EVERETT — Born in a garage and raised in a brothel, this Everett fixture is about to celebrate a century on the air.
In 1920 or so, Otto Leese and his brother, Robert, were the owners of an auto repair shop at 2814 Rucker Ave. when they connected a vehicle battery, vacuum tubes, microphone and copper antenna together and called it a radio station.
At that moment, KRKO, as it’s known today — 1380 on your AM dial — hit the airwaves with 5 watts.
Those first listeners? A dozen? A hundred, maybe?
Hard to gauge.
But this much can be said: In the early 1920s, a radio receiver cost $150, roughly $1,000 in today’s dollars. And it’s probably safe to assume that Everett, a seaport and mill town, wasn’t awash in luxury goods.
On Aug. 25, 1922, KRKO went legit and received a broadcast license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. (The Federal Communications Commission wasn’t created until 1934.)
Within a few years, it was a 50-watt powerhouse with enough volts, or so the Leeses brothers claimed, to activate an electric chair.
It has been on the air ever since, making it among the oldest continuously operating radio stations in the United States, quite likely the oldest in Washington.
Not even a massive equipment theft from its studio in 1985, or the toppling of its AM tower north of Snohomish by radicals from the Earth Liberation Front in 2009, could knock it off the air.
Today, it is the only commercial radio station licensed to the city of Everett. It employs seven full-time people and seven part-time, said Chuck Maylin, the station’s general manager.
Since 1987, KRKO has been owned by the Skotdal family.
These days, it’s rare for a radio station to be locally owned and operated. Of the 56 radio stations in the Puget Sound market, only a handful can claim local owners, according to Keith Shipman, president and CEO of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters.
To mark the station’s centennial, Gov. Jay Inslee stopped by KRKO at 2707 Colby Ave. on Thursday with a state proclamation honoring 100 years of commercial broadcasting.
Inslee strolled into the 14th floor office with his smartphone blasting the No. 6 tune on the 1922 hit parade, “Second Hand Rose,” sung by Fanny Brice.
(He could have chosen Brice’s torchy rendition of “My Man” at No. 1, “Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye” at No. 3 or way down on the charts, “Chicago — That Toddlin’ Town.”)
It’s easy to imagine Inslee as a teenager at Seattle’s Ingraham High School in the 1960s swinging a transistor radio from a wrist strap.
Inslee joked that his 105-year-old mother-in-law has been “listening to KRKO since she was five years old.”
Tim Hunter, KRKO’s morning announcer, grilled the governor about his favorite bands and his first car. Inslee’s response: The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and a 1964 AMC Rambler: “I courted my wife, Trudi, in that,” Inslee volunteered.
“Keeping this station local like this is such a value,” Inslee told the KRKO crew.
In 2007, the Skotdals upped the station’s watts from 5,000 to 50,000, the maximum allowable for an AM station under FCC rules. The power boost meant that all of King County could now tune in, Maylin said.
Each month, an estimated 150,000 to 175,000 people tune into KRKO or its sister station — Classic Country KXA, at 1520 AM, 101.1 FM or streaming, Maylin said.
A typical KRKO set — “seven songs in a row!” — might pair the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Sheryl Crow and Aretha Franklin. The community news segments might include the dates for high school graduations around Snohomish County and a plug for the next AquaSox baseball game.
In 2018, KRKO dropped a full-time sports-talk format and its Fox Sports Radio Network affiliation and switched to classic rock. But it still airs live, play-by play broadcasts of the Silvertips, AquaSox and high school games.
Next up? The lowdown on the station’s early residence in a house of ill-repute.
Back when KRKO was garage radio on Rucker, it broadcast the local talent — radio being a live entertainment venue in its early days — maybe played the chart-busting.
But locals, from crooners to school choirs about to grace the airwaves, had to be forewarned. It was a sketchy part of town.
“Ukulele twangers and aspiring female vocalists” would approach the studio and find themselves in a “crowd of longshoreman aglow with moonshine and girls clad in gaudy kimonos being assembled for a ride to the hoosegow,” Peter Blecha reported for Historylink.org.
Worse, the studio was next to the Norway Hotel at 2814½ Rucker Avenue, a reputed house of ill repute — and, ladies and gentleman, the walls were thin.
Skotdal attributes his version to a narrative from a 1930s-era reporter with The Daily Herald.
KRKO’s first studio was located in the old Goldfinch building on Rucker. The building was owned by the Leeses and housed their auto repair shop, Skotdal said.
“There was a bar downstairs,” Skotdal said. “The studio was upstairs and there was a (brothel) upstairs, so they had to be careful when they opened the microphone because they never knew what noises were going to come from across the hallway.”
The studio was typical of early American radio stations, Skotdal said.
“They were more like a living room,” Skotdal said. Live performances were plentiful.
“Kids would come in and do recitals. It was probably pretty horrible from a production standpoint,” Skotdal said. “But radio was new and so anything coming over the airwaves was almost like magic.”
KRKO later moved its studio to the Clark Building, on the corner of Hewitt and Broadway, leaving the ambient revelers behind. By the late 1930s, the station had accumulated a library of 1,700 records, Blecha wrote.
Now, with the internet and streaming, listeners can call up KRKO from almost anywhere in the world.
But local radio still plays a big role in connecting the community, Skotdal said.
“When the Everett City Council was considering not accepting a community police grant from the Department of Justice, we engaged the radio station and the community to change their mind. The same thing with expanding Providence hospital and airline service at Paine Field,” Skotdal said.
Radio may have stumbled some with the advent of the Internet, but it’s still the big leagues, he said.
Radio is on the rise, he said.
“It’s gaining strength again,” Skotdal said. “Some people would argue, ‘Well, if I’ve got 1 million people on my podcast, why do I need radio?’ But the reality is Rush Limbaugh had 49 million people a week listening to him. Broadcast is still the 500-pound gorilla.”