Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Larry Weidman: From KPRC 2 to NBC News

Larry Weidman spent a huge chunk of his television news career at KPRC 2 starting in the 1960s working his way up from Reporter, Photographer, Radio News Anchor, Producer, Associate News Director to News Director.  

He recalls his time working for channel 2, the legendary Ray Miller and the Hobby Family. 

Plus, you will read how Weidman moved from KPRC to the network level working around the world!

Mike McGuff: You worked in Wichita Falls in the 1960s and then moved to Houston in the latter part of the decade, what was it like moving to a big market station like KPRC 2 at that time?

Larry Weidman: It took me a year to move to Houston for good. In the summer of ’65, I came to Houston on vacation from KAUZ-TV in Wichita Falls (where I grew up), to look up Jon Burkhart, who left Wichita Falls a year earlier to direct at KPRC. It happened that was the week of Gemini 4—the first spaceflight controlled by the new Manned Spacecraft Center. KPRC was handling the remote for NBC News, at Building 6 and the Crest Hotel across NASA Road 1 from the entrance to the MSC. One of their crew got sick, and Jon hired me to be the night floor manager in the “Bubble Studio” NBC had built on the roof of the Crest. It had floor-to-ceiling clear glass windows overlooking the MSC, with no curtains or filters. Launch day was to be in color for the first time, so NBC brought in a one-camera truck with an RCA TK-41 color camera, and it needed a lot of light.

David Brinkley walked into the studio, sat down at the anchor desk, and said (in Brinkley voice), “Who did the lighting? (Brinkley pause) Roto-broil?” He was right, the lighting was brutal to overcome the daylight streaming through the glass. That week was a great experience for me, I got to work with a lot of NBC folks, “Rocket” Roy Neal, Aline Saarinen, Ray Scherer, and got my first look at Ray Miller, who did some reporting for NBC. I even sat in the back of the room when Ron Stone interviewed Mike Wallace for KHOU. Ron had come to Houston from KSWO-TV, in the Wichita Falls/Lawton market a couple of years earlier, and we had friends in common.

I also talked to two other ex-KAUZ friends who worked across the street in Public Affairs at NASA. That led to my leaving KAUZ a month later and starting a job as a media producer in the Public Affairs Office at NASA. But a couple of weeks after I started, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came back from Vietnam and announced the first of the big troop buildups for the war, and a consequent jump in the draft. So I wound up staying just two months at NASA and going back to Wichita Falls for classes at Midwestern University, and my student deferment. But I did get to work in the MOCR for Gemini 5, as the producer for the overnight voice of Mission Control, Terry White. That’s the same Mission Control used for the remainder of the Gemini program, and then Apollo, and which was recently restored.

Back in Wichita Falls, I worked weekends that school year at KWFT, an old-time, locally owned AM radio station doing some sports, some news and some board shifts as a DJ. In the summer of ’66, I went back to Houston for summer classes in Radio-TV at UH. By then, my friend Ted Shaw (another ex-KAUZ’er) was also working at KPRC, and he and Jon Burkhart convinced me to apply to Ray Miller for a job. The chief cameraman, Bob Harper, looked at a reel of film stories I’d shot at KAUZ, and then Ray offered me the best job I ever had in TV working ten hours a day Saturday and Sunday as a photog and reporter, for fifty bucks a week. I had a paid-off VW bug, shared a “Sin Alley” apartment with Ted on Mid Lane and went to summer school at UH during the week.

Unfortunately, that weekend gig only lasted a month before Ray offered me a fulltime job as the night police reporter/photographer/editor. My first day at work was August 1, 1966: the Charles Whitman-in-the-Texas-Tower day. Ray called me in early and sent me down to Needville where the family of Whitman’s wife lived. He had killed her, and his mother, the night before. I did some interviews with neighbors, and that night we did a half-hour special on the shooting, with me live in the studio. Welcome to Houston.

MM:  Talk about working at KPRC under the Hobby family, Ray Miller and other amazing talents such as Ron Stone?

LW: KPRC was a big-time operation, even then. They had color news film with their own processor the year before, and about the time I started, the switch to color studio broadcasts. Larry Rasco was the prime anchor then, but Steve Smith came to work about the same time and began doing the 10:00. The reporter and photographer ranks were just as impressive. But it all revolved around one man, Ray Miller. It seemed as if he did everything. He was the news director, assignments editor, the executive producer; he did editorials, and a weekly interview program called “The Last Word.” He also co-anchored big events, like election night. There was a picture frame hanging on the wall in the newsroom at this point we were still in the 1952-era building on South Post Oak near where the Lakes of Post Oak are now and in this frame was a big paper mache needle, with the legend: “The Needler.” That was something I think the city council had given him when he became news director and quit covering City Hall. I expect there was relief down there when that happened.

But the point is, Ray was a newsman from the soles of his feet. He had been a submariner in the Navy in World War II and was recalled for the Korean War. He had nerves of steel, and absolutely did not suffer fools gladly or any other way. If he gave you an assignment, you would do just about anything other than fail to return with the goods. The people who survived working for him revered him, people like Frank Dobbs, Steve Smith, Cal Thomas, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ron Stone, Sara Lowrey Mackie, Bob Brandon...the list goes on and on.

Here’s the other thing--the guy Ray worked for, Jack Harris, was just as tough. The Hobby family brought Harris to Houston from Nashville after the war just as they were buying Channel 2. And he ran it from 1949 until he retired in the mid-80’s. He had been General McArthur’s radio chief in the Pacific, and was there for the surrender of the Japanese, setting up the live radio coverage of the ceremony on the USS Missouri and the arrival of Americans to take over Radio Tokyo. He was a bird colonel when the war ended. Mrs. Hobby, Oveta Culp Hobby, was also a colonel, of course. She had been commander of the Women’s Army Corps during the war. In the Army, the date you get your promotion is a big thing, and her date-of-rank for colonel was earlier than Col. Harris’, so she outranked him, and never let him forget it.

By the way, here’s a book plug. Don Carleton is Executive Director of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin, and he’s written a great book which covers a lot of the history of Houston Media: The Governor and the Colonel—A Dual Biography of William P. Hobby and Oveta Culp Hobby.

MM: So when you left KPRC for NBC News in 1980, did that mean moving desks to the NBC bureau in the same building? What was that experience like? 

LW: I started at the NBC News Bureau on March 31,1980. The bureau was actually located across the driveway from Channel 2’s “new (1972)” building on the Southwest Freeway. But I didn’t go to the office that day. My first assignment as a network field producer was a news conference at Texas Stadium in Irving, where Roger Staubach announced his retirement from the Dallas Cowboys. It was obviously a big deal in Texas, it even made NBC Nightly News.

As news director at KPRC, my time had been filled with management stuff and very little hands-on news work. That changed overnight, literally. At NBC, my days were all news: looking for stories, setting up logistics for travel, working with crews on shoots, helping correspondents with scripts and editors cutting the stories. The Houston Bureau’s principal area of responsibility, aside from Texas, included Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and some of New Mexico, but I traveled all over the country on stories, sometimes with correspondents from New York or Washington.

MM:  Many local TV journalists dream about moving to the networks like you did.  What was that move like?

LW: I was lucky because I had been able to watch an amazing team of network people up close for years, because as I said, the actual bureau was literally next door. The Bureau Chief for most of those years was Arthur Lord, a dynamic newsman. The correspondents were George Lewis and Sandy Gilmour; producers Don Critchfield and A’Lelia Bundles. And the true ringmaster was bureau coordinator Joyce Barnell, a legend in her own right. We saw them all the time and when I got the chance to move across the driveway to the Bureau, it seemed very comfortable.

MM:  What was the difference between working in a familiar place to you like Houston or Dallas and then moving off to the Tel Aviv and Rome bureaus? 

LW: When I got the call about Tel Aviv, the first thing I did was call Tom Cheatham in New York. He had been Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, and his first piece of advice was to go over and meet the people in the Bureau. I did and loved it. My wife was born in Scotland and her family emigrated to Canada and then the US when she was a child. So, she kind of knew what to expect. Our daughter was eight and adapted quickly to the American International School. By the time we moved onto Rome three years and a half years later, we were all seasoned ex-pats:)

MM:  You recently donated some of your tape archives to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.  Why do you think it is important for these stories to be archived? 

LW: In my years at KPRC, we were covering a city expanding and changing every day. It was explosive growth. But we were able to draw a direct line to the start of TV coverage and use our film and video files to give some perspective to our daily coverage. So, I’ve always had an appreciation of trying to preserve our visual history. Once electronic news gathering came along, it was much easier to hold on to personal videotapes, and so I did through the years. And then, amazingly, Caroline Frick and her team at TAMI came along so there was a place pass on what I had saved. Thankfully, KPRC and KHOU felt the same way, and that’s where their archives are now.

MM: Anything else you want to add?

LW: I just would say that the Texas Archive of the Moving Image is doing something now, that generations to come will appreciate. TAMI is also trying to upgrade its technical operation with a state-of-the-art scanner for faster and better film preservation, along with other improvements. Contributions are welcome:

Larry Weidman's resume

 KAUZ-TV, Wichita Falls, Texas
Photographer, Reporter, Anchor

Media Producer

KWFT-AM, Wichita Falls, Texas
News/Sports Anchor

KPRC-TV-AM, Houston, Texas
Reporter, Photographer, Radio News Anchor, Producer, Associate News Director, News Director

U.S. ARMY, Würzburg/Nürnberg, West Germany
Broadcast Specialist, Third Infantry Div.; Host, “Marne Monitor.”

NBC NEWS, New York, NY
Bureau Chief: Houston, Tel Aviv, Rome Correspondent/ Producer: Dallas
Retired September, 2004

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