Television news lost another colorful pioneer last month when Art MacDonald died at the age of 82. He was part of a small staff that created the news operation for a start-up television station in Seattle.
It was the early 1950s when KOMO-TV went on the air. One of the first steps by its owners was to find a news director who would hire reporters and cameramen to staff the station’s first television newsroom.
They set a high standard. The man they wanted had to have impeccable credentials as a professional journalist. He had to be a person of high reputation who was familiar with the local scene. Of course, that meant they would be looking at the staffs of the two daily newspapers.
They had one important criterion if they were going to hire a newspaperman. If that were the case, then they wanted the “next Pulitzer Prize winner” as the first director of KOMO-TV News. They found him in Herb Robinson.
Robinson was a rising young star on the reporting staff of the Seattle Times. Indeed, he fit the managers’ criteria, except he had absolutely no on-air experience. And he was–despite his young age–becoming bald.
Even at that early stage of television news, personal “on-air” appearance was considered of vital importance. So Robinson was a reluctant recruit. He knew the drawbacks of entering a broadcasting field as a neophyte anchorman with a receding hairline.
But they talked him into it, and so Robinson set about establishing a newsroom operation from scratch. First, a staff. And that’s where Art MacDonald comes in.
Brash and engaging, MacDonald had his first on-air experience as a radio broadcasting student at Washington State University in Pullman. He may not have been the first staffer for the KOMO-TV newsroom, but he was undoubtedly the most productive.
MacDonald was what’s known as a self-starter. Needing little guidance and management, he and a cameraman would spend a day in the field and return with a half-dozen stories to be aired on Channel 4’s newscasts.
MacDonald became a pillar of Herb Robinson’s news operation. And as time went on, Robinson added other staffers whose productivity and on-air value created a news operation that prided itself on its professionalism and competitive spirit.
Others Robinson brought aboard included Howard Shuman whom he acquired from the brilliant KOMO radio news staff. Shuman proved to be equally adept in both radio and television newsrooms.
To cover sports events, Robinson brought in another former WSU student, Keith Jackson. He parlayed his experience on Channel 4 into a national reputation as an ABC-TV Sports broadcaster who launched Monday Night Football and became famous for anchoring college football telecasts.
Robinson found another scintillating on-air personality in Bruce Caldwell as the first Channel 4 weatherman. Caldwell won the audience with his friendly easy-going manner. His death in the crash of his private plane brought early sorrow to the fledging news operation.
Art MacDonald’s passing August 20 mean almost all are gone from those pioneering days when KOMO-TV news first went on the air.
Just three are left from the early Robinson years. Keith Jackson is still with us, retired and living in California. Howard Shuman retired to the shores of Lake Washington at Kirkland and is about to move to more comfortable quarters in Everett.
And yours truly, John Komen, is living the good life on Mason Lake, still conjuring up memories of that early TV newsroom in Seattle.
John Komen, a veteran of 40 years as a newsman, once served as news director and anchorman at Seattle’s KOMO-TV. He also is a former ABC-TV News correspondent based in New York. His career included 19 years at the News Tribune in Tacoma where he filled positions from editorial writer to editor. He now lives with Diane Sue Komen on Mason Lake.
(Mason County Journal)