In Memory of
|Cowboy was also major media force
BROADCASTING: His empire once encompassed eight radio and two TV stations.
Gene Sings Rim of the Canyon
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Gene Autry is best remembered as the singing cowboy and owner of the Angels baseball team. But Autry also left a legacy in broadcasting as the savvy owner of a successful radio and TV empire.
Everyone who knew him agrees that Autry had a knack for being in the right place at the right time and for breathing new life into weak radio and TV properties. He started in 1952 with the purchase of KMPC/710 AM for $800,000, bought TV's KTLA/5 in 1964 for $12 million, and at one time had eight radio and two TV stations.
In addition to the L.A. holdings, Autry's Golden West Broadcasters also acquired radio stations in San Francisco, Seattle, Detroit and Portland, Ore., and TV station KOOL in Phoenix and a UHF in Oklahoma City. Autry wrote in 1985 why he bought KTLA from Paramount Pictures in 1964: "(It) is one of the very few local stations that can truly qualify as a genuine institution. Yet, over the years, like all institutions, KTLA has had its share of ups and downs. When I bought the station from Paramount Pictures in 1964, it was drifting and badly in need of a new direction.
"Under the guidance of John T. Reynolds and Anthony Cassara, emphasis was placed on creating innovative programming of special events and documentaries and on making astute off-network programming purchases which resulted in KTLA's dominance. As a result, KTLA came back stronger and more successful than ever. I'm very proud to have had a hand in shaping KTLA's eventual history and in perpetuating KTLA's great programming traditions."
"He allowed you plenty of freedom," recalled Bill Ward, who worked with Autry from 1982 to 1997 at Golden West Broadcasters and who is still a consultant to Autry's last remaining station, KSCA/101.9 FM.
"I grew up knowing this was someone you looked up to. I was raised in Texas, where the entertainment was seeing Gene Autry movies on Saturdays. So there was this reality that you weren't only dealing with an employer, but someone who was a legend in other fields.
"Gene was pretty much hands-off. Still, if Gene gave you a decision, you didn't act on it right away. You waited three days. Sometimes he would say yes to be nice, then he would think about it. So you'd go back to see if he had
|"The exception to that was (sportscaster) Jim Healy. Healy was at KLAC in 1984 and wanted to leave, and I wanted him over at our station, KMPC. At the time we were carrying the Angels, the Rams, and UCLA basketball. Gene and I were at the ballpark and I asked him in his suite. He said, 'Hire him' without hesitation."|
"He didn't have a temper. He wouldn't get all excited if a mistake was made. I never heard him curse once," recalled Loyd Sigmon, an engineer at KMPC in the 1950s who became a partner in Golden West Broadcasters and is best-known as the creator of the SigAlert traffic system. "We never had a piece of paper between us. Just a handshake."
|Autry was never a detail man, colleagues agree, but he had impeccable timing, and in the 1980s, he knew it was time to start reducing his holdings. The investment firm of Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. paid $245 million for KTLA (now Tribune Broadcasting) in 1982. KMPC was sold to Cap Cities (now Disney) for $17.5 million in 1994. KSCA/101.9 FM (then KUTE-FM and KLIT-FM) was bought by Autry for $15 million in 1984, but he leased it to Heftel (now Clear Channel) for a staggering $112.5 million in 1997.|
Richard Brown, president of the Angels for several years and Autry's attorney for most of his broadcasting interests since 1981, said: "He was the gentleman of all gentlemen. He had a terrific sense of humor. He was a very bright man.
When I took over the ballclub, he always kept this approach. He told me the same thing when I took over as his legal counsel. He said, 'We'll always get along as long as you don't do two things don't surprise me and don't embarrass me.'
"You know the saying 51 percent of being smart is knowing what you're dumb at. He gave his people as much freedom as they needed, but he held you accountable." Brown recalled one story from the days when Autry owned KTLA.
"He was watching the news, and they gave the Dodgers score before they gave the Angels score. Now, the Dodgers lost and the Angels won. So he picked up the phone and called the station to find out why they reported it that way.
"He got an operator and said, 'Hi, this is Gene Autry and I would like to talk to ... .' The operator responded, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, and how is your horse, Trigger?'
"The next day he called a get-together of all the employees at KTLA. He told them he had called the night before and he was not greeted very politely. He indicated they should respond in a more positive fashion.
"As he left the meeting, he turned around and said, 'Oh. And, by the way, the name of my horse is Champion.' "
For more Gene Autry stories in The Orange County Register, go to
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Last modified: October 12, 1998