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Bay News 9’s first GM talks 25th anniversary

Mark Parker

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Elliot Wiser (center) was Bay News 9's first employee and general manager. To his left is former anchor Jen Holloway, and to his right is Swedish National Television anchor Katarina Sandstrom. Photos provided.

When Bay News 9 hit the airwaves in 1997, those inside and outside its original building in Pinellas Park had no idea it would remain a Tampa Bay staple 25 years later.

Elliot Wiser was among that group. He was the first general manager – the first employee, for that matter – of Tampa Bay’s first 24-hours news station. Wiser said he oversaw the construction of the building, designed the programming and hired the initial workforce and on-air talent.

“So basically, created the channel,” said Wiser.

When the cable news station launched under Time Warner on September 24, 1997, at 6:59 p.m., just 550,000 households in Pinellas, Hillsborough, and parts of Polk and Manatee Counties received the inaugural broadcast. Wiser noted many people in the community expressed doubt about whether there was enough news emanating from the region to support a 24-hour network.

Wiser said he went into the job in May 1997 believing in three pillars to cable news success in Tampa Bay – cultivating a strong team, weather means everything to the market and the importance of providing breaking news and community coverage.

“The first thing I decided was that we’re going to own the weather,” said Wiser. “And it paid off because when you think of weather, you think of weather on the nines, it’s Klystron 9 … it’s been Bay New 9 forever, and it’s not even close.”

The original Bay News 9 station off 66th Street in Pinellas Park.

A media outlet surviving for 25 years is a significant milestone, Wiser said, especially in the digital age. He remained in touch with many people from his original team and relayed they all take great pride in what they were able to accomplish and what the station – now known as Spectrum News 9 – has become.

Around 2001, Bay News 9 expanded its reach to Pasco County. Hernando and Citrus Counties followed a couple of years later after Bright House Networks took control. Wiser added that in just three or four years of existence, the number of households receiving the channel doubled to around 1.1 million.

“Everyone doubted us,” he said. “No one understood what 24-hour local news was here.”

The original newsroom was in a 10,000-square-foot building off 66th Street in Pinellas Park. Wiser called the first few days on the air chaotic.

From the onset, producers were using the latest technology, said Wiser, which automated nearly everything. However, the system shut down within the first five minutes of going live and he said they showed the same segment for almost an hour.

The technology would stabilize, and just a month later, Bay News 9 covered its first breaking weather event when a tornado touched down in Largo. Wiser said it damaged a church and a local Checkers, and longtime anchor Al Ruechel happened to drive by and stopped. Wiser said he sent a broadcasting truck and the station then provided six hours of continuous live coverage.

“That’s the day we were put on the map,” said Wiser. “That was the day where everyone said, ‘these guys are for real.’”

The station, said Wiser, hit its stride in 2004 when three hurricanes passed through the area. Wiser said coverage went “wall to wall for days,” and despite only 55% of the Tampa Bay market receiving the channel, Bay News 9 dominated the ratings. Later that year, the station began construction on a much larger facility in the Carillon area of St. Petersburg.

Wiser, who now teaches a senior seminar course that helps University of South Florida St. Petersburg communications students prepare for life after graduation, also credits a concerted effort to reach area grade schools for the station’s staying power. He knew that if he could attract young viewers through initiatives like science education, tuning into the station would become a habit they took into their adult lives.

Following Bay News 9’s success, Wiser said Bright House promoted him to corporate vice president, where he oversaw 12 cable channels. He left the newsroom with no regrets and said the change was about personal growth. He called Bright House an amazing company and added that the channel would not be what it is today without its investment and support.

Wiser and his daughter, Ashley, during construction of the station’s new facility in Carillion in December 2004.

In 2013, Wiser left Bright House to serve as president and general manager of WTSP, the local CBS affiliate. Wiser said he wanted to finish his career where it began – in broadcast television. However, he said people will always associate him with Bay New 9, a correlation he embraces. He relayed the sense of pride he feels when he walks into a restaurant or medical office and notices the station playing on television.

“Because back in the day – it wasn’t on anywhere,” he said. “We drove around with hats and cups and pens in our car, and if we walked into a restaurant and Bay News 9 wasn’t on the TV, we’d bring them hats or pens or whatever and say, ‘please put us on the TV.'”

While Wiser is unsure if the network is hosting an official 25th-anniversary celebration, he said he invited the original department heads to his condo in May for a reunion. Some attendees had not seen each other in over two decades, and he called the occasion “really special.”

Spectrum News 9 remains a staple throughout the region. Now in the digital age, Wiser noted it also thrives online and won a national Edward R. Murrow Award in 2010 as the best local news website in the country.

“You have to have great people, and you have to have a great team,” said Wiser. “And I had an amazing team.”

 

 

 

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