Sign-Off To An Era: An Op Ed by Dick Ahles-
Dick Ahles, April 8, 2005
I went to work for what was then WTIC Radio and Television on Nov. 27, 1961, the same day that Broadcast House, the first building completed on Constitution Plaza, was dedicated. It was a far different time for broadcasting and for Hartford.
Now, 44 years later, the obsolete building is to be abandoned and the surviving TV station will probably leave the city, as did the radio stations awhile back.
Broadcast House officially opened in 1961 with a live prime-time program highlighted by the premiere of "The Broadcaster Suite" by the composer Robert Maxwell, a onetime harpist in one of the big bands WTIC employed full time in the 1930s and '40s. The suite had been commissioned by the stations, a classy act quite unimaginable today.
A glitch in the teleprompter caused radio personality Bob Steele to lose his place as he was explaining that the miles of cable needed to operate the stations were buried in trenches in the floor. "And," the perfectionist Steele ad-libbed, "I wish I were down there with them now."
After the dedication, there were days of lavish parties for local and national advertisers, community leaders, officeholders and other important people. I concluded that Broadcast House would be a pleasant place to work and stayed 37 years.
Before moving into that state-of-the-art facility, the stations, owned by the Travelers Insurance Co., were headquartered in the Travelers Tower on Central Row. Travelers (now part of Citigroup and soon to be sold to MetLife) was then an unmerged, Hartford-based insurance powerhouse. Unlike today, when managers come and often go, the stations were run by three men - there were no women running anything - who had been around for a long time. Paul Morency, the president, joined 4-year-old WTIC Radio in 1929 along with Leonard Patricelli, who was vice president in charge of programs for Channel 3 by 1961 and would succeed Morency. The general manager was Walter Johnson, who was the station's only announcer when it went on the air in 1925. He spent his first year announcing - on the radio - in a tuxedo.
The Travelers was the developer of Constitution Plaza. Being the solid Hartford citizen it was, the company would not have its stations anywhere but downtown. And a move out of the station's "city of license"
would be frowned on by the Federal Communications Commission, which then, unlike now, strictly regulated broadcasters.
Just about everything, including the newspaper you are now reading, was locally owned in those days. The city was run by a benevolent and paternalistic group of businessmen known as "the bishops." When the hotel next to Broadcast House was completed, bishop Roger Wilkins, the Travelers president, wouldn't allow a sign identifying it as the Hotel America. He thought that would be too flashy. Today, the hotel, long empty, is moldering away.
Neither the bishops nor local ownership could last forever. The Travelers sold the stations in 1974, not long after Channel 3's three news photographers staged a strike with embarrassing signs that read, "Three Against Tower Power." The radio stations went to a local group headed by entrepreneur David Chase, but the Travelers sold Channel 3 to The Washington Post, then fresh from its Pentagon Papers triumph and about to end a presidency with its Watergate reporting.
Channel 3's news, which had a "let's not upset the establishment"
philosophy during the insurance company's stewardship, took on a more professional tone. Washington Post Co. owner Katharine Graham wanted her TV stations to adhere to the same journalistic standards as the company's print media. News coverage went considerably beyond bleeding and burning, and the station won many awards for its news, documentaries and editorials.
After more than 20 years, the Post, also unhappy in its labor relations, sold the station to Iowa-based Meredith Corp., which owns 12 other TV stations but is best known for Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes and Gardens magazines.
Last year, Meredith announced it would leave the rundown Broadcast House and rebuild on a site it was buying from the city. But the station has pulled out of that agreement because it says the site is too small to include a Spanish-language addition. Matt Hennessey, chief of staff to Mayor Eddie Perez, accuses the station of being reluctant to comply with a city requirement that minority-owned contractors be employed. The station has denied that. It wouldn't be surprising, however, if the station had decided it didn't want to deal with the kind of red tape for which Hartford city government is justly famous.
Whatever the motives, Channel 3's apparent decision to end its association with Hartford - just two years short of its 50th year in the city - is regrettable.
Dick Ahles is a retired vice president of WFSB, Channel 3.
Printed in the Hartford Courant, April 8, 2005