Obituary: Donald Swartz, longtime president of KMSP-TV

  • Article by: JOY POWELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2014 - 9:45 PM

Donald “Don” Swartz

Donald Swartz took over management of KMSP-TV, Channel 9, in 1957 and turned it into one of the most successful independent television stations in the country.

Swartz, described as a quiet programming genius who was classy and well-respected in the industry, died March 15. The Golden Valley resident who formerly lived in St. Paul was 98.

“We competed with him forever and ever, and he was smart, honest, a man of the greatest integrity — and a real pioneer in television broadcasting,” said Stanley S. Hubbard of Hubbard Broadcasting, which includes KSTP, its flagship TV and radio stations.

Hubbard had presented Swartz, then president of KMSP, with the Midwest’s first Emmy Award to recognize excellence in television. Swartz also was voted into the Minnesota Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

“He saw the whole galaxy of electronic media born in his career and was responsible for the midwifing of some of those platforms,” said Steve Moravec, president of Phoenix Media Group, a radio consulting firm.

Son of a Willow River storekeeper, Swartz faced setbacks early in life: His mother died at age 36, when he was 13.

He and his brothers were shuttled around the region to different families before settling in Minneapolis with their dad, who ran a tobacco stand in the Lumber Exchange Building. Don went to West High School.

As a young usher at the Ritz Theater, Swartz fell in love with the entertainment business. He was next hired as an office boy for Warner Bros. and worked his way up.

He bought the Loop and Astor movie theaters in downtown Minneapolis. Swartz also represented independent studios and distributed movies.

In 1957, he was working for National Telefilm Associates (NTA) when it joined with the movie-producing firm Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to buy Channel 9, at that time KMGM-TV. Swartz, who was known for cutting costs, was named general manager of the struggling independent station, which became KMSP.

In a 1975 interview, he told the Star Tribune that “many years of struggling” taught him that “shrewdness may have some merit.” He said the station was losing $30,000 a week when he took over in the 1950s.

“That’s $1.5 million a year,” Swartz had said. “It took me a long time to pay up the losses. And I didn’t draw any money out of this place for six months.”

KMSP lost the ABC affiliation to KSTP in 1979. The NBC affiliation moved from Channel 5 to 11, now KARE-TV.

“Everyone thought Channel 9 was never going to succeed, and it became the number-one rated independent television station in the United States,” son Stuart said.

Swartz retired in 1983 but continued to do consulting and civic work, which included co-founding a program to help minorities become broadcasters as well as serving the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minneapolis Art Institute. “You have to pay back a community that’s been good to you,” he liked to say.

In 1967, he was named board chairman of the Variety Club Heart Hospital, which became University of Minnesota Heart Hospital. He was president of that and the Temple of Aaron Synagogue.

Swartz had been caring for Helen, his wife of 74 years, since she fell ill. He recently finished his autobiographical book, “Now and Forever,” but the accomplishment was bittersweet. “My writings are now closed,” he wrote. “My heart is broken. Mother’s illness may not give her the opportunity to read ‘Now and Forever.’ ”

On March 7, during Swartz’s 98th birthday party, he had a massive heart attack.

In addition to Helen and Stuart, survivors include sons Gary and Larry; 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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