Rich Heldenfels

Twenty years ago Sunday, Akron lost a long-running locally based newscast. WAKC (Channel 23) had a new owner, Paxson Communications, and one of that owner’s first acts was to kill the news.

That was just part of a systematic dismantling of what had been the most Akron-centric station in the region. By the time its makeover was done, Paxson had changed the call letters from WAKC — implying Akron-Canton — to the more corporate WVPX; ended an ABC affiliation in favor of ties to a new network Paxson was launching; and reconfigured the station as a Cleveland broadcaster based in Warrensville Heights.

The biggest blow, the one that still resonates in this area, was the dropping of the newscast.

Local news could be found, of course, on radio and in print. And there would be other attempts to sustain an Akron TV newscast, including one produced via WKYC (Channel 3) for broadcast and then cable from 2001 to 2008.

But things have never quite been the same since the end of a newscast that had been reaching local viewers since 1953, on what was first WAKR and later WAKC.

Yes, the news was flawed; at one point its 11 p.m. telecast was recorded earlier in the evening.

It was underfinanced, especially after 1986. The original owners, the Berk family, sold their radio stations, whose profitability had helped keep the TV station afloat.

It was often behind on the technological basics. “When I got there, they still didn’t have a Teleprompter,” said Phil Ferguson, a sportscaster for the station for seven years before the news was shut down.

Akron might have kept its own stations and newscasts if the Nielsen ratings provided ratings separate from Cleveland’s; Dayton, a smaller city than Akron, has its own stations. But that stopped in the 1960s, when Akron was shoved into the same ratings market as Cleveland stations, hurting its pitch to advertisers because the numbers tilted toward the high-population areas to the north. Indeed, some viewers would watch ABC programs on WAKC, then say in ratings reports that they had been watching WEWS, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland.

‘Stuffed’ newsroom

Years before the final blow, ownership changes hinted that the news would not last — that WAKC was seen to outsiders as simply a way to reach Cleveland TV audiences, never mind what was needed in Akron, or Canton.

Mark Williamson, who was an anchor and news director during his 17 years at the station, points to the Cleveland conflict as one of the biggest problems for WAKC. (And it remains a major reason why an Akron newscast has not been sustainable in more recent years.)

Local groups would look past WAKC and curry favor with the Cleveland stations, said Williamson, now coordinator of communications for Akron Public Schools. “They were the shiny package with all the lights and the bells, and we were a brown bag with ‘news’ written on it.”

But you often see underdogs called scrappy, and that was certainly the case with WAKC.

“We did an amazing job with what we had to work with,” said Williamson. Going against the pretty-people cliche of TV, he said, “I hired bald people, I hired people that were overweight, I hired people with thick glasses. If you could tell a story and had a good personality and a sense of humor, you had a good shot at working there. I wanted people that were storytellers.”

“It was almost like we’re all sort of in it together,” said meteorologist Mark Nolan, who would go on to work for WKYC and now WOIO (Channel 19). He recalled people “stuffed” into a tiny newsroom, all relatively young and “working for good video [for an audition tape] instead of money.”

“It was not really flashy,” said Ferguson, now with WNIR-FM. “But you tried to put out the best product each night. … The whole group worked together to put the product on. … If you needed something, calls to be made to get a score or whatever, everybody pitched in. … I don’t know if you have that nowadays.”

‘Boy, we learned a lot’

WAKC was a proving ground for journalists who would go on to bigger things. Nolan remembers getting trained by Mark Johnson, now with WEWS. CNN anchor Carol Costello is also a WAKC alumnus.

It was the first job for many coming out of college, or those with job experience but none in TV before.

Johanna Perrino, now overseeing Wadsworth Community Television, was among those who went from college to WAKC, first as an intern then full-time in production. She recalls the station as “a close-knit group of friends” with “no egos.” Costello calls it “a little dysfunctional family that functioned really well.”

As Ferguson indicated, people would work where they were needed; Perrino learned editing, she said, from Billy Soule, host of the music program on the station. “His production person quit or left or something and he was like, ‘You, you’ — he didn’t know my name — ‘come here and edit my show.’ ”

Yes, there was a learning curve. Costello said. She was covering an Akron school board meeting with a veteran photographer, Mike Kell, and it was not going well.

“I had to do a standup for TV, and I keep messing up,” she said. “The poor photographer is there, holding all this heavy equipment. And I keep messin’ up and messin’ up. I must have done 12 takes and I said, ‘Screw it! I’m not doing this anymore!’ And Mike grabbed me by the arm and said, ‘You’ve made me stand here for an hour while you messed up. You’re going to effing do this standup.’ And I did it perfectly the next time.”

But it was a chance.

“We weren’t paid very well,” said former reporter and anchor Eric Mansfield. “But you were on the air every night, you’re at a network affiliate, you’re on the same stories as the big Cleveland stations. It was a great place to learn your craft so hopefully you could move up. … And boy, we learned a lot.”

Team spirit could make for good times, Perrino said.

“My favorite nights were election nights. … We were there until ungodly hours of the night until election results came in. Everyone was out and about. We’re editing like crazy, doing cut-ins and teasers, and everything’s live, and our adrenaline’s going.”

Out of the shadows

However long a shadow the Cleveland stations cast, the Akron station tried to break through. The Beacon Journal reported in 1953 that the station “scored a ‘scoop’ over all locally received television rivals in the reporting of the Korean (war) armistice.”

You could blame some of that on boosterism, since the Beacon Journal owned a large piece of the TV station and its radio siblings until 1976. But then you listen to Mansfield, who as much as any reporter has been TV’s man in Akron, at WAKC, WKYC and that 2000s local newscast.

Mansfield, now executive director of media relations at Kent State, said in 1993, he was covering a hostage situation in Cuyahoga Falls for WAKC, collecting exclusive footage from the scene.

“Channel 5 wanted our tape,” Mansfield said, “That was always a big debate because they’re our competitors but they’re also our ABC brothers.” In this case, WAKC did not give the footage to WEWS, forcing it to buy the package from a service.

And there was still no respect for the Akron station, Mansfield said. “They had their anchor dub my script word for word and reran the package. … I was offended, but at least my stuff was good enough for Cleveland.”

And, of course, good enough for Akron.

While many of the WAKC veterans have remained in the area, others took opportunities out of town, because they wanted to keep working in TV news and to advance their careers.

Costello has spoken of how much she felt at home in Akron, of how stories she did here have stayed strong in memory for 30 years. But when the radio stations were sold, the only TV job WAKC had to offer was as a weather girl, she said. She worked in local radio for a bit — but moved on when a good TV job opened up in Toledo.

And then, one day, the newscast itself was gone. And local TV news, when you can find it, is now basically borrowed space in a Cleveland telecast.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, Ohio.com, Facebook, Twitter and the HeldenFiles Online blog. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.