Satan or Savior?

Competitors beware: Bill Applegate, the master of 'flash and trash' news, has risen again, this time in Cleveland.

Hungry Bill Barking Spider Tavern, 11310 Juniper Road 8 p.m., Saturday, February 24


It's the year after the riots, and South-Central is still restless. The Menendez brothers are in court for the shotgun slaying of their parents. O.J. and the white Bronco are just a year away. So is a major earthquake.

It's Los Angeles, 1993, a great time to be in TV news.

Bill Applegate became the vice president/general manager of KCBS in June of that year. Among network-owned stations, KCBS's newscasts were dead last in the ratings -- had been for 20 years. Mere mention of its call letters inspired words like "dead end" and "graveyard" among those who knew the market. But to Applegate, KCBS meant "dream job."

Woebegone stations in New York and Chicago became market leaders in just a few years' time under Applegate's direction. The network suits loved him; he delivered higher ratings and more profits in a shorter period of time than anyone in the business. And as long as that kept happening, the bosses weren't about to question his tactics.

Applegate's favorite ancient text was The Art of War, the Chinese manual on combat strategy, which he was known to quote at length. If there was a Halloween party to be had, there was a good chance he'd show up in breeches and buckskin as the sword-wielding Highlander, a favorite movie character. Salespeople were ordered to dress in buckskin and come armed as his tribe.

"This is war!" he once bellowed to a newsroom in Boston, and his newscasts aimed to crystallize that chaos. Reporters seemed to always be "live on the scene," their faces agog with adrenaline. There was blood on the street, people dying, families hysterical, and his news crews were rolling through the streets, chasing sirens for the next video of wrenching human drama. Under Applegate, the newscast kept a torrid pace, vividly colored and just a heartbeat away from full-scale frenzy. Some reporters called it "flash and dash." Others called it "flash and trash."

Whatever it was, it worked. While the rest of TV news still consisted of smiling anchorpeople who wanted to be your neighbor, Applegate's mission was to "compel" viewers -- a word he is said to use ad nauseam.

In Los Angeles, though, his competitors had already mastered the science of shock. Their newscasts sizzled with crime and celebrities and scandal. Applegate would have to upstage them.

KCBS jumped into the Menendez trial and hit the street for 40 uninterrupted hours of coverage during the 1994 Northridge quake. But the O.J. story was Applegate's obsession.

"This has to be one of the most amazing personal dramas in memory, involving an individual with worldwide celebrity status, a hero fallen from grace and police in pursuit," Applegate gushed to the Associated Press after his station participated in the white Bronco chase.

From that point on, "We were all O.J., all the time," says a former KCBS reporter.

Harvey Levin spearheaded the station's O.J. coverage and was expected to lead every newscast with a fresh angle on the most heavily covered story in the world.

"He was a very tabloid kind of guy, and on more than one occasion, Levin broke a story that was wrong," says a reporter for a competing station. "We would go on the air the next day and completely discredit him. But he'd get his facts wrong again and again. Still, Applegate and the news director just let him run wild. They never put reins on him."

Most notable was Levin's claim that time-coded video proved Assistant District Attorney Marcia Clark was on Simpson's property before a search warrant had been issued. The time code was found to be an error, and the station would concede its story was groundless.

Yet rumors persisted that station management knew the story was false but aired it anyway, simply to create a buzz. Levin, now host of The People's Court, did not return calls for this story.

Whether or not it was deliberate, the gaffe didn't seem to bother the audience. Ratings showed KCBS was finally beginning to tickle viewers' curiosity. The station vaulted to second place in the 11 p.m. news slot by November 1994, buoyed in part by a series of exclusive interviews with Judge Lance Ito.

The transformation from ratings loser to winner was beginning. But Applegate was beginning to face trouble internally.

Group W, a producer of syndicated programs, wanted KCBS to air its newsmagazine, Day & Date, in the slot just before the news. Jerry Dunphy, a KCBS anchor then, said Applegate considered the program an unappetizing lead-in for the local news. He preferred to keep Geraldo in that slot. While other CBS stations plugged Day & Date into their lineups, Applegate steadfastly refused. It would cost him.

When the tectonic plates of media ownership shift, a controversial and plain-spoken guy like Applegate feels the rumble. Westinghouse purchased CBS. Group W, as it happened, was the production arm of Westinghouse, and the Day & Date dispute had painted him as a non-team player. The week after the company completed its acquisition, Applegate had lunch with the new president of CBS Television Stations. When the meeting concluded, Applegate submitted his resignation.

His demise wasn't solely born from an unwillingness to air a syndicated show, though it's the cause most often cited. Applegate's lack of deference toward superiors is legend. "He's not an ass-kisser," says one admirer.

Robert Feder, a Chicago Sun-Times TV critic who has followed Applegate's career, suspects the executive was singled out as a tabloid journalist due in large part to his fascination with the O.J. case, though his formula for ratings growth was exactly what network heads encouraged.

"He was certainly betrayed by the people he faithfully served, who he brought money to, and success," Feder says. "They allowed him to take the fall, he took it, and they worked out just fine."

It was December 1995. The man who had achieved strong ratings and handsome profits in the nation's biggest markets could not find a job. Applegate had made millions as a local TV chief. He'd seen the view from the top of his profession and, at age 49, could have likely settled into a comfortable early retirement.

Instead, he took a job in lowly Syracuse, becoming the most overqualified manager WSTM-TV had ever seen.

"It provides a manageable environment with a small company, where I don't face a legion of second-guessers and big network politics," Applegate told Variety.

But he wouldn't stay long. After two and a half years, he moved to WMC-TV in Memphis. Another two and a half years there, and he was ready for the big leagues again. In January, Bill Applegate finally emerged from post-L.A. exile to take control of another big-market station, this one the most troubled in Cleveland.

The jointly operated WOIO Channel 19 and WUAB Channel 43 share a newsroom and a place in the basement of local news ratings. It's Applegate's charge to find an audience and higher profits. But he must manage this with a staff made surly by years of low pay, high turnover, and high stress. If Applegate succeeds, his legend gets a new chapter. If he fails, Cleveland may go down as the newsman's last stand.

Some who've worked with Applegate say he has a knack for giving viewers news they can't resist. Admirers say he'll remake 19 and 43 in the image of his past metro juggernauts and lead the station to the top ratings slot. Those who loathe him predict the same, except that he'll build the market leader on a foundation of sleaze -- and split town, just before it comes crashing down. Applegate isn't offering clues about his strategy. He would not comment for this story.

Applegate earned raves for his style in Buffalo and Eugene, Oregon, in the late 1970s. Boston was not kind, but it looked like an aberration, because he took KPIX of San Francisco from second to first in the ratings in the early 1980s. In Chicago, he brought KLS-TV from third to first in two years, then made the same leap with WABC in New York. Another third-place station -- WBBM in Chicago -- was tied for first just before Applegate left for Los Angeles.

Wherever he takes channels 19 and 43, it's certain that his arrival spells yet another round of change, and one wouldn't blame employees if they regard Applegate with heavy skepticism. The staff has suffered through six years of flux, and high hopes have been dashed before.

When the channels began their joint operation in 1995, their newscasts looked destined to challenge WEWS Channel 5, WKYC Channel 3, and WJW Channel 8 for ratings supremacy, and management wasn't shy about predicting it.

"It's going to be the most exciting broadcast in Cleveland, and the rest of the market is going to have to take heed," then-General Manager Dennis Thatcher told The Plain Dealer.

Instead, the market clobbered him. Channel 19 finished fourth in the ratings that year and still makes camp there six years later. In that same time, anchorwoman Denise Dufala has sat beside four co-anchors, and the meteorologist's face has changed as rapidly as the seasons. Corporate cutbacks have gutted the behind-the-scenes staff, which now does more work for significantly less pay than counterparts at other stations. That prompted a vote to unionize almost a year ago, but bitter negotiations have yet to yield a contract.

Now, as the fourth general manager in six years takes office, the enthusiasm for change is on the wane. No one in the news department would speak on the record about Applegate's arrival, save News Director Tony Ballew, who offered a terse statement: "We're not interested in being part of your article."

The gloom at 19 and 43 is enough to make the typical general manager hightail it to rural Michigan, as John Llewellyn, the most recent GM, did in January. But Applegate is far from typical. To those who have seen him in other markets, the circumstances in Cleveland are ideal.

"The stage is set for him to do what he does best," says Feder. "His specialty is coming into stations that are deeply in trouble, and he finds a new way to make a station relevant to viewers."

In most cases, Bill Applegate's résumé arrives at a station before him. His big-market credentials are impressive -- especially for a station looking to assert itself as a major news player.

But someone inevitably stumbles across the library of articles that chronicle Applegate and the legions of bitter journalists he's left in his wake. Their warning: Applegate may take your station to the top, but you probably won't be around to see it.

"It's safe to say most people were scared to death to know he was coming here," says Dave Brown, the lead meteorologist at WMC-TV in Memphis, who survived Applegate's tenure there.

When the GM arrived in Tennessee, many suspected his reputation was merely embellished by a few disgruntled employees. Besides, aren't all brilliant men eccentric and temperamental?

"They said, 'He's not going to be that bad. He's a TV genius,'" recalls one former Memphis staffer. "And I think that's what everyone wanted to think, but the devil's not going to come to town dressed in red with horns on his head. He's going to seem nice. He'll say he appreciates you. He'll say things aren't really going to change."

Of the roughly 60 people in the newsroom when Applegate arrived, only 10 to 15 remain two years later.

In Syracuse, Matt Mulcahy was the evening anchor with four years' tenure. Applegate sent him with a helicopter to cover the crash of TWA Flight 800, and when he came back, Applegate told him his reporting was outstanding -- "network material" even.

Six months later, Applegate kicked him off the anchor desk. "I was absolutely blindsided," Mulcahy says. "I had no idea why he was making the change."

Harold Graeter, a longtime sports anchor in Memphis, wanted to retire at WMC, but Applegate did not pick up his contract. Graeter says he never knew the man and only passed him in the hall while toting a box of belongings on his way out of the building.

"He gave me this blank stare," Graeter recalls. "To see the look on his face, it was as if there was no recognition of who I was and what was happening. I was just another guy. He didn't seem to realize I was his sports director."

Those who aren't dismissed are given none-too-subtle hints. One ex-staffer saw the 13-hour days begin to pile up. "He turned my schedule into the Bataan Death March," says the man, who was so sickened by the experience that he's given up journalism. Applegate's memory still haunts him. "If there's evil in the world, it's Bill Applegate," he says.

Los Angeles Daily News critic Ray Richmond says KCBS staff talked about Applegate as if he were "Satan in a suit," and that the mood was "as close to mutiny as you'll ever see in a newsroom."

Boston Herald TV columnist Monica Collins says she discovered the same sentiments 20 years ago. She kept tabs on Applegate through her sources at Boston's WNEV, the station that gave him his first shot at a big market.

"He had General Patton's mentality and management tactics," she recalls. "He ruled through fear and intimidation, and it backfired. He lost a lot of talented people who just wouldn't put up with him."

Terry Anzur, a political reporter at KCBS when Applegate arrived, is one example. She left the station not long after discovering her job was obsolete. "We know what it says in your contract," she says she was told by Applegate's news director, "but if you want to get on the air, you've got to do dead bodies like everybody else."

Most GMs leave the newsroom to the news director, but Applegate is the exception. As he watches his station's news from his office TV, Applegate is said to attend to such minute details as the sequence of weather graphics. In Chicago, he once scolded an anchor for not consulting him before she changed her hairstyle.

Reporters are ordered to walk with the camera, even climb over fences as they talk, whether the story warrants it or not. The kinetics make it more lively. They do their shots live and on location. "Breaking News" banners fill the bottom of the screen, even when the story is over by several hours. If the story doesn't require an on-location report, it is still delivered live from the newsroom.

Applegate's anchors are usually ensconced in a big, sleek studio -- at least when the budget allows. They speak fast, and the stories zoom past. "By the time you said your name and a few facts, it was over," says a Chicago reporter. "They were not big on depth."

If a story has vivid pictures, it gets on the air, local or not.

Some in Memphis remember interrupting a newscast to cut away to live shots of a gas main explosion -- outside Houston. There were no injuries, no homes threatened -- just a giant, harmless inferno. "Make sure you say, 'Look at those flames!'" the anchor remembers hearing. Another newscast was interrupted because a construction worker was trapped high in a half-finished skyscraper -- in Atlanta.

Mike Crew, Applegate's pupil and the news director in Syracuse, admits the style can upset the more traditional and has overheard staffers curse Applegate.

"You're talking about a very polarizing person," says Crew. "Some think he is the devil personified. But Bill is tough on your ego. He requires that you require a lot of yourself, and the people who don't, they're the ones who have problems."

There are no tears shed over those who leave. Their departures are part of Applegate's transformation of a station. His vision, even admirers concede, is the only one allowed.

"You'd better get out of the way, because he makes things happen," Feder says. "People who have resisted don't last."

Applegate made enemies as he cut staff, but most who stayed were thoroughly committed. At WABC in New York, the ethically offended left en masse, but others found that the city was teeming with the crime and calamity stories their leader relished. The station went from third to first under Applegate's direction, and reporters who earned their stripes under him graduated to influential positions at other large stations, where they applied the tenets they learned from their former boss. The cadre was known as "the Appleblossoms."

"All over the country, there are people running newsrooms and stations who owe everything to Bill," Feder says, "and that may ultimately be his legacy -- the influence he's had on the next generation."

As legend goes, Applegate will always be haunted by Chicago. Over three turbulent years, he permanently altered the landscape of television news in the city, and many people despise him for it.

WBBM was long considered a bastion of serious, sober journalism. Stories were aired irrespective of whether they promised flashy video. Reporters would take on the most challenging topics -- tax policy, for example -- and give them thorough treatment. They were sent to Bolivia to cover the war on drugs, to Lebanon for the civil war. Investigative reports ran long and deep. Spectacle wasn't an issue; relevance was, and WBBM enjoyed nationwide prestige for its conscientious approach. On the other hand, its ratings had sagged significantly by the late 1980s. The consensus was its news was too dense to hold viewers' interest.

Enter Applegate, who had just finished his controversial but commercially successful directorship in New York. He was brought to Chicago with a mandate to perform the same jumpstart at WBBM.

Almost overnight, the news began to look truncated. The talk quickened. The studio now offered neon colors and pulsating music; the only thing missing was a disco ball. An old, abandoned control room was dusted off, given some lights, some busy-looking monitors, a shiny mock-up, and a cardboard sign that read "Satellite Control." There were no satellites, unfortunately. But if a reporter felt shame or guilt about carrying out the deception, there was always another who did not.

Those reporters who didn't like going undercover as a homeless person or spending a day in a wheelchair to report on the lives of disabled people -- they, too, would leave or be pushed out.

Hordes of young, gorgeous on-air talent moved in. The replacements were mostly harvested from WSVN in Miami -- a Fox station where, some complained, virtually every story had a sex or violence component. WBBM acquired the rights to the Illinois Lottery drawing and ran it in the middle of the newscast to boost ratings. Political reporting and public affairs, both hallmarks of WBBM, vanished. "If it bleeds, it leads" became the new battle cry, and sex, scandal, and celebrities carved out prominent places in the newscast.

It was likely the swiftest transformation of style and audience in the modern era of television news. Those staffers initially drawn to the station for its purity of principle were weeded out. Those viewers who prized the station's intellectualism recoiled at the new, visceral imagery. According to former WBBM reporter Jim Avila, it was all part of Applegate's plan.

"Applegate once told me it was his job to 'crash the train' -- alienate all the loyal viewers of the old Channel 2 -- so he could bring in new viewers to his style of crime and sensational news," Avila told the Sun-Times. "Unfortunately, only the first part of his mission was accomplished." (Avila declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Feder disputes the claim that WBBM was a failure. He points out that, by the time Applegate left Chicago, the station's 10 p.m. news was tied for the market lead.

In fact, Feder says WBBM's newscast was so powerful and irresistible, the leading stations began copying the style -- even before WBBM surged to the top. "They couldn't keep up fast enough," he says.

After Applegate departed, that momentum vanished, and WBBM plummeted in the ratings even further than it had prior to his arrival. His critics say Applegate knew to leave town just as his act grew stale.

"The city was angry at Applegate," says one reporter. "They didn't just stop watching, they turned away from him."

The station is still languishing at the bottom, and Feder says it remains caught between trying to win back its original core of patient, intellectual viewers and trying to recapture the ephemeral glory it saw just before Applegate left.

The left-in-ruins theme is common criticism among Applegate's former employees. In Memphis, they remember when newscasts showed the city as wholesome, filled with the good-natured folk of a small town. Since Applegate, they say, the newscasts now thrive on crime, and the city looks menacing.

In Syracuse, Mulcahy says, Applegate's tenure is remembered for the more salacious stories viewers hadn't seen before his arrival.

"During sweeps time, we did the 'Hidden Hotel Horrors' series," Mulcahy says. "Our investigative reporter -- who's done great, award-winning work -- was sent into hotel rooms with an expert who could detect bodily fluids on bed sheets. Of course, they found what they were looking for. That story is still remembered today, but not in a good way."

The mystery of Bill Applegate is how different people can draw roughly the same conclusions about his makeup, yet be repulsed on one side, inspired on the other. They can agree, for instance, that Applegate's arrival at a station is a harbinger of rapid, even ruthless change. The difference is whether they condemn it or celebrate it.

"People who are edgy and colorful, as he is, are the ones who are most successful. The bean-counter types don't do very well in this business," says Larry Perret, who served as news director at KCBS. "Look at Barry Diller or Michael Eisner or David Geffen. Any great business leader and entertainment mind has that distinct personality."

Applegate has, by all accounts, a win-at-all-costs approach, and while that strikes some as irresponsible, it kindles a passion for combat -- even sacrifice -- in those who take up his cause. If he draws contempt from some he meets, he calls out loyalty in others.

Allegiance rings in the voice of Peggy Phillip, hired by Applegate as a news director in Memphis. "If he said to me, 'We're going to charge up that hill,' I'd say, 'How fast?' I would walk over hot coals for him. He is an incredible newsman, an incredible leader, a great man."

If sensationalism is celebrity scandal, excessive crime coverage, and trumped-up drama, there's no question Applegate is sensationalist. But those who believe in him say the only people who can truly define those terms are viewers. The customer, in Applegate's world, is always right. And since Applegate knows the customer, it follows that he is always right.

"If I was sitting here and I had $100,000 of audience research telling me one thing and Bill Applegate telling me another, I'd believe what Bill said in a heartbeat," says Mike Crew of the Syracuse station. "He has what we in the business call 'gut.' I've never seen someone who knows when the audience is going to grab onto a story. Sometimes I'll say to myself, 'Why the hell is that a story?' But Bill likes it, and as soon as it goes on the air, the switchboard lights up. That happens a lot. After a while, you just stop second-guessing him.

"Is he a journalist's journalist? No," Crew says. "He doesn't care what they think. He approaches journalism as a service industry. He cares very much about the underlying tenets, but what Bill understands is that, for most of us, life is not an intellectual exercise. He does not believe you should treat news as pearls you cast before swine, then criticize the viewer for not appreciating it. To him, the rules of the news are defined by the audience."

Feder likes the maverick style Applegate represents. He admires "the complete lack of pretension" and doesn't think Applegate's success is a gimmick. The man, says Feder, has an innate way of sensing what appeals to viewers. "He is without question the most brilliant, dynamic, creative local TV guy I've ever seen."

Asked if Applegate caters to a lowest common denominator, as critics frequently charge, Feder pauses, then admits, "Yes, that would be a fair description. He is shooting for people who had stopped watching TV news as defined by journalists. He finds a way to make his product compelling and relevant to people who think that there's nothing for them on local TV news."

Yet Applegate's critics don't think he's brilliant. They say he just cheats by appealing to the same morbid instincts that make people slow down to look at a car accident.

"He has no ethics whatsoever," says one of his former reporters. "He does whatever he believes will put faces in front of the tube."

Anzur, the Los Angeles reporter, says that success comes easy for a person who is single-minded and without conscience.

"I would describe him as being ruthless in his efforts to maximize ratings and profits," she says, adding, "He'll take that as a compliment."

They don't hate Bill Applegate in Cleveland. Union stewards like his straightforward style, how he's man enough to talk professional wrestling with them during breaks in contract negotiations.

That rapport could erode soon, though, if negotiations degenerate any further than they already have.

Applegate inherits a behind-the-scenes workforce that feels exploited, unappreciated, and finally, a little rebellious. They're paid thousands less than market rate -- in some instances, half that of counterparts at other Cleveland stations. The work has been more stressful since owner Raycom Media laid off 20 people two years ago and asked the 100 remaining to cover the work of the departed.

People in Memphis predict Applegate is here to trim even more staff -- especially veteran employees with fatter paychecks. Workers laugh at the suggestion.

"Even if they did [fire staff], they wouldn't gain much money off it," says Mark Tetlak, a videotape operator. "And if they cut any more jobs, we wouldn't be able to do news. It wouldn't go on the air. We're on a bare-bones crew even now."

Those with tenure have no wealth to show for it; the 2-3 percent annual raises have been more than canceled out by increased health care premiums and inflation.

The union is demanding the station bring wages at least into the ballpark of market rates. It's also asking for security against layoffs and for required union membership among new hires. And when management changes health coverage, the union wants a say. A little technology update wouldn't hurt, either -- staff is often stranded in the field with broken gear.

"They expect us to just pull rabbits out of our asses, because they won't spend money on the equipment we need," one technical worker says.

Management considered these requests for the last several months, giving little or no feedback, infuriating the union. Finally, in mid-February, the station offered an explanation: We have nothing to give.

Raycom has informed the union that it paid too much for the station and is now having a difficult time managing a profit.

David Radtke, a union attorney, countered by asking to see the books, but was refused. The station's current offer is 60 pages long, almost identical to the employee handbook -- except that a few benefits have decreased. All indications point to an impasse.

"We had 'fuck yous' flying across the table," says one negotiator.

Raycom Media did not return calls for this story, nor did its attorney.

Bill Wachenschwanz, the union president, has already orchestrated a letter-writing campaign to the station's advertisers and says the union will only get more aggressive as the company stalls.

The dispute underlines the awkwardness of Applegate's position. He not only has a newscast that's a ratings caboose; he has a behind-the-scenes staff that's bound to grow unruly in the next few months. While at past stops, such as WBBM and KCBS, he had the money to buy talent and glitzy studios, he may have to do as everyone else does at 19 and 43 -- pull rabbits.

"Good evening, everyone. They say he broke into an elderly woman's apartment and came out wearing her underwear . . ."

That's the sound of Fox 8. For Applegate, granny's panties are a foreboding sign: It will be difficult for 19 and 43 to shock their way to ratings success in this market. Fox is already way ahead of the game.

Fox has the best ratings among the under-25 crowd, a market Applegate has courted at previous stations. WEWS has the most-watched evening newscasts, and WKYC is competitive in every time slot.

Though Applegate has been in town only a little more than a month, there are already signs that Channel 19 is becoming more aggressive.

An early February promotion showed video of a man with his hat pulled low, running through the halls of the Justice Center. The promo headline asked, "Why is this man running?" Aside from the obvious answer -- because your cameraman is chasing him -- viewers were invited to tune in and learn the man's identity and his crime. It was fairly anticlimactic. The man, John Jolly, a security supervisor at a local school, was in court to answer drunk driving charges.

Another promo, headlined "Gone in 30 Seconds," promised someone's home would soon be "broken into live" during the 11 p.m. news. "Could this happen to you?" the announcer asked, as the screen showed an intruder rummaging through a home. "See how fast your things can be stolen and what you can do to prevent it."

Again, the payoff was modest: Two burglary experts cased an empty, camera-rigged house. They broke in through open windows and unlocked doors, then informed viewers that such things tend to be inviting to robbers.

Other efforts included an investigative piece on how easy it is for kids to purchase gory video games and a Sunday special that advertised "Better Sex." The station is also trying to lure those piqued by CBS's Survivor with a contest called "Survivor: The Cleveland Challenge." It's a scavenger hunt through Cleveland's retail industry. But the voyeurism that is Survivor's appeal seems to play better in the Australian bush than it does in Parmatown Mall.

If the other stations are nervous about a WOIO surge, they're not letting on. They say they've squeezed WOIO out of the market, and there's no room for the station to grow.

"You have three stations in town, and we're all pretty competitive," says one competitor, who would only speak anonymously. "We don't miss many opportunities. As far as covering the big stories, none of us ever drops the ball. How can you make news stand out when all three stations are all over everything that happens?"

As for Applegate's reputation for enticing unlikely viewers with violent, emotional imagery, the competition will believe it when they see it. They say that it is "impossible" for WOIO to challenge for the lead any time in the next year.

"There's a lot more factors that come into play than titillating stories and glitz and glamour," says the competitor. "There's content. There are personalities. It's marketing it, having better people who the viewers can recognize. It takes a long time to build that."

Still, Feder and others have watched Applegate do just that at warp speed. Even with the impediments Applegate faces at 19 and 43, Feder predicts WOIO will be in first place within a few years.

"I would be amazed if that were not the case," he says. "I fully expect the whole market would be affected by what he's doing there. [Applegate] raises the ante, raises the way local news compels people to watch. The competition will have to respond, and in the past, they haven't been able to respond fast enough to keep up."

Feder calls Applegate's return to big-market television "an astonishing comeback, vindication of his tremendous talent and skill."

Terry Anzur, now a University of Southern California professor, was surprised to hear of her former boss's second coming, but had the opposite reaction. "He's like the vampire you wanted to kill. The stake through the heart just didn't go deep enough."

One of Applegate's reporters in Chicago fears he will win over Cleveland, then parlay it into a return to WBBM, which she says has finally exorcised his demons. She is already bracing herself for Applegate, the sequel.

"If he ever came back, my first inclination would be to quit," she says. "But I know that he would like me to quit, and I don't think I could give him the satisfaction. I would stay there just to spite him."

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