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WCPO turns 70: The early years, our newsroom and the stories that changed our community

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 25, 2019
and last updated 2020-08-17 21:20:50-04

CINCINNATI — WCPO’s first television broadcast began with the same level of anticipation and unpredictability as the broadcasts that make air today.

Let’s jump back to July 26, 1949.

WCPO featured Cincinnati’s favorite pastime: the Reds versus the then-Boston Braves live from Crosley Field. But that darn Cincinnati weather was not cooperating with Mort Watters, the man tasked with starting WCPO-TV.

“It was pouring down rain all day long,” Mort’s wife Paula Watters explained.

Mort Watters (and everyone else) feared the game would be called due to the weather, and that the governor, set to throw the first pitch, would cancel. That wasn’t going to work for Mort.

“If you knew Mort, the governor was not allowed to make other plans,” Paula Watters said. “The governor had an obligation to be here … and the governor did show up. And the game was played.”

The 70-year history of WCPO, it turns out, would begin with a stroke of good luck.

The very beginning

WCPO’s beginnings were in radio and were on the dial at WCPO 1230 AM and WCPO 105.1 FM. It stood for “Cincinnati Post Organization” – the newspaper owned by WCPO’s parent company, E.W. Scripps.

Mort Watters had been the general manager of WCPO Radio, but he was convinced that the future was in television. He was right.

“It's funny. At the time, people thought that television would be the extension of the newspaper,” said E.W. Scripps Co. board chairman Rich Boehne. “Pretty soon, television took on its own personality and its own place in the market.”

One of the first big hits would be a pantomime show in which stars such as Dotty Mack lip-synced the songs being played instead of using their own voices. In the early days of television, Mort Watters understood that what viewers wanted was something they were accustomed to -- the radio on TV.

Mack shared this memory with WCPO 30 years ago:

“I have a son who is 28 years old and he has looked at these tapes and he couldn't quite understand, you know, 'What kind of talent is this? You know this is Rosemary Clooney singing and you're mouthing,'” she said. “I said, 'Honey, in those days, this was talent.'”

Another star of the program, Bob Braun, would go on to sing (for real) on his own show on a different station.

RELATED: How the styles (and hair) have changed with the times

The birth of our newsroom

In 1959, 10 years after the station’s launch, WCPO-TV management persuaded newsman Al Schottelkotte to organize the news department and anchor a daily television news broadcast that would include his Spotlight Report.

A dogged journalist and tough-as-nails editor, Schottelkotte ran what some would call “a tight ship.”

“Al Schottelkotte was a visionary, but he was also just a bare knuckles newsman,” Boehne said.

“The first couple of years, when I worked for Al, I didn't think I was gonna make it to the end of the week because of his … persona,” said Chic Poppe, a 38-year former videographer for WCPO.

QUIZ: 70 years of WCPO logos

Schottelkotte created a team of hard-nosed reporters, including one of the best in the business: Allan White, who became one of the most recognized reporters in the city.

“There was no phony baloney in news. It was just news,” said former news director Stuart Zanger of the Schottelkotte/White newsroom. “It's all they put on that 15 minutes -- and then eventually a half hour. And that was in the bloodstream. That was in the bones and the DNA of this organization for 70 years.”

Uncle Al and more shows you loved

If you grew up in the '50s, '60s, '70s or '80s, you probably clamored to be on “The Uncle Al Show,” perhaps the most memorable of WCPO’s early programs.

“I'm one of thousands of kids who have a black-and-white picture of themselves on ‘The Uncle Al Show,’” Boehne said.

RELATED: Childhood memories of 'Uncle Al Show' endure

Uncle Al and Captain Windy were the dynamic husband-and-wife duo that taught two generations of children in the Cincinnati area how to sing, dance and have fun through 15,000 shows.

Classic Cincinnati: Childhood memories of 'Uncle Al Show' endure decades later

Kids on "The Uncle Al Show" got to eat a lot of Mama's Cookies.

“This whole town was on 'Uncle Al' at one period of time,” said WCPO sports director John Popovich.

For 35 years, parents called the station from near and far begging for a chance to get their children on the show.

Filling time for a new TV station led to a number of experimental shows including “TV Dance Party,” “Springtime,” “Best and Worst,” “Movie Matinee,” “The Contemporaries” and “The Nick Clooney Show.”

FROM THE VAULT: George Clooney made his TV debut on WCPO

Long before “Judge Judy,” Judge Paul Trevor presided over cases on Cincinnati airwaves for eight years on “Juvenile Court.” The format is now used worldwide.

In 1999, Cincinnati hosted the Flying Pig Marathon and WCPO was first to bring the race to viewers live.

“The Flying Pig Marathon was a big challenge the first year we did it,” said former WCPO production/program director Jim Timmerman. “We had to figure out where to put cameras. And once the runners go by, that camera is dead? No! We have to move it to another location because we want to be at that spot.”

For years, WCPO was the station that brought the WEBN Fireworks into the viewers' living rooms each Labor Day weekend.

“We had 22 cameras. We had cameras on a barge coming up,” said former news director Jim Zarchin. “We had people everywhere. And I think our coverage of Riverfest took it to another level, which it deserved.”

Most memorable stories

Greater Cincinnati has seen its fair share of giant stories that have shaped our community and made national headlines. While it’s impossible to mention all the major stories and events over the past 70 years, WCPO -- formally channel 7 -- has been there for all of them.

There was nothing like the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977. The fire remains the second most deadly in U.S. history with 165 people killed and more than 200 hurt.

Festival seating led to pushing and shoving so badly that 11 people were crushed to death during The Who concert tragedy in 1979 at the venue that is now U.S. Bank Arena. Festival seating is banned in the U.S. because of that deadly night.

READ MORE: Survivors of The Who concert tragedy recall crush of the crowd, young mother's death in 1979

It’s impossible to forget the deadly Carrollton bus crash in 1988 that ended 27 lives. A driver, Larry Mahoney, was drunk and crashed into a bus full of kids as it returned from a day at Kings Island.

The story changed the thoughts on drinking and driving and bus safety. When the kids on board tried to get out the back door, they were unable to get the door open.

“Our coverage of the bus crash made a difference,” said former reporter Joe Webb. “It linked people to something they really needed to know about.”

Easter 1993, prisoners at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville staged a riot and standoff that lasted for 11 days. Rioters killed nine prisoners.

“My first exposure to something that was cataclysmic, I would say,” said WCPO content coordinator Tom Jordan, “and it wasn't New York. It wasn't Rikers Island. This was right here in our backyard.”

On Oct. 15, 1980, WCPO became the news when James Hoskins took over the newsroom at gunpoint. He had killed his girlfriend in Over-the-Rhine and wanted to say his piece. He forced reporter Elaine Green, at gunpoint, to interview him on camera.

News under siege: Full James Hoskins interview

In 2006, coverage of the disappearance of 3-year-old Marcus Feisel would later help to change the foster care system. The little boy with autism had been killed at the hands of his foster parents.

Over the past decade, WCPO continued to cover some of the biggest stories that rocked the Tri-State: the death of the gorilla Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden; the tragic return of Otto Warmbier from North Korea; the mass shooting in Cincinnati at Fifth Third Center, the audio-visual mashup Lumenocity, Blink Cincinnati and Fiona, the little hippo that defied all odds.

Cincinnati riots of 2001 and the I-Team

Racial tensions in Cincinnati hit a fever pitch when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine in 2001. Within 24 hours, riots began.

“We had to be very intentional on how we were reporting the story,” said WCPO general manager Jeff Brogan, “making sure each side was represented, and in the middle of this Downtown was shut down.”

Newsroom managers tasked then-investigative reporter Laure Quinlivan with uncovering other problems in Over-the-Rhine after the riots. The I-Team investigation turned into an hour-long documentary called “Visions of Vine Street,” resulting in real solutions and change in the city.

Accountability is a mainstay of the I-Team.

In 2013, Brendan Keefe exposed major problems with the city’s 911 system. In the early 1990s, Clyde Gray’s reporting got a state law changed with his series on “Rebuilt Wrecks.” He even testified before state lawmakers.

“They would clip the undemolished parts together and then sell them out in the marketplace without folks knowing what they were getting,” Gray said.

Today, the I-Team is tackling watchdog stories like how your tax dollars are spent, police discipline and use of force and holding the powerful accountable.

Click here to catch up on recent I-Team reports

Our commitment to the Tri-State

Part of WCPO’s commitment to the community goes beyond the airwaves (and now the internet). From books and toys, to beds for kids, WCPO believes giving back is one of the most important responsibilities of being a news station.

Much of what WCPO does for the community includes our viewers and readers.

In 2011, WCPO created Toy Team 9 – our annual toy drive for kids and families in need. It’s still going strong today.

READ MORE: Toy Team 9 collects 7,000 toys to cheer kids in need during the holidays

“We have nine nonprofits, one at each Kroger store location, and people bring toys, or they can buy toys at Kroger, and they donate them to these nonprofits and they distribute them to families during Christmastime,” explained WCPO director of community affairs Mona Morrow.

In 2017, we started “Day to Dream” with several partners to build beds for children who don’t have one.

What’s a comfy bed without a book to read at night? The Scripps Howard Foundation – the corporate foundation of The E.W. Scripps Co. – gives thousands of books to kids across the country, including here in Cincinnati.

WCPO also has raised thousands of dollars over the years to help families rebuild after devastating tornadoes.

“We've always been there in the front of helping others,” said consumer reporter John Matarese. “That's why we've been 9 On Your Side now for 15 years or longer.”

WCPO is always on your side.