All through the 1980s, Jim Johnson came onto television screens in Sonoma County each weekday night to promote editorial views often several steps to the right of those of the region’s typical resident.
The conservatism of the baritone-voiced, classically handsome general manager of KFTY-Channel 50 “got him in a lot of trouble,” said his daughter, Karen Johnson of Santa Rosa.
But Jim Johnson continued to speak his mind and to relish his role in medium-market television right up to his resignation from TV-50 just ahead of an ownership change in 1989, which essentially ended his 36-year career in broadcasting.
Johnson, who switched to work in insurance and estate planning, died Sunday in Santa Rosa. He was 82.
The Texas native and former Army Reserve officer had managed a cluster of TV stations in Nebraska when he moved with his wife, Linda, to Sonoma County in 1980 to build a new station.
Owner and former Marin Independent Journal publisher Wishard Brown made him the vice president and general manager of Channel 50. The independent station had been founded by other owners in 1972 but went broke after only a year.
Under the leadership of Brown and Johnson, studios were constructed within a former furniture store on Santa Rosa’s Mendocino Avenue. KFTY took to the air on May 1, 1981.
The experiment in North Bay TV quickly had camera teams out covering stories throughout the region. A young Ed Beebout hired on as a reporter.
“Jim was a driving force during the early days of KFTY, when the future of the station was far from certain,” Beebout said Tuesday. “I’ll always remember his deep commitment to local news and information, a value I shared.”
Beebout was grateful also that Johnson promoted him to weekend news anchor.
“I was 26 at the time and I probably looked 17, so I always appreciated him taking a chance on me,” said Beebout, who became daily anchor at News 50 and now is a longtime associate professor of communication and media studies at Sonoma State University.
For 10 years, Johnson directed KFTY and immersed himself in the community. Sociable and ever ready to take up a mic and tell a story or a blue joke, he became active on the board of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and in the Rotary Club, Empire Breakfast Club, United Way, the Salvation Army advisory board and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
Linda Johnson became executive director of the Sonoma County Wineries Association.
In August of 1990, Korbel Champagne Cellars owner Gary Heck was closing in on a purchase of KFTY. Aware that new managers would come in and his days likely were numbered, Johnson resigned.
Only weeks later, he started a job as a marketing executive with Wells and Associates, a Santa Rosa firm involved in insurance and employee benefits. Johnson also jumped at a chance to take over a noon-to-2 p.m. talk show on radio station KSRO.
He and Linda, who’d met in college at Texas A&M, divorced.
In 2005, Johnson opened Jim Johnson & Associates in Santa Rosa and advised business owners and others on health and benefits plans and investments.