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Obituaries

John Poole, 86; L.A. Radio and TV Pioneer

January 08, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

John H. Poole, who founded Santa Catalina Island-based radio station KBIG-AM and Los Angeles' first commercial UHF television station, Channel 22, in the 1950s, has died. He was 86.

Poole, a Corona del Mar resident who also founded the Mount Palomar Winery in Temecula, died Dec. 25 at a hospital in Santa Ana after a short illness.

During his more than two decades as a broadcasting company owner, Poole played a major role in founding nine radio stations and four television stations.

Known as a broadcasting innovator, the former merchant marine radio operator and engineer launched KBIG-AM on Catalina in 1952.

At the time, Los Angeles County had more than 20 radio stations and seven TV stations, and few believed the region needed yet another radio station.

But because radio waves travel best over salt water, Poole knew that a Catalina-based transmitter would broadcast a stronger signal throughout Southern California.

He was right, and his 10,000-watt station, with its signal directed at the mainland, reached remote areas never before serviced by Los Angeles County radio.

Reception reports poured in from San Diego, Santa Barbara and hundreds of other communities in Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. Based on an extensive survey of radio-listener preferences, KBIG went on the air with a program format known as "Music You Like and Just Enough News."

The station featured frequent time signals and avoided excessive talk by announcers. Perhaps most significant, Poole scheduled the station's music, news and commercials on a different time sequence than his competitors.

"We knew if you changed stations during a commercial, you would always find music on KBIG," he once said.

"KBIG, Avalon, the musical isle on your dial," went one of the station-break slogans.

But KBIG was not based in Avalon. Instead, the transmitter, towers and studios were located about five miles away, on one of the island's highest points.

According to a Los Angeles Times reporter who paid a visit in 1953, KBIG was "one of the few stations in the country that is situated 'where the buffalo roam.' "

Although Poole also maintained studios in Hollywood, KBIG programming time was equally divided between the mainland and the island.

He equipped his island staff with used military jeeps to reach the isolated KBIG transmitter, which was surrounded by a heavy wire fence to keep not only the island's buffalo, but also wild boar and goats from doing it damage.

Born in Detroit in 1917, Poole was the son of Army Col. John Hudson Poole and the former Caroline Boeing, sister of Boeing aircraft founder William Boeing.

Poole, who moved with his family to Los Angeles at a young age, developed an early interest in radio and as a 15-year-old ham operator, he built his own transmitting and receiving sets. At 16, according to his son, Poole was running a live radio broadcast for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

After receiving certification as a radio engineer at the RCA Institute in Chicago, Poole became a radio operator on tuna clippers out of San Pedro and San Diego harbors. He later was a merchant marine radio operator and navigator in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, he served as a ship's radio operator for three years and later was assigned to the Royal Air Force in England.

After the war, Poole bought radio stations in Santa Maria, Calif., and Pasadena, but sold them when he built KBIG.

Poole repeated his successful KBIG programming formula when he bought KBIF in Fresno, which covered Fresno County and the San Joaquin Valley.

With two successful radio stations in operation, he turned his attention to television. In 1954, his KBID-TV, Channel 53, in Fresno began operation, followed by Channel 22 in Los Angeles.

"To be honest about it, he got in too early on that," his son, Peter Poole, told The Times, recalling that his father had to do a tremendous amount of research and development to launch the early UHF channels and "the market wasn't there yet."

Channel 22, now KWHY-TV, is owned by Telemundo/NBC, he said. Around 1960, Poole started KBIQ-FM, which he later renamed KBIG-FM. It became the No. 1 FM station in the Los Angeles area.

John Poole sold his broadcast media interests in 1969, the same year he planted the first grapevines at his vineyard in Temecula. In 1975, he launched Mount Palomar Winery, the second in that area, which is now run by Peter Poole.

In addition to his son, Poole is survived by his wife of 60 years, Olivia; his other children: John, Mark and Caroline Poole, Claudia Futa and Angela Baldwin; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

He was preceded in death by sons Anthony and Michael.

The family requests that donations be sent to St. Luke's House Inc., 6040 Southport Drive, Bethesda, MD 20814. A memorial service is being planned for Jan. 23. Those interested may contact the winery for details.

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