Tuesday, February 19

Apocryphal Now

I've talked here before about Elden Hale, one of the driving forces who made WNEP-TV in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton market such a dominant station—and certainly the man behind Newswatch 16's phenomenal growth and success.

I'm not sure I told you that Elden and I go back almost forty years. He and I had our first "real" TV jobs together, at the old WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working for the legendary Dick Cheverton. I guess you could say we knelt at the feet of the master. I guess, if we were racehorses, you'd say we share the same bloodlines. (OK, fill in your own “horse’s asses” joke here.)

Why, then, is he so much smarter than I am?

I guess we were friendly competitors when we started out, each building a career, looking for the next big step. I was around for the birth of his children--one now in TV, the other a lawyer. But he beat me in the race for the first news director's job. He landed at WNEP. And he invited me to come see him. It was late in 1974, I think. I didn't know it, but he wanted to offer me a job.

When I got to Avoca (where WNEP was located) I found the worst TV station in America!

WBRE was Wilkes-Barre's station. WDAU (now WYOU) was Scranton's station. WNEP, at the airport, was nobody's station, and it showed.

When I arrived Elden and his wife had yellow paint on their hands. Seems Elden had gotten a deal on yellow high-gloss, and he and Nancy had spent the weekend painting the cabinets in the newsroom. Talk about a Mom-and-Pop operation!

Those were the film days. WNEP had an old, antiquated film processor (the machine, not the operator!). I knew you could mis-mix the chemicals and mis-time the steps and get blue film. I'd even seen green film. I'd never before seen red film.

And Elden got a bargain on some double-sprocket film. Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

So sure enough, the night I visited the lead story got on the air upside down, backwards and red!

Elden was one of the first to use a big-screen TV on-set as an over-the-shoulder device for rolling film and showing slides. He'd have the director pull "still frames" from film for use in the monitor. One night he told the director he needed something to illustrate a bomb for a Middle-East story. The director made his choice. And that night the anchor (J. Kristopher, maybe?) went on the air with a still of Boris Badonov from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Not this shot, but a cartoon out-take of Boris holding a bowling-ball shaped bomb with a burning fuse!

A few years later I learned that there was time every afternoon when it was a bad idea to try to call Elden. Bowling for Dollars was on, and the pin-setter was butted up to the back wall of Elden's office. You couldn't hear anything but the roll of the ball and the crash of the pins while the show was on.

Elden offered me the job, and I turned him down. I remember thinking, "This is the Elephant Burial Ground of TV news. Poor Elden: anyone who works at WNEP will never be heard from again."

OK, who knew?

But Elden had an instinctual feel for doing news in a compelling way, for seeing news as a service, for making the station a part--an essential part--of the viewers' lives. And he realized that if 28 was going after Wilkes-Barre and 22 was going after Scranton, that left 50% of the audience, in the outlying counties, unattached. He's the one who first regionalized the news, who made "Proud to Serve Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania" a slogan that stuck in people's minds. He went after the outlying viewers—got them—then conquered Luzerne and Lackawanna Counties. The rest is history.

Now, it helped that ABC programming was taking off, that the Shelburne family (WNEP’s owner) was plowing the profits back into the news operation, and that the owners of WBRE and WDAU buried their heads in the sand and didn't keep up. But it was Elden's vision and drive that made WNEP the most dominant TV station in the country.

One story illustrates his chutzpah. This might be apocryphal. I wasn't there. I don't know for sure. I do know that Elden brought "Backyard Weather" to the market. He did it because he simply didn't have room for a decent weather set in the old WNEP's cramped one-studio building. Shooting through a slit in the back garage door made sense.

Anyway, the story goes that on one of the first nights out back a huge rain storm kicked up just as the meteorologist (Paul Douglas, if I remember the tale correctly) was wrapping up his forecast. The winds were so strong that they turned Douglas' umbrella inside out--RIGHT ON THE AIR! After the show the floor director (the late Sid Harris, according to legend) went to Elden and said, "Why don’t you give me $30 and I'll go out and buy a terrific umbrella so that never happens again." And Elden is said to have replied, "Here's $30, go out and buy ten $3 umbrellas so it ALWAYS happens." I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. But it certainly sounds like Elden Hale.

Genius. Pure genius.


Anonymous said...

Elden was a great for promotion. The branding slogan "THE NEWS STATION' was a masterstroke in a market that uses (still) diaries. I've always said WNEP could broadcast colorbars and still be No. 1.

Hale's major contribution was the buying of SKYCAM 16 and using it as the major promotion vehicle for the station. Everytime people hear a chopper fly over their heads, they tune into WNEP to find out why Skycam was in the area.

Of course, the Megargees and the Baltimores, then-owners of WDAU (now WYOU) and WBRE, basically rolled over and let Elden get away with the promotion and hype and aggressive news coverage that propelled WNEP into first place.

Also, give credit to Bob Absher, assistant news director for 25 years, for preserving Elden's vision.

Anonymous said...

Minor gripe, I guess. But every time I heard, ...and Central Pennsylvania," I wanted to scream, and likely did a few dozen times.

See, Williamsport, Sunbury, Lewisburg, Lock Haven, etc., is NORTH Central Pennsylvania, not plain Central Pennsylvania. From a TV-Market perspective, Harrisburg is Central Pennsylvania, not covered by WNEP.

That aside, Hale's umbrella remark and idea is pure genius. Some people know how to make great TV, some have no idea. You know, I know, but some of our old pals on S. Franklin never could understand that mistakes are opportunities. Just one among many reasons their ratings are subterranean.