The company was formed in 1929 from the merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater company, Joseph Kennedy's Film Booking Office (FBO), Pathé, and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Kennedy had bought the basis of FBO in 1925, RCA took a share in FBO in 1927 and Kennedy had acquired a share of KAO in the same year. Kennedy then forced the chairman of KAO out and took over before selling out the two companies to RCA, creating RKO.
RCA purchased its way into the motion picture business to have an outlet for its new variable density optical sound-on-film system, RCA Photophone. All of the major studios and their theatre divisions had already signed exclusive contracts to use the other sound-on-film system, AT&T Western Electric division's Westrex variable area optical sound-on-film system. The term "RKO Radio Pictures" was in honor of the ownership by RCA.
In the 1930s RKO churned out movies at the rate of forty per year as RKO Radio Pictures, and signed a distribution deal with The Walt Disney Company in 1930 that would last into the 1940s. The studio produced films with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Johnny Weissmuller, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, John Ford, George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock. Titles produced include King Kong, Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, Suspicion, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, "Hitler's Children" The Bells of St. Mary's, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Magnificent Ambersons and a slew of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. During the Great Depression the studio suffered and was not very profitable, but made a comeback in the 1940s.
In 1948 a majority of RKO's stock was bought by Howard Hughes. During his tenure as owner the previously resurgent RKO suffered from Hughes' meddling and red-hunting. Hughes would shut down production for weeks or months at a time for various reasons. He ended his RKO association by selling the company to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955 for $25 million.
General Tire already owned several broadcasting interests, having purchased New England's Yankee Network in 1943 and General Teleradio (formed by the merger of the Don Lee Broadcasting System and Bamberger Broadcasting Service in 1950) in 1952. Thomas O'Neill, son of General Tire's founder William O'Neill and chairman of it broadcasting holdings, felt that General Tire's TV stations would need programming and the RKO film library would be the perfect asset.
General Tire was not interested in operating a studio lot, so it sold the production lot to Desilu Productions in 1957 for $6 million and RKO ceased film production entirely. The former RKO lot would be operated by Desilu until 1966, when Desilu was acquired by Gulf+Western and merged into G+W's Paramount Pictures unit to serve as the Paramount Television studios. It remains the Paramount Television lot to this day.
Under General Tire the merged company first became RKO Teleradio Pictures, Inc. in 1956, then RKO Teleradio Inc. in 1957, and finally settled on RKO General in 1958.
RKO General had large radio and television holdings including KHJ Los Angeles, KFRC San Francisco, WHBQ Memphis and WOR New York before a series of scandals involving illegal activities brought about forced divestiture of the stations starting with WNAC-TV Boston (now WHDH-TV) in 1982 and ending with KHJ-TV Los Angeles (now KCAL-TV) in 1989.
The saga began in 1962 when the license for KHJ-TV 9 Los Angeles was challenged. During the FCC comparative hearings accusations of secret contracts requiring General Tire retailers to advertise with RKO General stations in their market and not to reveal the connection were made. The RKO General and General Tire executives who testified before the Federal Communications Commission rejected the accusations and the license was renewed without any direct documentary evidence of the offenses.
It would have ended there, but the next license to be challenged was for WNAC-TV 7 Boston, Massachusetts in 1969. During the discovery process for the hearings on WNAC-TV at the FCC, it was discovered that the accusations about secret contracts were in fact true and that General Tire had not revealed that information to the FCC when it was discovered by the company. Under FCC rules, those actions alone warrented RKO General being found to be unfit to be an FCC licensee, but RKO General then fought the license revocations for another 10 years and committed a number of other legal offenses during the process. The actual loss of licenses started with WNAC-TV on May 22, 1982 (becoming WNEV-TV) to New England Television and ended with the loss of KHJ-TV in 1989 to The Walt Disney Company. It was the largest loss of licenses by any American broadcasting company in the history of American broadcasting.
The FCC decision "...was not based on the quality of broadcast service...but on the question of RKO General's corporate integrity," Fortune noted (April 21, 1980). "General Tire was maintaining slush funds for such uses as improper overseas payments and questionable campaign contributions," Time later reported (August 24, 1987), and "allegedly filed false and misleading financial statements." Of particular concern was RKO General's lack of candor in reporting these wrongdoings to the FCC.
RKO General was stripped of one station (Boston's WNAC-TV) without compensation, and was forced to sell other stations for less than full market value, resulting in major financial losses.
One other interesting item is the legislative maneuver RKO General attempted to keep at least one of its licenses. At the behest of General Tire, the United States Congress passed a law that would require the FCC to automatically renew the license of any VHF television station that voluntary relocated to the State of New Jersey. At that point, RKO General officially moved WOR-TV's license from New York City to Secaucus, NJ. It only gained enough time for one more license renewal, and the license for WOR-TV was sold to the MCA Universal Studio division in 1987 in a bidding war against Westinghouse, becoming WWOR-TV Secaucus. It is interesting to note that WOR Radio began in 1922 at the L. Bamberger & Company department store in downtown Newark, New Jersey.
In the middle of the RKO General legal process the parent company reorganized into a holding company, becoming GenCorp in 1984. General Tire and Rubber became an operating division, as did RKO General.
RKO General was spun off by GenCorp in 1987, and renamed RKO Pictures in 1989 when it was acquired by Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley to once again make movies.
RKO is famous for its "Globe and Radio Tower" logo.