Throwback Thursday: KOLO-TV Rises From The Ashes

RENO, NV - It's one of the axioms of broadcast news. When big stories break, everything moves fast.

You want to be first and you want to be accurate. You have to adapt under pressure.

How it meets the challenges of the big breaking story, says a lot about a news organization.

But there was one time when we were the story.

March 31st, 1977. KOLO TV had been operating for all of its 24 years from a two story building here on East Fifth street.

The building had its limitations.

"Cramped quarters," remembers former KOLO saleswoman Jeanne Baxter.. "The thing I remember most was it was cold in the sales department at the front of the building."

And like other aging buildings it was vulnerable to fire.

A year earlier a fire in its attic had forced the station off the air for hours.

A week earlier there'd been a minor fire involving a compressor.

It was a Friday and the work day was following the same routine you'd see today. Crunch time for news people. Sales and other office staff leaving.

Jeanne Baxter gathered up materials for a special on child abuse intending to work on it at home and left.

News Director John Howe went to a nearby motel to meet a new reporter who'd just arrived in town.

Anchor Tad Dunbar was beginning the 6:30 newscast.

A fire was once again smoldering in the attic.

"We knew there was a fire somewhere in the building," says Dunbar.. "You could see smoke looking across the studio.

People who were watching later said the first indication they had something was wrong was when I began losing eye contact with the camera. You know, I'm trying to sneak a peek over here and see what's going on."

Howe was just sitting down with his new hire.

"I welcomed him to Reno and said 'Let's watch our news.' And it was sort of gray."

The fire was burning in a closet on the second floor. As Dunbar worked his way through a lengthy story about the corruption trial of two Sparks councilmen, it was starting to spread fast.

"We started losing systems in the control room so the director made the decision to cut and he cut the video first.

"We heard voices. Confused and not too loud," says Howe. "But what everyone in northwestern Nevada heard was 'Cut! Let's get the hell out of here!'"

Legend has it that it was Dunbar uttering those last words.

He says it was a young studio cameraman who had been through a fire and was increasingly frightened for everyone's safety.

"One of my regrets," adds Dunbar, "is that I never got to say 'in other news we're on fire.'"

Jeanne Baxter wasn't watching any of this. She and a co-worker were sitting down in her south Reno home with the materials for the child abuse special. Her son arrived with the news.

She looked outside

"Oh man the sky was glowing red. Just glowing red."

Back at the station the news and production staff were scrambling.

"We saved all the cameras and all that kind of stuff," says Dunbar, "and then we went out the front door, moved all the vehicles from the front of the building, got them backed up and stood and watch it burn down."

There was little else to do. A Reno Fire Department station was just a couple of blocks away and firemen arrived quickly, but had difficulty getting water on the fire.

KOLO was engulfed in flames.

"It was a total loss," says Howe. "Everything except the stuff we carried out."

The next morning the station staff met at a nearby restaurant.

"We were in shock," says Baxter. "What are we going to do? This was our livelihoods and our station was gone,"

But the recovery was underway that day. General Manager Jim Herzig worked the phones, looking for a new location.

The station's transmitter had been moved to Slide Mountain 21 years earlier. Untouched, it could still serve.

The news department's film processor was located in an adjacent building which didn't burn.

What other equipment hadn't been saved was bought or quickly rented. The staff moved into an empty building at Vassar and Terminal and in just three days was back on the air.

It was all makeshift, but it worked.

"The news set was my desk," says Dunbar. "At the end of the day, we'd just push stuff aside and do the news."

The station operated from this temporary site for more than a year while a new building was designed and built on Ampere Drive a short distance away.

KOLO had a new home, but in the struggle to recover had gained more than that.

When we put our station back together there was deep sense of pride in all of us," says Baxter. "We knew we were all a part of that new and revived KOLO-TV."

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