to Wenatchee, John became the weekday afternoon on-air personality at KMEL, a rock-pop oriented station. The job was full-time, but the young jock wanted to work his way into Spokane — the largest radio market in Eastern Washington. He applied at the popular Top-40 station KREM. In 1972, Kowsky got the break he was looking for. KREM hired him part-time as a weekend jock.

John was still working full-time in Wenatchee when he proudly displayed his first paycheck from KREM-Spokane.

KREM-Spokane

John commuted back and forth from Wenatchee to Spokane, while hanging on to his full-time job in Wenatchee. Then KREM recruited him to become the weekday afternoon DJ on the radio side and to serve as the sports anchor on weekends at KREM-TV. Kowsky accepted the offer.

At KREM he and Rob Harder, a notable Spokane broadcaster both then and now, became friends. Rob called himself “Hotdog Harder” and, when doing morning drive, “Harder in the morning.” Rob has talent. He worked at the 50,000 watt San Francisco AM station, KFRC, as Robin Bailey. Because of his association with John, Rob Harder’s name will appear a few times in this article.  The aircheck below of John Christopher Kowsky was recorded in the mid-1970s, when he and Rob Harder worked together at 97 KREM.

John and Rob Harder were jocks at KREM

KREM-John Christopher Kowsky, recording credit to Moose Moran (mid-70s) Length 3:35

KING-Seattle

KREM was owned by KING Broadcasting Company in Seattle. In 1975, the KREM-KING sister station relationship paid off for John Christopher Kowsky. That summer of ’75, a top Seattle jock, Dan Foley, took a break from KING. Management transferred Kowsky to Seattle to fill-in for Foley on the evening shift.

The next picture of John was taken in the KING production studio. He was preparing an on-air birthday salute to Paul McCartney, the former Beatle.

KING radio studios, 1975. Kowsky behind the mic.

In the KING photo, that’s Hal Widston at the board. Kowsky explained Widston’s key role at KING: “Hal was a miracle maker PD. He’d taken 62/KGW in Portland to No. 1 in just six weeks. Then he was promoted to PD at KING. Hal guided the growth of KING, until Alan Mason (who had followed Widston at KGW) was brought into Seattle in the same capacity. That would have been in the mid-‘70’s and, at that time, Hal became the KING production director. He had been with powerhouse WLS in Chicago prior to his moving to the Pacific Northwest.

Back to Spokane

After the summer of ’75 in Seattle, John returned to KREM in Spokane. He stayed there for another five years. Looking back on it, Kowsky’s favorite radio story was conjured up at KREM.

Aku, the Hawaiian DJ

“On April Fool’s Day 1980, during my morning drive-time show, I was live on-air with Aku (J. Akuhead Pupule, the legendary Hawaiian DJ). To clarify, this was a simulcast so Aku’s listeners in Hawaii and my audience in Spokane heard the same show. I told everybody listening how unique it was to have the highest-paid morning DJ in the world (Aku) and also the lowest-paid morning DJ in the world (me) together on the same broadcast.

“The April Fool’s Day theme or prank was that KREM was abandoning Top-40 and switching to an all Hawaiian music format. It seemed like everybody bought into my spoof including the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. They heard the broadcast on KSSK in Honolulu. That’s where Aku was working at the time. After April Fool’s Day, the visitor’s bureau started sending me tons of Hawaii tourist information to promote on my ‘supposed’ Hawaiian music morning show.”

A tape was rolling that April Fool’s Day and below is a short aircheck.

Voices-Kowsky & Alex Wood (KREM); KREM listener; Aku wishes KREM success with the Hawaiian format (April 1, 1980) Length 1:03

From AM to FM

In 1981, Kowsky moved to KHQ-FM. Since KHQ was mostly automated, air shifts were more flexible. Sometimes John worked mornings and other times afternoons. While at KHQ, he and Rob Harder founded “Pro Creations” — it was a Spokane-based commercial production and recording studio.

By 1982, Kowsky was ready for something new and different. He left KHQ-FM. However, he did so with management’s blessing. And he didn’t even have to leave the building! That’s because he walked down the hallway and joined the staff at KHQ-TV.

KHQ AM-FM-TV was all together in a big office complex on S. Regal Street. So when I went from KHQ-FM to KHQ-TV I stayed in the same building. Actually, KREM’s combined operation was really close by. So even when I moved from KREM to KHQ, it was no big change in my commute time. I walked to both those jobs. My home was at the base of Brown’s Mountain, so it was a stroll through the woods to work,” John said.

KHQ combined AM, FM and TV facility. 1972 photo

As Cameras Rolled: KHQ-TV & NBC National

Kowsky’s previous experience at KREM-TV was a valuable asset. He had developed confidence and poise on-camera. John was selected by KHQ-TV to co-host the syndicated program “PM Magazine.” What’s more, he was a capable weekend weather forecaster. Then, come 1984-’85, he became part of “NBC Star Weekends,” which originated in Burbank/Hollywood. Many tinseltown celebrities and famous people were interviewed by John Christopher Kowsky.

Kowsky shared a favorite memory from his time in Hollywood: “I recall when George Wendt (Norm) and John Ratzenberger (Cliffy) of “Cheers” were on camera, arguing vehemently that they both were “John Christopher Kowsky.” It was a hilarious bit! I had a copy on video tape, unfortunately it went into the dumpster along with all my other recordings when I moved away from my home on Hayden Lake, ID.”

(L) Kowsky with “Night Court’s” Harry Anderson & Karen Austin.” (R) With Sam Elliot and Cybill Shepherd (photo off an NBC studio monitor).

Most of John’s career collectibles consist of photographs and radio airchecks. In 1984, KHQ-TV ran promotional spots for “PM Magazine.” One such promo is currently available on video. It includes appearances by both John and his co-host Toni Boggan.

       KHQ “PM Magazine” and vintage KHQ/NBC promos, 1984

Goodbye TV, Hello KQSP-FM

Kowsky’s career in front of TV cameras ended in 1985. That’s when he became half of a two person morning show at Spirit 99-FM (KQSP-FM). He teamed up with the station PD, Sky Walker, who was formerly with KJR-Seattle. And the much admired Spokane radio and TV broadcaster, Sunshine Shelly, would occasionally chime in with the weather forecast. (To read more about Sunshine Shelly, click HERE.) After about a year at KQSP, an opportunity came along that put John’s radio career on hold for three years.

John Christopher Kowsky, KQSP-FM promotional photo

Broadcasting Took a Holiday

In 1986, Kowsky was able to substantially increase his income by becoming a self-employed consultant in the petroleum/lubrication industry. That kind of specialized field might seem outside the scope of a typical broadcaster, but Kowsky knew the ropes. His father had been in that line of work for decades — that’s how his dad supported the family when John was a kid growing up in Bellingham.

His Heart’s in Radio: KISC-FM

Kowsky remained in the petroleum industry for 28 years, up until 2014. But his heart remained in broadcasting. In 1989, a PD in Spokane wanted John to get back on the radio. Good news for listeners, Kowsky determined he could hold two jobs — one in the petrol business and another in radio. He accepted the afternoon slot at KISS 98-FM (KISC-FM, formerly KHQ-FM). That PD, who lured John back into radio, was his longtime friend Rob Harder. Kowsky spent the next 10 years at KISS-FM. But, by the late 1990s, he was contemplating retirement from broadcasting. What great timing he displayed — a new century was on the horizon!

Auld Lang Syne

If he was retiring from broadcasting, John decided he’d better make it memorable. His last KISS-FM on-air shift was New Year’s Eve of the Millennium. Tongue in cheek, Kowsky declared that he chose that last day of 1999 for his retirement “so the occasion could be celebrated all over the world.”

Several prominent broadcasters participated in that on-air farewell. The aircheck below includes tributes from Steve “Chainsaw “Jackson (KREM-KOMO-TV); Steve Taylor-Citizen Bill (KREM-KING-KFRC-KGO); Ian Richards (BBC-KREM); Dave Hanson (KATZ-KPUG where he worked with John in the late ’60s); and lastly a short aircheck of a rockin’ John Christopher Kowsky on KING in 1975.

Retirement tributes for Kowsky on KISS 98-FM in Spokane. (Dec. 31, 1999) Length 2:14

Back Behind the Mic

Eighteen years after he had retired, Kowsky was back on the radio. He couldn’t resist the offer he got from KPND-FM, Spokane-Coeur d’Alene. It came from PD Marie McCalister, whom he had worked with in the late ’70s at KREM. The station played good music, and he liked both the format and the staff. John agreed to work weekend afternoons. And he is still at it.

Kowsky is dedicated to KPND-FM. In 2021, when KPUG alums held a zoom reunion, John dropped by to say “hi.” He couldn’t stay long because he was 0n-air at KPND. Out of dozens of us mostly retired radio guys attending the reunion, John was the only person who was live on the radio that Saturday afternoon.

Recording artist Shakey Graves, was live on KPND prior to his appearance at the “Festival at Sandpoint.” 2021 photo.

Gratitude

A youthful Paul Harvey, 1952 photo

John Christopher Kowsky admires many people who helped him along the way. He said that he owes a “thank you” to one person he met way back in the 1950s: “A very early-on influence or inspiration was someone my mother pushed me towards, when I was 4 years old. He was at a ski resort, while touring the country to promote his new, nationally syndicated news and commentary broadcasts. He was wearing a blue ski parka, and had just come out of the Lodge. He reached down, shook my hand and said ‘well hello, young man. I’m Paul Harvey.’ I still remember that day.

“I have worked with many radio personalities over the years. There was my friend George Ruggles at KPUG, Rob Harder and Andy Barber at KREM, and Gary Lockwood, Joe Cooper and Phil Harper at KING. But I never would have had a career in broadcasting without the PD’s who believed in me and gave me the opportunity to develop on-air (much to their later consternation, I’m sure) such as Bob (O’Neil) Tria (KPUG), Don Bernier (KMEL), Rob Glendenning (KREM), Chuck Heaton (KHQ), and let’s not forget the late Hollywood TV Producer Dick Clark. Sadly, many of these people are gone now. I am fortunate and pleased that KPND’s Marie McCalister is still a radio programmer and she saw the value in bringing back an experienced old-timer such as myself.”

Prologue

Radio has at times provided respite to Kowsky. When his wife and companion of 50 years became gravely ill, he was her caregiver for a decade. Upon her passing, he was left with a huge hole in his life. John credited his show at KPND as giving him something positive and productive to concentrate on. With time the hurt got somewhat better.

Lori O’Brien

Then, with the encouragement of good friends, he was able to move forward. Recently John married Lori O’ Brien, who among her other credentials and attributes, was the lovely former Miss USA-South Dakota. Lori and John enjoy one another’s company and they love attending social gatherings and getting together with friends.

The picture below is accompanied by an interesting story. The shot is from a Coeur d’Alene Halloween costume party. As you can see, John and Lori are dressed as Beth and Rip from the “Yellowstone” TV series. John revealed that the outfit made him such a chick magnet — all the ladies wanted their pictures taken with him — that Lori laid down the law. She said he’s “banned for life from ever again wearing that costume.”

Halloween never looked so good! Take a number ladies.

Along with his weekends at KPND-FM, Kowsky still does commercial voice-over work. He says he stands in front of a mic a lot with most of the recordings going to television stations. John Christopher Kowsky’s resiliency and success during his nearly 50 years in broadcasting are reminders of that old adage “things change, but life goes on.”

 

Photo credits: KHQ studio-Philcobill.com; KREM studio-JohninArizona.com

Click on the names below to read about these broadcasters who were popular in Bellingham and Whatcom County, including nearby Canadian legend Red Robinson:

Danny Holiday (KPUG)
Dick Stark (KENY & KPUG) 
Kirk Wilde (KPUG)
Gary Shannon (KPUG)
Mike Forney (KPUG)
Jay Hamilton (KPUG & KBFW)
Bob O’Neil & Marc Taylor (KPUG)
Haines Faye (KVOS & KGMI)
Tom Haveman (KENY & KVOS)
Red Robinson (Vancouver B.C.)

Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions. View other articles by Steven Smith

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