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The Don Lee Network, sometimes called the Don Lee Broadcasting System[1] was an American regional network of radio stations in the old-time radio era. It lasted longer and had more influence than most other regional networks of its era and ventured into early television as well.[2]



Don Lee made a fortune as the exclusive West Coast distributor of Cadillac automobiles. He expanded into broadcasting by purchasing radio stations KFRC in San Francisco in 1926 and KHJ in Los Angeles in 1927. The stations were connected by telephone circuits and in December 1928 the Don Lee Broadcasting System was formed. Within a month, KMJ in Fresno, California; KWG in Stockton, California; and KFBK in Sacramento, California, had joined the network. By 1938, 28 stations were affiliated with the Don Lee network.[1]

Lee died in 1934, leaving his son, Thomas S. Lee, to oversee the network's operation.[2]

Relationships with other networksEdit

In 1929, Don Lee Network and CBS entered into an agreement that created the Don Lee-Columbia Network, making the Lee stations the West Coast affiliates for CBS. The joint operation was launched on January 1, 1930. A typical schedule had the network carrying CBS programs in the early evening. When those ended at 8 p.m. Pacific Time, either KFRC or KHJ provided network programs, with the two usually alternating evenings. Some of the programs originating at one of the Lee stations were also transmitted nationally by CBS.[3]

After initial success and expansion, disagreement over programming autonomy for stations led to the dissolution of the agreement. Any hopes for continuing the Don Lee-CBS partnership vanished when CBS bought radio station KNX in 1936, making CBS a competitor of KHJ in the Los Angeles market.[3] After the separation, some stations left to become West Coast affiliates of NBC. The stations remaining with Don Lee joined the Mutual Broadcasting System.[4]

Affiliating with Don Lee Network enabled Mutual to go coast to coast across the United States. The change, announced on June 27, 1936, added Lee's California affiliated stations to those already connected with Mutual.[5] The expanded Don Lee-Mutual network began operations on December 30, 1936.[4] After that affiliation, Lee continued independent operations, transmitting only certain Mutual programs to stations on the Lee network. Elizabeth McLeod wrote in her article, "Local Voices: The Don Lee and Yankee Networks", that the arrangement "was the best of both worlds — the freedom and local flavor of a regional chain, combined with the resources, when needed, of a national hookup. This was the philosophy of Mutual itself, and it tied in well with the way Don Lee had always tried to do business in the past ...".[6]

Original programmingEdit

Bill Oates, in his biography, Meredith Willson - America's Music Man: The Whole Broadway-Symphonic-Radio-Motion Picture Story, noted:

During the early 1930s, before regular broadcasting flowed endlessly from coast to coast from the network hubs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and because of the time differences, West coast stations presented a great deal of network quality original programming for the Western divisions of NBC and CBS.[7]

In 1929, Willson began working for Lee, taking on the responsibility of overseeing music "for a variety of network shows."[7] Others who worked for Lee and went on to achieve national popularity included Don Wilson, Ralph Edwards, Art Linkletter, Harold Peary, Morey Amsterdam, Merv Griffin, John Nesbitt, and Bea Benederet. Mark Goodson created game shows for the network before becoming better known for his work with Bill Todman in producing game shows for television.[3]

Programs that originated in the Don Lee studios included Blue Monday Jamboree,[3] Queen For A Day, The Bill Stulla Show, Heart’s Desire, Don Lee Music Hall, Peter Potter’s Party, and The Jack Kirkwood Show.[8] KHJ and KFRC each had its own organ, dance band, and symphony orchestra as well as artists, singers, and other entertainers, so that each station could provide "a variety with appeal to any audience".[3]


The network experimented with television in the early 1930s, launching experimental station W6XAO in Los Angeles, California, on December 31, 1931. It broadcast one hour per day throughout the 1930s. In 1937, the TV and radio operations teamed up to broadcast the opening of the 27th annual Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers' Automobile Show. Don Lee also annually televised the Tournament of Roses Parade.[2]

Harry R. Lubcke, an electrical engineer, was the director of the network's television branch. He helped to boost the audience for the new service by preparing and distributing plans that allowed industrious amateurs in the Los Angeles area to build their own television receivers.[9] In 1939, W6XAO's transmitter (along with the studios) were moved to the top of Mount Lee, greatly increasing the range of the station.

World War II brought a halt to further development of television, although W6XAO continued limited broadcasts throughout the war. W6XAO was commercially licensed in May 1948, when it became KTSL. [2]

New buildingEdit

In 1948, the Lee operations expanded into a radio and television complex valued at $2.5 million at Hollywood and Vine.[2] The 118,000-square-foot,[10] three-story facility included 14 broadcast studios, four of which were sound stages that could each accommodate more than 100 musicians, with seating for 350 people in the audience. Simultaneous television broadcasts could be made from the four studios. A plate glass wall in the lobby allowed visitors to watch the network controller as he worked.[8] The transmission site was moved a few years later from Mount Lee to Mount Wilson.

An undated article on the Hollywood Heritage Museum's website describes the building as "Hollywood’s oldest surviving studio building designed specifically for television broadcasting". It later served as the studio for Los Angeles' first education television station, KCET and, in the 1970s, as studios for The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game.[10] The structure was purchased in 2002 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a site for the academy's film archive and the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study.[8]

Owner declared incompetentEdit

In September 1948, Superior Judge Harold B. Jeffery declared Thomas S. Lee mentally incompetent, appointing network vice presidents Lewis Allen Weiss -- also the network's general manager -- and Willet H. Brown as guardians of the estate. Lee was already confined to a sanitarium and had been found mentally ill at a hearing a month earlier.[11]


Thomas Lee died on January 13, 1950, after jumping from a 12-story building. His will specified that the broadcasting operations be sold, a process that began in May 1950. The radio network and its shares of Mutual stock were sold in November 1950 to General Tire and Rubber Company for $12.3 million. The broadcast properties were then merged into the Mutual Broadcasting System.[2] The purchase helped to make General Tire the majority owner of Mutual. It also included Hollywood studios estimated to be worth $3 million.[1] KTSL was sold to CBS and is today's KCBS-TV.


  1. ^ a b c Cox, Jim (2009). American Radio Networks: A History. McFarland. pp. 104–106. ISBN 9780786454242. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Sterling, Christopher H.; O'Dell, Cary (2010). The Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio. Routledge. pp. 226–227. ISBN 9781135176846. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d e Schneider, John F. "The History of KFRC San Francisco And The Don Lee Network". Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  4. ^ a b Reinehr, Robert C.; Swartz, Jon D. (2010). The A to Z of Old Time Radio. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 82–83. ISBN 9780810876163.
  5. ^ "Men of Great Faith" (PDF). Radio Guide. September 17, 1938. p. 17. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  6. ^ McLeod, Elizabeth. "Local Voices: The Don Lee and Yankee Networks". Old Time Radio Researchers Group. Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  7. ^ a b Oates, Bill (2005). Meredith Willson - America's Music Man: The Whole Broadway-Symphonic-Radio-Motion Picture Story. AuthorHouse. pp. 45–46. ISBN 9781420835250. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Haberkamp, Randy. "Don Lee Mutual Broadcasting Building To Become Academy Film Archive". Hollywood Heritage. Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  9. ^ Pickering, Robert L. (June 1939). "Eight Years of Television in California". California — Magazine of the Pacific. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. Archived from the original on 24 December 2017. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
  10. ^ a b Masters, Nathan (October 15, 2014). "KCET's First Hollywood Home: The Historic Mutual-Don Lee Studios". KCET. Archived from the original on 25 December 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  11. ^ "Weiss & Brown Are Guardians Of Lee's Estate". Billboard. September 18, 1948. p. 5.