“Good evening, friends. I’m Dave Ward.” Local TV anchor celebrates 40 years of delivering the news

October 1, 2006 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Thus begins another 6 o’clock news broadcast on Channel 13, and yet another record set. On Nov. 9, 2006, Ward will have been on KTRK for 40 years. “As best as anyone can determine, I’ve been doing the same news show on the same station longer than anyone in the history of American television,” says Ward. In an industry where some contracts are as short as six weeks, Ward has survived three changes in station ownership, countless general managers, co-anchors, two really bad accidents and, recently, a colon operation.

He has reported space shots, presidential elections and trail rides. He’s covered earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, reported from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua and Columbia, and covered the Vietnam Peace Talks in Paris.

Ward has been delivering the nightly news ever since the days of one black-and-white camera operated by a lone cameraman, to several cameras each handled by one person to today’s four robot cameras worked by Brian Wood, who sits all alone behind a console, moving the cameras quietly around the studio floor like so many R2-D2s creeping in and out, up and down, even pre-programmed to catch the right shot.

In a chilly studio, Ward, 67, sits there behind a desk, as opposed to standing or walking around while delivering the news, which is a current fad, talking in a quiet, professional manner. This obviously suits Houstonians because Channel 13’s 6 and 10 p.m. news consistently are the top-rated news shows in town, although competition is creeping up. More about that right after this word.

The program begins with Ward reading the headlines, then his co-anchor, Gina Gaston, adds to the information. Next, they go to a field reporter. It is not noticeable when watching a TV news show at home, but the anchors actually speak very little, rather acting as introducers, segueing from a car wreck to the weather, from a commercial break to national news. “And here with that story is …”

During those short breaks from being on the air, Ward and Gaston are busily checking notes, talking to each other or the floor manager, or getting updates on last-minute changes — mild chaos. “I’ve got … page … where’s page …” Ward says, frowning as he busily sorts through copy. “He likes to have all his ducks in a row,” says Wood, the camera operator. “Tonight we’ve got a lot of late-breaking stuff.” Ward is back on the air so smoothly the viewer would have thought he’d just been taking a nap.

He does not write his own script, but he works on it. “We’ve got producers and associate producers, but I have to rewrite most of it,” Ward says. “You’d be surprised at some of the crap they put in. If it doesn’t make sense to me, it isn’t going to make sense to the viewer. When it leaves me, it’s gone.”

He tosses to Ed Brandon, who does the weather standing in front of a huge blank lime-green sheet, looking at TV monitors to his right. Brandon, who, moments before, was checking a battery of radar screens and computer ribbons of type, catches the toss and smoothly slides into his delivery. The mark of a pro is to make the difficult look easy.

Marvin Zindler comes on with his famous restaurant report. He introduces the spot, which is on tape and will be played again for the 10 o’clock show. When the magical “slime in the ice machine” line comes on, Zindler still laughs. The line is still funny. More stories from reporters in the field, then Tim Melton comes on with the sports. It is not evident on TV, but Melton is a very large, powerfully built man. He could suit up for the Texans. Melton is the only one on camera who doesn’t use a Teleprompter. “I started out in Pennsylvania where we didn’t have Teleprompters, so I worked without them,” Melton says. “The good point is, if they ever break, I never know it.”

Eyewitness News at 6 p.m., unlike the shows on KPRC and KHOU, lasts an hour. “The longest hour on television,” Ward says. Zindler adds, “It’s cheaper to do an hour of news than half an hour and pay for some other show like Channel 11.” KHOU shows “Wheel of Fortune,” KPRC has “Entertainment Tonight” and Fox Channel 26 shows “The Simpsons.”

How Ward got to Houston and to Channel 13 is circuitous. David Henry Ward was born in Dallas, although his family didn’t live there. “My mother wanted to give birth in a major hospital, so she went to Dallas.” His father was a Baptist minister who moved his family around East Texas, eventually becoming minister of the First Baptist Church in Huntsville.

Young Dave began his radio career with KGKB radio in Tyler while attending Tyler Junior College. Three years later, he joined the staff of WACO radio in Waco as a staff announcer. “WACO is the only radio station in America whose call letters are the city’s name,” Ward notes. A year later he became that station’s program director.

“At that station, I was a DJ spinning Vaughn Monroe and Elvis,” he says. “The station’s news director was Bob Vandiventer, who taught radio news writing at Baylor University. He would bring some of his students to the station to get hands-on training, and I would see these five or six people in the news department busy, all inspired, having a great time, while I was across the glass just spinning those records. And I thought, ‘That looks better,’ so I got into the news side, but I never finished college.”

In 1962 Ward came to Houston as the first full-time news reporter for KNUZ/KQUE. “Growing up in Huntsville, it was almost like coming home.” His Houston broadcasting debut was as a night news reporter for KNUZ/KQUE radio. Ward’s career at KTRK began in 1966 as an on-the-street reporter/photographer.

“I was hired in a pool hall,” Ward says. “I was working at KNUZ, and a friend at Channel 13 told me there was an opening there. Would I be interested? So I met with the top people at the station, General Manager Willard Walbridge, Program Manager Howard Finch and News Director Ray Conaway at Le Que, a pool hall, where they went for lunch several days a week and to shoot some pool. I was hired then and there. The station only had eight people in the newsroom back then. Today, we have about 120. I took a pay cut from about $650 a week at KNUZ to $575 at KTRK. My father was not that enthusiastic about my move. He asked me, ‘This television thing — are you sure it’s going to work?'”

After his stint as a street reporter, early in 1967 he began to anchor Channel 13’s weekday 7 a.m. newscast. Later that year, he became the first host of a game show, “Dialing for Dollars,” which later evolved into “Good Morning Houston.” In January of 1968, Ward was promoted to co-anchor of the weekday 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts with Dan Ammerman.

“At the time, Ron Stone was on Channel 11, and they had 50 percent of the audience,” recalls Ward. “We were hot, and we said, ‘We’re gonna kill them.’ No, we were a poor third, but we slowly climbed up in the ratings. Ammerman left, and I inherited the anchor slot solo. By ’72, we were getting there. When Jack Heard was elected sheriff in 1972, the first thing he did, on New Year’s Day, was to fire Marvin Zindler. We had the story at 6. Marvin had been in the Consumer Fraud Division of the sheriff’s department, and I told our assistant news director, ‘We ought to hire that guy as a consumer fraud reporter.’ No other station in town, and maybe in the nation, had someone assigned to only that. I asked Marvin if he’d like to come here and basically do the same thing. He said, ‘Dave, there’s nothing I’d rather do.’ When Marvin came aboard, we took off.”

By 1973, Channel 13 was No. 1 in this market. It held that spot through ’76, ’77 and ’78, and on through the years — a dynasty in the TV biz. “Last November, I think Channel 11 beat us, but I’m not sure,” Ward says. “We’ve lost a little of our identity.” Over the years, Ward has co-anchored with Shara Fryer, Jan Carson and now Gaston.

The current crew of co-workers is long-time current. Ward, as noted, has been with KTRK 40 years. Melton came to the station in 1981, 25 years ago. Brandon has been the station’s meteorologist for 34 years. Bob Allen in sports came to work at KTRK 32 years ago. Elma Barrera just left full-time after 34 years, but will stay on in community affairs. Gaston is the new kid on the block: she’s been with station since 1992, on the evening news for four years.

In 1974, Ward suffered a motorcycle accident at the Astrodome during a charity race. He broke his pelvis in four places, had a concussion and much, much more. “I was in the hospital for seven weeks and received between 40,000 and 60,000 notes. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I answered them all.” In 2003, he was in a car wreck — crashed into an out-of-control SUV on the West Loop and broke his right leg. Last June, Ward and his wife attended a wedding, got food poisoning and Ward was out for two weeks. Then in July, a long-simmering abdominal pain turned out to be diverticulitis. He underwent major surgery and was away for two weeks.

Not that anyone should feel sorry for the anchorman. Ward makes a good living. “I once thought that it would be good to make six figures, $100,000 or more, a year. Today, I pay more than that to Uncle Sam. Houston has always been a low-paying TV market. That’s because we don’t have unions. Thank God. But when we were owned by Cap Cities, which was based in Albany, NY, they used to refer to Houston as ‘the Plantation’ because we all worked for so little.”

He lives about 15 minutes from the station, near Woodway off Sage, with Laura, his third wife. “We just celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary.” Ward has four children from his previous marriages. Laura has three. He used to smoke cigarettes and cigars, beginning at the age of 14. “Then, I quit, until one day Marvin came in smoking the most wonderful smelling cigar, and I started all over again. But I quit again in February.”

Ward says his is basically a 3 to 11 p.m. job. He starts his day watching all the local TV news, gets to the station about 3 p.m. and starts working on the 6 o’clock show. “By the time Dave gets on the air,” says one staffer, “he’s practically memorized the script.” He tries to change the show for the 10 o’clock version, especially the lead story. “Often we have three or four new spots to run,” he says.

Home by 11, it’s hard to go from giving the news to going to sleep, the adrenaline is pumping. “I have a drink, one drink, usually vodka. I don’t drink wine. Then, I watch Turner Movie Classics or the History Channel, maybe the Military Channel.” By 1:30 or 2 a.m., he’s asleep. And, as Ward would say, “Thank you for being with us, and good night.”

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