This year marks the 60th anniversary of when Channel 12 first went on the air. Many viewers only know the station as it is today, the number one ranked television station broadcasting to two-thirds of the state and to parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska. On average 55,000 viewers watch our 10 p.m. newscast each night.
But for those who remember the earliest days, the station wasn't always such a success. In fact, it held a party to blow up its own station number 12 in an effort to create a new and winning image.
Channel 12 or KWCH, originally had the call letters KTVH to identify the station. A group of business men and women in Hutchinson established Channel 12 in June 1953. The founders included John P. Harris, who owned the Hutchinson newspaper, Bess Wyse Rickard, who owned KWBW radio and W.D.P. Carey, the director of the Carey Salt Company.
In 1955, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune newspaper bought KTVH. The station experienced a lot of firsts for television news in Kansas. KTVH was the first to receive a CBS affiliation, the first to air a live report outside of the studio and first to televise live sports, agricultural and state fair reports. While the station worked hard to lead the news market, ratings were bleak.
"We were fourth in a three station market," said Bob Schmidt, who later bought the station. "There were certain time periods when the public television station had higher ratings than KTVH."
"Our owners The Minneapolis Star and Tribune, really did not care," said Linda Liebe, who worked as the executive assistant to the General Manager from 1973 to 2009. "They were a newspaper company and I think the TV station was just a tax write off," she said tossing her hands in the air. "Because they really didn't care if we made the bottom line or not."
But two Kansans, Bob Schmidt and Ross Beach saw KTVH as an opportunity. Schmidt and Beach owned KAYS-TV in Hays and KLOE-TV in Goodland. Schmidt says competitors called employees at KTVH ragamuffins or people who want to be something but don't know how to get there.
"We knew what its potential was because of our affiliation with the CBS television network," says Schmidt. "I happened to be on the CBS television affiliate board of directors. So I was familiar with what other stations, other markets were able to do with the affiliation CBS."
The pair bought the station in 1983 for $12 million. They invested $2 million more over the next two years but knew the station needed more than money.
They hired Ron Bergamo as the new general manager. Bergamo had been working at a station in Beaumont, Texas and had good reputation. He was offered 10% ownership in the station to help secure the deal.
"It just needed an energetic manager like Bergamo. Looking back on how bright I was about everything, that would have been the superior move of them all," Schmidt laughs. "Mr. Beach wasn't big on sharing an equity position with management, someone who hadn't been with us particularly, but that was necessary to get that kind of caliber of individual."
They also hired a new anchor, Susan Peters to work with Roger Cornish. With the changes happening, they decided it was time to destroy the old image of KTVH and replace it with a new winning name. "We devised a campaign. We knew we weren't the leader in the market but we were trying to look like the leader. So we had a campaign 'Look of a Leader'," he said.
In the fall of 1983, the new owners publicly blew up a styrofoam 12 and replaced the call letters KTVH with KWCH. Schmidt says the dramatic move was necessary to get people's attention. "We wanted to localize, to really make the station become a part of the community, not just a megaphone for it," says Schmidt.
Schmidt and Beach say they thought they might be viewed as "country bumpkins" from Hays and so they ran focus groups to understand what viewers wanted from their local newscasts. "I think they (people) were surprised but that's one of the reasons we had those focus meetings," says Schmidt. "We found out that Wichita itself had a kind of inferiority complex at that moment in time where they felt they didn't have the political clout that perhaps Topeka had. They revealed some of that and we talked about making our campaign one that would also make the city proud."
In just a little more than a year, KWCH's 10 p.m. newscast went from the worst rated station in the market to the top. Liebe credits Bergamo. "He took this station for a ride that you would not believe," Liebe says. "It was the team work, we all felt like a team," says Dana Barnett, a production and program assistant from 1981-1997. "That's what really inspired everyone."
Employees remember Bergamo as always upbeat, positive and genuine. Sharon Taylor, who first started at the station in 1964 and remained until 2001 says Bergamo was always encouraging employees to work at a higher level. "If you were chit chatting about something in the hallway, he's come up and say, 'how are you working on that project I gave you?' He really didn't want you wasting any time," says Taylor.
Colleagues say Bergamo joined many boards and organizations around the city which made a difference. "He was a presence in Wichita. Everyone knew Ron Bergamo," Liebe said. "Most of it was the energy he brought and basically his knowledge on how to empower employees to work at a level they had never worked at before, to take pride in what they were doing and to have a mindset of being a winner," said Schmidt.
Ratings started to climb and morale at the station began to improve along with it. "Every time a ratings book would come out, I mean Ron Bergamo was doing cartwheels in the hallway." Liebe said. "He'd order champagne," Barnett added.
"We had been under dogs for so long and had been labeled as ragmuffins. When they became dominant we showed our stuff," Schmidt said while laughing.
By July of 1985, KWCH was the number one rated newscast in it's designated market area at six p.m. and ten p.m. "When we reached number one status, I sent out letters to all 200 CBS stations across the nation," says Liebe.
A CBS national program West 57th Street, produced a feature story about how Channel 12 had come from last place to first. By this time, most of the programs were being broadcast from Wichita because KWCH received permission from the Federal Communication Commission to broadcast primarily in Wichita.
Schmidt and Beach sold KWCH in 1989. "It was not our intention to sell but some people came along that made an offer that was too attractive to pass up," said Schmidt. Bergamo also left KWCH in 1989 to become a general manager back in his home state of Arizona.
Today, KWCH is part of a larger company called Sunflower Broadcasting, Inc. It owns and produces programming for KWCH, KBSH, KBSD, KBSL and KSCW. It also operates KDCU in a joint sales agreement with Entravision; KDCU is the first full-power Spanish station in Kansas. Sunflower Broadcasting also produces digital news, sports and information websites, KWCH.com, KSCWTV.com, CatchitKansas.com and Fetchtoto.com. Sunflower Broadcasting is owned by a family company, Schurz Communications, based in South Bend Indiana.
Eyewitness News anchors Roger Cornish and Cindy Klose along with a team of more than 50 other meteorologists, reporters, producers and photographers help bring newscasts and digital content to Kansans twenty-four hours a day.