In Memoriam | King Harris: 1947-2022In Memoriam | Tue Mar 28, 2023 | 10:48am
In a blue blazer and faded jeans hidden below the anchor desk, King Harris crusaded for great reporting, sensitivity, and authenticity.
King ruled as news director at KEYT from 1984 to 1997 and delivered the reports through a slight center gap in his teeth. Often anchors in fancy big TV markets fixed those gaps with absurd veneers that looked white piano keys crowding their mouths. Not King. He barely combed his hair before going on TV, flipping it back and greeting the viewer seconds later with an earnest delivery.
King waged war with his loafers usually kicked off in the walk-in closet of a newsroom, often his golden retriever nearby. He fought for a legion of his employees to report in their voice, with compassion and limitless creativity. He fought against wafer-thin reporting and dangerous, formula-addled consultants invading broadcast journalism.
King also fought a daily urge to drain a bottle of liquor, and his bravery there deserves more attention: stay tuned, keep reading.
During his reign, King’s subterranean newsroom budget allowed him to hire youthful and cheap. But the maestro of scouting found raw talent at bargain prices and developed employees already in house.
“A real newsman who loved to mentor young journalists to cover the communities we served with care and commitment,” said Giselle Fernandez, former KEYT reporter and anchor at Spectrum News 1 in Los Angeles. “He loved The Beach Boys and everything Santa Barbara, and his casual cool leadership style was unifying and inspiring.”
Harris regaled us with stories about his drumming in Hollywood, and the history of rock ‘n’ roll. His musical insights explored the members of bands, the producers, and songwriters.
Among the journalists who served under King: Fernandez, Kim Insley, David Bolton, Daryn Kagan, Paula Lopez, “Phog Monster” Phil Mann, Dan Caston, Dan Elliot, C.J. Ward, Beth Farnsworth, John Palminteri, Edie Lambert, and Tracy Lehr, to name a few while risking infuriating the unnamed.
Kim Insley recalls Harris stressing a work-life balance before that ever became pounded into the modern lexicon.
“I remember we had a softball game and King looked at us all and said, ‘It doesn’t get better than this,’” said Insley, a longtime news anchor in Minneapolis and now CEO of her creative communications company. “King was smart, well-read, and funny,” said Insley. “He wanted to hire people in that mold.”
King hired Herb Tuyay, a masterstroke because the Filipino kid from San Diego became one the greatest teachers of news editing and videography in the nation.
Herb and King lured to KEYT budding photographer superstars for bargain rates: Travis Johnson, Sean Browning, David Cronshaw, Luis Mejia, Dennis Funes, Marvin Stone, and more.
“King allowed us to be creative, with no limits to what we could do,” said Tuyay. “We learned from each other, instilled his ideas to other employees.”
Many of those Tuyay/Harris era videographers became big city department heads and network photographers.
While King never received a degree in psychology, he taught his employees without yelling, to look into a mirror framed in his hippie spirit and idealism. He helped us understand when we were being uptight, sanctimonious, or silly.
I began at KEYT in 1985 at $13 an hour, jacked up on adrenalin and motivation. I got mad when Lance Orozco got hired shortly after me at $16 per hour. Not too many days later, I swore and threw a pencil at a newsroom television because my USC Trojans puked up a loss to Baylor.
King looked at me, eyebrows raised, and laughed.
I had an epiphany, giggled with King, and the pencil throwing stopped, the swearing waned.
King used some sort of “Summer of Love” mind tricks to channel my hyperactivity and to stop worrying about football losses and other people’s salary. He underscored that last point by relaying that despite being on TV, everyone at KEYT was getting paid excrement.
At times King got annoyed, turned flippant, frequently about consultants or when someone peppered him about where he attended college.
“Stanford,” he told some visiting suit.
“I thought you told me you graduated from Lewis and Clark in Oregon,” I later asked.
“Oh, I just tell them Stanford sometimes, you know; let’s move on,” he replied. “Anyway, what does it matter?”
If you’ve ever seen the situation comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” you know Colonel Hogan outwitted his Nazi captors at a prisoner-of-war camp. With charm and intellect, Hogan manipulated German officers into making life easier on the captives while spying for the allies.
King was our Colonel Hogan, often outfoxing a passel of outside consultants who swept in trying to lay down their corporate template on his unconventional newsroom in Santa Barbara. King listened and nodded along with suggestions from the hired guns, who were usually failed journalists turned advisers.
The consultants left, and the newscast continued Harris-style, with lots of densely layered pieces, original reporting, from hard-hitting to tender and even funny features.
This reporting focused on a cavalcade of non-stars, just regular folk.
He promoted journalism that uplifted the community and KEYT News felt very “Santa Barbara” before the pipeline of megabucks transplants flowed more freely. King showed us how to give back and give a hoot about others, leading the way on air during the Christmas Unity telethons.
We knew he taught English as a soldier during the Vietnam War. We learned in detail from King how a generation of Americans came back mentally and physically damaged.
Harris bonded with Walter Capps, the late acclaimed UCSB professor and eventually U.S. congressmember. The pair educated students by bringing in the Vietnam vets to tell unvarnished stories of war and rejection after their return home. But the therapeutic class also boosted the Vietnam veterans, eventually giving them a national stage that became a rare double segment report on “60 Minutes.”
Harris traveled to the then Soviet Union with Capps and American vets to meet with Afghanistan war soldiers. His documentary Brothers in Arms about the remarkable meeting, won countless major awards.
A few years ago, King and I agreed we should attend a USC football game together at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. My rival for 48 hours and longtime friend Lance Orozco might swing by.
The mentor who laughed with me for throwing a pencil at a newsroom monitor over football, made tentative plans to take the train, spend the night, enjoy the game. Then King vanished, and I worried about a medical issue perhaps.
I got in touch with his wife, Sarah, King’s dynamic lifelong supporter.
“He won’t be going to any football games right now,” she said and got us in touch.
“I’m just getting out of the jiggle room,” King laughed.
“Jiggle room, you know where you shake, detox,” King clarified.
King was an alcoholic and that treatment didn’t stick, but King stuck it out.
He later entered “The Rock” with its stony facade, the treatment facility on the Veterans Administration campus in West Los Angeles. King said he lived with other veterans, got counseled by hardcore veterans, and got sober.
A few times in the last 10 years, we sat at a coffee shop in Pismo Beach and talked about “The Rock” and marvelous times at KEYT and the irony of me serving as news director from 2003 to 2006.
I again witnessed King’s greatness during our last in-person visit, December 2021.
I thanked him for his mentorship, his friendship, and updated him on where many of his former employees now excelled.
I told him how Giselle Fernandez became the face of thriving Spectrum News 1 in Los Angeles, with its reputation for less car chases and more personal, impactful stories. King and I transitioned, discussing The Beach Boys rift and how Carole King wrote so many hits for others.
Then his phone rang.
King looked at the caller ID on the screen and knew one of the people he sponsored through Alcoholics Anonymous needed to talk at that moment.
Harris, who died sober, smiled.
“I have to take this.”
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