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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published August 04 2013

Did You Know That: A look at the remarkable life of ‘Marshal Bill’ Owen

It has been written that a tense situation for the Secret Service occurred in Bismarck in 1960 when a man approached presidential candidate John F. Kennedy with a pistol in each hand. This happened when Kennedy stopped in the Capitol City during his campaign tour to do an interview at television station KFYR.

Bill Owen was the host of the popular kid’s program, The Marshal Bill Show at KFYR, and wore a sheriff’s uniform complete with cap pistols. Just as Kennedy was entering the studio, Owen walked towards the door, “twirling his six-shooters.”

Owen would soon go on to become a major television and radio personality on ABC. On television, he often appeared on Wide World of Sports, was the co-host of Discovery, subbed for Howard Cossell, and was the sports anchor for Good Morning America. On radio, he was the voice of Ellery Queen.

William H. Owen was born February 1, 1931, in Grand Forks to Owen and Else (Rhode) Owen.

Owen T. Owen was a prominent attorney and in 1937, Governor William Langer appointed him North Dakota Tax Commissioner and the family moved to Bismarck (tax commissioner did not become an elected position until 1940).

Bill Owen was an outstanding athlete, participating “in football, baseball, basketball and track.” In his senior year at Bismarck High, he also edited the high school newspaper.

After graduating in 1949, he attended the University of Southern California, where he started as a pre-med major.

In his freshman year at USC, Owen played on the junior varsity teams in both basketball and football. In a scrimmage football game against the varsity, he injured one of his fingers tackling Frank Gifford and still suffers from the effects of it 60 years later. Owen also speaks with pride of being able to wear Bill Sharman’s jersey number on the basketball team.

He enjoyed “watching the live radio shows performed in Hollywood” and began working at the campus radio stations. During Owen’s senior year, he switched his major to telecommunications and graduated in 1953. Owen then enlisted in the Air Force and, after basic training, became the announcer of sporting events on the American Forces Network in Germany.

Following his discharge, Owen returned home to Bismarck and was hired by KFYR to work in both television and radio. Initially, he served as an announcer and sports director, but management also wanted to launch a children’s program and asked him to be the host – Marshal Bill. Owen was reluctant because he wanted to focus on sports. However, management insisted, claiming “he was the right person for it.” He finally agreed, and KFYR had a hit television show.

With a platform to the public, Owen seized this opportunity to champion special causes. In 1958, noting that Bismarck did not have a zoo, he openly advocated on The Marshal Bill Show for the establishment of a community zoo. Petitions were circulated and signed by 780 residents and then turned over to the director of park board. With the support of the Bismarck Parks and Recreation director, an 88-acre tract of land in Sertoma Park was set aside, and on June 3, 1961, the Dakota Zoo opened.

‘Swingin’ Seven’

Shortly after the incident involving Kennedy, Owen became the host of a classical music program at station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, that drew more listeners than the stations that featured rock music.

Meanwhile, stations that specialized in rock were hurt when news of the “payola” scandal broke. It was revealed that record companies were paying disc jockeys and stations to play their songs. The person most closely associated with this scandal was Alan Freed, a popular disc jockey at station WABC in New York. Many fans of this station stopped listening, and by 1960, WABC dropped out as one of the top 5 most-listened-to stations in New York City.

Hal Neal was hired as general manager and given the charge of returning WABC to one of the top stations again. His solution was to devote a “full-time schedule of top-40 songs played by upbeat personalities.” Neal brought in six outstanding disc jockeys and hired Owen as the staff announcer. After Neal heard Owen doing newscasts and station breaks, he told Owen that he wanted him to join the other six, and collectively they would be known as the “Swingin’ Seven.”

With the format and personalities in place, Neal launched what was called “Musicradio.”

Owen continued his duties as staff announcer from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. and then would do a two-hour music show. The personalities of the Swingin’ Seven soon began attracting listeners, and by 1963, WABC was the second most-listened-to station in the Big Apple.

Television executives at ABC became aware of Owen’s magnetic personality, versatility, and commitment, and in 1963, they offered him the position of studio announcer of a new series geared for teenagers called “Discovery.” Soon, Owen would become one of the most versatile personalities on television.

(We will conclude our story about Bill Owen next week.)