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Cover — WMUR At 50
Turn on Channel 9, and you’ll get news delivered in a slick professional package.

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 era of decline and its recent rise to national prominence. Also, you won’t get a sense of the effort over many years that went into making today’s newscast seem so effortless.

On March 26, New Hampshire’s first television station will celebrate 50 years of broadcasting. Little at the station has remained constant over the years—yes, it remains based in Manchester and maintains its original call letters: WMUR. But TV is all about what’s fresh and new, and Channel 9 keeps changing to keep up.

Still, a television station doesn’t broadcast for five decades without filling the community’s collective memory with persistent images—of the Uncle Gus Show, of low-budget commercials for Aubuchon Hardware, of anchor Tom Griffith asking Bill Clinton if he’d ever cheated on his wife. (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 story, which 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. But it’s also about people—about on-air heart attacks, sudden layoffs, news desks that tipped over, bitter departures and weather magnets that inconveniently 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 veteran who 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, Manchester and Nashua. In 1922 he and two partners founded a shoe manufacturing business, the 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 Executive Councilor. In 1937 he won the office of Governor, which he held for two terms. With the state still mired in the Great Depression, Murphy launched ambitious public works projects ranging from the state bathhouse at Hampton Beach to the 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 1940, when federal regulators authorized a new station in Manchester, Murphy decided 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 successfully applied to launch a new radio station in Manchester at 610 AM. The partners spent $200,000 on the new venture, including $85,000 to purchase a large brick 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, WMUR radio brought Manchester network and local programming, but a new technology 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 the rush was on. Government regulators divided up the airwaves, and as luck would have it, in 1949 a powerful VHF channel frequency was allocated to the Manchester area.
 
Murphy, having conquered shoes, politics and radio, resolved to be a player in the new field of television. But he wasn’t alone. Among the 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 well as The Union Leader.
 
The selection procedure proved to be a long one, with other candidates dropping out or being disqualified by the Federal Communications Commission. Finally, in 1953, Murphy was awarded the right to broadcast on Channel 9; WMUR was granted an FCC construction permit to upgrade the station’s transmitter (on the top of Mt. Uncanoonuc in Goffstown) to carry television signals.
 
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 its sister radio station.  Murphy was on hand to welcome New Hampshire’s few television set owners, who until then had to rely on Boston’s two network affiliates, WBZ-TV Channel 4 and WNAC-TV Channel 7.
 
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 serve them.” But underneath the high-minded rhetoric, there was another motive at work.
“It was definitely a business proposition,” said Ed Brouder of Manchester, author of “Granite and Ether: A Chronicle of New Hampshire Broadcasting.” 
“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 in the 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 station up as a potentially important player in one of the nation’s big media markets.
First, though, the station, with a broadcast day that ran from just 2 to 11 p.m., needed programming. Just as the WMUR studios did double duty for radio and television, so did many of the station’s personalities. 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 battered wooden desk. Ernie Saunders, the radio station’s sports director, went on 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 Gus,” host 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 for WFEA. Kearney was installed as host of “Guest House,” Channel 9’s local variety show broadcast live every weeknight at 5:30 p.m. from the Elm Street studios. In fine TV style, Kearney was given a sidekick in the form of “Jeeves the Butler,” played by local actor Leo Gilmartin; together, the pair hosted an embryonic 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 Skillet Show” hosted by Fran Evans and New England’s first TV disc jockey show hosted by up-and-coming broadcaster Donn Tibbetts, who went on to become The Union 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 significantly boosted the power of its signal; Boston viewers immediately noticed the difference, and soon Beantown newspapers were referring to Channel 9 as the city’s “third television station.”
 
To capitalize on the opportunity, WMUR began broadcasting popular programs not available on other Boston channels. Boxing and wrestling were early favorites; so were basketball games picked up from NBC and, later, afternoon movies from ABC, the network that Channel 9 eventually joined as an affiliate.
 
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 10 a.m., and then still earlier; soon Channel 9 was filling the northern New England airwaves from before dawn until midnight. The staff quickly grew to more than 50 people—on-camera personalities, technicians and engineers, sales and production specialists.
 
“I suspect the station was very successful during this time,” said Brouder, whose collection of newspaper clippings documents the increasing press Channel 9 received in the Boston papers in the late 1950s.
 
In 1956 Murphy sold WMUR radio to the Girolimon family for $150,000. The station was renamed WGIR-AM, call letters it carries to this day. Soon after, Murphy—then approaching age 80—began looking for buyers for his hot 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 $850,000, then an enormous sum. And the next thing New Hampshire viewers knew, they were about 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, Mass.—more than 30 miles from Manchester, but only 20 from downtown Boston. Gradually it became clear that Storer intended to move the entire station to Massachusetts. To make the pill easier to swallow, Storer offered to donate the equipment to the state of New Hampshire, which at the time wanted to start an educational television station.
 
Outrage spilled into the newspapers. A group called “The Committee for New Hampshire TV” took out newspaper ads lambasting the move; another local group offered to buy WMUR-TV. In the end, government regulators rejected Storer’s plan for a gigantic tower in Massachusetts, and the deal fell through.
But then, a week before Christmas 1958, Gov. Murphy died at age 81. As Manchester and New Hampshire mourned, his estate disposed WMUR-TV by selling it. The buyer was United Broadcasting, a small Maryland-based media company run by Richard Heaton, an eccentric businessman famous for adopting and 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, including many of the most popular local TV personalities. In March 1959, unionized technical workers went on strike, putting the station off the air for two days. The next month, United laid off 10 more employees. By the end of April, only 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 Gov. Wesley Powell during the 6:30 p.m. news, Power inexplicably slipped behind the newsdesk and fell to the floor. Thousands of viewers, including Power’s wife and seven children at home, watched in disbelief as their screens went dark. They then heard muffled cries for someone to get a doctor. The station quickly cut to a filmed program while staffers rushed out to get a physician who lived nearby.
Power, then 44, was rushed to Sacred Hospital in Manchester (now Catholic Medical Center), where he remained under observation for two weeks. He eventually recovered, but less than a week after being released from 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 programming to two abbreviated newscasts each day. The station drifted, surviving on ABC network hits such as “Bewitched,” which New Hampshire viewers watched in black 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 general on-air nice guy, was one of the few WMUR veterans to be kept on staff by United Broadcasting. After the 1959 transition, his duties included introducing the 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 him. He obliged; the next day, four girls showed up. Soon Bernier found himself wearing a feather-festooned fedora and presiding over a studio full of two dozen kids 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 “Name the States,” and enlisted young fans to plug Waleeco candy bars, Bonhomo’s Turkish Taffy and other sponsors. Bernier grew to be such a fiendish expert at catching kids in games of “Simon Says” (both in studio and with viewers at home) that he received letters from irate parents complaining about his cruelty.
 
Another milestone was Channel 9’s decision in 1968 to join a handful of stations to broadcast the first-ever Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon. (WMUR continues to broadcast the annual telethon to this day.) Then as now, it was held on Labor Day weekend; Bernier did the honors the first time around but was on vacation the next year. Program director Ray Harris stepped 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 two decades as Uncle Gus, hosting an estimated 100,000 visitors during the show’s 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 languished. Years of miniscule budgets and low production values took their toll. Aging equipment broke and wasn’t fixed or replaced. The studio floor was so tilted that an unmanned camera could move on its own. It wasn’t just a matter of money; Channel 9 was in short supply of something else: ambition. United Broadcasting seemed more interested in managing the Manchester cable franchise than in seeing WMUR live up to its full potential.
 
Frugality breeds ingenuity
But chronic cheapness contained the seeds of the station’s eventual rebirth.
Few people stayed on the news staff for long; inevitably, new people would arrive with fresh visions for Channel 9. One new recruit was 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 news assignment: getting film of a construction worker who’d been killed on the Amoskeag Bridge. Bonnar, who’d never shot film before in his life, arrived just 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 studio. Fresh from an internship in an aggressive TV news operation in Columbus, Ohio, he arrived in Manchester to find the lead story on the 6 p.m. newscast was 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 air and 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, Kocher began venturing to the state capital to get footage of newsmakers going about their day.
 
Kocher’s efforts stood in sharp contrast to Channel 9’s existing news coverage, which wasn’t exactly credible. Bonnar remembers one night when a building collapsed in Berlin, a three-hour drive away. There was no time to get film, so the news director ordered Bonnar to go stand in front of a snow bank outside the studio and say he was reporting from Berlin. Bonnar refused. He was ordered to do it or be fired, so Bonnar trudged out and completed his assignment—“not my finest moment,” he recalled. Bonnar later complained to station management; not long after that, the news director was fired. Bonnar and Kocher then gained more control of the station’s coverage, “and started 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 station’s basement. The separate sound recording system ran on vacuum tubes and weighed a ton, but Kocher and his colleagues got the thing running. Soon he was lugging the bulky unit around Concord with him, an early version of Al Franken’s “one-man mobile uplink” routine, collecting the day’s news while trying to 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. “The governor, the commissioners, the executive councilors, the staff to the governor—all these people who they’d read about for years were now on TV every night. I thought that was a service, and it was a niche for us.”
 
Natural-born hams
Kocher found his sources needed little coaxing to go on camera.
 
“Most of the people in public life were public people anyway,” he said. “They tended to be hams for their own purpose, and they would easily go in front of the camera. At first, they were careful, but eventually 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 New Hampshire in the early 1970s. Savvy players in state government sensed the potential in Kocher’s primitive camera-and-microphone set-up, and began going on the air to answer questions, further their own agenda and browbeat critics.
The election of Gov. Mel Thomson in 1972 raised the volume a notch. Thomson, a lightning rod for critics, wasn’t shy about using Channel 9 to further his aims and neutralize critics. Footage exists of Thomson going on the air with Kocher to deny he’d ever been a stooge of The Union Leader, which was then under the thumb of extremist publisher William Loeb, a strong Thomson backer.
 
Kocher did his best to referee disputes, developing a reputation for balanced coverage. Still, he wasn’t shy about taking footage of a politician opposing tax increases during a campaign and trotting it out when 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 worked, 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 equipment or resources. Kocher was reminded just how far behind the times Channel 9 remained 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, which was then still committed to black-and-white local broadcasting. Eventually, the station bowed to the inevitable and sprung for two new in-studio cameras; for the first time, New Hampshire viewers could see their local news in color as 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 the Lakes Region requesting coverage and suggesting stories. As news director, Kocher set 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 correspondent, then bringing film back to the studio, where it would be developed on ancient 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 eagerly joined in the station’s news efforts.

“He had this thing about film,” Kocher said. “He just loved shooting film.”
The enthusiasm fueled progress at Channel 9. Live remote reports were still out of the question, so newsmakers came to the studio. On election nights, candidates would troop through the Elm Street facility to make on-air statements.
 
“Sometimes we had three or four people in the lobby waiting to go on, which was kind of nice,” Kocher recalled.

CONTINUED. . .
© 2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH