Birth of a Station 

10 July 2017

All it takes is $250,000, a lot of persistence and a sports director who won’t hyperventilate on camera


From TVGuide published on 8 August 1981

It is July 31, 1980. In Casper, Wyo (pop. 50,704), engineers are still wiring the small white cinder-block studio. Cameras are being tested, lights connected, equipment frantically assembled Tomorrow at 2 P.M., KCWY-TV will go on the air.

In the studio, a slide projector beams an image of the United States onto the dark-beige wall of the news set KCWY’s weatherman, who is also the sales manager’s son, traces the outline onto the wall with a felt-tip pen. “It’s about the easiest way there is to make a weather map,” explains the production manager “Under the paint, there’s four or five coats of metallic primer. Little magnetic numbers and weather symbols just stick to the wall.”

“New Jersey needs work.” says a technician in passing.

Down the hall, the tiny control room is a shambles. The desk is littered with frayed wires, tools, owner’s manuals, electrical tape. Trash covers the floor; the wastebaskets overflow. Bales of wire are everywhere, piled in the corners and spilling from boxes; incoherent skeins of it trail from the amplifiers, demodulators, digital processors and other equipment lining the walls and filling the shelves. Groups of technicians run in and out, huddling over a piece of gear or pile of hardware.

“We got three of our six videotape decks yesterday.” says a shellshocked assistant engineer. “Our cameras are borrowed. It’s going to be rough when we hit the air. I’m afraid commercials are going to disappear in the middle. The station logo will go up and stay there for a long time. Meanwhile, someone’s going to be in here tearing his hair out.”

It won’t be Bob Zipay, the former Casper police chief who is now KCWY’s general manager “This is an exciting adventure; fantastic.” he says “I liked police work very much, but this is just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a guy like me.”

Back in 1976, when he was Chief Zipay, he was thinking smaller. “Originally. I had the idea of an FM radio station. I’d loved radio ever since I was a kid. The town was growing, and it seemed like it would be a good business venture. I got ahold of Henry Ort, a friend of mine in the radio business, because I knew he had some land up on Casper Mountain that would make a good site for a transmission tower.”

“It sounded OK to me,” Ort recalls. “I’d built my radio-repair business up about as big as it was going to get, and I don’t like to sit still for too long.”

One day while Chief Zipay was chatting with the county attorney, he asked him if he knew how to qualify for a Federal Communications Commission radio license. “I’d been thinking about a television station for years,” the attorney, Dan Burke says. “Casper had only one other station at the time, and as I practiced law here I saw the need for a competing source of information. We all started talking, and pretty soon Bob and Henry joined me and Vince Horn, my law partner, on the TV idea.” Burke s father Joe and Franklin Brown, a nearby rancher, soon followed. They pooled more than $250,000 of their own money and formed the Chrysostom Corporation. “St. John Chrysostom was known as a great communicator,” Burke notes with a furtive glance skyward, “and we figured we needed all the help on this deal we could get.”

“All of us had our own jobs, our own purpose for being here,” Ort explains. “Bob had management and administrative experience; I had a technical background; Dan and Vince handled the legal work; and Franklin and Dan’s dad had financing and a know-how in business.” Another vital associate was the Washington lawyer the partners hired to help them understand Federal licensing procedures. First, he compiled a list of 200 prominent Casper citizens and had the group interview each one personally. “He had us do it not only to see if the town wanted another TV station, but also so we’d understand what people here are concerned about,” Burke says. “The main question we asked was, ‘What do you see as the needs of this community?’ A lot of people, without knowing why we were asking, mentioned the need for another TV station. When that happened, we knew we were on the right track.”

Buoyed by that success, Chrysostom went shopping for a channel to occupy. The only vacant VHF signal that wouldn’t overlap broadcasts already coming into Casper was Ch. 6, which was reserved for educational uses. The group spent eight months trying to get the educational channel reallocated for commercial broadcast use. In the end, the move was blocked by a regional public-television lobby — two of whose board members worked for Casper’s other station, KTWO-TV.

Rich Caughron (standing) is KCWYs news director, anchor and producer reporter Kevin Hunt is also weekend and sports anchor.

The would-be broadcasters then began to investigate UHF, or ultrahigh-frequency, channels, bands 14 through 83. Finally, in November 1978, the Chrysostom Corporation filed an FCC application to broadcast from Casper on Ch. 14. “That was two years after we got serious,” Burke says. “Sometimes it seemed like it would be forever.”

But waiting had its benefits. “As soon as we filed.” Burke recalls, “the other station signed a primary affiliation with ABC. Since they had been the only game in town, they’d had contracts with ABC, CBS and NBC and were cherry-picking their lineup. Going with ABC was a smart move on their part, since ABC held the top ratings at the time. I called the CBS vice president for affiliate relations. He was not only gracious but almost enthusiastic. He asked us to let him know as soon as the Federal paperwork came through. I also called NBC’s vice president and he wasn’t so gracious. He commented to the effect that the western United States was strewn with the wreckage of would-be UHF stations. He was nice but kind of discouraging.

“We never lost our own enthusiasm,” Burke adds. “Of course, each one of us got frustrated at times, wondering if this thing was ever going to come off. But the extra time helped us get educated.”

“You study the industry periodicals,” explains Zipay. “and there are a lot of good textbooks out. But, most important, you visit people who are in the business and you just flat tell them you don’t know anything about it and then you let them tell you what they know.” Burke adds, “We visited stations in Nebraska and Colorado to see how they run things, and that was quite helpful. Then, when we did finally become a CBS affiliate, that opened up several new avenues for us.” The group also relied on equipment salesmen for general information, sometimes spending two or three days a week with them.

Ironically, the same suppliers also gave KCWY some of its biggest headaches. Henry Ort complains, “They’d tell you two months, and then it might be six or eight or even a year before you’d get what you ordered.” The planned May 1, 1980, air date passed. Cameras still hadn’t arrived. A missing piece of crucial testing gear was found on a truck in Oregon and air-freighted to Denver, where a KCWY employee met it after an all-night drive.

Still, extra effort wasn’t enough. Before dawn on Aug. 1, engineers running a final check on the transmission tower discovered a major electrical failure. KCWY’s premiere would have to be set back at least a week. “It’s not the end of the world,” shrugged one staffer. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ any more; just ‘when.’ In a way, I feel like we’ve been spared.”

Then, on Aug. 12. the KCWY test pattern suddenly popped onto Ch. 14 — “like a message from outer space,” says news director Rich Caughron — followed by the station’s logo. The brief opening ceremony began with Caughron smiling out over central Wyoming. “Well, here we are,” he said, “and are we glad!”

The station had early growing pains, however. The sports director who hyperventilated on the air was fired, along with the anchorwoman who couldn’t look at the camera. Programming managers were changed and the ad rates had to be reduced slightly.

But KCWY has survived and cautiously hopes to prosper. It carries the full CBS schedule every day from 6 A.M. to past midnight, except for local news and syndicated shows in late afternoon. Recently, it launched Input, an original public-affairs program. KCWY cameras stop Casperites on the street and ask them what tough questions they’d like to put to local officials and other public figures, who are asked to respond to the taped questions under Caughron’s cross-examination. Response has been good.

“Maybe the time when I grind my teeth and pull my hair comes later, but so far it’s been great. Things are coming together, and I’m learning as we go.” Zipay grins and scratches his head. “As long as you’ve got to work for a living, why not do something that’s this much fun?”

You Say

2 responses to this article

Nathan Skillings 11 July 2017 at 1:59 am

Most interesting article.

For anybody wanting to learn more abour KCWY-TV, it is important to note that the station changed its call letters on January 1, 1987 to KGWC.

The station currently transmitting with call leters KCWY-DT (also located in Casper, WY) is not related.

Today’s KGWC still transmits on UHF channel 14 and uses PSIP (Logical Channel Number) 14.1 (HD 1080i 16:9), is still a CBS affiliate, but is now owned, after numerous changes, by Mark III Media of Charlotte, NC.

Sadly the station no longer produces any local news and local news segments are provided by Casper’s ABC affiliate KTWO owned by Silverton Broadcasting Company. KGWC in fact retransmits KTWO in standard definition on its sub-channel 14.2 (SD 480i 4:3).

Nathan Skillings 11 July 2017 at 2:20 am

Important Correction to above —

Owner is Mark III Media, Incorporated of Casper WY, president Julie Jaffe.

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