By Steve Cichon
Excerpt from 100 Years of Buffalo Broadcasting
Irv Weinstein used to joke that Ch.7 was the fourth station in a three-station market when he began anchoring the news there in 1964.
For most of the station’s early years, there were ABC network shows and lots of old movies—and legally, not enough of anything else. In 1963, the FCC withheld the station’s license renewal request “pending additional information on local, live programing” on the station.
It took a few years for the Eyewitness News approach to catch on and become number one in Buffalo, but even as early as Irv’s first year at Ch.7 and a year before Tom Jolls would come over from Ch.4– the approach of dispatching news cameras to every corner of the city was gaining traction in an era where the other stations in the market were comfortable with a news anchor reading into a camera with no video or graphic accompaniment.
“They can hear about it on the other channels,” said Ch.7 General Manager Robert King, “but they see it on Ch.7.”
Irv Weinstein with Bill Gregory. When Irv first came to Ch.7, they co-anchored the news.
Irv Weinstein led the team that informed and entertained generations of Buffalonians with his unmistakable style in writing and delivering the news. Together with Rick Azar and Tom Jolls, Irv was a part of the longest running TV anchor team in history, and their story is the story of Buffalo over the last half century.
WKBW-TV Ch.7 signed on in 1958, 10 years after Ch.4, and four years after Ch.2, and the new station had a hard time gaining traction.
“The ratings at Ch.7 were worse than the signoff test patterns on Ch.4 and Ch.2,” said Weinstein.
When Weinstein left WKBW Radio to join Ch.7 alongside Rick Azar in 1964, the evening newscast went on the air at 7:20pm to avoid competition from the other stations’ 6 p.m. newscasts.
A few years later, Tom Jolls joined the crew, and the Irv, Rick and Tom team that dominated Buffalo TV news in the ’70s and ’80s was complete.
The three men, plus addition of more local newsfilm, better tight writing and a display of personality and human interaction unseen before on local TV made Ch.7 — and Irv Weinstein — No. 1 in the market, virtually uninterrupted, from the late 1960s through Irv’s retirement in 1998.
“Basically, the other stations’ approach was very conservative, you know, the globe on the desk and the clocks in the background and the mature, deep-voiced guy sitting there,” explained Irv. “We were aggressive, we were razzle-dazzle. We covered every fire there was because it looked great.”
Irv also credited the styles and personalities of the three men — and the mix of those personalities — with the larger success of “Eyewitness News” during those years.
Tom Jolls, 1964
“You had Tom, every mother’s son; the flag, and apple pie, and all of those things that make for a fine American,” said Irv. “That’s what you saw, that’s what you got. That’s what Tom was, that’s what Tom is.
“Rick was more of a broadcasting personality,” said Weinstein. “Solid professional, knowledgeable, debonair, good looking guy. Very smooth, Mr. Smooth, the Latin Lover.”
And rounding out the trio?
“Me? I’m an ethnic type,” Irv said of himself. “Definitely an ethnic type. I felt very proud of the fact in a heavily Catholic, heavily Polish town, this Jewish kid was accepted.”
“Accepted” is an understatement. Irv Weinstein is remembered as one of — if not the — greatest personalities in the history of Buffalo television.
He got his start in radio as a child actor growing up in Rochester in the 1940s. After working in various radio and TV jobs, he wound up as a newsman at WKBW Radio in Buffalo. There, he became the news director and was instrumental in the rock ’n’ roll style newscasts that matched the music KB was playing in the late 50s and early 60s.
It was at KB Radio where Irv perfected the ra-ta-tat-tat staccato delivery style that he’d be remembered for; it’s also where he developed the sharp writing style, filled with alliteration and bigger-than-life phraseology that was the engine for that delivery.
There were no firemen tamping down a house fire. “Buffalo fire eaters” “battled spectacular blazes.” “Death was waiting along the side of the road” for someone struck and killed by a car. A teenage hold-up man was a “knife-wielding delinquent,” if he wasn’t a “pistol-packing punk.”
After leaving WKBW Radio for WKBW-TV in 1964, it took Weinstein some time to get used to being on camera and to adapt his writing style for television delivery, but over the next several years, he became comfortable with TV and Buffalo became comfortable with him.
By the time Irv Weinstein came to Ch.7, Rick Azar had already been there for six years. Azar was the announcer who signed the station on the air in 1958.
He had been an actor who took radio jobs at WUSJ in Lockport, WWOL in Buffalo and WHLD in Niagara Falls between acting gigs, and also served as a sports and weather man on Buffalo’s short lived WBUF-TV Ch.17 staring in 1956.
In the early days at Ch.7, he delivered weather, sports and news, along with general announcing, and even hosting “Buffalo Bandstand,” the local version of the Dick Clark show.
It was in sports broadcasting, though, where Azar became a long-remembered and trusted household name.
As a TV sportscaster, a play-by-play man for college basketball, and one of the voices of the Buffalo Bills in the 1970s, there were few broadcasters better known, liked and appreciated that Azar.
Rick Azar in the lockerroom.
In 1975, the fact that the “Eyewitness News” anchor team might have been the hippest guys in town might be reflected in the fact that there was a special edition Oldsmobile on sale called “The Azar.”
If Rick was hip, Tom Jolls was everyone’s favorite neighbor. The youngest of the three, Jolls and Azar actually met when Jolls was a junior high school announcer in Lockport and Azar was a disc jockey on WUSJ using the name “Dick Corey.”
Jolls eventually became the morning man at his hometown WUSJ. He also had early TV experience at another short-lived Buffalo TV station, WBES-TV. After a stint in the Army, Jolls returned to WUSJ before moving to WBEN AM-FM-TV in 1963. He was seen on Ch.4 and heard on 930AM for about two years before joining Irv Weinstein, Rick Azar and Dustmop at Ch.7 in 1965.
Commander Tom was more than just a weatherman, he was a beloved TV uncle who guided us through days that were stormy as well as salubrious, but also made sure we were entertained with the puppets he and his wife crafted from their children’s old stuffed animals.
Tom Jolls on a salubrious night on the original Weather Outside set on Main Street.
But even mild-mannered Tom Jolls was a part of the spice of “Eyewitness News.” For decades, it was Jolls who asked, “It’s 11 o’clock. … Do you know where your children are?”
Together, the facts say that at 24 years, Irv, Rick and Tom were the longest-running anchor team in the history of American television. The hearts of Buffalonians say they were also probably the most beloved.
Rick Azar broke up the band with his retirement after 31 years at Ch.7 in 1989. The following year, at age 59, Irv Weinstein gave up the 11pm newscast and was seen only at 6pm.
He stuck around in that 6pm anchor chair for just shy of a decade, retiring from Ch.7 in 1998. Jolls followed suit with his retirement in 1999.
The Eyewitness News team included Irv Weinstein, Nolan Johannes, Barbara Pawelek, Paul Thompson, Bill Nailos, Don Keller, Alan Nesbitt, John Winston, and Tom Jolls.
Aside from Dialing For Dollars, Liz Dribben anchored morning newscasts on Ch.7 through the second half of the 1960s. Among Buffalo’s first woman broadcast journalists, she became a CBS News writer and producer, working with Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite among others.
The heavy promotion of Irv, Rick, and Tom as a team began after Ch.7’s early newscasts moved to 6pm in 1971.
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