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John Fetzer


John Fetzer may be more widely known as the owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1961 through 1983. But his best story is his work as a Michigan radio and television executive who pioneered in the two mediums. Along the way, his contributions to Nebraska television left major and lasting changes for the state.

Trained as an electrical engineer, Fetzer got into the radio business in 1931 by purchasing a non-commercial college station in Berrien Springs, Michigan, moving it to Kalamazoo, and changing its calls to WKZO. His one-man station (he was the engineer, technician, announcer, and sales staff) went on to become a successful CBS outlet. By the way, Fetzer himself designed and built that station under the calls KFGZ while at the college in 1923.

In 1938, Fetzer’s WKZO won the landmark 590 kHz case with the FCC, which granted nighttime broadcasts with a directional antenna. This ruling changed AM radio allowing spectrum space for thousands of additional radio stations to go on the air.

That same year, Fetzer was elected to the National Association of Broadcasters Board of Directors where he remained through 1946. Fetzer received the NAB Distinguished Service Award, the highest award in the Broadcasting industry, in 1960.

Fetzer Broadcasting entered into television with WKZO-TV in 1950. Soon he expanded into other markets. That’s when he came to Nebraska, buying Lincoln’s KOLN-TV channel 12 in 1953. Just weeks later he bought KFOR-TV channel 10 in Lincoln with plans to build a 1000-foot tower nearly 40 miles west of town to better serve the rural Central Nebraska population.

Fetzer’s vision and courage advanced Nebraska television on three major fronts. Moving Lincoln’s coverage westward allowed Lincoln to gain a designated Area of Dominant Influence of its own rather than being part of the Omaha market.  He later established KGIN channel 11 in Grand Island as a satellite of KOLN, further expanding both the coverage area and profitability westward. 

Besides this marketing advantage, having its own ADI allowed Lincoln stations to acquire network affiliations that had been earlier denied for conflicting with Omaha stations.

Perhaps the most important outcome of these moves was the beginning of educational television in Nebraska. When Fetzer divested his extra station (regulations allowed only one per owner per market) he generously donated it to the University of Nebraska. The KOLN-TV calls were moved to channel 10 while channel 12 became KUON TV and a new success story of its own.

John Fetzer died at the age of 89 in February 1991.

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