February 15, 1987 – VICTOR STREDICKE
Getting back your own good name is a pretty personal matter, but an Everett radio station, KRKO, is making it a public event.
The station this month recovered the call letters it had held since 1941.
Norman “Sparky” Taft, president and general manager of the new KRKO, is celebrating the return of the call letters with an aggressive sales and programming push. The station, at 1380 kHz, previously was known as KBAE and KFRE.
As Taft points out, almost everyone still called the station KRKO despite its other call letters. The station traces back to the 1920s, when radio was a toy instead of an industry. Taft calls the station “the oldest radio station in the state,” although there may be other claimants for that distinction.
William R. Taft and his brother, Archie Taft Jr., purchased the station in 1941. Over the years, various members of the Taft family have owned stations in Seattle, Spokane, Olympia and Aberdeen. History has obscured the details of what “KRKO” signifies, although at the time there was a vaudeville circuit called Radio-Keith-Orpheum that staged events in Seattle and Everett.
(That legacy survives as RKO-General, the tire-manufacturing and movie company, now divesting itself of radio stations but at one point an active suitor for the call letters held by the Tafts.)
Initially the station identified itself with a Disneylike critter, a “KRKOdial.”
The name change covers a fierce and bitter battle over the destiny of the station the past few years.
Sparky grew up amid the rectifiers and tubes of the family station, but the station was sold in 1976. It wallowed through two owners before Taft and Niles Fowler formed a partnership and repurchased the station. But in 1984, conflicts with Fowler found Taft on the outside looking in.
“Fowler fired me,” Taft says.
Just a year ago, Taft and Fowler settled out of court, in Taft’s favor. Taft regained control of the station, by then known as KBAE, a name selected by Fowler to match his other business interest, Bay Distributing Co.
“Obviously, I wanted to change the call letters,” Taft says.
“But by then, KRKO had been granted to a Fairbanks station and I had to come up with a new name.”
He selected KRFE, which he nicknamed “Radio Free Everett.”
The Fairbanks station eventually contemplated a change in format _ from country to news/talk _ and wanted to avoid some listener confusion over KRKO-AM-FM. Taft says he got the owner to relinquish the call letters for $20,000. A phone call to Charlie Murphy, general manager of Fairbanks’ new KBCN (the Beacon of the North), and KINQ, confirms the Fairbanks stations’ new names.
“I don’t know about the cost,” Murphy says, “but I’m just so glad that the call letters went back to Everett where they belong.”
Taft says he will have spent $200,000 in acquiring the old, familiar call letters by the time he pays off bills from old signs, installs new signs and pays for legal fees, transfers and printing costs.
In the studios on the second floor of a new building in downtown Everett, Taft has framed a variety of mementos, including the original contract his uncle signed to purchase the station, a sample sales contract of the day involving sponsorship of “The Lone Ranger” and posters of some of the auto-race ventures that young Sparky promoted on his own.
Under his control, KRKO has an adult-contemporary and personality format, with a significant commitment to reporting local news.
“We compete for listeners with 40 Seattle stations, and we compete for advertising with The Herald,” Taft says.
“There are 20 cities in Snohomish County. More than 50 percent of the population, however, lives in unincorporated areas.”
Taft continued with a barrage of statistics that confirm his knowledge of his marketplace.
The KRKO staff includes Moose Moran mornings; J.J. Casey middays; Robert O’Brien afternoons; and Janice Kayne after 6 p.m.