Project 13 and Beyond
Ray Blush spent 14 years at Big 13. He served as Pinellas County bureau chief, Producer and host of 'Project 13', and host of 'High-Q', a weekly challenge of knowledge for high school students of the Tampa Bay area. He was eventually named WTVT's news director.
Blush happened upon a career in broadcasting quite by accident.
"Back in 1960, I was at Boca Ciega High School in St. Petersburg. They had a career program called 'A Day On The Job.' Most of they guys would pick 'fireman,' or 'helicopter pilot,' or 'policeman,' which is what I chose. It was mainly to get out of school for a day. The dean of boys came to me one day and told me that things had gotten screwed up, and I was going to go out with a guy from one of the TV stations. I said, 'Aw c'mongive me a break.' But he pleaded for me to go, so I did.
I went with a guy from Channel 8, Don Starr, who was the Pinellas County Bureau Chief then. I spent the day with him and I really enjoyed it. It was exciting, fast, and opened the doors to the movers and shakers.
After I graduated from high school in '61 I entered St. Petersburg Junior College. I didn't take any television classes at the studio they had there (WEDU's St. Pete outlet), but I did take a speech class. Whenever I had a day off from school and my part-time service station job I would call up Don Starr and ride with him that day. That introduced me to television news."
Blush must have made a very favorable impression on the folks from Channel 8. They came to him with a very unique opportunity.
"In 1963, one of the news reporters at Channel 8, Merrill Stebbins, got drafted. Don Starr asked me if I would like to take his place. I was only 20 years old and had plans to major in an electronics engineering field after SPJC. I had to think it over, and talked with my parents. Then, I took the job. I went to work for Channel 8 full-time.
Ray Blush went straight from SPJC to WFLA
I had learned to shoot film from Starr, and knew how to write a simple story. I didn't have a whole lot of formal news training other than what I got on the job. It was only a matter of weeks before Merrill had to leave. His gear, his camera, and his car were turned over to me and I was on the street.
Channel 8's News Director was Bill Henry, who had the utmost integrity. He dealt with us as human beings, and understood human traits and handled us with those things in mind. He was just a kind, gentle, yet firm guy. When he made a decision, you went with it because you wanted to. I continued OJT learning via the baptism by fire method, which worked quite well. Bill Henry was the ever-patient news director whom I admired greatly, and Starr encouraged me to take on more responsibility with each passing day. Actually, Don knew I was easing some of the pressure on him and he loved it!"
Blush quickly assimilated into the Channel 8 news operation, and was eventually allowed to substitute for vacationing anchors.
"I substitute-anchored at Channel 8 occasionally. We held copy in our hands and tried to maintain eye contact with the camera. The first time I saw a teleprompter was at Channel 13 for Ray Dantzler's editorial."
Channel 8 reporters and management always kept an eye out for their competition...WTVT.
"In those days, the ratings would actually flip-flop between 13 and 8. When one station would win, it wasn't by much. Both stations had pretty good operations, and there was no Channel 10 at that point. There were just two choices for local news on TV, and no VCRs, or satellites, or cable.
I believe at the highest levels of management, the competitiveness was much more intense. At the street level, while there was competition among the reporters, there was a genuine friendship. We belonged to the same press club. From time to time, if we were at a city hall function, and there was something going on in another part of town and we had to come back afterwardswe'd ride in the same car. We socialized together as well."
Blush was a year into his gig at Channel 8 when the Vietnam conflict started heating up.
"I had a student deferment while in college, but that caught up with me by 1964. I was drafted and went to Jacksonville for a military examination. They found out I had a hernia. I had the hernia repaired back in the Tampa Bay area. After the surgery, I woke up and saw this beautiful nurse. I asked her to come up to my hospital room and she wasn't going to, but the doctor knew me and told her it was OKhe told her I was from a good family. Well, that was Linda, and we just celebrated 36 years of marriage.
In May of '65, I got another draft notice to come up for a repeat on the physical. Luckily, I had made a friend in the Army Reserve. I called him the night I got the notice, he had me come down the next day and I was sworn into the Reserve unit. I went away for six months of basic training and then returned to my job at Channel 8. I stayed in that Army Reserve unit for 24 years, starting at the lowest rank and ending up as the C.O."
After five years at Channel 8, Blush was approached about the possibility of 'jumping' over to Channel 13.
"In April of 1968, Jim Barrett was leaving his job as Pinellas County reporter for Channel 13. Charlie Allen, who was Assignment Editor for Channel 13, and Chip Collins, who was Pinellas Bureau Chief, and Jule McGee, who was the areas premier photographer, had recruited me to come to WTVT. In those days there was very little 'jumping' stations. As I recall, I was the first on-air person to make the jump.
To tell you the kind of person Bill Henry was, I had given him two weeks notice before going to Channel 13. When my final day was up, I scooped my competitor at Channel 13. I turned my news car in to Channel 8, and Bill Henry drove me over to Channel 13. He was quite a gentleman."
Ray Blush joined WTVT in 1968
Blush was pleased to find himself working in the same newsroom as former competitor Jule McGee.
Jule McGee joined WTVT in 1967. A few years later, McGee and Ray Blush would produce the Emmy-winning 'Project 13'.
"Jule and I got to know each other in 1966 when he was a reporter at WLCY, Channel 10. He and his wife Millie and my wife Linda and I would socialize on our boat. Jule went to work at Channel 13 in 1967, and when I came on board there we became better friends and co-workers. In '72, Hugh sent us to report on the floods of the Suwannee River, and we spent about a week virtually living together up there and sending back some terrific reports.
|This is an oil tank fire at the Florida Power generating plant on Weedon Island. I had already taken all the film I needed of the battle to put the lightening-started fire out, in this picture I am typing my copy of what I intend to say on camera. I will shoot the standup myself with the raging fire in the background (if I can get it written, set up the camera, and get it right before the flames go out!) I was a one-man band, shooting stories and appearing on camera. Once in a while, Chip Collins, who worked the northern half of Pinellas County, would help me or I'd help him shoot a story."|
I worked Pinellas County from '68 to '73. Stories of the time included St. Pete City Council members getting into trouble with the law and the state's attorney office. We also had a business scandal at Florida power (the 'Daisy-Chain' scandal). I think most of our high-profile stories included corruption in government or the rapid development of the Tampa Bay area and the accompanying growth problems. We also had a very colorful Governor named Claude Kirk.
A Behind-the-Scenes shot of HIGH-Q
The versatile Blush would soon become a local quiz host, and then launch an ambitious documentary series, Project 13.
"High-Q started in 1971. I had a ball doing that. The most refreshing part of this part-time hosting job was meeting the hundreds of bright high school kids who really wanted to make a difference, the RIGHT WAY! So much of the news time was taken up with what teens were doing wrong. This gave our station a chance to show the good side of what kids were doing. We relied on USF professor Dr. Edgar Hirschberg to judge alternative answers, a chore which more often than not put him on a red hot hot spot! Dr. Hirschberg was a joy to work with. We would tape four shows on a Saturday, and they would air once a week for a month."
Blush was about to start a new project that would consume his and Jule McGee's professional life for the next five yearsProject 13.Project 13 had started in 1971 and was produced by Dick Harvey. Dick was anchor on the A.M. show with Ernie Lee, and also the noon Pulse news. Project 13 was generally an interview program, not totally unlike Insight. A lot of times it was done with the mobile unit in the field. In 1973, Jule McGee and I discussed a makeover of Project 13 with Hugh Smith. We wanted to make it a true documentary field unit. Not investigative, hard-hitting reporting every week, although that would be part of the mix. Every week would be tackling a totally different subject. With Blush serving as the reporter and host, Jule McGee supervised photography and editing, which proved to be a monumental weekly task.
"There was no more dedicated person than Jule McGee. None more serious, or devoted to getting the job right. He was just 100% into getting it right. When we started Project 13, we both agreed that we were going to give it our best shot and we knew it was almost an insurmountable task to do what we wanted to achieve under the restrictions of a weekly show, with no help until we got to the final stages of post-production.
Jule McGee, co-producer of Project 13
This Project 13 "When Phantoms Roar" was all about the noise complaints the Air Force was getting from jet takeoffs and landings. You might recall in those days many military supporters sported car bumper stickers "Jet Noise - the Sound of Freedom". To get the story, we flew in helicopters and F-4's, John "Mak" Makinen - who helped us out A LOT - filmed from the MacDill control tower while recording my cockpit interview with the pilot flying "Mad Dog One" with me in the navigator's seat. Jule flew beside us in a helicopter as we made a very slow approach (to permit the chopper to keep up with us).
Another program focused on the Army Corps. of Engineers, and how they took the Kissimmee River, which meandered through the state of Florida, and straightened it out. Pollutants and other chemicals shot down a now straight river and killed Lake Okeechobee.
|John Ferrugia, Jule, and I are on an oil production rig off the Louisiana gulf coast. At the time, there was a major controversy over oil-drilling rights in the Gulf (as there has been repeatedly since then). We went out to this Exxon rig to see what they were doing, what safety precautions were in place, and how good the fishing was near the "legs" of the rig.|
When we had the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, it not only affected gasoline sales but also power companies. We went up to the Kentucky and Tennessee coal mines where Tampa Electric was by then getting it's fuel and produced two 30-minute Project 13s we called 'OLD MAN RIVER', because of the route each piece of coal took from the mountainous regions down the Mississippi River and then to Tampa. We rode on a coal tow which consisted of a huge boat pushing nine barges of coal on the Mississippi river for five days.
We won an Emmy in the 'program excellence' category for "Highway Time-Bombs," revealing dangerous transportation methods used by some trucking companies in carrying volatile cargo on our highways.
|We even did one on how a TV station, in this case Channel 13, is run
("Welcome to Our House").
"Welcome to Our House" reveals a Chroma Key effect over Jule McGee's 16mm Camera
TO SEE THE EFFECT, 'CLICK' ON THE PHOTO OF RAY BLUSH!
The McGees and the Blushs' in a rare vacation from Project 13
We were expected to produce 52 original half-hours per year. Project 13 ran for five years, or 231 programs. We aired every Sunday at 6:30 and it actually turned out that there were a few weekends along the way that we would get pre-empted by a long-running football game. There were three summers that we convinced Hugh and Mr. Dodson to let us run a few reruns. We usually had five or six shows in various stages of production at one time.
To help our schedule, we'd sometimes select a great topic and just shoot a half hour interview program with the mobile unit. We got some help towards the end from John Ferrugia and Larry Elliston. Jule still did most of the shooting, but Larry helped shoot and edit film, conducted interviews, scripted and hosted a few programs. With the addition of Larry, it gave us flexibility and sanity. It was fun working with Larry Elliston.
Larry Elliston (left) helped take some of the load off of Project 13 producers Ray Blush and Jule McGee
Linda Rossi, Jim Benedict, and Duane Martin worked with us out in the field for a while and were such a joy to work with, we repeatedly asked them to join us. Jim directed most of our shows when transferring from film to tape and we sought his input in our preparation phases as often as he could accommodate us! During the run of Project 13, we were beating the competition, which was the NBC 6:30 network news. The costs eventually made the station close the door on Project 13. We had almost all the Project 13's on 3/4" tape, and when they tore down the old building, they threw most of them away. Jule saved a dozen or so and I have two."
Blush interviews Hugh Smith, who would later make an important decision about anchoring and being News Director
As the 1970s drew to a close, Blush was used extensively on-air as news continued to be the station's highest profile, most profitable programming.
Blush on the mid 70's PULSE set
He anchored newscasts all over the schedule and reported often from the St. Petersburg studios. Upon the departure of Assistant News Director John Hayes, Hugh Smith asked Blush to become number two man in the newsroom.
Blush (far right) became WTVT's Assistant News Director
"I became Assistant News Director and Assignment Editor after Project 13 ended in 1978. Hugh Smith and I always had a good working relationship. Hugh was a stickler for accuracy, and so was I. That was a critical thing in journalism. We were both shooting for the same thing, an accurate presentation in facts and perspective. Hugh hired a lot of people who thought that way. My personality and Jule's personality meshed with Hugh. I was always as frank with him as I could be, and he was the same with me. We pulled no punches. He was a tough disciplinarian, especially on himself.
About three years later, Harry Apel, Crawford Rice, and Hugh decided the dual jobs of news director and chief anchor were becoming entirely too much work for one individual. They gave Hugh the choice of being News Director or anchor, and Hugh chose anchoring. I was the number two person, and it appeared to me that they would go outside and get somebody or tap me. I had run the news department in Hugh's absence frequently. So, it wasn't a surprise when I became News Director in 1982. It was a pleasant affirmation."
As News Director, Blush was in a potentially awkward situation, since he was now outranking his former boss Hugh Smith, who had served as News Director for 13 years.
"When the change occurred, and Hugh stepped down, he became my best employee. I never had an ounce of concern coming from Hugh. Never. Hugh knew the trials and tribulations of that job. He knew what he had to do to make my job easier, and that's the way he conducted himself.
Of course, I didn't just walk in the door. A lot of things we were doing were my idea, or partially my idea, or something I contributed to along the way. There wasn't a whole lot for me to tweak. One thing I targeted was to use develop the use satellites. We were doing a lot of microwaving, but we had no satellite capability whatsoever. We also wanted a helicopter, but that battle didn't get won until years after I left. Channel 10 was the first to have a helicopter, and one of their advertisements gloated over that fact, saying "We have the skies all to ourselves." Although Channel 10 was growing as a competitor (as was channel 44), we still did not have the distractions of cable or Bay News 9."
Channel 13's news staff consisted of about 40 veterans and newcomers who were aligned with the goal of beating the competition and doing it accurately.
"Some of my outstanding reporters included Warren Elly, Mike Randell, Tim Smith, Jim Larson, Maria Rodriguez, and Larry Elliston, who produced 'Assignment: Florida.' Leslie Spencer, who anchored Pulse Plus, also was a darn good reporter. You have to understand that these people were not just reporters, they were entrepreneurs. You could turn them loose and they would come back with a legitimate, professionally done news story. Back in those days, all of us took pride in beating the competition, and that included television and print. A lot of television journalism today is following the newspaper the day after. We did it the other way. I would rely on these people and they would come through."
An outside offer brought Blush's time at Channel 13 to an end.
"Florida Power approached me about a job in 1983 and I turned them down. They came back in '84 and made me an offer I just could not refuse. The organization they proposed and the salary were amazing, and it was the perfect opportunity for me to continue growing. But it was a tough decision; I agonized over it for about two weeks, and had a lot of soul searching and a lot of discussions with Linda and friends, and made the decision to go. I left Channel 13 in October of 1984 to become Director of Corporate Communications at Florida Power.
Jim West was my Operations Manager, and Neil Vacino was the Assignment Editor. Both were very capable and either one of those guys could have done the job. Jim was named the News Director."
Twenty years later, Blush is retired and I asked him to look back and compare broadcast news journalism then and now.
"I think TV news does a pretty good job, but they don't subscribe to the theories we embraced 20 years ago. Those of us who were die hard broadcast journalists back then wouldn't have done things the same way. That's not to say what's being done today is wrong or rightit's just different. Back in the 70's, we heard from people who worked in 50's saying 'well, this is the way we USED to do things.' I can understand how I feelmy predecessors felt the same way and twenty years from now they'll be talking about how they did things in 2002."
Finally, how does Ray Blush recall the years he spent at Big 13?
"It was some of my most productive and highest learning years. The people I worked with were very professional. And in those days we were very much a close family of workers. The station had its annual events for families to get together, the news department had many social events some for families, some on the spur of the moment at a local night spot. If one of the staff had a serious problem, the rest would do whatever could be done to help. If one of the department employees had something joyous to beam about, you can bet your bottom dollar many others would join the cheering section. Thats just the way the culture was then, a wonderful period in my life. If you had to go out on a limb, there was somebody to help hold you up as best they could. If I had to do it all over again, I'd probably do it the same way."
"Big 13" thanks our friend and former colleague Ray Blush for sharing his memories of Channel 8 and Channel 13.
Former Channel 13 reporter John Ferrugia has sent us some "Project 13" memories. Click here for "John Ferrugia...on the road with Project 13"
Larry Elliston, former Project 13 reporter is profiled in "Larry Elliston, Channel 13's 'Down Home' Feature Man"
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