Doug Garrett remembers the date: July 17, 2001. That morning, he was stopped and ticketed for an expired license plate. A few hours later, he walked into a staff meeting of newsroom personnel at Evansville’s WEVV-TV 44 and walked out 20 minutes later without a job. It was a day to remember, even if he wanted to forget.
“We got paged to the studio, and the GM at the time (Dan Robbins) said, ‘Starting immediately, we are no longer doing news.’ I was the first one to leave the meeting. I was really upset. I loved my job.”
Fourteen years later, Garrett and morning audio operator John Taylor form the direct links between past and present, the only two who worked the last day of news at WEVV and the first day of its revival, on Aug. 3 when local news, weather, and sports returned to the station. Garrett was chief photographer in 2001, and he’s chief photographer again.
“There’s a big difference between now and then,” Garrett insists. “Back then, the atmosphere was more of dread. If a piece of equipment broke, you probably didn’t get it fixed. Now, we know we are being supported by everyone in the building.”
WEVV’s return to local news began last year when Communications Corporation of America sold the station after nearly 16 years of ownership. Bayou City Broadcasting eventually took over, and a seven-month rush of activity led by Bayou City President/CEO DuJuan McCoy, WEVV General Manager Jeff Fisher, and News Director Warren Korff created 44News. Equipment was purchased, newscast schedules were finalized so advertising sales could begin, and nearly 40 new staff members were hired. At the same time, WEVV was in the process of moving from its longtime home at 44 Main St. to the former WTVW Channel 7 building, a mile away on Carpenter Street.
“I have stimulated the economy this year,” Korff boasts with a laugh. “My wife says I’m no longer allowed to write a check from our checkbook because I’m at the point where I say, ‘Oh, that’s only a hundred thousand dollars. Let’s get two of them!’”
It’s not cheap to outfit a full-time news department. Since WEVV is the Tri-State affiliate for both CBS and Fox, the newsroom serves two audiences. You can find 44News weekdays on both stations from 4:30 to 7 a.m., on Fox from 7 to 9 a.m., on CBS for 30 minutes at noon, 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., back on Fox for an hour at 9 p.m., and then wrapping up on CBS for 30 minutes at 10. Weekend newscasts are on Fox from 9 to 10 p.m. and CBS from 10 to 10:30. Fourteen years ago, when the plug was pulled, Channel 44 trailed in the news ratings against the other three stations — WTVW Channel 7, WFIE Channel 14, and WEHT Channel 25. All three competitors still produce newscasts, although 7 and 25 combined their staffs after Nexstar Broadcasting Group purchased WEHT in 2011.
“There have been two brands recently in local news — WFIE and Nexstar,” says Fisher, who was sales director for WEHT-WTVW before taking the GM position at 44 in January. “It’s time for this marketplace to have a third voice in local news. We’re not trying to surpass anyone right now. We just want to get in the race. Then, if we put out a solid product technically and journalistically, we’ll gain viewers. Will we be No. 1? Maybe, maybe not, but from a journalistic and financial standpoint, we need to be in the local news business in this marketplace.”
44News’ success will depend a lot on its evening news team of co-anchors Amanda Decker, 34, and Chris Cerenelli, 30; Chief Meteorologist Chad Evans, 35; and Sports Director Andrew Keesee, 28. Here’s a look at each:
Decker and her fiancée, Buckley Tunison, met in Iowa, moved to Arkansas, and now work together at WEVV, where Tunison is evening news director. Exactly one year before Decker’s first newscast at 44News, on Aug. 3, 2014, the two became engaged at the “Field of Dreams” in Iowa, immortalized in the 1989 Kevin Costner movie. “I wanted my engagement story to be about Iowa, so we drove to the ‘Field of Dreams,’ and Buckley proposed to me in the middle of the cornfield beyond the outfield. I thought there would be paths into the cornfield. Turns out there are no paths.” A native of central Indiana, graduate of Ball State, and six-time Associated Press award winner, Decker says it’s time to plant roots. “Originally the plan was to make it back to Indianapolis and that huge market. But then I realized that Evansville was much more my pace. We want to have kids and settle down, and Evansville is the most perfect place in the country to do that. Once you’ve lived in Florida and Arkansas and North Carolina, and all kinds of places, you realize the Midwest is a pretty good place to be.”
Cerenelli may be the country’s most musically gifted anchorman. He began singing and playing guitar professionally at 18 in his native Youngstown, Ohio, then majored in journalism at Belmont University in Nashville. After working in television back in Ohio, he returned to Nashville in 2014 to work at NewsChannel5 and give singing one more try. He recorded a single, “She Loved Me Again,” that earned acclaim at ReverbNation.com. The song was written by Monte Warden, who has written for Carrie Underwood and George Strait.
“It didn’t take long once I got to Nashville to see that when you have a talent pool that is so elite, you quickly realize where you stand in comparison. I could have made a living from music, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to be George Strait. And that wasn’t going to happen. It was a difficult decision (to leave the business), but not gut-wrenching because I wanted to build a more stable future. Most people never go back and take that chance. I did. I tried. And now I’m focused on anchoring at 44News. This is a truly special opportunity, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.”
One of Evans’ professional idols is now one of his competitors — WEHT-WTVW’s Wayne Hart. An Odon, Indiana, native and Indiana State University graduate who worked under Hart at Channel 25 early in his career, Evans was anchoring the weather at WEHT on the night of Saturday, Nov. 5, 2005, just hours before an F3 tornado churned through the Tri-State and killed 25 people. “My life changed from that point forward. That night will stick with me forever because I learned so much from Wayne. He told me, ‘There will be a defining moment in your career when, 1, you have a night like this, and, 2, you are tracking a large, violent tornado on the ground that is killing people. You will have that moment once or twice in your career.’ Because of that night, I know what to look for. I had two similar experiences later when I was working in Lafayette (Indiana). What I dealt with that night in 2005 helped me do my job better.”
Keesee is a Texan, and like all good Texas boys, he played football. Only in Keesee’s case, it was 6-man football. “We had 20 kids in my graduating class (at Meadow High School, 30 miles south of Lubbock). That’s a testament to how big football is in Texas. If your school’s not big enough to field an 11-man team, you drop down to 6-man.”
Unlike most of his fellow West Texans, Keesee is a hockey fan. Until putting on the pads for Meadow when he reached high school, his primary passion was street hockey. The chance to become a weeknight sports anchor in a town with professional hockey was too much to pass up, even if it meant leaving Texas. “I’m not so much a hockey fan as a hockey nerd. I pay attention to the young and up-and-coming stars in the development leagues, so that’s why I’m excited about covering the IceMen since they’re affiliated with the (Ottawa) Senators.”
Early days stretch into late nights in the Carpenter Street studio these days as 44News goes from non-existent to producing 7 ½ hours of on-air news each weekday. Fisher acknowledges that some aspects of the newscasts have gone surprisingly well, while others need more work than expected. Either way, 44News is back in the race.
“This is a huge endeavor,” says Korff, himself in his second stint at 44. “The challenge for us is to get people to change their habits. They’ve always watched Channel 14 since they were 10 years old, or they’ve always watched 25 or 7. It’s just a habit. We have to change some habits around here. Simply give us a chance. Tune in, watch our newscasts. If you like us, stick around. If you don’t, go back to 14, 7, whatever you’ve been watching. Just give us a chance.”
For more information about 44News, visit wevv.com.