By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
For five years, WBEN-TV Ch.4 was Buffalo’s only television station.
Then in 1953, two more stations came to the market—but most Buffalonians needed special equipment to watch them.
Buffalo’s WBUF-TV Ch.17 and WBES-TV Ch.59 took advantage of the federal government opening up a much wider spectrum of television broadcasting frequencies. Ultra High Frequency or UHF channels 14-83 were opened up in 1952.
Up until then, televisions were built only with VHF receivers, and could only pick up channels 2-13.
Encouraging sales of special converter boxes was only part of the uphill battle for WBUF-TV and WBES-TV.
Sales of new televisions and converter boxes skyrocketed in 1953.
VHF stations 2-13 offered much better reception, and there were a number of interested parties in Buffalo petitioning to become the license holders for stations on Ch. 2 and Ch.7, which allotted to Buffalo, but not yet assigned to licensees.
As those cases were being made in Washington, two local investment groups rolled the dice on UHF here– but those two groups had entirely different stomachs for gambling.
WBUF-TV was founded by a couple of friends looking to strike out on their own.
Sherwin Grossman was a 28-year old Lafayette High and UB grad working in his family dry cleaning plant and Gary Cohen was managing his family’s movie theater business at Tonawanda’s Sheridan Drive-In. (That family business is now run by Rick Cohen at Lockport’s Transit Drive-In).
The pair first set sights on bringing television to Jamestown—until an investor convinced them to aim for a bigger market just to the northwest.
On December 18, 1952, the FCC granted them the construction permit for WBUF-TV, Ch.17 in Buffalo.
Further up the dial, the group that founded WBES-TV had much more on the line, both reputationally and financially.
Western Savings Bank President Charles Diebold, Davis Heating & Refrigerating President Joseph Davis, and attorney Vincent Gaughan were the leadership team who were granted an FCC permit for WBES-TV, Ch.59 in Buffalo, five days after WBUF-TV on December 23, 1952.
In less than a week, Buffalo went from a one-station market to what promised to be a three-station market.
Up until the time that new stations signed-on, Ch.4 was in the catbird’s seat—having the prime pick of programming from the CBS, NBC, ABC, and DuMont television networks.
Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night staple— known as “Toast of the Town” before it was renamed “the Ed Sullivan Show” in 1955– was one of many nationally popular shows which Ch.4 chose not to air. In the time just before WBUF-TV signed on, Ch.4 was running game show “the Big Payoff” during the Ed Sullivan time slot.
Ch.4’s owners, The Buffalo Evening News, covered developments at WBUF and WBES with the paper’s usual reserve. But over at the Courier-Express, daily blow-by-blow developments were compared and contrasted, and it was made into a race to which station might go on the air first.
“Buffalo’s two new UHF stations open a hopeful new chapter in the Western New York television story,” reported the Courier-Express as both stations were poised to begin broadcasting. “UHF means considerably more free home entertainment, and a delightfully specific opportunity to turn the dial.”
WBUF-TV purchased 184 Barton Street—later the home of WGR-TV and then WNED-TV– dubbing it “Television City.” There, they built and equipped a full television studio complex.
When the station first signed on, WBUF-TV’s mascot was Buffalo Bill.
WBES-TV moved into the penthouse at the Lafayette Hotel, and built a tower on the roof—which at the time, was Buffalo’s tallest structure. The lower portion of that tower still stands on the building today. The space inside the station was limited—but included offices, a small studio, and the station’s transmitter plant. There were also promises to put the hotel’s ballroom to use as the home of a huge, audience participation kids show.
“We think we have found the three keys to ultimate success and public acceptance,” Gaughan, the father of Buffalo attorney and regionalism proponent Kevin Gaughan, announced. “They are power, personnel, and programming. With these assets, WBES-TV can offer the people of Western New York the very best in television.”
Ch.59 made splashy hires of known and beloved Buffalo personalities. Roger Baker, who was still occasionally announcing sports, was also WKBW’s General Manager when WBES-TV hired him to run the new station and to be the station’s newscaster. Woody Magnuson, longtime WBEN announcer and children’s host, was hired to become the station’s program director.
“Life begins at 59” was the headline sprawled across a full-page ad in the Courier-Express. “The best in television… a great range of fine programs to delight and interest your entire family (through) the miracle of UHF.”
WBUF’s staff hires weren’t quite as newsworthy, but they also had a full-page ad that was just as over-the-top, billing themselves as “the modern miracle that gives you what you want — when you want it — in your own home” and “solace and comfort, laughter and joy, tears and sighs, company in loneliness and solitude in crowds, escape and challenge, fact and fiction… Aladdin and his wonderful lamp, Alice and her miraculous mirror, Jack the Giant Killer, Paul Bunyan the Great American.”
It was WBUF-TV Ch.17 that made it on the air first by a month, with a schedule of mostly network programming starting August 17, 1953. WBES-TV Ch.59 signed on September 23, 1953.
In the WBUF-TV control room, with coffee from Your Host restaurants.
Ch.59, however, fell out of the gate. Technical problems delayed the station’s signing on, and sponsors were slow to sign up. WBUF-TV had many of the same issues, but WBES-TV’s investors soured immediately to the station’s hemorrhaging of money, and on December 18, 1953—less than a year after being awarded the station and 13 weeks after signing on—WBES-TV, Ch.59 returned its license to the federal government.
Being alone as “Buffalo’s other TV station” helped Ch.17 a bit, but it, too was losing money. The station’s saving grace came in the form of the National Broadcasting Company, trying to outfox the federal government’s limit on the number of VHF stations that a television network could own.
Jack Begon was an NBC foreign correspondent who was brought to Buffalo as a news anchor on WBUF. He spent much of his career stationed in Rome for NBC and later ABC.
In 1956, after WBES-TV signed off and WGR-TV Ch.2 had already signed on, NBC bought WBUF-TV as an experiment to see whether the network would be able to build a UHF station which rose to the standards of its other VHF properties.
NBC built a state-of-the-art television facility at 2077 Elmwood Avenue, and brought in network-level talent from around the country to staff local programs.
Like Ch.4, Ch.17 also carried live wrestling from the Aud.
The Today Show broadcast live from WBUF’s new 2077 Elmwood studios, shown here. Less than four years later, the building would be home to WBEN and Ch.4.
After two years, the network called the experiment a bust, with the station still losing money and Buffalo’s ratings on network shows lagging well behind the network averages.
WBUF-TV’s Mac McGarry gives a weather report, 1957. McGarry covered President Truman’s inauguration for NBC in 1948. After leaving Buffalo, he returned to Washington, and anchored NBC News updates through the 70s and 80s. He also hosted the Washington DC version of “It’s Academic” on NBC-owned station WRC-TV for 50 years.
WBUF-TV went dark on October 1, 1958. NBC donated the license to the group that formed Buffalo’s educational public TV broadcaster, WNED-TV.
With public broadcasting on Ch.17, Buffalo would be without a commercial UHF station until WUTV Ch.29 signed on in 1970.
Frank Frederics was the only on-air personality who was seen regularly through most of WBUF-TV’s tumultuous history. He was the News Director when the station signed on, and was the only original announcer retained when NBC bought the station. During the NBC years, he anchored a newscast sponsored by Milk For Health. Live commercials during the newscast were hosted by Jan Okun— who later spent more than 40 years as the Food Editor at The Buffalo News.
It’s not the end of the story, though. Even if we don’t remember their call letters, the legacy of Buffalo’s UHF pioneers lives on.
Ch.17 operates as a public service in Buffalo to this day.
The studios built by Ch.59 at the Lafayette were the first home of Ch.2 and then the home of WNED-TV.
WBUF-TV’s Barton Street studios were the second home of Ch.2, and in a familiar pattern, became the home of WNED and Western New York Public Broadcasting when WGR-TV moved to Delaware Avenue.
And the Elmwood Avenue studios built by NBC have been the home of Ch.4 since 1960.
Rick Azar was WBUF-TV’s Atlantic Weatherman.
Both stations also served as the dial spot where a handful of later well-known Buffalo television personalities got their first chance in front of the camera, most notably, WBES-TV’s 20-year-old staff announcer Tom Jolls (below) and WBUF-TV’s sports reporter and “Weathervane” host, Rick Azar.
And at least one local star of Buffalo’s early UHF stations has been seen on local TVs over the last several years. Doris Jones—who was Doris Sherris as your “Phoenix (Beer) All Weather Gal” on WBES-TV continues to help on pledge drives on WNED-TV.
This page is an excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting by Steve Cichon
The full text of the book is now online.
The original 436-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York.
©2020, 2021 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon