Don West, Broadcasting Chronicler, Advocate And ‘Giant,’ Dies

His journalism career began at a New Mexico newspaper in 1947. In 1953 he joined Broadcasting magazine in Washington and began covering television and radio with a passion that, except for a detour to CBS, continued for the next 50-plus years in positions of increasing influence, culminating in the trade magazine’s editorship. After that, he led the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation, never losing sight of his goal of full First Amendment rights for the electronic media. He was 94.

Don West, who as a reporter and editor at Broadcasting magazine over the second half of the last century chronicled the heyday of broadcasting and the rise of cable and advocated relentlessly for full First Amendment rights for broadcasters, died Sunday, Feb. 4, at an Arlington, Va., nursing home with his family at his side. He was 94.

West also worked at CBS for three years in the late 1960s for then President Frank Stanton where he tried to develop a new form of reality journalism. After retiring from journalism in 2003, he served as president of the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation for 12 years.

Don West, the early years.

But it was as the top editor at what is now Broadcasting + Cable that West made his mark. Continuing a long tradition, he used its influential editorial page to demand for broadcasters the same freedoms that newspapers traditionally enjoy — freedom from censorship and freedom from compelled speech such as programming quotas and the so-called fairness doctrine.

West rallied industry support for the cause and made sure his reporters covered every twist and turn in the fight for equal rights at the FCC, in Congress and in the courts.

When the FCC finally did away with the doctrine in 1987, West devoted more than 20 pages of the magazine to the vote. The coverage included celebratory comments from broadcasters in all 50 states, but also the powerful backlash from pro-doctrine activists and lawmakers who swore to bring the doctrine back in law.


“The reaction of the fairness doctrinaires on Capitol Hill to the FCC’s carefully reasoned and masterfully argued order … was pure bile,” West editorialized that week. “If no vow were made to burn [FCC Chairman Dennis] Patrick at the stake, it was through oversight.”

West never regretted his support for eliminating the doctrine, although he came to believe that radio demagogues like Rush Limbaugh badly abused the freedom they had been granted and contributed greatly to the polarization of the American public.

West also staunchly defended Howard Stern and other so-called shock jocks as the owners of their stations began piling up large FCC fines for indecency.

West was not unbending. During the Clinton administration, he advised the industry to accept modest FCC children’s television programming quotas despite his First Amendment misgivings. He felt their value far outweighed the minimal impact on broadcasting freedoms. For him, not all slopes were slippery.

While many of Broadcasting long-time readers feared cable competition and worked to stymie its growth in the 1970s and 1980s, West saw it as innovative and important new force in electronic media and embraced it within the pages of the magazine.

He applauded the arrival of C-SPAN and appeared on its first talk show. He cheered on Brian Lamb, Bob Johnson, Ted Turner and the other pioneering cable programmers. And he eventually persuaded the owners and publisher to change the name of the magazine to Broadcasting & Cable.

West was also an early and strong advocate for the development of HDTV and for the FCC’s giving broadcasters the ability to air the greatly improved pictures and sound by facilitating their migration from analog to digital transmission.

West’s half century at the magazine was interrupted only once. In 1966, legendary CBS President Frank Stanton took to the young reporter and hired him as his assistant. “That was the most serious broadcasting job I ever had,” he told a writer for a profile. “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.”

From inside CBS, West came to fully grasp the power of television and its untapped potential. After the network summarily canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969 because of affiliate opposition to the duo’s irreverent humor and their stance on the Vietnam War that caused the network trouble in Washington, West approached Stanton and other company executives with an idea for a new program.

This show, ultimately titled Subject to Change, was designed as an open and frank look of the emerging American counterculture, featuring stories on controversial topics and individuals, including Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton not long before he was killed by police in Chicago.

West was given a modest budget to develop the program, and he poured all of his passion and enthusiasm into the effort. He partnered with a band of free-wheeling documentarians who called themselves the Videofreex. West felt they would give him access to the revolutionary counterculture. He also wanted to shoot segments using their makeshift portable video gear at a time when TV news was still shot on 16mm film.

But the grainy, black-and-white final product was way out of line for staid CBS. “[CBS] network president Bob Wood delivered the coup de grace after a screening. He declared that Subject to Change would never be seen on his network — and never in his home if it were,” West once wrote. “I had told Dr. Stanton that, if the network turned it down, I would fold my tent and silently steal away, which I did.”

In 2013, the School of Video Arts in New York hosted a symposium about the Videofreex, West and their ill-fated attempt to reinvent network news.

Born in out-of-the way Memphis, Texas, on Jan. 5, 1930, Donald Valentine West got into broadcasting through the side door. 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-AM in Clovis, N.M., when World War II created a dearth of first-class licensees, and the FCC temporarily eased 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.

He liked to joke that his early journalism career was distinguished by being the first reporter at the site of the fabled Roswell alien spaceship crash. He said he found absolutely nothing to report there. Yet, he might have done a better job than the rival paper, which splashed this headline on its front page: “RAAF Captures Flying Saucer…”

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.

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.

Upon graduation, he landed a job with the El Paso Times, but the government had other plans for him. With the Korean War raging, he was drafted into the Army. During this period, he also married, and he and Carol had their first child.

In the Army, he discovered that his ambition couldn’t be contained by New Mexico. In 1953, he headed for Washington and began looking for a job in journalism. “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 said.

Founded in 1931 by Sol Taishoff, the magazine did more than just track the TV ratings and the health of the ad markets. By the 1950s, it was a powerful voice for radio and TV broadcasting in Washington. The FCC regulated what broadcasters could say on the air and how many stations they could own. And it had a big club to enforce its rules: the ability to grant and revoke licenses to operate stations.

Taishoff himself was a prominent player. His influence reached into the offices of the networks in New York as well as the White House. Those interested in a seat on the FCC were wise to check in with Taishoff and win his favor.

“At the time, Broadcasting was the ‘party line’ of the industry,” West said for a profile interview. “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.”

After eight years at the editorial desk in D.C., 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. It was from there that he jumped to the side of Stanton at Black Rock.

Following the CBS misadventure, West returned to Broadcasting in 1971 and led the magazine for the next 27 years in covering the rise of cable and its proliferation of TV networks, the advent of satellite TV and radio and the unexpected emergence of the World Wide Web as a news medium.

West (standing), along with Broadcasting magazine Chief Correspondent Len Zeidenberg (l) and Publisher Larry Taishoff, visited President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office in June 1987 after Reagan vetoed legislation codifying the fairness doctrine into law. Later that summer, the FCC deleted the doctrine from its regulations.

If nothing else, the CBS experience may have given him an in for an exclusive interview with CBS’s legendary founder and CEO Bill Paley, which he used for a lengthy business profile of the company that appeared in the New York Times of Oct. 24, 1976. (It was one of the rare instances where his work appeared outside of Broadcasting.)

In 1991, he helped established the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, which, in addition to the stars of TV and radio, recognizes the contributions of media entrepreneurs, business executives, producers and technical innovators. It’s now an industry institution. The awards gala in New York brings together the entire TV industry every year in New York.

West stepped down from the editorship in 1997 as new owners decided they wanted to relocate the magazine to New York. He remained in Washington editing another magazine, Digital TV, for a few years for those same owners until his retirement from journalism.

But he wasn’t done. In 2003, he joined the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation as a board member and its president. The group supports the activities and media collections of the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland. Among his duties was overseeing its annual fundraising luncheon in New York at which it presents its Giants of Broadcasting and the Electronic Media Arts awards.

At his Giants of Broadcasting and the Electronic Media Arts induction in 2015.

After he resigned from that post, the LABF honored West as one of its Giants in 2015. Over the course of his career, West also 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.

Next, West poured himself into 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. Despite his zeal, the project never found a market.

West had a reporter’s ear for a good quote as well as an eye for smart aphorisms and other thoughtful observations about the human condition. Whenever he heard or read one, he would jot it down and place is in an alabaster cigarette box on his desk.

In 1995, he self-published the best of his collection in the book he called The Alabaster Box. Next to each saying, he would talk about the source and reflect on its meaning to him in his unique and graceful writing style. He expanded the concept in two later books.

Just last year, he produced his final work, half memoir of his CBS days and half biography and reflection on his one-time boss and mentor at the network, The Stanton Years: And His “Golden Mean” Approach to Policy.

“Since I was 15 riding my bicycle to turn on the transmitter at KICA Clovis, N.M., I have always been caught up in the wonder and the majesty of broadcasting and the electronic arts,” he said upon being recognized as a Giant of Broadcasting by the LABF. “And while I have always thought of myself as a journalist, you have made me a broadcaster — and a giant one at that.”

He was preceded in death by his wife Carroll Warren, son Thomas, parents Raynes and Kathleen and brother Raynes (Blanche).

He is survived by his children Kathleen, Susan, James, Teresa, Michael and Mark (Carolyn); six grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

His family plans a celebration of his life, with details to be released shortly.

Comments (4)

Leave a Reply

Dennis Wharton says:

February 4, 2024 at 9:52 pm

A Giant of Broadcasting and a First Amendment warrior, if there ever was one.
RIP, Don. You made a difference in the lives of so many.

tvn-member-2352786 says:

February 5, 2024 at 7:01 am

So sorry to hear this news. I had the honor
of working with Don on Broadcasting
magazine and learned a lot
about the TV business from him. He was always pleased to hear about anything new we were
trying to sell on the sales side and was very
supportive of our efforts. I am so pleased to
have had the opportunity to work with such
a first class professional like Don.

tvn-member-4779095 says:

February 5, 2024 at 9:12 am

Don was a Gentleman in the truest sense of the word, a visionary, a thought leader, a classic documentarian of the industry. The broadcast industry is better for his gifts. Profound sympathy for his family’s loss. And OUR loss to the industry.

Hank Price says:

February 5, 2024 at 1:04 pm

A legend in our time and a terrific guy. The business will miss him.