Small Town News

Posted Monday, 29 January 2007, 3:17 pm | 10 comments

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the Peninsula – Redwood City. As a child, our family watched the local news broadcasts, coming over the air from transmitters on Mount San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. In glorious Black and White, we watched Terry Lowry in front of a whiteboard map of the U.S., placing little magnet-backed clouds over California, and a little magnet-backed sun over the midwest. We watched Van Amburg report on the latest apartment fire in the Tenderloin, and we watched Wayne Walker report on the latest San Francisco 49ers Superbowl Win.

In that long-ago time, there was still a bit of a "small town news" quality to the major Bay Area news broadcasts. There would be glitches, dead air, tape wouldn’t roll, a camera would be cued while it was panning to the other anchor – all pretty typical, and they still happen to this day, just far less frequently. The production values today, even on the struggling independent major KRON, are excellent.

Because the Bay Area is such a splendid place to live, there has been a blur of reporters and anchors over the years, from station to station. Anchor Pete Wilson began as a reporter at KGO, went on to anchor at KGO, then KRON, then many years later returned to KGO after KRON went independent. It’s rare for a reporter or anchor to leave the Bay Area, at least not willingly.

Aside from the six major stations in the Bay Area (KTVU, KRON, KPIX, KGO, KQED – and KNTV which took over as the NBC affiliate when KRON went independent), there has always been a presence of smaller independent stations throughout the Bay Area. There are dozens of them. Most have subsisted on syndicated sitcoms, old movies, infomercials, and some local-interest programming thrown in from time to time.

One of those smaller stations is KFTY, based in the North Bay – way up in Santa Rosa, where the designation "Bay Area" begins to thin. Those of us up here generally consider ourselves Bay Area, and the rigid definition seems to be ‘any county with land meeting the Bay’, so in that regard, Sonoma County is indeed Bay Area, but only by a whisker.

The population up here is not significant, not when compared to the counties really bordering the Bay. There’s less than a half million people in Sonoma County, while Alameda County in the East Bay – a fraction of the size – has three times the population.

KFTY is just another small, independent station. Small operating budget, small viewership. They air the staple fare of syndicated sitcoms, infomercials, etc like all the others. But unlike any (to my knowledge) of the minor independents in the Bay Area, KFTY produced two full-fledged local evening news broadcasts.

You’ll note the past-tense there. Keep reading.

These were not – by comparison to the major stations – polished productions. The studio video tended to be somewhat washed out. Camera flubs and miscues were a regular occurrence. Tape would fail to roll, or begin rolling well after the anchor had begun to move to the next story. True, these happen at all stations, big and small, but they tended to be as much a staple on KFTY as the repeats of ‘Frasier’.

However, for a lonely little independent station, quite a throw from the major market, it was a damned fine news broadcast. Much of the news content was locally produced by their own reporters. The main anchor, Ed Beebout, has been with the station for twenty three years, and has anchored the news for more than a decade.  And he’s not bad – not bad at all. The smaller markets across the country tend to be a dumping ground for those not blessed with good onscreen personality, or poor teleprompter skills. But Ed – while certainly no Tom Brokaw – has held his own with aplomb, and could likely have worked at a major market station if he were inclined. Almost two years ago, Tricia Hua joined the newscast as co-anchor, and she has also shown remarkable poise and presence. Brent Allen served up a very snappy and accurate weather segment, and Bay Area veteran Curtis Kim produced ‘local flavor’ segments that – while often ranging well into corny territory – were nevertheless thoughfully and professionally produced bits of local interest.  The field reporters tended to have high turnover, and varied in quality from abysmal to excellent, but that’s to be expected at a small station. Recently, a new reporter named Cindy Chen appeared at KFTY, and showed real talent – I’d bet we see her reporting at KRON any day now.Considering the likely minuscule budget available, they produced an amazingly good broadcast.

I’ll be the first to admit: In the evenings, when my wife would tune to KFTY’s news, I would regularly ridicule it, albeit light-heartedly. I’d break into the refrain "Small Town Newwwws", which Paul Schaffer would sing before the Small Town News segment on Letterman – a collection of quirky, sometimes bizarre newspaper stories from backwaters across the country. I’d cringe at every miscue, and when a cub reporter, fresh from the local Junior College, would fall apart live and on-camera – well, it was as painful and entertaining as watching the early auditions on American Idol.

But that’s all gone now. Last thursday, the station pulled the plug on both evening news broadcasts. ‘Insufficient ad revenue’, which certainly isn’t a stretch to believe is true. There are rumors that ClearChannel – the owner of KFTY – intends to divest itself of small stations and markets such as these. That’s also no great stretch to believe true.

It’s a shame though. Having watched KRON’s long, drawn out decline after they lost NBC has been painful, almost more painful than having a longtime local newscast just disappear overnight. One wishes the broadcast could have been scaled back somehow rather than terminated – add another minute or two of commercials, use more syndicated feeds – who knows. As above, I’m no expert in these matters, just another armchair quarterback.

In the grander scheme of things, this is but a blip. Those who watched the KFTY news will have fond memories, but nothing more. We’ll just watch the major news stations, and in time the lack of local news will not be so strongly felt . Fifty years ago, the notion of a backwater like the North Bay even having a local television station would have been absurd. So we’re lucky in that respect. But without locally originated programming, an independent like KFTY just blends into the landscape. There’s simply no compelling reason to watch the station – unless you’re some sort of diehard fan of ‘Frasier’.

The internet has yet to fill the local gap. One can gather information in an instant from Byelarus, but accessing locally relevant information is still a hit-or-miss proposition. The local newspaper serves to some extent, but lacks the immediacy of a local news broadcast.

I suppose my only motivation for writing this is to express my appreciation for what was, and express my regret for what now is…


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