A biographical essay on Saul Haas.
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Learn about Saul, KIRO, and early TV broadcasting.
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"Chance favors the prepared mind." Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
Saul Haas was a testament to Pasteur’s insight on achievement, and he fashioned a rich, full life out of it — as a journalist, political confidante, broadcaster and humanitarian. It is no coincidence that the Saul and Dayee G. Haas Foundation is among his legacies, devoted to helping prepare other minds, to improving their chances.
'ONE OF BROADCASTING'S MOST COLORFUL CHARACTERS'
He was a man of many parts: complex, self-made and self-educated, described variously as brilliant, compulsively curious, irascible, compassionate, a benevolent despot—and sometimes not so benevolent. "He could be generous to a fault and devilish to a fault," one long-time critic-admirer said. In a column on Saul’s death, Seattle Times TV writer Chet Skreen remembered him as "one of broadcasting’s most colorful characters."
He was born in New York’s Lower East Side, June 12, 1896, to Albert and Lena Haas, Romanian-Jewish immigrants, in hard circumstances, the oldest of four children. The Haases arrived on that huge, turn-of-the-century tide from Europe, a particularly bad time for everyone, especially for immigrants. The Industrial Revolution fallout was wracking the country: financial panics; one of the worst depressions in the country’s history; endemic, often violent, labor strife.
Saul’s introduction to adulthood, from 18 to 22, was dominated by World War I and its carnage. After the armistice, the Red Scare of the time peaked with the notorious Palmer raids. Anti-immigrant fever ran high; even higher for Jews. But Albert Haas, an upholsterer, realized enough of the American dream to at least move his family out to the Bronx.
Out of this environment came Saul’s passions and compassions, his principles and his relentless drive. He also survived a bout with diphtheria, an often-fatal childhood disease of the time. Despite the handicaps, as frequently happened with the second generation in the United States, Saul would realize a far greater manifestation of the American dream. Memories of his early days never left him, however, and he would return to the tenement where it all started, for refreshers.
SAUL'S EARLY JOURNALISM CAREER
Adventure and opportunity on the western frontier tantalized, as it did for thousands like him. After graduating from high school in 1912, he and a buddy hoboed west and alighted briefly in the Lewiston, Idaho, area. He brushed past North Idaho College of Education and taught school at Harvard—an Idaho hamlet that no longer exists. With a proclivity for words, for communication, he found his way into journalism and worked for the Portland News in 1918. He had married a woman 10 years his senior, Jesse Nores, and they tried publishing a paper in Port Angeles. An old newsie friend, "Watts," who apparently knew the territory, warned him to "look out for the sheriff and prosecuting attorney. Both are crooks." They returned to New York, briefly, where Saul worked for Hearst’s old International News Service until 1921, when they headed for the Puget Sound area again.
He found work as a reporter for the struggling Seattle Union Record, owned by the Seattle Labor Council. In 1925 — at age 29 — he joined with Harry Ault and bought out the paper; Ault as publisher, Haas as managing editor and a minority stockholder. In an editorial bemoaning the demise of the daily labor press, the national trade publication Editor & Publisher called the Record "the last union daily to go."
Ault and Haas harbored idealistic dreams and made an impassioned plea within the farmer-labor movement to promote a nationwide People’s Press Bureau, serving a network of co-op labor dailies. They saw the mainstream press with the same skepticism some see it today. Their manifesto complained: "The news itself is often distorted and it is by no means unusual that important developments are entirely suppressed.…Misinformation has become a science on many of our metropolitan dailies."
The Pacific Northwest attracted a wide range of social idealists, reformers, populists, liberals, escapees and runaways of all sorts from elsewhere. Around the turn of the century, the radical Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies—rooted briefly among the Northwest’s lumber camps and docks. Reaction against the Tammany Hall-like corruption of the East and Midwest strongly influenced the area’s socio-political evolution. After the ghettoized, stratified, grim swarm of New York, the more egalitarian, relatively pristine Northwest held enormous attraction for the likes of Saul Haas.
He found many kindred souls on the Northwest frontier. He relished covering politics and one of the kindred souls he found was Homer T. Bone, a Farmer-Labor state senator from Tacoma. Bone was a self-described "constructive Socialist" and one of the most articulate advocates of public power, a radical concept at the time. Bone and Haas became close friends and the bond would last a lifetime. (In 1938, nationally syndicated pundit Drew Pearson, commenting on Bone’s re-election campaign, praised the "astute organization work of Saul Haas" and noted that Haas and Bone were inseparable.) Their friendship would be something of a mother thread in a network of Democratic politicians that would indelibly flavor the character of the state and the Pacific Northwest for decades to come.
Unfortunately, Ault and Haas failed to revive the fortunes of the Record and it folded after three years. Eight pages of news, sports, home tips and labor-oriented editorials—"A newspaper for thinking people," it billed itself—couldn’t make it, even in a liberal-leaning town. Saul also spent some time around the old Seattle Star, a Scripps paper like the Portland News, and the journalistic idealism he absorbed in those early years he would carry to his grave.
THE RISE OF RADIO
Saul had a lifelong, marrow-deep fascination with society’s systems and how they worked. Radio, then beginning to compete with newspapers as a mass medium, fascinated him. It already was beginning to revolutionize the culture and politics of the time, as television and the Internet would for the following generations. Saul would make the transition along with the country.
In 1931, as the country sank deeper into the Great Depression, Seattle radio station KJR went bankrupt and took the Washington Loan and Securities Company down with it. The savings and loan had illegally sunk $300,000 in the station and the scandal landed two successive station operators, otherwise upstanding businessmen, in jail. A Superior Court judge appointed Saul as receiver. The fledgling broadcast entrepreneur envisioned a regional radio network anchored by KJR, but neither he nor the market were ready and David Sarnoff’s National Broadcasting Company ultimately bought the station. He was involved long enough, however, to be hooked by radio’s power and potential.
Politics remained a passion and in 1932 — at age 36 — he managed Bone’s successful campaign for a US Senate seat, riding in on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s coattails. He spent a few months in Washington DC as Bone’s administrative assistant, immersed in the glow of the unfolding New Deal revolution. It was a long way from the streets of New York and it was an energizing, seminal period. He also was fascinated by the Federal Radio Commission and found time to investigate its bureaucracy, its politics, the dynamics of radio at ground zero. Chance would favor the prepared mind.
Patronage helps lubricate the political machinery, perhaps more blatantly then than now, and Saul was duly appointed Collector of Customs for the Seattle Port District, considered a plum job. He became a power in state Democratic Party politics, served as state director of the Democratic National Campaign Committee and became state manager for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second presidential campaign in 1936.
Another political cohort in the early 1930s was Warren G. Magnuson, a rapidly rising Democratic star. They shared not only a political philosophy, but had overcome tough origins—Magnuson’s in North Dakota—and both were into radio. Magnuson had used the new medium extensively in 1932 to win a state House of Representatives seat and slingshot his own spectacular political career. Journalist-historian Shelby Scates, in his book, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America, said the three dominant influences in Magnuson’s political life were Alexander Scott Bullitt, a Kentucky aristocrat; Homer Bone, a self-made western socialist; and Saul Haas, from New York’s Lower East Side.
Haas developed a lifelong friendship with Magnuson; he had a propensity for such associations. Former Justice William O. Douglas, a Pacific Northwest liberal icon, was another Haas confidante, hunting, fishing and drinking pal. In his autobiography, Douglas credited Haas with a major role in his appointment to the US Supreme Court in 1939. Loren Stone, a long-time Haas business associate, once mused: "He had an amazing capability of attracting famous people, people of great competence and ability, as friends. His wall was covered with signed photographs of everybody, mostly politicians, from FDR on down."
TAKING OVER AT KCPB
An opportunity to return to radio arose in 1934, now the bottom of the Depression. Unemployment averaged 25 percent nationally, much more in some corners of Washington state. Among the radio stations struggling to survive in Seattle was KPCB, a destitute, daytime-only, 100-watter. It was owned by Moritz Thomsen, who also owned the Centennial milling and baking companies. He was a major competitor of the Fisher flour family, who owned KOMO, the Seattle NBC affiliate at the time. (The "PCB" stood for Thomsen’s Pacific Coast Biscuit Company.) Chet Huntley, who would subsequently star as NBC News co-anchor with David Brinkley, recalled his jack-of-all-trades job at KPCB in 1934-35: "The personnel of the station managed to eke out an existence by virtue of trade deals"—bartering commercial time for meals, rent, cars, whatever. Huntley sought a raise from $15 to $25 a week and was told the station couldn’t really afford the $15.
Haas initially bought the shares of Moritz Thomsen’s son, Charles, for some $20,000. Another Haas friend, Louis K. Lear, president of Green Lake State Bank, helped bankroll the station and became its president, cementing another long friendship.
Controversy and rumor dogged the KPCB license transfer, but controversy and rumor fueled the whole industry in those early days. A gold-rush desperation often drove the new medium and those in it. Big egos worked on big dreams; opportunistic alliances and sometimes-bitter family feuds ebbed and flowed. Big-ticket lawsuits were common: over licenses, turf, the extremely valuable network affiliations, or just plain thievery. Alcohol was a ubiquitous, and sometimes tragic social lubricant, during Prohibition and after. It’s a rich history, much of it already well-chronicled, and it still resonates along Western Washington’s air waves.
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KPCB wasn’t Saul’s first or last brush with controversy. He not only didn’t duck it, but seemed to relish it, dancing around or plowing through whatever obstacles appeared. His style occasionally ruffled Seattle’s proper feathers and his Jewish heritage didn’t help. Disallowed membership in the clubs where the movers and shakers moved, his retreat of choice was the Harbor Club in the Norton Building, a more tolerant venue.
He also was one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, fair game at levels high and low for the same kind of vilification heaped on Roosevelt. An otherwise innocuous entertainment flier, for instance, "The Seattle Guide," carried a sketch of Haas on the cover of an October 1936 issue with the gibe: "For U.S. Customs $6,000,000/for FDR’s campaign $70,000."
KIRO RADIO IS BORN
He took over KPCB in 1935, operating as Queen City Broadcasting Company, first from the Rhodes department store and later from the basement of the Cobb Building in downtown Seattle. He started with a couple of ex-KOMO employees—Harold James ("Tubby") Quilliam and Loren Stone—and a recent Washington State College graduate as engineer, Jim Hatfield. He petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to change the call letters from KPCB to KIRO, switched the frequency from 650 on the AM dial to 710 and progressively stepped power up to 1,000 watts.
In 1937, CBS switched its Seattle network affiliation from KOL to Haas’ KIRO and, with the impetus of network programming and beefed-up local broadcasts, the station emerged into profitability. KIRO adopted a mildly revolutionary folksy sound and called itself "The Friendly Station." In June 1941, the FCC granted KIRO a power boost to 50,000 watts. With a new transmitter on Maury Island in Puget Sound, it became the most powerful station west of Salt Lake City and north of San Francisco. The new transmitter went on the air accompanied by the appropriate hoopla, with Gov. Arthur B. Langlie and several Western Washington mayors in attendance. Field engineer for the project was Frank McIntosh, a Western Electric wonder boy whose name later would grace a high-end line of high-fidelity sound equipment.
KIRO then further strengthened its position in the market by absorbing the CBS network affiliation for Tacoma, held by KVI, and created more controversy. A suburban Tacoma newspaper, the Lakewood Log, lambasted the KVI ownership in its June, 13, 1941, issue, but didn’t have much use for Haas either, scorning him as "the undisputed Master of Federal politics in the Northwest."
Six months later, with the US entry in World War II, technological progress froze for the duration and, most of the time, so did traffic in licenses and frequencies. The medium flourished, however—a cultural, political, informational phenomenon unifying and enthralling the country as nothing before.
WORLD WAR II
The war did little to alter Saul’s pace. In 1942, he married Dayee ("Dee") Grazia Jones, widow of a Spokane dentist and Air Force Reserve flight instructor. Jesse and Saul had divorced earlier, but they would maintain an amicable relationship for the rest of their lives. (She passed away in 1989 at 103, in Seattle.) Reserve officers did not have government life insurance at the time and Dee had sought Saul’s help. Special bills were passed by both House and Senate, but by the time the measure arrived on Roosevelt’s desk, he refused to sign it, because the pair were by now married and need for redress moot.
Saul also took up farming during the war. "Victory Gardens" were popular and patriotic, to help alleviate wartime food shortages and, as usual, he didn’t go half way, even joining the Vashon-Maury Island Grange No. 1105. On the island transmitter property was a large garden, chickens, a herd of cows, pigs and some sheep.
He was appointed Pacific Northwest war bond fund-raising chairman and exercised his old skills even here. In his column for May 12, 1943, pundit Pearson reported that Saul had his war bond eye on several uninvested millions sitting in Washington state coffers, but that some of the state’s bankers had their own ideas. Saul not only out-hustled the bankers, Pearson reported, but the cache totaled $33 million, rather than the expected $20 million.
There also was no hiatus for politics—or political mud-slinging. Ashley Holden, political editor of the conservative Spokane Spokesman-Review, in 1942 roasted Saul for appearing in Spokane to promote the candidacy of assistant district attorney R. Max Etter for a House seat. He dubbed Saul "the New Deal stooge in this state." (Holden’s journalistic fancy gained national notoriety in 1963, when he was named one of the defendants in the famous libel trial brought against a group of right-wing zealots by state Rep. John Goldmark in Okanogan County.)
Saul’s old journalistic proclivities floated back to the surface during the war and in 1944 he tried unsuccessfully to wangle a war correspondent’s ticket to the South Pacific. But he made it to Europe in 1945, at age 48, in time for V-Day, and reported on postwar Europe for KIRO and the Portland Oregonian. He visited London, Paris, Brussels, Bremen and Berlin. It was in Europe that he first met Edward R. Murrow, who had come to symbolize broadcast news. They shared the journalism connection, the CBS connection and would become lifelong friends. In 1946 Haas was accredited by the US Navy to Kwajelein, to cover the atom bomb test, Operation Crossroads.
Also in 1946, the Haas’ daughter, Deesa, was born. She remembers her father as "a strong, dominant person," who also was "very compassionate. Family was important to him."
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As the World War II cataclysm approached its end, Saul’s coterie also experienced some major reshaping. In 1944, President Roosevelt rewarded Sen. Bone with an appointment to the 9th District Court of Appeals, opening that Senate seat to an appointment by the Washington state governor. The state’s junior senator, Monrad ("Mon") Walgren, recently had been elected governor and he appointed the still-rising Magnuson to take Bone’s seat. Walgren also appointed his assistant, Hugh Mitchell, to fill his now-vacant seat. Magnuson had been honing his political skills at the feet of the legendary House Speaker from Texas, Sam Rayburn. Another Rayburn disciple, Lyndon B. Johnson, would become president and serve as best man at Magnuson’s wedding to Germaine Barry in 1964.
There were no rules limiting the private business of politicians at the time and Walgren and Mitchell, like Magnuson, held a few shares of KIRO stock. Walgren also was briefly on the board of directors, and at least one stockholders’ meeting was held in the governor’s mansion.
EXPANDING INTO TELEVISION
Having lost his customs job in the D.C. chair-switching, Saul now was able to focus his attention on broadcasting, which was going through a revolution of its own. When the wartime technological dam broke, AM radio’s brief domination of mass communications was nearing its end. After the war, higher-quality FM was touted as the radio wave of the future and, like many other station owners, Haas obtained an FM license, just in case. There was a brief experiment broadcasting on public buses, but KIRO finally settled for simply simulcasting its regular AM broadcasts on its FM station.
Haas hadn’t forgotten his earlier dream of a Northwest network, and always had his eye on an Idaho station, an attraction lingering from his earliest Northwest days. The network again didn’t materialize, but he was involved briefly with KXLY in Spokane and in 1945 acquired a station in Boise. It originally was called KDSH (Dee and Saul Haas), and later became KBOI.
He took a broadcast licensee’s public service obligations seriously and KIRO won a prestigious Peabody Award in 1956 for a community radio series, "Democracy Is You."
But it turned out to be television that was poised to revolutionize postwar broadcasting, and popular culture. The Puget Sound area’s first television broadcast, a high school football game, was aired November 25, 1948, by KRSC-TV. Neither the jury-rigged, rain-drenched production nor the game — West Seattle 6, Wenatchee 6 — were spectacular, but it was history. Then Dorothy Bullitt, widow of Scott Bullitt, purchased KRSC-TV, changed its call letters to KING-TV and built it into a premier Northwest broadcasting empire, also with a strong public service bent. The paths of Dorothy Bullitt and Haas had begun crossing way back in the early 1930s and they would continue crossing, mostly civilly, until Saul died. Chance also favored Ms. Bullitt, and when the FCC suddenly froze the issuance of additional licenses, for several years, it gave KING a big head start in the television market.
By 1957, when Haas’ Queen City Broadcasting Company finally was granted the television license for Channel 7, it was the last available VHF (very high frequency) channel in Western Washington. Six stations already were on the air: three in Seattle, two in Tacoma and one in Bellingham.
The contest for the Channel 7 license — between Haas, KXA, Inc., and Puget Sound Broadcasting (KVI)—dragged through years of contentious hearings, challenges and counter-challenges. The witch hunt of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy was in full swing at the time and Puget Sound Broadcasting tried to tar Haas with the Red brush, accusing him of communist sympathies, going back to his old Seattle Union Record days. However, old clips disproved the allegations and showed, in fact, that Haas had editorialized against "communist hostility to bona fide labor organizations."
KIRO, with its long and successful history with CBS, already had obtained the Seattle-area TV network affiliation from KTNT-TV, even before it went on the air. That was a disputatious exchange as well. Channel 7 began broadcasting February 8, 1958, with the big CBS lineup of the time — Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, "Gunsmoke," "Perry Mason," Ronald Reagan’s "GE Theatre," "Leave it to Beaver." Haas was president, Lincoln Miller vice-president, UW Regent and community activist John King was treasurer and Miller Robertson was station manager.
(Shortly before, in 1957, KIRO donated a huge collection of CBS World War II radio news transcriptions to the University of Washington, to help launch the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive. Ryan was a UW communications professor, first program manager of KCTS-TV and sometime partner in various Haas projects.)
'FRIEND, PHILOSOPHER, SAGE'
The long, bitter struggle for Channel 7 license took a heavy toll, and in 1964, at age 68, Haas sold the KIRO properties to the Bonneville Broadcasting Corporation, a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He remained as chairman of the board until his death. He had been looking for a buyer that would give some continuity to the institution he had created. Polly Freeman, Haas’ secretary for 15 years, recalled: "Bless his heart, he went there almost every day. He wanted to continue running the station, but they weren’t going to allow it." She remembers him fondly. "Yes, we called him Father Bear. Why I don’t know. He could be one, I guess. He could be a bear and a saint."
An occasional visitor was his old friend Edward R. Murrow. Murrow’s mother lived in Bellingham, and he would come West regularly to visit her and stop at KIRO-TV for a visit with Saul. One thank you note from Murrow to Saul said, "Seattle always feels like home to me."
A former employee once said that Saul was smarter drunk than most men were sober, and that he never left a meeting with Saul without learning something. Freeman said, "Indeed he was brilliant. He had an autographed picture of Lyndon Johnson. They were great friends. It said, ‘To Saul, friend, philosopher, sage’."
'GREAT ACTS OF GENEROSITY'
Relieved of day-to-day concerns at KIRO, he could concentrate his still-considerable energies on his lifelong devotion to communication in the broader sense. The Saul and Dayee G. Haas Foundation, created in December 1963, was one route. He believed strongly in the role of public education and daughter Deesa attended Garfield High, a school with a large minority population. He discovered that some critical needs of poorer students were not being met, which jeopardized their ability to remain in school and fully participate — like adequate clothing, eyeglasses, athletic shoes, gym uniforms, musical instruments, testing or tutoring fees, field trips.
Saul wrote out a check for $500 and gave it to Garfield High principal Frank Hanawalt, "to do that which otherwise would not be timely done." From that gesture evolved the Haas Foundation which, over its 36 years, has donated over $7 million to secondary schools in Washington state, so they have funds on hand and can respond swiftly to the manifest needs of poorer students. The foundation now serves more than 12,000 individual students annually.
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Saul also knew well television’s power to enlighten, saw the enormous potential of public television and became a vocal advocate. Public television didn’t become an institution of national consequence until the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — yet another Magnuson success. President Johnson appointed Haas to the CPB board of directors along with other luminaries like John D. Rockefeller III, Boston Symphony music director Erich Leisdorf, Houston Post editor Oveta Culp Hobby and Jack Valenti, former Johnson aide and president of the Motion Picture Association of America. President Nixon reappointed him to the CPB board in 1970.
"We’ve got to find a way to teach people the language of their time, and the rudiments of how things work," Haas said. "I’m terrified at the lack of ability of some to express themselves. It opens the way for demagogues." He wanted help for the country’s 70 million functional illiterates, "the people who can’t understand or use the language."
His dedication to public broadcasting also helped precipitate a reunion with Loren Stone, one of his earliest broadcast employees. Stone, who worked with Haas for 17 years, had become manager of KCTS-TV, Washington state’s first public television station, when it signed on in 1954. The two would share a new mutual interest, in a different atmosphere. "We became good friends," Stone said in an audio memoir. "I got a letter from him, most friendly, complimenting me on what I had done with Channel 9….He was capable of great acts of generosity."
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Saul Haas came into this world with considerable gifts, a challenging beginning and an immigrant son’s abiding respect, maybe even reverence, for the freedom, the hope and opportunity that America offered. As it did for many immigrant sons and daughters, that opportunity came with a responsibility, a duty to use his energies for the common good, for noble goals. He was a patriot in the truest sense of the word. Public television’s reliance on BBC reruns in the early 1970s bothered him, for example. "I’d rather see the Constitutional Convention reconstructed," he once said. "How about American history?" Sporadically, his vision came to pass.
He had the contradictory characteristics of a Gemini and knew it, acknowledged in private moments the frailties of humanness, and struggled with it most of his life. But the prepared mind, the ever-inquisitive mind, operating beyond dogma, cant and propaganda, his own and everyone else’s — that seemed to be Saul’s purpose.
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Saul Haas died in 1972; Dayee Haas died in 1983.