70 Years of ABC7: Bay Area TV News gets its start in the 1950s and 1960s

ByJennifer Olney and Dan Ashley KGO logo
Friday, January 10, 2020
70 Years of ABC7: Bay Area TV News gets its start in the 1950s and 1960s
Channel 7 News found its roots in the 1950s but came of age in the 1960s, which was perfect timing to cover a decade of social change. From the free speech movement to topless joints on Broadway to civil rights and anti-war protests, here's a look at the Bay Area during this turbulent decade through the lens of local news.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It was a time of innovation, transition, protest and change. Here's a look at the Bay Area in the 1960s through the lens of local news in honor of ABC7's 70th anniversary.

Channel Seven (KGO-TV) went on the air in May 1949, broadcasting out of a historic mansion on San Francisco's Mt. Sutro.

"Nobody knew what television was. In the whole city of San Leandro that we lived in, there were only five television sets!" recalled Judith Patterson, who was a young girl at the time.

Patterson's father was a KGO-TV station executive. She later became an on-air personality and remembers the station "like a castle on a hill."

70 YEARS OF ABC7: Behind the Scenes of Channel 7 News in 1968

In 1968, gathering and broadcasting news was a very different experience than it is today. One notable difference is that all of our footage was all shot on film. It had to be processed before it could be broadcast over the air.

The early days of local television were a giant experiment, with a hodge podge of live shows as producers tried to figure out what people wanted to watch.

"The executives used to refer to what they were doing as like being in the Wild West," said Patterson. "I liken it to the tech industry today - no holds barred, anything you can think of, you can create."

Trying to imagine what television news would look like was especially challenging. The cameras were huge and expensive, and not suited for fast, on-the-spot news.

The first news formula that KGO managers came up with was a 15 minute newscast with some still photos, an occasional bit of film and an unseen announcer reading the details.

That minimal style of newscast lasted well into the 1950s, even as KGO-TV moved to a new state-of-the-art station on Golden Gate Avenue.

By 1958, with the television industry flourishing, station managers decided it was finally time for what they called the news commentator to be seen on camera.

William Winter was KGO-TV's first commentator. He appeared in front of a big map and read stories ripped off the wire service teletype.

Throughout the 1950s, local TV news was something most stations did just to satisfy government requirements. Winter later recalled, "The station management wondered whether television was really equipped to broadcast news because a person would just sit behind a desk and look into the camera and talk."

70 YEARS OF ABC7: From haunted house to top television station

At the bottom of San Francisco's iconic Sutro Tower, you can still find the remnants of early Bay Area television. A crumbling stone stairway is all that is left of the historic Sutro Mansion called "La Avansada" where KGO-TV, Channel 7, launched its first broadcast in 1949.

By the early 1960's things were beginning to change. Film equipment was getting smaller and audiences were larger, so the station could afford to send camera crews to news events.

In 1963, the assassination of President John Kennedy proved the ability of television news to reach millions of people fast.

Americans were glued to their TV sets as the whole country mourned together. The coverage established the power of national network news and local stations took notice, continuing to up their game.

In 1964, Channel 7 news broadcasts included devastating floods in Northern California, Native Americans' first attempt to take back Alcatraz and the start of the free speech movement at the University of California, Berkeley.

People sitting in their living rooms could see students, spurred by the civil rights movement, demanding their right to speak on campus. A massive sit-in forced classes to be canceled. More than 800 students were arrested. Viewers saw police drag some of them down stairs and heard the fiery rhetoric firsthand.

Paul Jeschke was a wire service reporter in the 1960s who left the newspaper world to work at Channel 7. According to Jeschke, "Back in the sixties, newspapers were most peoples' primary source of information, but television still had the pictures to go with it," and those pictures started turning the tide toward TV news, especially for big events.

"People really developed strong opinion and feelings about those events because of what they saw on television" Jeschke said.

The growing audience response in the mid 1960s led Channel 7 General Manager David Sacks to start broadcasting daily editorials, the first local TV station in the country to do it. Channel 7 tackled a lot of the issues still at the forefront today including gun control, abortion and the cost of state universities.

By 1965, Channel 7 became the first Bay Area station to shoot at least some news stories in color. But color film was expensive, so it was used sparingly. One of the first color stories was about soldiers at the Oakland Army Base shipping out for the Vietnam War.

At the same time, crews were covering the start of the drug-fueled era of Flower Children in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury and go-go dancers on Broadway who were pushing the boundaries of what society considered acceptable entertainment.

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Carol Doda and other topless performers were hustled off to jail and blamed by some for San Francisco's growing image as a city of sin. A jury found the dancers not guilty of indecent behavior and a few months later Hugh Hefner opened a new Playboy Club in San Francisco.

In 1966, as social change accelerated, Channel 7 viewers watched a relic of the past disappear. Dramatic film showed the demolition of the Sutro Bath swimming pools near San Francisco's Cliff House, followed by a fire that finished the job.

A different kind of inferno broke out in the city's Hunter's Point neighborhood that year. Channel 7 cameras were there as riots broke out after the controversial police shooting of a black teenager.

Other big stories the station covered in 1966 included: protests in Daly City when the builder of the new Serramonte housing development tried to sell the homes to white people only, movie star Ronald Reagan elected governor of California, the opening of the Oakland Coliseum and the massive BART construction project was finally in full swing.

The relentless pace of news helped fuel audience interest in the newscasters themselves. Roger Grimsby anchored Channel 7 news from 1961 to 1968, and emerged as one of the Bay Area's first celebrity news anchors.

"Roger was so popular that he occasionally appeared on 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' as a guest," according to Jeschke. "He eventually ended up in New York where he was the most successful anchor that New York has ever seen."

Throughout the 1960s, television newscasters were still almost all men, but a few women did manage to break into the boys club including Wanda Ramey, Karna Small and Pia Lindstrom.

By the late sixties, the single anchor at the desk became a team and news was turning into one of the station's major profit centers. With so much money at stake, promotion went into overdrive with a huge arsenal of commercials including one with a speeding news car that required the city to clear the streets for filming.

70 YEARS OF ABC7: There goes that news van and other cool ABC7 vehicles!

In 1968, when ABC7 News was called "Newsbeat 7," San Francisco cleared the streets to shoot a promotion campaign with this news wagon speeding around town.

Channel 7 promoted itself as the first with a nighttime crew. But it took so long to get film developed in those days that most of the night crew's stories would not appear on television until the next day.

A big part of Channel 7's identity launched in the 1960s was the Circle 7, created by a San Francisco graphic designer named Dean Smith.

"Dean came up with this brilliant design of the Circle 7, the infinity circle of the station's going to go on forever," according to Patterson.

The logo first appeared on the news set and microphones, then was added to the vehicles and eventually the news team's blazers.

Patterson remembers there was even a special Circle Seven item for station executives. It was a cuff link and according to Patterson, the KGO-TV managers wore theirs to a national ABC network meeting. They were such a hit, the Circle 7 logo was adopted for other ABC owned stations.

But the real key to KGO-TV's image, that has stood the test of time, is great news coverage viewers can trust. That reporting was on full view in the last tumultuous years of the 1960s, as protests against the Vietnam War escalated along with the growing demand for civil rights.

At San Francisco State in 1968 and 1969, a massive student boycott shutdown the campus, with protesters demanding the university hire more teachers of color. There were violent clashes with law enforcement as the strike dragged on for five months.

Across the bay, the Black Panthers' fight for racial justice was leading to deadly confrontations with Oakland police. In an interview from jail, Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton, told a Channel 7 crew, "Either the attitude of racist America will change or else we will have revolution."

A shootout with police ended with the death of Black Panther Bobby Hutton. Actor Marlon Brando attended the funeral, adding his Hollywood status to the civil rights cause.

Late in 1969, Native Americans staged a second takeover of Alcatraz that would last for 14 months.

A newly emerging anchor named Van Amburg was sent to Alcatraz to cover the story. Amburg would eventually lead ABC7 into the 1970s and a new decade of massive change for both the bay area and the television news teams that covered it.

Look back with us through the ABC7 archives to witness our unique communities through the eyes of some of the first people to broadcast their stories, as ABC7 celebrates 70 years in the Bay Area.