WAKC Alumni Look Back, Decades After TV News Left Town
On the 25th anniversary of the end of WAKC, an encore presentation of a staff reunion from 2016
Twenty-five years ago, Akron lost its only local TV newsroom. After four decades of struggling to compete with Cleveland's TV stations — including fellow ABC affiliate, WEWS — WAKC-TV was bought by Paxson Communications, which quickly dropped its local programming. In 2016, Channel 23 alumni gathered at Akron's Spaghetti Warehouse to look back at what was for many their first -- and best -- job in broadcasting.
25 years ago (Feb. 28, 1996): Akron lost its only TV newsroom as WAKC (Channel 23, formerly WAKR-TV) was sold. Here’s a look back... pic.twitter.com/I0efZFXXqC— Kabir Bhatia (@KabirBhatiaTime) February 28, 2021
Chris Hyser: “I was the 11:00 producer there. [It was] just a tight-knit, ‘us against the world’ mentality. I think you can see from the people that were here, it was sort of a family atmosphere. I mean, where else are you going to see -- 20 years down the road – a bunch of people coming together to mark the day they were all let go from something?”
Mark Williamson: “I anchored for about 17 years. [On the last day], we were out shooting the story and I'm driving back. I called the switchboard and we had this old lady that was always there [saying], ‘WAKR, TV 23,’ everyday [for] 100 years this woman answered. I got voicemail and I said, ‘something’s wrong.’”
On his most memorable story, Williamson remembers back to 1979. “I was actually doing traffic reports when Thurman Munson's plane went down. This really cool private jet flew right past us and I'm in a Cessna 150. I said to the pilot, ‘wow, what was that?’ He said, ‘some rich guy in his new toy.’ About 12 minutes later, I saw smoke on the ground. And it was his plane. That probably had the biggest impact on me of anything.”
Mike Case: “I eventually ended up being the weekend sports anchor. It was awesome. My best memory is the Indians finally got to go to the World Series. Amazing that the team that we had liked for so long, that was so bad, finally got to go and that we were lucky enough to be a part of it. That was certainly the highlight for me.”
Case and his family were in this holiday promo from the early 1990s.
David Strukel: “I was an intern during my undergrad days at Bowling Green and then I was hired as a sports producer. I got to interview Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage. I told Randy, ‘hey, we're going live in a few minutes.’ So I think Phil [Ferguson] tossed it down to me and I said ‘hi, Dave Strukel, live at the Food 4 Less in Massillon, Ohio.’ There’s a huge display of Slim Jims so I said, ‘Randy, tell me what's going on tonight.’ He said maybe two or three words and wrapped his hands around my neck and started choking me and shaking me and I just said, ‘Phil back to you.’”
Phil Ferguson: “I was a Sports Director. We kind of went off just as the City of Akron was starting to go the other way: you're talking about LeBron James, the downtown development in Akron, the hotels being built, Canal Park – so, unfortunately, we went off the air just when things were starting to turn the corner.”
Pat Woodside: “I was one of the few survivors of the closing down of the newsroom. There were four of us who they held onto for about a year and a half. In the interim, after everything went down, I was the lone editor there. We still did a bit of commercial production. We tried to do some public affairs shows. My first two weeks, all I did was take down signs that said ‘WAKC.’”
Johanna Perrino: “I started in 1987, interning. We did a few local public affairs shows. I was the editor of the [video show].”
But did she ever have to edit videos for content?
Perrino: “No, but I did have to edit out ‘Batman’; the one from the mid-60s. If you watch it, it's more funny now that we're adults than when we were kids, 'cause some of the innuendos and Batman were kind of sexual or adult themed.”
Carl Bachtel: “I started as an intern [and] like, many of the folks, morphed into full-time as a news photographer.”
One of his most memorable stories was a fire at the Methodist Church across from the former Central Hower campus. “Mike Harris, a photographer who works for Channel 5 now, and I we were the first on the scene. We beat the second alarm of fire crews there and stayed there the whole night. It was absolutely incredible. The next morning, I had the opportunity to go up in the Goodyear blimp to cover the Soapbox Derby and get aerials of the burned-out church.”
Steve Shannon: “I was there for about four years as a shooter and then full-time editor. The three of us sitting here, we were fortunate that we actually did get a one-newscast suspension. There was, uh, some technical errors on an 11:00 show. Tape errors [and] the wrong story ran. We got about four hours paid suspension and the three of us actually went golfing.”
John Zaccardelli: “It was my first news job. I was mad. I went home. I did not golf; I know these two golfed [and] there were some beer involved.”
Bob Tayek: “I was the vice President of news at WAKC. We knew that we had really started to make it when we knew that all of the Cleveland television stations were monitoring us.”
Eric Walls: “I got my first job at [WAKC] and I was a photographer and a video editor. It was the kind of place where you could go out, and if a story wasn't coming together, if it wasn't what we thought it was, if the reporter didn't think it had any kind of news value, we could call back and say, ‘I don't know if we should put this on the air.’ You didn't have the pressure; you could learn without kind of getting rushed.
Tim Coffey: “I had a pleasure of being at Channel 23 for 13 and a half years. I think about 1989 I became Chief Photographer.”
Coffey remembers working with a then-new reporter, Eric Mansfield. “He asked, ‘can we do a stand up on camera?’ I said, ‘son, you got one take and you better do it. I'm not gonna stick around, we’ve been shooting all day.’ So I had him do this stand up, and of course he did it in one and he's been probably my favorite reporter of all-time to work with.”
Eric Mansfield: “My first internship [was] in the summer of 1989. That was one of the great things about the old Channel 23 was they would give people that first job. [They had] old school, beat up cameras, small newsroom, but we competed every day against the Cleveland stations. And like I went out on a helicopter crash, and we have our one live truck which was running on hamster power, and I'm there live next to Martin Savidge, who's at CNN. Now he's going live and I'm 10 feet away. And of course he's making 10 times what I'm making. I had a great producer who told me, ‘the only difference between Cleveland news and Akron news is better shoes.’”
Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the end of WAKC’s newscasts, several more alumni shared their stories about working at Channel 23.
Joyce Johnson: “I worked at TV 23 for about 7 years. I was a news reporter for radio and TV, a weekend anchor, a weather reporter, and radio traffic reporter. When I started there, all of the stations were combined so I would get up at 4 a.m. and do traffic for radio, then cover a story for television as well as write it up for radio and oftentimes wouldn't get home until 7 p.m. -- then get up and do it all again the next day. We worked six days a week. Our newsroom had numerous police scanners and one time when I was there, we heard a report come in about an armed gunman in the TV 23 lobby. I'll never forget our assignment editor at the time, George Nola, wanted to protect me as well as our intern and he literally pushed us to safety out the back door. Of course, there was no gunman and we were all fine. But I remember thanking him for always looking out for other people, especially his coworkers and putting our lives first.
“I've made lifelong friends at TV 23 too many to name, and I ended up marrying the competition: Don Olson from Channel 8's Akron Bureau, who I met while covering John Glenn's visit to a trash burning plant in Akron. It doesn't get more romantic than that.”
Tim Daugherty: “I was first hired by Group One in late 1984 to be part of the first staff at WONE radio. Not quite two years later, Group One sold all eight of their radio stations in the chain, and I was asked to stay on to become TV 23's nightly weatherman. Now, despite having had very little on camera or even meteorological experience, I held that position for seven years. Some of my fondest memories from that time were what I learned about on-camera presentation, and even picked up some weather knowledge along the way. As many will tell you, we had a great, cohesive staff who all seemed to like working with one another. There were no egos. We were like family, working hard to put two solid newscasts on the air every day. We may not have looked as polished or sexy as some you might see elsewhere. But the ingredients were the same. It was News Reporting 101. Or, as Joe Friday might say, ‘give us the facts, ma'am, just the facts.’
“When Group One sold the TV station in 1994, I left to return to the full-time to WONE. At times, I regretted my decision. But many from my 23 family assured me that I'd made the right move since [those] days were challenging. But an interesting thing happened to me a short time after the news broke of Channel 23's demise: I was having a prescription filled at a local pharmacy when the pharmacist -- who must have recognized me from my weatherman days -- looked over the counter and asked if I'd found work. I told him I'd left two years prior, but I thanked him for his concern. But what that said to me was that the sense of family we felt working with one another came through on the TV screens of the audience who tuned in every night. It's a shame that it had to end, but I can look back with pride for having been part of something very special.”
This WAKC news promo from the late 1980s features both Daugherty and Johnson.
Phil Hoffman: “Tim Daugherty was particularly evil as a coworker because when I would host on the weekend – and occasionally I would do the anchoring duties -- Tim would be standing next to the camera and he would do everything he could think of to try to make me laugh. I can't actually say on the air or some of the things that Tim would do, but it was pretty amusing.
“We definitely had a good time in the studio. At one point, there was a curious device that [was] the teleprompter back then. It was actually like a little conveyor belt that had a camera -- like a GoPro -- mounted above it. And you would take all your scripts and you would tape them all together for each segment, so they would run across the conveyor belt under the camera.
“Well, I got the brilliant idea one weekend -- because I was one of the only people there -- that I would simply tape together the entire newscast. As you can imagine, that was a pretty long strip of paper. That doesn't really work when you start doing that across a conveyor belt. Over time, it started to slip sideways until, eventually, the paper ran out and everyone in the control room were curious as to why I suddenly had just a blank look on my face. It took them a while to figure out, ‘I guess we need to have somebody down in the studio to babysit his brilliant idea.’
“Mark Williamson was news director when I was there. He had this theory and I remember it to this day. He always used to say, ‘I like to think of us as an autonomous collective. Everybody knows what you're supposed to do. You're competent in the thing that you're supposed to do, and I trust you to do it.’ It's really interesting to me to think about today -- in the workplace -- how that's kind of the dominant way of thinking about working with employees. Back then, that was a pretty radical idea that you would trust your staff and trust the people that work there. I give Mark a lot of credit for creating an environment where it was okay for us to have a little bit of fun and okay for you as a reporter to try to do some things that weren't typical. Mark was really the person that was supportive of when I started doing the ‘Untold Stories’ segments. I did them on my own, frequently: I would edit them myself. I would write it myself and then, if I was lucky, I would get a photographer to go with me. And he was very kind of indulgent.
“You can never go wrong by telling stories about average people and the history of the area in which they live. I can remember one of the ‘Untold Stories’ we did that got a really positive response. There was a fellow that worked downtown in the tallest building. He was a janitor and his office was on the top floor in the penthouse. And so I did a whole story where the schtick was, ‘he held the highest office in Summit County.’ So, we got great footage of him looking over the city skyline with his foot up on the edge of the building, you know, and that sort of thing. And it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. So that kind of person, they never get to be featured in the news because they're just doing their job, living their life. And there's nothing that they're doing that’s spectacular in that sense, that's really considered to be newsworthy, but I found that those kinds of stories people could really relate to. I just always thought it's fun to tell these stories about somebody who ordinarily would not rise to that level that they would be featured in a news story; unless something terrible happened.”
There as an attempt to revive an Akron-based newscast in the 2000s, put together by WKYC. That newscast was later canceled. A 2007 documentary about the station, produced by WOUB, is available here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. A history of the station's struggles and final days is available at the Beacon Journal website.