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May 25 marks 70 years since KSBY broadcast its first signal

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Posted at 6:43 PM, May 25, 2023

KSBY TV was the first local television station to hit the airwaves on the Central Coast. Over the past 70 years, much has changed at the station, but the basic mission has not – to inform and entertain local residents.

Russ James began working as a morning host on KVEC radio in 1952 and spent his afternoons working to start the area's first TV station. It was May 25, 1953, when KVEC TV broadcast a signal for the first time.

“So from our standpoint, they were pushing us pretty hard, and when we first turned it on and I saw that test pattern for the first time, for myself and for Charlie Mitchell, we saw that pattern and I said, 'Charlie what do you think?' And he said, 'I think we got it working,'” James recalled.

The new television signal was coming from atop Cuesta Peak, the only location high enough to reach residents around San Luis Obispo County.

“The test pattern was on and Les Acker was watching from way down where he lives, and we said, ‘Are you ready to see it?' 'I’ve been ready all day' he said, so we put on Hopalong Cassidy and he really liked that.”

And just like that, a new television station was born.

The KVEC call letters stood for Valley Electric Company, whose owners wanted to be able to sell television sets.

The first broadcasts consisted mostly of the Hopalong Cassidy movies but eventually, local shows made it to the airwaves.

“We started a morning program of just talking with people," James said. "We had a cooking show. We had a local western band. Just anything to fill up time.”

Those early shows were filmed and edited at the station’s original location on Hill Street. But to air them, someone had to make the treacherous drive up to the peak, oftentimes requiring a 4-wheel drive Jeep.

The station was sold four years later and became KSBY TV. That ended much of the local programming with the station instead re-broadcasting a signal from Salinas.

Dave Garth was hired as the news director and a reporter in 1969.

“Gradually, they decided they could do a local newscast, but the trick was there was no way to broadcast from downtown San Luis. So the only way to do the show was to actually drive up to the transmitter site on Cuesta Peak, and many people don’t know but it’s a pretty treacherous drive,” Garth recalled.

He says it’s the connection between the station and the community that makes local television so impactful.

“KSBY was part of the glue that held the community together, that common experience, and I think that’s still the case," Garth said. "Maybe less so with social media and all the various ways that people experience, but in terms of local news, it’s that local, it’s that joint local experience that helps make a community a community and I think that hasn’t changed.”

Over the past 70 years, the faces may have changed, but the goal has not. Local television and especially local news hold a community together and hold it accountable.

“Starting in 1985, we were in an expansion mode, both as a community here in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and also KSBY was in an expansion mode," said former anchor Lynn Diehl. "We had a great sales staff, we had great management, we had lots of really great reporters and producers. Everyone was here and they were not only expanding, but they were digging a little deeper.”

Diehl is a familiar face who kept the Central Coast informed during the 1980s and 90s.

“If you are of the people, if you live here and you made friends and you got to know everyone, then you were embraced by the community. That’s what’s so important about these anniversary stories," she said. "Even though KSBY thrived, it was because of its connection to the community.”

Over the past 70 years, the technology that allows you to keep up with the changes in your community may have changed, but what has not changed is the need to know about and connect with your community.

"Do you think local television is as important as it was back then?" we asked Russ James.

"I think it’s more important right now, especially local TV," he replied. "I think it just has to be.”