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WCAX President Reflects On Company Sale And 63 Years Of Local Broadcasting

Liam Elder-Connors
Peter Martin is the president of WCAX, a station his father started in 1954. WCAX is being sold to Atlanta-based Gray Television for $29 million.

TV news viewers in Vermont are witnessing the end of an era in local programming. Last week, WCAX-TV announced it was being sold to Atlanta-based Grey Television, ending the run for a family-owned TV station that stretches back 63 years.

Gray Television is buying the CBS affiliate — which was also the first TV station in Vermont to air local programs — for $29 million. The company will take over WCAX on June 1.

Peter Martin is the president of WCAX, which his father started in 1954. He spoke to VPR about why his family decided to sell the station.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full interview above.

VPR: In a letter to employees that announced the sale, the comparison was made that a single TV station like WCAX was "a small boat in an ever intensifying storm." Why decide to sell now?

Martin: “Well in part because for the past number of years the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has been going through the spectrum auction, and as part of the spectrum auction they made it impossible for stations to talk to each other.

"It's bittersweet. Bitter because we're letting it go. What on earth am I going to be doing now?" — Peter Martin, WCAX president

“They called [it] the anti-collusion rule. And so if you follow these things, you will know that there have been very few transactions over the last two or so years.

“The spectrum auction ended early this year. The FCC lifted the anti-collusion rule and so now there is a burst of transactions going on. Many of them in very large markets. So it's the transaction season right now.”

Why did you decide that Gray Television was the right company for WCAX to join?

“Gray's business model is to buy dominant number one or number two stations in the markets they operate in, normally small to medium markets.

“They operate on the assumption that the stations that they buy are number one or number two for a reason. And so what they do is try to preserve those qualities. To use a sort of an odd phrase, with Gray, every tub sits on its own bottom.

“They preserve the local qualities that made the station what it is. This is a different business model than, say, Sinclair or a Nexstar or in some cases even a Hearst where they have a playbook, there's a particular way that they do things and they apply across their inventory of stations. Gray is a quality operator.”

Is there a particular moment as you look back a moment or a story in the history of WCAX that kind of stands out?

"There are a lot of them. One of the ones that was of most interest was in the late 1970s, we did a 25-part series called "Patterns of Practice." It actually won a Peabody Award.

"There have been all kinds of things — the floods in the early years of the [Gov. Thomas] Salmon administration, [Tropical Storm] Irene and then just a day-to-day business of the state."

 WCAX really has been a cornerstone of Vermont media now for over six decades. How does it feel to you personally to be letting go of the station?

"It's bittersweet. Bitter because we're letting it go. What on earth am I going to be doing now?

"But it's time, and the circumstances are such that you need to do it. There's nothing worse, really, than hanging on too long. We've seen that happen in other media properties where they've hung on and it didn't end well."

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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