Love of audio history propels 'Holiday Express'

As Christmas Eve starts to wind down, Feliks Banel will help his little daughter leave carrots for Santa's reindeer, tuck her in bed, kiss his wife and leave for a darkened radio studio on the Factoria campus of Bellevue Community College.

In a routine he has followed the past four years, he'll make tea, check the microphones and slip on his headphones. Then he'll give out the call letters of KBCS — and, like ghosts of Christmas past, the airwaves will come alive with the voices of Seattle history.

For the next four hours, Banel will play recorded snippets of audio history gleaned from antique stores, yard sales, thrift-shop bins, record stores and libraries. The sounds of children in the 1940s visiting the Frederick & Nelson Santa Claus ... a soldier's recorded message home from Korea ... old radio commercials proclaiming the benefits of traveling the Union Pacific Railroad from Seattle to Chicago for the holidays.

In Banel's professional life, he is deputy director of the Museum of History & Industry, overseeing marketing. On Christmas Eve, he becomes KBCS' music director, engineer and host all in one, blending his private collection of holiday audio artifacts and new recordings into a program he calls the "Holiday Express."

Tonight's broadcast will feature Mariners' broadcasters Rick Rizzs and Dave Niehaus reading the "Gift of the Mojo" (their rendition of the O. Henry favorite); J.P. Patches reading "A Visit From St. Nick"; J.P.'s sidekick, Boris S. Wort, reading excerpts from "A Christmas Carol"; messages home from the Korean War and bygone Christmas advertisements for local businesses.

The show will also celebrate the 97th anniversary of the world's first radio broadcast.

Banel will tell listeners that on Christmas Eve in 1906, radio operators aboard ships at sea first heard a human voice instead of the Morse code dots and dashes they were used to. Then came music — "O, Holy Night" played on the violin.

No invention in contemporary society can compare with the awe inspired by that first broadcast, Banel said, saying some who heard it told others who most likely didn't believe voices actually had come through the air.

Radio, Banel said, still has "that magic quality."

Banel, 35, has an abiding belief in the importance of preserving radio history.

"It's the first electronic medium," he said. "And it gave us the luxury of hearing most of the important events that happened in the 20th century. That's really remarkable."

Even if he had no outlet to play his holiday collection, he would still produce it for friends and family. Banel "is a perfect example of what community radio is about. ... Someone has a great idea and they bring in music they love," said Steve Ramsey, general manager for KBCS-FM (91.3), a non-commercial station that gets much of its funding from listener donations.

The youngest of nine children, Banel was raised in Kirkland and developed an appreciation for history from listening to the stories of his parents.

His mother grew up in London during World War II and, like other children, was evacuated to the country for her safety. His father grew up in Poland and fought the Nazis and Russians as part of the Polish Home Army.

Near the end of the war, his father and a friend came upon what was left of a Nazi camp in northern Poland and found a radio. From far away, they could hear the reports coming from the June 6, 1944, landing of the Allied forces at Normandy.

"It was a clear sign the war was going on the side of the Allies. ... The radio offered him hope that there was a future," Banel said.

"I come from a pretty nostalgic family," he said. "By having older parents, I'm very aware of the time that came before me. ... Even mundane little things like a radio ad can tell a lot about a time in history."

Little has been done to preserve radio broadcasts, Banel said. The famed broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow reporting from war-ravaged London in what was the middle of the night on the West Coast would not have been preserved had it not been for KIRO radio in Seattle. KIRO recorded the broadcast so it could air them at a more convenient time for listeners.

In addition to his thrift-store finds, Banel records prominent people reading holiday stories. Those include King County Executive Ron Sims reading "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray reading "The Polar Express."

Sometimes Banel makes the recordings at his kitchen table, shutting off the furnace and refrigerator so there will be no background noise.

Within the past few years, he has recorded former KJR disc jockey Pat O'Day ho-ho-ho-ing like he used to when he played Santa, and KING-TV's Stan Boreson singing his old standby, "Christmas in Seattle."

Tonight, as Banel sits in the studio, his wife listening from their home as several thousand others listen from theirs, his treasures will travel the airwaves, unfurling like holiday ribbons bearing the gift of history.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or

Tonight's broadcast

"Holiday Express" on KBCS-FM (91.3) can be heard throughout most of King County from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.