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John Earl Fetzer
March 25, 1901
|Died||February 20, 1991 (aged 89)|
|Occupation||Radio and television executive|
|Known for||Owner of the Detroit Tigers|
John Earl Fetzer (March 25, 1901 — February 20, 1991) was a radio and television executive who was best known as the owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1961 through 1983.
Born in 1901 in Decatur, Indiana, Fetzer moved with his mother to Lafayette, Indiana, after his father died when Fetzer was 2 years old. There his brother-in-law, a telegraph operator for the Wabash Railroad, introduced young John to the early workings of wireless communication. Via telegraph reports they would track the baseball games of the Detroit Tigers, which he would later own.
Radio was still in its infancy, but Fetzer took it seriously and built his first transmitter-receiver in 1917 and began communicating from his home in Indiana with a man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1923, he came to Michigan to build a radio station for Emmanuel Missionary College, now known as Andrews University, in Berrien Springs. He built and operated the station, and also met Rhea Yeager. They would stay married until his death, for 65 years.
Fetzer toured Europe in the late 1920s, studying radio operations, and recalled being repulsed by government monopolies on radio there. He returned to the United States at the beginnings of the Great Depression and would remain a staunch advocate of a "hands off" policy by the government in the communications industry. Emmanuel Missionary College was running out of money to operate its radio station and offered to sell it to Fetzer. He bought it and, in 1930, moved the station to Kalamazoo because of his wife's area ties. Kalamazoo was also the last major city in Michigan without its own radio station. He named the station WKZO and started broadcasting in 1931. The station began its broadcasts in the Burdick Hotel. Mr. and Mrs. Fetzer worked side by side. She served as program director and secretary. He sold advertising and kept track of the technology. He said of these early beginnings, "It was a mixture of pride, stubbornness and stupidity that kept me in the business. If I knew then what I know now about economics, I would have shut down."
His innovations in radio led to the development of a directional antenna for broadcasting at night. This, in turn, led to a lawsuit by a station in Omaha, Nebraska, that said it would interfere with their signal if allowed. The case went through the Supreme Court twice and was finally settled in Fetzer's favor on the floor of the United States Senate. This led to some 3,000 stations getting their licenses granted by the FCC and put Fetzer in the position of pioneer and confidante of many in Washington.
During World War II, he was appointed the national radio censor for the U.S. Office of Censorship and created voluntary censorship of more than 900 radio stations so that they would not broadcast information that would be beneficial to the enemy. When the war started to wind down, Fetzer began asking for smaller and smaller budgets to run the office and began firing the 15,000 people employed by the office. When the war ended, he closed up shop and stored all the information in the basement of the National Archives. He said, "I'm convinced if we hadn't, the Office of Censorship would still be with us today, and I shudder to think how powerful it might be."
Fetzer's own broadcasting empire grew during the war and spread from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids, Nebraska and Peoria. He formed the Fetzer Music Corporation and acquired the Muzak franchise for out-state Michigan in 1958. Inevitably, he would get into the new medium, television, and established Fetzer Cablevision, eventually, in Kalamazoo. That has since become Charter Communications providing cable television service to the Kalamazoo area.
After purchasing his Nebraska broadcast property, KOLN, in 1953, Fetzer did something unique for a broadcaster at the time. By erecting a 1,000-foot tower outside of town and pushing the powerful signal to the west, rather than to the more populated and established TV market in Omaha (as well as purchasing a rival station and donating its license to the local university for an educational station), KOLN-TV created a near monopoly on a rural area previously ignored by broadcasters. He later established a second Nebraska station, KGIN in Grand Island, as a satellite of KOLN, further expanding both the coverage area and the profitability. According to Steve Smethers, professor of journalism and mass communications at Kansas State University,"The old 10/11 strong model is just an incredible idea in terms of serving a very rural part of the state." Longtime KOLN/KGIN television personality Leta Powell Drake noted that "KOLN used to have in their news an 85 share of the audience. That means for all the sets that are tuned into television, 85 percent of the viewers were watching 10/11 News."
In 1956 he bought part ownership in the Tigers and became full owner in 1961. He was active in negotiating broadcast packages for Major League Baseball. For the most part, Fetzer preferred to stay in the background, and left the Tigers in the hands of general manager Jim Campbell.
For residents of the northern Lower Peninsula and eastern Upper Peninsula, Fetzer's name was synonymous between 1958 and 1978 with ownership of WWTV in Cadillac and its satellite in Sault Sainte Marie, WWUP, as well as ownership of the Tigers.
In the early 1980s he began to divest himself of his business holdings and sold the Tigers to Domino's Pizza founder and owner Tom Monaghan after the 1983 season (the Tigers would win the World Series the following year). Monaghan himself followed Fetzer's footsteps into broadcasting and now holds a significant stake in a number of broadcast properties airing mostly religious programming, through entities owned or controlled. Much of Fetzer's wealth was used to fund the Fetzer Institute, which was established in 1962 with the following mission:
"To foster awareness of the power of love and forgiveness in the emerging global community, rests on our conviction that efforts to address the world's critical issues must go beyond political, social, and economic strategies to their psychological and spiritual roots." In 2006, the value of the institute's endowment was approximately $400 million.
Bio from the Fetzer Institute website
The founder of the Fetzer Institute, (John Earl Fetzer), was familiar with the call of the sacred within the secular. Trained as an electrical engineer, John E. Fetzer began his career in 1931 by designing, building, and operating his own radio station that he then expanded into a Michigan-based, multistate broadcasting empire including radio, television, cable, and closed-circuit music transmission.
In his private life, John Fetzer had an intense intellectual curiosity about the "unseen elements" of life. He studied various forms of meditation, prayer, philosophy, and positive thinking, and explored other ways of healing. Throughout his life he was also passionately interested in baseball, an enthusiasm that led him to purchase the Detroit Tigers baseball club. In his later years, the sale of the team and his media holdings resulted in the endowment of the Fetzer Institute.
The interests that shaped John Fetzer's life can be seen as the seedbed for the questions that define the work of the Fetzer Institute: How can the secular and sacred elements of life be better integrated? How can the insights of science and the powers of technological innovation be utilized to explore the capacities of the mind and spirit? How can the wisdom and insight gained through inner exploration be used to better our individual and collective health? And how can the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources gained from the American business sector be used in the service of creating a better world?
John Fetzer died in 1991 in a hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was being treated for pneumonia.
Former Fetzer-owned broadcast properties
- WWAM/WKJF (now WLJW) and WWTV-FM/WKJF-FM (now WJZQ), Cadillac, Michigan
- WJFM (now WBCT), Grand Rapids, Michigan
- WKZO, Kalamazoo, Michigan
- KOLN (now KLIN), Lincoln, Nebraska
- WWTV, Cadillac, Michigan; and satellite station WWUP, Sault Ste Marie, Michigan
- WKZO-TV (now WWMT), Kalamazoo, Michigan
- KMEG-TV, Sioux City, Iowa
- KOLN-TV, Lincoln, Nebraska; and satellite station KGIN-TV, Grand Island, Nebraska
- Wilson, Brian C. John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018