Friday, September 30, 2016

The LuLac Edition #3310, September 30th, 2016

WVIA TV @ 50
Our 1966 logo. 
The year was 1966 and on September 26th my dad and I were sitting down as usual to watch either CBS or NBC national news. It was a coin toss because we both liked the respective networks a lot. But this night was different. I had persuaded my father to tune in to WVIA TV, Channel 44 the new Educational TV station set to go on the air.
Mind you this was big. Previously we only had three TV stations to choose from and this startup was fascinating. So I sat on an ottoman near the TV trying to configure the converter box to have it set for 44.The appointed time, 6:30 PM came and went.
Snow. For those under 50, this is what that looked like. 

We sat and waited for at least 14 minutes. Nothing. Thus that was our introduction to Educational TV. But the next day, the station was in full flower. The station started out in different locations before building a permanent facility at Old Boston Road in Pittston. From the very first days, WVIA TV was a bustle of excitement for both the broadcast and educational community. The originals, George Strimel, Jerry Schumacher, Carol Guild, Grace Shimellfinig, Jack Lewis along with engineers Paul Evonsky and Joe Berish started it all. Those are the people I at least remember seeing on TV. The station got on the air with the help of WNEP TV. The ABC affiliate gave the new station the old WARM TV tower. During the great flood of ’72 WVIA TV was a true community partner.
Two of the first programming mainstays were Sesame Street and Masterpiece Theater. And then of course there was Action Auction 44. For 7 nights the station had this gigantic on air sell off of merchandise donated by local businesses. I only had a passing acquaintance with it until 1973.
I started college in January of ’73 on the day Lyndon Johnson died. During the early semester I was made aware of an opportunity to start working at WVIA TV. A King’s College administrator told me that I could work there on the FM station but they needed help on the TV side. The dust might still be in that office as I exited stage left out that Financial Aid office door quickly.
The Auction was like a Pakistani flea market with people running around, merchandise going in and out of the building, papers being passed and flung, cameras rolling and hundreds of volunteers doing the heavy lifting. The volunteer closely associated with the TV station auction was Jeff Rubel. He gave me the job of making sure the commercial on air talent got to their mark and on the air. 
It was heady stuff for a 19 year old who first adjusted that old converter box to get that first signal just a few years before.Later the action auction became a cyber auction, on line, not as hectic but still very effective as a fundraising tool for the station. 
The history of WVIA TV can be broken down into three segments. The first of course was the growth and expansion under George Strimel. Strimel was an energetic programming genius who was not afraid to reach out and get the start up funding the station needed. All of the equipment was state of the art. For me having been in local radio stations in both this area and Washington, D.C. it was stunning to see such new broadcast hardware.
Strimel also made the station a type of cable TV station (because there was none here yet) but in my estimation he didn’t put on junk. The movies, most, were all classis. There was Uncle Ted on Friday night, Classic film series like Andy Hardy on the weekends and the movies that made Hollywood famous. The greatest movies of our times were presented to my generation on WVIA TV. 

George Strimel. (Photo: Times Tribune) 
Strimel was also instrumental in getting WVIA FM on the air. My job in college was to get the station on the air and Strimel always stopped in to discuss my morning newscasts alternately giving praise and criticism.
When he left in 1979, I was off to other things but Dr. John Walsh came in and got the station on a steady path that made it not only an alternative but a mainstay in the community. Walsh improved the infrastructure of the station and made vital partnerships with local educators and cultural organizations.
1991 was the year Bill Kelly became GM but he was no stranger to Public TV or Radio. Kelly came to WVIA in 1974 from WARM and combined his broadcasting experience with his teaching background. Under Kelly the station produced more local programming in its history. Financial growth exceeded expectations even though Congress cut most of the funding for the station. Kelly also brought local programs like “The State of Pennsylvania” on the air and that show became a “must see” for viewers and a “must go” for politicians seeking higher office. Under his guidance, WVIA expanded its facilities to include a public theater as well as producing many memorable documentaries that gained the station recognition throughout the nation.
Kelly was my first boss at WVIA FM and to this day there are many lessons I learned from him in terms of working and commitment that I still carry with me. To me his tenure at the station was the most consequential because under his leadership he entered the station into the digital age that has given the station a competitive and programming edge. Plus the key to TV is to look good. HD does that and Kelly essentially launched that rocket. 

Dr. John Walsh, George Strimel and Bill Kelly, three broadcast stewards of Public TV. (Photo: Citizen's Voice) 
The current GM Tom Curra is a guy I worked with in the 1980s when Bob Woody started to form a partnership in the Lu and Lac. Tom was always dependable and has made WVIA TV and FM a continuing community asset.
As WVIA TV enters its second 50 years, I can’t help but remember the somewhat inauspicious start. Little did I realize as I sat on that ottoman waiting for that station to sign on, that I would be a very small part of its illustrious history. 

WVIA TV and Radio made joint efforts in the 1970s to simultaneously promote the arts. "Arts Alive" was an effort to give viewers and listeners an opportunity to not only appreciate the arts and participate in them. Here is your blog editor with volunteer Julia Robinson at one of the "Arts Alive" broadcasts.  (Photo: LuLac archives) 

 George Strimel along with Attorney Chuck Boyle gave me the chance to do a weekly TV show on Politics at the age of 23. Here I am with State Senator Ed Helfrick. (Photo: LuLac archives)
The opportunity was given to me and like most of the 44/FM staff we worked like dogs.
But many WVIA alumni I’m sure will quickly say, “It was our pleasure!” 
On to 51!!!! 


At 6:57 AM, Blogger Michelle Hryvnak Davies said...

The billboard photos is clearly not for WVIA - it's for a station called WLTW which is based in Ohio.

At 7:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats to you and WVIA. Can only imagine the heights you would have reached if you stayed on that path

At 10:50 AM, Blogger David Yonki said...

The billboard photos is clearly not for WVIA - it's for a station called WLTW which is based in Ohio.


Holy crap! I need to hire you!
A few things. Personally I wish there was a more complete photographic record for the early and mid century days of TV. Having spent 5 years at WVIA, I never once thought to take photos myself of those great auction productions. I can blame technology and I did have a camera at that time but hindsight is 20/20. All the photos I have were taken by someone else.
When I came across this photo, after looking through my stuff as well as the net, all I saw was the 44 on the left and Auction in the center.
I should have suspected something was amiss here when in the traffic picture there was no litter or white bags on the road.
Duly noted and replaced. Thank you.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,
Great piece. Besides the many on air people and the very generous volunteers, I bet there was a hell of a support staff.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger David Yonki said...

Great piece. Besides the many on air people and the very generous volunteers, I bet there was a hell of a support staff.


Wow that could be another blog edition. The behind the scenes people when I was there were incredible. The late Walter Mohr handled development. The engineering staff that I dealt with consisted of Carl Brigido, Russ Pizzoni, Pat Shevlin, Al Tragis, Joe Balkan, Frnk Cheballo, and Frank George. But the guy I had the most contact with was the late Joe Berish. Every morning like clockwork at 551AM, the phone would ring and without fail the voice on the other end was Berish who said, “This is Joe at the Transmitter, everything looks good here”. Summer, Fall, Winter or Spring, it was that consistent.
The support for TV was great too. Pittston residents Ed Finn and the late Alan Murphy ran things quickly and efficiently. They dealt with a rookie like me very deftly and made the job enjoyable with great humor. Dupont’s Pat Stelmack and Pittston’s Joe Fox also ran camera as well as did other things to make a production go off without a hitch. Plus WVIA had a superior talent with a Director named Peter Brewer.
Then there was the support staff of traffic directors. First , Jean Zoeller and then John Kelly who also did radio programs on WVIA FM. The late Jack Lewis handled the PR aspects of the job.
There were more volunteers than I can remember but I do recall that volunteer crews were sometimes made up of people who loved shows. I knew there was a crew from Jenkins Township who came up exclusively for Monty Python during the fund drives.
A volunteer at WVIA FM who got very little recognition was a woman named Rose Mahon from the Back Mountain. Then there was Adele Zavada and Jean Rogers at radio.
We had a front desk receptionist named Margaret Lavelle from Pittston. She was a great Pittston Area fan and supporter of Jimmy Cefalo. When Cefalo went to Miami she was literally going crazy when he was drafted because she was such a fan.
There were a lot of great people I met along the way and remember I was only there for 5 years. So multiply that by another 9 times and the number of wonderful people who came and went, built the place and is the true legacy of WVIA TV/FM.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The greatest thing about your blog is the fact that you know the region, have been part of it and can tie a story together that is inclusive and charming.
Well done!


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