Turn on Channel 9, and you’ll get news delivered in a slick
What you won’t get is a sense of the station’s up-and-down
history: its early status as a player in the Boston market, its long
decline and its recent rise to national prominence. Also, you won’t get
of the effort over many years that went into making today’s newscast
On March 26, New Hampshire’s first television station will
celebrate 50 years of broadcasting. Little at the station has remained
over the years—yes, it remains based in Manchester and maintains its
call letters: WMUR. But TV is all about what’s fresh and new, and
keeps changing to keep up.
Still, a television station doesn’t broadcast for five
decades without filling the community’s collective memory with
images—of the Uncle Gus Show, of low-budget commercials for Aubuchon
of anchor Tom Griffith asking Bill Clinton if he’d ever cheated on his
(Clinton’s snappy answer: “If I had, I wouldn’t tell you.”)
So, to celebrate Channel 9’s half-century on the air, let’s
hit the rewind button and recount the station’s behind-the-scenes
has as many ups and downs as any 6 p.m. newscast.
It’s about big issues of television and the station’s impact
on New Hampshire and how WMUR put Manchester on the national media map.
it’s also about people—about on-air heart attacks, sudden layoffs, news
that tipped over, bitter departures and weather magnets that
slid off the map.
And, in fine News Nine tradition, it’s up next.
It started with shoes
WMUR-TV signed on in 1954, but its story really began in
1877 with the birth of Francis Parnell Murphy, son of a Civil War
worked in a tannery in Winchester, N.H.
Growing up around leather, it seemed natural for Murphy to
gravitate to the shoe business then thriving in New Hampshire.
Murphy launching his career with a job pounding nails into
packing cases; he went on to work in shoe factories in Newport,
Nashua. In 1922 he and two partners founded a shoe manufacturing
J.F. McElwain Co. By 1936, it was the largest employer in the state.
Murphy parlayed his business success into political clout.
In 1931, he was elected to the state Legislature; by 1933 he was an
Councilor. In 1937 he won the office of Governor, which he held for two
With the state still mired in the Great Depression, Murphy launched
public works projects ranging from the state bathhouse at Hampton Beach
original Cannon Mountain Tramway.
While governor, Murphy kept his eye out for good business
opportunities. By then, radio had demonstrated its staying power, so in
when federal regulators authorized a new station in Manchester, Murphy
to make the big leap from shoe business into show business.
With two partners—Laconia Citizen publisher Edward J.
Gallagher and James D. Powers, a Manchester physician—Murphy
applied to launch a new radio station in Manchester at 610 AM. The
spent $200,000 on the new venture, including $85,000 to purchase a
Victorian-style home at 1819 Elm Street to serve as studios.For call letters, Murphy chose MUR, the first
three letters of his last name.
WMUR-AM 610 went on the air on Oct.2, 1940, with Murphy
himself welcoming listeners to the new station. Throughout the 1940s,
radio brought Manchester network and local programming, but a new
was gaining ground—television.
By 1948, Milton “Uncle Miltie” Berle was drawing huge
audiences for his “Texaco Star Theatre” program on the NBC network, and
rush was on. Government regulators divided up the airwaves, and as luck
have it, in 1949 a powerful VHF channel frequency was allocated to the
Murphy, having conquered shoes, politics and radio, resolved
to be a player in the new field of television. But he wasn’t alone.
applicants for the new frequency, to be received as Channel 9, were
Manchester’s two other radio stations, WFEA-AM 1370 and WKBR-AM 1250,
as The Union Leader.
The selection procedure proved to be a long one, with other
candidates dropping out or being disqualified by the Federal
Commission. Finally, in 1953, Murphy was awarded the right to broadcast
Channel 9; WMUR was granted an FCC construction permit to upgrade the
transmitter (on the top of Mt. Uncanoonuc in Goffstown) to carry
On the air
Channel 9 went on the air for the very first time at 4 p.m.
on Sunday, March 28, 1954, broadcasting from the studios that housed
radio station.Murphy was on hand to
welcome New Hampshire’s few television set owners, who until then had
on Boston’s two network affiliates, WBZ-TV Channel 4 and WNAC-TV
In the very first remarks on Channel 9, former Gov. Murphy
affirmed the station’s commitment to public service.
“It is the hope of WMUR-TV that the people of New Hampshire
and surrounding areas will realize that it is their station designed to
them.” But underneath the high-minded rhetoric, there was another
“It was definitely a business proposition,” said Ed Brouder
of Manchester, author of “Granite and Ether: A Chronicle of New
“Murphy didn’t do anything if it didn’t have a buck in it,
and as a former politician, he was obviously looking for ways to stay
limelight,” Brouder said.
Though WMUR was based in Manchester, Channel 9’s signal was
strong enough to reach homes throughout Greater Boston. This set the
as a potentially important player in one of the nation’s big media
First, though, the station, with a broadcast day that ran
from just 2 to 11 p.m., needed programming. Just as the WMUR studios
duty for radio and television, so did many of the station’s
Radio news reporter Tom Power was enlisted as New Hampshire’s first TV
anchorman, delivering news updates at dinnertime and 11 p.m. from a
wooden desk. Ernie Saunders, the radio station’s sports director, went
camera for two sports shows each day.
Gus Bernier, already a veteran New Hampshire radio
broadcaster, would find even greater acclaim on television as “Uncle
of Channel 9’s venerable kiddie cartoon show.
Personalities were hired from other radio stations as well;
a popular addition was Gerry Kearney, a local musician and announcer
Kearney was installed as host of “Guest House,” Channel 9’s local
broadcast live every weeknight at 5:30 p.m. from the Elm Street
fine TV style, Kearney was given a sidekick in the form of “Jeeves the
played by local actor Leo Gilmartin; together, the pair hosted an
version of an afternoon chat show.
In its debut years, WMUR’s line-up also included cowboy
music from Buzz Whittica and his Circle M Ranch Boys, the “Pot and
Show” hosted by Fran Evans and New England’s first TV disc jockey show
by up-and-coming broadcaster Donn Tibbetts, who went on to become The
Leader’s State House Bureau Chief. As a publicity stunt, Tibbetts once
broadcast his TV show while swimming in a pool.
A bigger market
Murphy and Norman Gittleson, his aggressive general manager,
had their eyes on the vast Boston market. In December 1955, WMUR
boosted the power of its signal; Boston viewers immediately noticed the
difference, and soon Beantown newspapers were referring to Channel 9 as
city’s “third television station.”
To capitalize on the opportunity, WMUR began broadcasting
popular programs not available on other Boston channels. Boxing and
were early favorites; so were basketball games picked up from NBC and,
afternoon movies from ABC, the network that Channel 9 eventually joined
After just two years on the air, WMUR-TV was attracting
serious attention. The station’s sign-on was pushed back from 2 p.m to
and then still earlier; soon Channel 9 was filling the northern New
airwaves from before dawn until midnight. The staff quickly grew to
50 people—on-camera personalities, technicians and engineers, sales and
“I suspect the station was very successful during this
time,” said Brouder, whose collection of newspaper clippings documents
increasing press Channel 9 received in the Boston papers in the late
In 1956 Murphy sold WMUR radio to the Girolimon family for
$150,000. The station was renamed WGIR-AM, call letters it carries to
Soon after, Murphy—then approaching age 80—began looking for buyers for
TV station on the edge of the Boston market.
In 1957, he struck a deal with the Storer Broadcasting Co.
of Florida, which planned to purchase the station’s license for
an enormous sum. And the next thing New Hampshire viewers knew, they
to lose their TV station.
To better serve the lucrative Boston market, Storer proposed
to erect a new 1,100-foot-high transmitter outside Haverhill,
30 miles from Manchester, but only 20 from downtown Boston. Gradually
clear that Storer intended to move the entire station to Massachusetts.
the pill easier to swallow, Storer offered to donate the equipment to
of New Hampshire, which at the time wanted to start an educational
Outrage spilled into the newspapers. A group called “The
Committee for New Hampshire TV” took out newspaper ads lambasting the
another local group offered to buy WMUR-TV. In the end, government
rejected Storer’s plan for a gigantic tower in Massachusetts, and the
But then, a week before Christmas 1958, Gov. Murphy died at
age 81. As Manchester and New Hampshire mourned, his estate disposed
selling it. The buyer was United Broadcasting, a small Maryland-based
company run by Richard Heaton, an eccentric businessman famous for
raising great numbers of World War II refugees.
The dark ages
The new company had a new vision for Channel 9—one that was
apparently much smaller. Its first move was to lay off 20 employees,
many of the most popular local TV personalities. In March 1959,
technical workers went on strike, putting the station off the air for
The next month, United laid off 10 more employees. By the end of April,
nine people were left at the station.
In the midst of the transition, news anchor Tom Power had
his on-air heart attack. On March 26, 1959, while reading a story about
Wesley Powell during the 6:30 p.m. news, Power inexplicably slipped
newsdesk and fell to the floor. Thousands of viewers, including Power’s
and seven children at home, watched in disbelief as their screens went
They then heard muffled cries for someone to get a doctor. The station
cut to a filmed program while staffers rushed out to get a physician
Power, then 44, was rushed to Sacred Hospital in Manchester
(now Catholic Medical Center), where he remained under observation for
weeks. He eventually recovered, but less than a week after being
the hospital, he too was given a pink slip.
WMUR-TV’s first era of glory was over.
The station entered a decade of torpor. Hamstrung by
absentee ownership and pitifully small budgets, Channel 9 cut local
to two abbreviated newscasts each day. The station drifted, surviving
network hits such as “Bewitched,” which New Hampshire viewers watched
and white because WMUR-TV couldn’t broadcast color.
One bright spot was the emergence of “The Uncle Gus Show,”
which happened completely by accident. Gus Bernier, an announcer and
on-air nice guy, was one of the few WMUR veterans to be kept on staff
Broadcasting. After the 1959 transition, his duties included
station’s afternoon cartoon show.
As Bernier recalled in “Granite and Ether,” one afternoon
two girls showed up at the station asking to appear on television with
obliged; the next day, four girls showed up. Soon Bernier found himself
a feather-festooned fedora and presiding over a studio full of two
every weekday afternoon for an hour of local TV hi-jinks.
The formula was simple. Between cartoons, Bernier chatted
with the youngsters, had them come up to his desk to play games such as
the States,” and enlisted young fans to plug Waleeco candy bars,
Turkish Taffy and other sponsors. Bernier grew to be such a fiendish
catching kids in games of “Simon Says” (both in studio and with viewers
home) that he received letters from irate parents complaining about his
Another milestone was Channel 9’s decision in 1968 to join a
handful of stations to broadcast the first-ever Jerry Lewis Muscular
telethon. (WMUR continues to broadcast the annual telethon to this
as now, it was held on Labor Day weekend; Bernier did the honors the
around but was on vacation the next year. Program director Ray Harris
in as host, a role he continued for 13 years.
And the years rolled by at WMUR, with Uncle Gus riding high
and the rest of the station in a coma. Bernier would rack up more than
decades as Uncle Gus, hosting an estimated 100,000 visitors during the
run; his show became a rite of passage for any child growing up in New
Hampshire in the 1960s and 1970s.
Throughout this period, while Boston stations aggressively
expanded their programming and built a New Hampshire audience, WMUR
Years of miniscule budgets and low production values took their toll.
equipment broke and wasn’t fixed or replaced. The studio floor was so
that an unmanned camera could move on its own. It wasn’t just a matter
money; Channel 9 was in short supply of something else: ambition.
Broadcasting seemed more interested in managing the Manchester cable
than in seeing WMUR live up to its full potential.
Frugality breeds ingenuity
But chronic cheapness contained the seeds of the station’s
Few people stayed on the news staff for long; inevitably,
new people would arrive with fresh visions for Channel 9. One new
Tom Bonnar, hired as a booth announcer at age 20 in 1968.
Bonnar’s arrival enabled other staffers to take long-delayed
vacations, giving Bonnar no choice but to plunge right in. His first
assignment: getting film of a construction worker who’d been killed on
Amoskeag Bridge. Bonnar, who’d never shot film before in his life,
in time to see the body being lifted from the icy river.
“It was an absolutely horrible experience,” he recalled.
Another new recruit was Fred Kocher, who arrived in the fall
of 1969 and vividly remembers his first day at work at Channel 9’s old
Fresh from an internship in an aggressive TV news operation in
he arrived in Manchester to find the lead story on the 6 p.m. newscast
silent black-and-white footage of a Granite State cat show.
“I thought to myself, ‘the only way is up,” Kocher recalled.
Kocher began asking questions. Even with a small staff and
limited budgets, what could they do to put a credible newscast on the
build the audience?
For an answer, Kocher turned north to Concord. Armed at
first with only a 16mm camera that shot silent black-and-white film,
began venturing to the state capital to get footage of newsmakers going
Kocher’s efforts stood in sharp contrast to Channel 9’s
existing news coverage, which wasn’t exactly credible. Bonnar remembers
night when a building collapsed in Berlin, a three-hour drive away.
no time to get film, so the news director ordered Bonnar to go stand in
of a snow bank outside the studio and say he was reporting from Berlin.
refused. He was ordered to do it or be fired, so Bonnar trudged out and
his assignment—“not my finest moment,” he recalled. Bonnar later
station management; not long after that, the news director was fired.
and Kocher then gained more control of the station’s coverage, “and
running it the way it should be,” Kocher said.
It wasn’t long before Kocher found the next link in Channel
9’s success—an ancient sound-on-film camera he discovered in the
basement. The separate sound recording system ran on vacuum tubes and
ton, but Kocher and his colleagues got the thing running. Soon he was
the bulky unit around Concord with him, an early version of Al
“one-man mobile uplink” routine, collecting the day’s news while trying
avoid a hernia.
“For the first time in New Hampshire, the residents began to
see the people who made their state government run,” Kocher recalled.
governor, the commissioners, the executive councilors, the staff to the
governor—all these people who they’d read about for years were now on
night. I thought that was a service, and it was a niche for us.”
Kocher found his sources needed little coaxing to go on
“Most of the people in public life were public people
anyway,” he said. “They tended to be hams for their own purpose, and
easily go in front of the camera. At first, they were careful, but
they became comfortable with me because I was not out to make them look
bad—just report the news and whatever they said.”
Soon Channel 9 became the place to see things like Gov.
Walter Peterson discussing efforts to woo the New England Patriots to
Hampshire in the early 1970s. Savvy players in state government sensed
potential in Kocher’s primitive camera-and-microphone set-up, and began
on the air to answer questions, further their own agenda and browbeat
The election of Gov. Mel Thomson in 1972 raised the volume a
notch. Thomson, a lightning rod for critics, wasn’t shy about using
to further his aims and neutralize critics. Footage exists of Thomson
the air with Kocher to deny he’d ever been a stooge of The Union
was then under the thumb of extremist publisher William Loeb, a strong
Kocher did his best to referee disputes, developing a
reputation for balanced coverage. Still, he wasn’t shy about taking
a politician opposing tax increases during a campaign and trotting it
the same figure voted for a tax increase after election.
“I was just letting them talk,” Kocher said. “It was that
kind of coverage, plus just explaining to people how state government
letting them in on how a decision was made and who made it.”
An audience began to build—averaging 16,000 to 18,000 a
night, Bonnar recalled—though there was still no money for new
resources. Kocher was reminded just how far behind the times Channel 9
during the 1972 presidential primary.
“One guy from NBC said he’d seen the camera I was using on
display in the Smithsonian Institution,” Kocher said.
A short time later, a used magnetic sound portable film
camera was acquired over the strong objections of Channel 9 management,
was then still committed to black-and-white local broadcasting.
station bowed to the inevitable and sprung for two new in-studio
the first time, New Hampshire viewers could see their local news in
well as the true shade of Uncle Gus’s hat.
Responses came in from wherever Channel 9’s signal reached.
Letters and phone calls came to WMUR from viewers in the Seacoast and
Region requesting coverage and suggesting stories. As news director,
up a network of stringers to film events in other areas of the state.
No way existed for images to be fed to Manchester; Bonnar
remembers driving to Raymond to rendezvous with the Dover
bringing film back to the studio, where it would be developed on
equipment for use on air.
“A fish tank would have been an improvement,” he recalled.
Among the station’s early correspondents was a young Bob
LaPree (today The Union Leader’s chief photographer) as well as the
owner of a
furniture store in Methuen, Mass. who advertised on Channel 9 and
joined in the station’s news efforts.
“He had this thing about film,” Kocher said. “He just loved
The enthusiasm fueled progress at Channel 9. Live remote
reports were still out of the question, so newsmakers came to the
election nights, candidates would troop through the Elm Street facility
we had three or four people in the lobby
waiting to go on, which was kind of nice,” Kocher recalled.