By Dave Schwab
Today cable TV with its innumerable channels covering every imaginable niche is commonplace, but back in the early days, television was a gamble with industry pioneers blazing trails uncertain if — or where — they would lead.
One of those post-World War II broadcasting pioneers in San Diego was Jack O. Gross, who came down from Los Angeles to convert KFMB-AM radio station into KFMB Channel 8, San Diego’s first local TV station, which debuted May 1, 1949.
The station went on the air with then-San Diego mayor Harley Knox flipping a switch to turn on the transmitter. The inaugural event was a community milestone with crowds collecting in front of the few television sets around — only about 1,500 San Diegans owned one. Five hundred gathered in front of two sets alone at one downtown San Diego music store.
“Jack had a very good job working in Los Angeles for Warner Brothers Pictures running one of their radio stations and he heard about a struggling radio station in San Diego that had been taken over by a bank,” recalled Bill Fox, a Gross contemporary, nephew and understudy who came to San Diego to live with Gross and his family to learn the trade just two days after KFMB TV first aired.
“He said, ‘I’ll come in and run it — you don’t have to pay me anything during this year, maybe I can turn it around.’ He came in and turned it around and made a success of it by the end of the year.”
Gross had the Midas touch when it came to broadcasting, said Fox.
“Programming, sales, management — he just knew how to operate,” he said, noting Gross was physically attractive and a magnet people were attracted to. “Anybody who knew him — liked him,” he said. “He was more like a movie star than a businessman.”
“He was a pioneer,” said Gross’s granddaughter Lauren, an agent at Keller Williams Realty in La Jolla. “He was one of those people who did a deal with a handshake.”
Lauren noted her grandfather — “a visionary; he just had a vision” — was always generous in mentoring anyone interested in radio or broadcasting.
“He would just stay on the phone for hours with them,” she said, adding he had also the common touch. “He treated everybody, whether he was the guy who pumped gas at the gas station or a president of a network, with great respect.”
Gross, who died in 1985 at age 79 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, managed his first radio station in St. Louis, Mo., at age 14. Besides broadcasting, he was also a partner in the San Diego Padres when the ballclub played in the Pacific Coast League.
Fox said Gross also dabbled in San Diego real estate.
“He played a role in building the Shelter Island Inn,” he said, adding that Gross was also close friends with notable San Diego entrepreneurs, including Sol Price of Price Club.
“Jack and his wife Loretta were the first couple to be named co-chairs of the United Jewish Federation Drive,” Fox said.
“He was quite a guy, he was really kind of magical,” he added.. “He gave a lot of really great people their start. I think about him a lot. I miss him.”