Just 4,100 families in the Miami Valley had a television set when WHIO-TV went on the air in 1949.
“The country is thrilled by its novelty and impressed by its tremendous possibilities,” James M. Cox Jr., the broadcast company president and the son of Gov. James Cox, said during the station’s dedication. “People are thinking of the not-too-distant future when, in their living rooms, they will see world events as they occur.”
Built on a plot of land surrounded by cornfields at 1414 Wilmington Ave., the station’s transmitter tower loomed 517 feet overhead and was the tallest structure for miles.
Now marking its 70th year, WHIO was only the 55th commercial television station in the country and the first to televise in the region when the FCC granted its first license to broadcast – on Channel 13.
Since 1953, generations living in the region have tuned into WHIO on Channel 7.
During the early years, WHIO was on the air just four hours a day. The programs were a mixture of live local talk and music shows, sports, old movies and a few minutes of news.
During the station’s long history, there have only been a handful of main news anchors.
Don Wayne was the first.
The former dance band drummer and radio personality unexpectedly became the entire television news department after management let go of a predecessor who delivered the news with a pipe in his mouth and refused to remove it so viewers could understand him, Wayne once recounted.
“Don Wayne was the father of TV news in Dayton,” said Cheryl McHenry, who worked with Wayne for seven years when her career at WHIO began in 1981.
McHenry, a current anchor, said Wayne’s voice was equal to Walter Cronkite’s.
“Just the way he carried himself, there was something very reassuring while being very credible,” McHenry said. “He asked questions when he felt something wasn’t clear and he wanted to make sure his delivery was clear.”
‘To see your buddies on TV…was a big deal’
Children’s shows were popular and accounted for much of the local programming during the early years.
Youngsters tuned in to watch the Kenny Roberts Show, known as the “jumping cowboy.” Roberts sang and played guitar while he and the children in the audience hopped around the studio.
In 1955, WHIO introduced young viewers to Uncle Orrie, Ferdie Fussbudget and Nosey the Clown, characters who became household names across the Miami Valley.
Chuck Hamlin, a videographer with WHIO for 38 years, fondly remembers the goody bags filled with penny candy that each kid received at the end of the show.
Hamlin was in the bleachers with his class from Dorothy Lane Elementary School in Kettering during the early 1960s and would also “sneak in” and watch the show from the back of the studio when he came to work with his father, Tom Hamlin, the longtime sports director at WHIO-TV.
“Television was still a relatively new medium, and to see your buddies on television – or anyone on television – was a big deal,” he said.
‘You made a lot of mistakes’
Before videotape and when film was expensive and difficult to work with, commercials were rehearsed in the studio and then done live.
“TV in the early days was exciting, it was fun,” said Bette Rogge in an interview 30 years ago. Rogge, a daytime program host, worked at WHIO from 1952 to 1984.
“People didn’t really expect perfection, so they were tolerant of you and they knew that you made a lot of mistakes.”
“One time, this is terrible to admit this, I wanted to do a very special commercial for Unox Hams. I said ‘ladies, get this for a very special event, it’s all bone and no meat.’”
‘I could never sit next to that guy’
Wayne’s days of working alone ended in 1958, when he took a phone call from a young photographer named Chuck Upthegrove.
“Don Wayne at the time was the only person in news and by luck, I was messing around with cameras and I took a picture of a fatal accident one night,” Upthegrove said.
Wayne asked him to bring the photograph to the station and Upthegrove took the opportunity to ask for a job. He was hired the following week, the start of a 38-year career with WHIO.
Wayne and Upthegrove covered decades of stories, traveling to Vietnam during the war, reporting from Xenia after a deadly tornado came through in 1974, and flew to Germany in 1981 when Dayton’s Steve Lauterbach, one of 52 hostages freed after being held in Iran for 444 days, arrived.
For a couple years, Phil Donahue, who went on to revolutionize television talk shows, sat next to Wayne on the news desk.
Wayne retired in 1988 and was followed by Jim Baldridge, who was joined by WHIO’s first female main anchor, Deborah Countiss.
Baldridge, who retired in 2009, recalled meeting Don Wayne for the first time. “This was a guy I’d looked up to and admired since I was in high school,” he said.
“He was a nice guy with an imposing presence. I thought to myself, ‘Man, I could never sit next to that guy,’ and luckily I did.” Wayne retired in 1988.
After years of working the police and courts beat, Cheryl McHenry joined Baldridge on the main anchor desk in 1991 and today co-anchors with James Brown.
‘This storm is severe’
Gil Whitney, WHIO’s weather specialist, was a beloved part of the community, McHenry said. “He was down to earth, just a regular guy with a sense of humor, but serious about the weather, and he saved lives.”
In 1974 Whitney broke into programming to warn Xenia residents to take immediate cover — a tornado was heading their way. “This storm is severe. A massive storm,” he said.
The station had newly installed radar and Whitney had spotted the distinctive hook echo shape, a harbinger of deadly weather.
The F-5 tornado flattened the community, killed more than 30 people and injured 1,300.
“There are people who credit Gil Whitney with the fact that their lives were saved because they saw his weather report and they knew to take cover,” McHenry said.
‘Tell the story and invite you in with me’
Technology has come a long way since the old Bell and Howell film cameras Chuck Upthegrove started working with.
Jim Otte, WHIO’s investigative and government reporter, started at the station in 1988, working in the Columbus bureau.
Otte remembers the days when he would race to the Greyhound station with a videotape from a morning interview and put it on a 10 a.m. bus headed to Dayton. It would arrive at 11:30 and with luck, the story would make it into the noon broadcast.
“Jump forward to 2019,” Otte said, “and I can shoot anything on phone and have it back in five minutes.”
The advances in technology “take you right there and put you in the middle of it,” Otte said. “For journalists, it’s a great opportunity to tell that story and invite you in with me.”
News Chopper 7 provided a birds-eye view of news events across the Miami Valley for three decades, including the 1986 Miamisburg train derailment that released poisonous gas into the air keeping residents and the media far away. “That was a story that could only be covered from the sky,” Otte said.
Today the station has 5 drone operators who can deploy an eye in the sky at a moment’s notice.
‘The soul of broadcasting is public service’
In 2010, WHIO-TV, WHIO Radio and the Dayton Daily News began working together in a combined newsroom in a former NCR building at 1611 S. Main St. in Dayton.
“The viewers are getting more depth in the news we deliver, and we’re able to provide more widespread coverage,” said Caryn Golden, WHIO news director and a former crime and court reporter for the station. “Our ability to cover the news of this community is stronger when we are doing it together.”
Governor Cox once said, “the soul of broadcasting is public service.” Decades later, Golden shepherds the station along the same path.
Despite 70 years of technology and industry changes, one thing has remained the same: “delivering news and weather coverage that people can count on, coverage that will keep them and their family safe and informed,” Golden said.
“WHIO-TV has been here through so many events that impacted generations of people in this community. People’s parents and grandparents have trusted and relied upon WHIO-TV and its team for 70 years, and we work diligently to continue to earn viewers’ trust and respect for the generations to come.”
HOW TO WATCH
WHIO-TV will air a special half-hour program marking the station’s 70th anniversary.
News anchors Cheryl McHenry and James Brown will host the show that takes a look back at news highlights and weather coverage plus interviews with current and former anchors, reporters and videographers.
The show will air on Channel 7 Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. and on Feb. 23 at 12:30 p.m.
The program, along with extended interviews, pictures and video can also be seen on the WHIO news streaming app available on Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.