TAMPA — New to the area but aware of the erratic rain, Elliott Wiser channel surfed one morning in April 1997 in search of a weather report that didn’t exist.
“I couldn’t find anyone covering the weather when I needed it,” said Wiser, the founding general manager of Bay News 9, the Tampa Bay area’s first 24-hour news channel. “I knew then this area was prime for regular weather reports. This was going to work.”
On the evening of Sept. 24, 1997, Bay News 9 launched on cable Channel 9 at 6:59.
Its first segment was Weather on the 9s, the network’s meteorology report updated every 10 minutes on the nines. As Bay News 9 celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, that segment remains a calling card.
“If you tested a brand in this area, Weather on the 9s is top three,” Wiser said, “It’s the Coke of Tampa Bay weather reporting.”
But Bay News 9′s origin story is not all sunshine. There were storms too.
Critics wondered if 24-hour local news was necessary or could be pulled off. Early missteps fueled those questions.
“We’re still here,” said Mike Gautreau, Bay News 9′s vice president of content and a 20-year veteran of the network. “Our business model is unique. Our parent company, now Charter, has always been committed to the news, which allows us to skip some commercials to stick with something like a fabulous rocket launch from Cape Canaveral.”
Today, 24-hour cable news is an everyday part of American life, said Wiser, now president of the Here’s an Idea media consulting company and adjunct professor at the University of South Florida.
“Nationally, there are options,” he said, and most major markets have a local network.
Wiser was there almost from the beginning of 24-hour cable TV news.
“It all started with Chicken Noodle News,” Wiser laughed. “CNN.”
The world’s first 24-hour news network debuted in 1980. Wiser joined the cable channel as a producer in 1985.
He stayed there for a year and moved on to the Atlanta news market. Then, in 1995, he brought his CNN experience to Seattle as founding general manager of Northwest Cable News, a 24-hour news network covering the Pacific Northwest region. It was there that Wiser first considered weather updates every 10 minutes.
New York had NY1, a 24-hour news network with Weather on the 1s, which Wiser knew was popular. The Seattle network decided against it.
Time Warner approached Wiser in 1997. The cable company was starting 24-hour news channels in Tampa and Orlando an asked if he’d be interested in heading either.
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At the time, there were around two dozen 24-hour local news channels around the country, including Sarasota News Now.
“I knew Tampa was the right market,” Wiser said.
Others were not so certain.
WFLA’s news director told the Tampa Tribune in February 1997 that “this market is about saturated with local news already on five stations” and the operations manager at WFTS said, “I imagine their news would be a lot of repetition.”
But repetition was initially a selling point of Bay News 9. Back then, the network operated on what it called a “wheel format” that played certain taped stories throughout the day, replacing some and updating others on the hour, cutting in with breaking news when needed.
“It will be a major convenience to customers who want to see local news but can’t tune in at 6 or 11 or noon or some other specific time during the day,” Bay News 9 executives told the Tampa Tribune in reaction to the naysayers.
It was not perfect in the beginning, Wiser admitted.
Their first major news story on launch day was about a break-in at Tampa Mayor Dick Greco’s home.
“We had to repeat that same story over and over because the technology screwed up,” Wiser laughed. “It was an absolute nightmare, and it ran on a loop for an hour.”
Live weather updates were the only break viewers had from that story.
“It’s funny now,” Wiser said. “But it took 25 years to be funny.”
Two days later, a storm dumped more than 14 inches of rain on parts of the Tampa Bay area. Bay News 9′s location, then a 14,000-square-foot facility on 66th Street in Pinellas Park, was among the places hit hard.
“We covered it fine in the morning,” said Bay News 9 meteorologist Mike Clay, who has been with the network from the start. “But in the afternoon, it just got worse and worse and it kind of overwhelmed the news department.”
They abandoned live coverage, Clay said, because flooding threatened the building — and because they weren’t yet prepared for continuous coverage for a story.
“People in the industry roundly criticized the 24-hour news channel’s coverage, which remained stuck in the channel’s cycle of regular weather and traffic updates,” the Tampa Tribune reported. “It was a performance that seemed to belie the news channel’s biggest selling point: the ability to respond quickly and completely to any local news event for as long as necessary.”
A month later, the weather tested them again when a series of tornadoes struck Pinellas County.
“I already had a live truck on the road and was heading for the beach” when the tornadoes hit, Clay said. “So, I was able to get on it quickly.”
Anchor Al Ruechel rushed to a Clearwater church that had lost its roof. Moments earlier, he was driving his kid to school barefoot and did not return home for shoes.
“He did it all barefoot,” laughed Clay.
That same day, the stock market plunged and three died when a small plane crashed at Tampa International Airport.
“We kicked butt,” Wiser said. “That got everybody’s attention. The market had never seen anything like that. They then saw that we could do this.”
“The station shone,” the St. Petersburg Times wrote, especially heaping praise on the tornado coverage that included “calls from viewers and live reports.”
Clay said the weather remained severe throughout the winter. “It was a super El Niño. We had the wettest December on record. We had massive flooding. We had tornado outbreaks. We were prepared for it. We were in the right place at the right time and everyone took notice.”
Said Wiser, “We never looked back.”
A lot has changed for Bay News 9 since then. The parent company switched to Bright House and then to Charter Communications.
They are now located in a large facility in St. Petersburg’s Carillon area.
They added and then continued to upgrade a radar system, most recently Klystron 9 in 2009 that Bay News 9′s website hails as “the most powerful TV radar ever used.”
They no longer work on a wheel format. Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times enjoy a coverage partnership.
“Our news model includes a mix of live and refreshed local community news, general interest stories, in-depth coverage of local politics, public affairs, Florida’s congressional delegation and sports, as well as real time area-specific weather and traffic reports throughout the day so viewers can tune-in at any time for valuable news essential to their daily lives,” said Gautreau, the vice president of content.
And they’ve continued to thrive, Gautreau said, despite the internet providing 24-hour local news competition. “We’ve been up the challenge. It made us stronger.”
The key, he said, is that Bay News 9 has remained focused on round-the-clock breaking news. “We have great competitors in this market, but they have five newscasts a day where they have opportunities to reach viewers. We have access to viewers 24/7 and they have access to us. What an amazing advantage.”