The assistant to the CBS legend Frank Stanton and long-time Broadcasting magazine editor chronicled the state of the electronic media and vigorously championed First Amendment rights for more than 40 years. Then he oversaw the Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts as president of the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation, a post he left earlier this year. This profile is the sixth in a series featuring individuals who will be honored by the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation as Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts on Oct. 15 in New York. This year’s other honorees: Don Mischer, Gracia Martore, Bill Persky, Jarl Mohn, Gene Jankowski, Mel Karmazin, the Carter family and Herb Granath.
Born in Memphis, Texas, Don West began his distinguished career in the broadcasting business the way many young people did in the industry’s infancy. He played records at dances and parties when he was 13, and worked his way into a radio job from there.
After earning his third-class operator’s license as a teenager, he became a transmitter operator for KICA in Clovis, N.M., when World War II created a dearth of first class licensees and the FCC temporarily changed its rules. When he was 17 he landed his first newspaper job as a reporter at the Roswell [N.M.] Dispatch, and was named managing editor a year later. West likes to point out that his early journalism career was distinguished by completely missing the biggest story of the century when, in the summer of 1947, he was the first reporter at the site of the fabled Roswell alien spaceship crash and found absolutely nothing to report.
His career already in full swing, West seriously considered remaining at the Dispatch full time, but family and friends urged him to pursue his college education to hone his craft. He heeded their advice and returned to New Mexico A&M College (now New Mexico State University), where he earned a degree in journalism and English. During those years he served in various capacities as an announcer and news anchor for KSWS-AM Roswell, KAVE-AM Carlsbad and KOB-AM Albuquerque.
“Immediately after graduating I went to work at the El Paso Times, where I was an editor until I was drafted into the Korean War,” West recalls. “During that period I got married and had my first child, and after being discharged from the Army we packed up the family car and moved to Washington, D.C., rather than go back to El Paso.”
Upon arriving in the nation’s capital in 1953, West applied for several journalism jobs and soon joined the staff of Broadcasting magazine. “I had applied for a position at the Washington Post, which didn’t hire me, but I was a hit at Broadcasting because I’d had radio experience earlier in my career,” he says. The magazine, founded in 1931 under the corporate name Broadcasting Publications Inc. (BPI), already was considered “the bible of the industry” and West came on board just as television was assuming its position of prominence in the American living room. After eight years at the editorial desk in D.C., Editor Sol Taishoff asked him to manage the company’s New York news bureau; two years later he became managing editor of the company’s recently acquired Television magazine.
Six years later West made his first and only break from BPI when he was hired as assistant to the president of CBS Inc., the legendary Frank Stanton. “That was the most serious broadcasting job I ever had,” he says. “I went from low on the totem pole to high up; I never had that experience in the middle of being a station manager, news director or general manager.”
It was during those years at CBS that West grasped the real power of television and its potential to expand the horizons of its weekly captive audience. After the network summarily canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour because of affiliate opposition to the duo’s irreverent humor and their stance on the Vietnam War, West approached Stanton and other company executives with an idea for a new program. This revolutionary new show — ultimately titled Subject To Change — was designed as an open and frank chronicle of the emerging American counterculture, featuring a lineup of controversial individuals and topics.
West was given a modest budget and took a leave of absence to develop the program, and he poured all of his passion and enthusiasm into the effort. In the end, however, it was all for naught: “[CBS] network president Bob Wood delivered the coup de grace after a screening, in which he declared that Subject to Change would never be seen on his network—and never in his home if it were,” West said in an interview in 2013. “I had told Dr. Stanton that if the network turned it down I would fold my tent and silently steal away, which I did.”
Following this misadventure—which he now acknowledges was either the beginning or the end of avant garde television—West returned to Broadcasting as managing editor in 1971. He became a champion of the First Amendment and free speech, and everything he believed “the fifth estate” stood for. During his tenure West made a conscious effort to raise awareness, both within the industry and on Capitol Hill, of broadcasting’s immense power and potential to contribute to the American ethos. He also inadvertently helped many broadcasters grow their careers through the classified ads for job openings in the back of the magazine—ads many station managers would rip out before letting the rest of the staff read the publication.
West was named editor-in-chief of Broadcasting upon the death of co-founder Sol Taishoff in 1982, and subsequently became known throughout the industry as Mr. Broadcasting. “At the time, Broadcasting was the ‘party line’ of the industry,” West says. “Not in the political sense that we use that term today, but because it was like an old telephone party line. Everyone in the community was able to listen in to the same conversation. Everybody in the industry got the same story, and it built the industry. It tied everyone together in a common way. That was the greatness of Broadcasting magazine.” West founded and directed what today is known as the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame; he stepped away from the magazine, by then known as Broadcasting & Cable, in 2001, after 44 years with the publication.
In 2003 West joined the board of the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation. Under that umbrella the group created the Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts, an awards celebration that honors the contributions of legendary individuals in the television and radio business. West himself is one of the honorees this year, a recognition he says is a dubious distinction, at best. “I fought the board that wanted to make me a Giant because I felt it was truly inappropriate that the person who created these awards should get one,” he observes. “It looks like inside baseball, and I’m not sure I deserve it. These awards celebrate the giants of broadcasting, and I don’t think I’m a giant of broadcasting. I’m an ancillary figure; I was a journalist covering the industry. I think I was damned good at it, but I’m not a giant.”
In addition to being honored today as a Giant, West also has received The Media Institute’s Freedom of Speech Award, the Broadcasters Foundation of America’s American Broadcast Pioneer Award, the Association of Local TV’s Distinguished Service Award, C-SPAN’S Super Citizen Award, and the Hall of Fame Award of the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Never one to relax, West recently established an online publication titled 70+ Life At The Top. He says he designed the website to “identify, serve and capitalize on a new demographic that is rapidly transforming the last — and long thought to be best — years of our lives,” noting that people over 70 have acquired a wealth of knowledge and possess an unparalleled sense of wisdom.
Except for his brief foray into the aforementioned realm of television programming, being an entrepreneur is somewhat new to West. “All my life I’ve been a hired hand,” he recalls. “Now I’m anxious to see what I can start and do on my own. I left the Giants and the Library because I thought my window of mortality was getting more and more narrow and there were things I wanted to do on my own account — and that’s what I’m doing now.”
The Library of American Broadcasting will honor this year’s Giants of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts at a luncheon at New York’s Gotham Hall on Oct. 15. For tickets, congratulatory ads and other information, please contact Joyce Tudyrn at [email protected]. The luncheon is presented by the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. TVNewsCheck is publishing these profiles as an in-kind contribution to the library. You may read other profiles in the series by clicking here.