Monday, October 04, 2010

The First Black Radio Announcer (Part 3)

Bass Harris was the first black radio host on the west coast. Each book, and article states that he first was on air at KING-AM in Seattle. Every source I can find repeats that claim. the problem is that either the year of the call letters are wrong.  The biographical information is so spare that it's no help.  He was the son of a local minister, and his program was at least initially brokered time. Hard data is so elusive that I sometimes doubt he existed.  The book Entrepreneurs of Profit and Pride put him on air in the Seattle market for 15 years. Despite the absence of Terra-firma, Radio Ink listed him as one of the 16 African American DJs who were on air in the 1940s. 
In that era many of the few programs hosted by African Americans were on brokered time. That's how Harris broke into the radio biz. He paid his way, then sold enough spots to make it profitable by running a show that attracted those dollars. All sources claim that his program debuted in 1933 on KING-AM in Seattle. But there was no KING-AM in Seattle in 1933, or even 1943. KING-AM didn't sign on until 1949, which did sign on at 1090. White's Radio log lists the station at 10,00 watts actually in the Spring of that year. In the Broadcasting yearbook for 1949, KING is listed as having been started inexplicably in 1927.  But it fills in some small details. They were clearly a share-time broadcasting only 6:00 AM to noon.

Interestingly KRSC-AM and KIRO-AM were founded in 1927. KOMO-AM launched in 1926. KFOA-AM was on as early as 1923. Another source puts him on 1300 KOL-AM in the 1940s. But KOL-AM wasn't on 1300, it was on 1270. On the upside, at least KOL existed in 1933 all 1000 watts of it. KOL-AM is presently on 1300 so I am assuming that's a failure of memory and not of math. regardless the KOL reference cites the program as called Bass Harris's  House of Joy. He mixed pop sides with swing and played both black and white artists in 15-minute blocks.

Some of the confusion may come from a rather unpleasant set of frequency and call changes in the Seattle market painfully shuffling heritage calls around the metro. For several decades the 1090 kHz frequency in Seattle was home to KING-AM, founded in the late 1940s by broadcasting pioneer Dorothy Stimson Bullitt. KING-AM was known as the "Mighty 10-90," featuring great radio personalities such as Frosty Fowler, Ray Court, Mark Wayne and late night talk with Irving Clark.  It became a talk station in 198s.  As of 2004, 1090 became KPTK-AM still airing news/talk.

After all the conjecture I find Bass Harris in a radio schedule in the Long Beach Press-Telegram Newspaper.  He's listed on 710 KMPC-AM October 11th 1952 at 8:00 PM between the St. Francis Hour and a program called "Dance Time." The Book Swingin' on the Ether Waves identifies his KMPC program as "Bass Harris At Home." An article in the Los Angeles Sentinel called him a "longtime star of stage and radio."  If true, he would have already been on air for about 20 years. His program was described as follows:
"Harris will intersperse his own humorous and philosophical poems and monologues with the latest recordings and guest stars."
He appears on 1330 KFAC-AM .according to the August 22nd 1953 issue of Radio Today he had a program at 9:00 AM that Saturday following Unity View and preceding the Federation of Churches program. KFAC was largely classical during the week. In 1955 in another issue of Radio Today I find him on air at 640 KFI-AM at 8:00 AM on a Saturday after the news and before a program called "Jump Jump."  There the trail ends after two long and mysterious decades.