A 2002 Visit to Channel 13
by Mike Clark
I glanced out the window of Delta flight 808 as we descended over the Gulf of Mexico towards Tampa International Airport. At an altitude of 5,000 feet, I could see that the gulf was very calm and clear, as pleasure boats trawled over waters about 30 feet deep. As we swung over the Town and Country area, I marveled at the number of small lakes and ponds dotting the landscape. Really different from Los Angeles, my home of 25 years.
It was my first long-term flight since the tragedy of September 11th, and I anticipated security delays and a bumpy ride (especially over Texas). Actually, there were no delays and the flight was as smooth as the gulf that day. We touched down on the runway two minutes ahead of schedule, and taxied to airside "C," a place I had been to scores of times since the airport was built in 1970. As they ground crew opened the hatch, the familiar waft of Florida humidity filled the cabin and I knew I was back in Tampa.
I arrived on Mother's Day and had a nice reunion with my dear Mom. My schedule included some visits with other relatives and friends in St. Pete for a few days until my departure for London. I would be seeing a new friend that I'd never met in person: Dave Morrison. Dave had sparked the idea for the WTVT web site, and helped me launch it with his research and photographic abilities. For several months, we had maintained an Email and phone relationship, and I was looking forward to spending a day with my new pal. I also anticipated a visit to WTVT, and possibly to WFLA.
A couple of days later, I picked up Dave at the St. Pete Times building off of 4th Street. While we chatted on the way to Tampa, Dave and I became instant buds as we discovered more interests in common including sci-fi, "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "Firesign Theater," and photography, to name a few. We also like digging around for historical information.
Our first destination was to be WTVT in Tampa. Crossing the Howard Frankland bridge, I thought of the Channel 13 crew that videotaped the bridge's opening in 1960. Ernie Lee traveled this bridge every weekday for the 30+ years he spent hosting "Good Morning" and "Breakfast Beat" on Channel 13. I decided to take the Kennedy Blvd. exit and see what changes had been made lately. I had lived off just off Kennedy near West Shore Blvd. (and behind a Lums) during the time I worked at Channel 13. Actually, the street didn't look that much different from the time I left in 1977. A Burger King here, a stereo store there. What I didn't see looming ahead to the east was the familiar WTVT twin tower, which was torn down in 1989 after the construction of Channel 13's new studio. A large, vertical structure was now in its place.
Taller and more visible than the original twin tower...Skytower 13
The new WTVT building is actually 12 years old now. It's set back about two hundred feet from Kennedy Blvd. A series of bone-dry fountains (due to Florida's long-running drought) covered the spot where the original 1955 building had stood. The old facility was demolished once the move was made to the new structure. Along with it went the twin tower that held the WTVT signage. A new cement structure called the "Skytower" radar stood in the twin tower's place. About 150 feet high and topped with a hexagonal radar dome, the new landmark is impressive.
WTVT's home since 1989
I had been to the new building twice before, but not since starting the WTVT web site. A few of the people I worked with are still there, including my former boss Jim Benedict. Dave and I walked into the large, glassy lobby. A little more than a month earlier, Jane Hilton had finished her 35 year stint there as receptionist. Jim Benedict was notified of our presence, and a few minutes later he made a dramatic entrance down a curved stairway above the reception area.
Aside from graying hair, Jim looked just about the same as always (good genes, no doubt). His voice was a little raspy from years of smoking, but he still had the same direct, friendly manner I had long admired. Since becoming WTVT's un-official biographer, I asked Jim where he was before joining Channel 13 in 1964. He told me he was overseas during a two year hitch with the Army. Funny, I never pictured Jim in uniform, but in the 50's and 60's, military service was mandatory.
We spoke about the WTVT web site and how it came to be. We covered technical matters that the station had encountered over the years. We recalled the custom woodwork and stained glass decorations of the original building. Jim told the story of how the station finished broadcasting in the original building on a Friday night. At signoff, a massive effort was required to move key equipment into the new building and go on-air a few hours later. They did it, of course, because they always did it.
We spoke of the days when Jim was on the mobile unit, covering space shots and recoveries. Jim was part of the WTVT contingent on the carrier Randolph as it recovered Gemini IV and V. Then there were the later Apollo launches from Cape Kennedy. He was there when the unit taped "Day of Discovery" at Cypress Gardens, broadcast live regional football games for the network, and hundreds of other remotes. Jim mentioned that the remote work often put an extra scheduling burden on the crew back at the station.
Jim lead us into the hallway and past glassed-in control rooms and the weather center. The place was obviously built for tours, and was quite unlike the labyrinth of the old building. The production studio was very large (about 80' X '80) with a 50' high ceiling. A daily noon-time show was produced there but no Publix commercials or High Q since the 1980's.
Channel 13's news studio is on a par with the nation's larger affiliates and networks. Their Fox news desk is an island in the middle of the studio. The walls had various setups of backgrounds, maps, and monitors for use during the newscast. The most dramatic part, however, is the way the actual newsroom is viewed behind the anchor desk. It seems to go on for about 150 feet. With television cameras using wide angle lenses, the effect is almost infinite. Dave took some digital stills of Jim and me on the set.
Mike with Jim Benedict in the Fox13 news studio
Mike on Fox13 news set. Note depth of newsroom in background
The news room had the quiet bustle of a sleekly run operation. I made it a point to watch Channel 13's news while I was in the area, and was pleased to see that the program hadn't taken the Fox tabloid approach to the same extreme as other markets had.
In his office, Jim pulled down a large, bound volume of WTVT newsletters stretching back into the 1960's. I thumbed through a few looking for tidbits to put on the web site. We looked at photos of Jim's children and grandchildren, and the conversation frequently included the phrase 'where did the years go.'
Our tour reached an end as we glanced over historical WTVT photos posted in the hallway. There was Mary Ellen, 3-D Danny, Ernie Lee, Hugh Smith, Roy Leep, Andy Hardy, Salty Sol, and many others that had made WTVT the broadcasting icon of Tampa Bay.
There wasn't much to connect me to the old 'Big 13,' other than Jim himself. I left Jim one of my new "Big 13" web site business cards, which were produced on the same computer that I use to maintain the site. Jim mentioned that he was planning his retirement home in North Carolina. It'll be a sad day at WTVT when Jim leaves. A handful more of certain people out the door and there will be no one left from the 'old days.'
Dave and I went down to the curb and took this digital photo. Dave is a very professional photographer, and to get certain views, dangled his hindquarters well onto Kennedy Blvd. If I look at all nervous in the photos, it's because I'm concerned about a Buick impaling itself on my new best friend.
Dave also knew something that I didn't about our next destination, WFLA-TV, Channel 8. I was all set to head downtown past the Hillsborough River to Jackson Street. Dave informed me that WFLA had moved years ago to a new facility next to the river.
"It's just plain big!" Mike outside WFLA, Channel 8
The new WFLA studios shared the land with the Tampa Tribune newspaper. From the outside, the twin structures of the newspaper and television station looked huge. Once we were inside, it got even more huge!
Our tour guide would be another former Channel 13 alumni, Jon Hoegstrom. 'Hoegy' left 13 in the late 70's and moved his wife Mary and their kids to Pittsburgh. Channel 8 brought Hoegy back to Florida a few years later to the position of production supervisor. First, Hoegy took us into WFLA's news offices, which occupy four floors of the north wing. The building is nothing short of astounding. Designed and built in a classical yet modern style with plenty of natural light and open space, the WFLA offices overlook a stunning view of the University of Tampa, the Hillsborough River, and downtown Tampa. Editing suites, control rooms, and production offices were intertwined in an efficient manner. Hoegy's office has a beautiful view of the river, and we enjoyed some reminisces about WTVT as we strolled along. I also brought along a 1954 issue of RCA Broadcast News that spotlighted the building of the original WFLA studios. Hoegy pulled a couple of the 'old timers' over and showed them the issue. We took an elevator to the ground floor an entered a room as large as Channel 13's production studio...and this was only Channel 8's corridor to the production studio!
The production studio was incredibly large...about 120 feet by 60, with a two story high grid. I couldn't believe the size of the facility, which was often rented out for infomercials and independent productions. A local program mixing information, cooking, and music was broadcast on weekdays from the studio.
Mike with Jon Hoegstrom in WFLA news studio
Next door, the news set took up the entire studio. It's a two story high affair that has to be seen to be believed. I asked Hoegy about the technical aspects of their robotic cameras, which use sensors to guide themselves along etchings in the studio floor. Hoegy told me that the cameras don't have sensors to detect humans, however, and that it's best not to get in their way during a broadcast.
I also found out something about Hoegy that I didn't know...he served two tours of duty in Vietnam!
After our visit at WFLA, Dave and I returned to the outdoor parking lot and opened the car doors to let our vehicle cool down (it was about 90 degrees that day in Tampa) and planned our next stop: The original WFLA studios!
Only a dog leg and about a half-mile from the new Channel 8 studios, the original WFLA building is at 905 E. Jackson Street. The basic shape of the building was unchanged from 1954, except for a mid-1980's WFLA sign on the front. Dave and I compared the structure to photos taken in 1954, and lined up similar angles for our digital photos.
WFLA studios in 1954 and in 2002
I looked at the exterior and remembered the two times I had been there. On August 10, 1963, I was part of the peanut gallery on "The Uncle Bruce Show." (Read about it in the "Uncle Bruce" section). Four years later, I danced like a fool on WFLA's teen program "Hi-Time."
Jackson street is far enough from the bustle of the 'happening' part of downtown Tampa to be oddly quiet. Even the nearby crosstown expressway did not interfere with the calm. The WFLA building was very quiet and ghostly. A tumbleweed could have blown down the street and I wouldn't have been surprised. I noticed the realtor's sign and wondered what kind of business could use an old TV studio? The building might remain unoccupied for a long, long time. After snapping a few more angles, we, like WFLA, were outta there.
Dave and I headed towards Ybor City and a delicious lunch at the Columbia restaurant. On our way back to Dave's place in St. Pete, we passed by the triangular intersection where WTVT had planned to put up their St. Petersburg studio. (see 'Facilities') We hung around at Dave's place for a while, and I admired his voluminous collection of movie posters, laser discs, and DVDs. We freely quoted MST3K and Firesign theater, which kept us in stitches. Later that afternoon, I drove up to Clearwater and met with the editor of Tampa Bay Magazine, Aaron Fodiman, to discuss an article about Suncoast kid's show hosts.
The next day, I called Hugh Smith and arranged to meet him later at his residence in St. Pete. At 2 p.m., I arrived at Hugh's place and he was waiting outside to guide me in. I hadn't seen Hugh in person for 25 years, and he looked pretty fit. Inside, we spent the first hour talking about what I had done since leaving the station. I finally got my tape recorder going and spent a quick half-hour talking to Hugh about his career prior to Big 13, and got many comments on his years as news director there. Hugh's stories were often interrupted by his nasty cough, the result of many years of smoking. Our time was cut short when he was summoned to pick up his grandson at a Karate class, but Hugh allowed me to call again by phone once I'd returned from Europe.
I found out that two days later, Hugh was feeling badly and admitted himself to a hospital. The doctors installed a splint in a heart valve and told him 'no more smoking.' I'm glad that my interview with Hugh did not become his last.
On Wednesday, we celebrated my father's 83rd birthday, and on Thursday it was lunch with Dave and my mom. A great ending to my Florida trip. I went on to London for a television convention, and upon a safe return the following week, plunged back into work and to updating the "Big 13" site.
The main impression I came out of my visit to Channel 8 and Channel 13 is that the media business is more business than ever. The people I saw were uniformly well-groomed and involved in serious work. We certainly had that attitude back in the 70's, but there was also a frivolity that echoed through the corridors and studios of Big 13. Could we have been having more fun back then? Maybe...or maybe it just seems that way to me.
PULSE EXTRA: Several readers have noted that I have gained weight over the years. Remember that the camera adds 30 pounds! - - Mike
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