Love it or loathe it, a Bill Applegate newscast is like no other. It's fast, hard-hitting, brash and—to the profound chagrin of news purists—loaded with opinion. When Applegate, the VP/General Manager of WOIO and WUAB Cleveland, thought about shaking Raycom's duopoly out of its doldrums seven years ago, he imagined the stations' newscasts as TV versions of the New York Post—noisy, glitzy and in your face.
“To duplicate what was already being done wouldn't have gotten me anywhere,” Applegate says. “I think a lot of executives in local television are reluctant to take risks, and as a result you end up with newscasts that unfortunately all look alike.”
It's been a unique career, to say the least, for Applegate, who started as a 22-year-old reporter at WJBK Detroit four decades ago, ran network-owned stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and is slowly but surely getting Raycom's outlets in the No. 17 DMA on track. When he came to Cleveland in 2001, WOIO and WUAB did 3½ hours of news a day; they now combine for 6½. He's grown WOIO, a CBS affiliate, from an 11.9 revenue share when he came on to a 17.9 share today. It'll be some time before WOIO challenges heavyweights WJW and WKYC, but Applegate is pleased to report it's taken over third place in revenue.
“Third may not sound that good, but when you come from sixth, it is pretty good,” he says. “We've had to build a news department from scratch.”
Applegate's tabloid model is apt; his father was a newspaperman, with stints as editorial page editor at the Indianapolis Star and columnist for the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. When Bill left the Army in the mid-1960s, he figured on following his father into print, until a random meeting with former ABC News correspondent David Snell, then anchoring in Fort Wayne, got Applegate to consider television.
After taking reporter jobs in Detroit and Los Angeles, Applegate—who never finished college and calls himself “functionally illiterate”—scored his first news director job at KEZI Eugene (Ore.) in 1976. He kept climbing the ladder, as a news director in Buffalo, San Francisco and Boston. Applegate was news director at WLS Chicago when then-General Manager Dennis Swanson, now president of Fox Television Stations, tapped Oprah Winfrey to host a morning talk show. (She also briefly anchored an afternoon newscast for Applegate.) He hit the Big Apple in 1985, as station manager and news director at WABC New York.
“Being a news director in a market like New York or Chicago is probably the most fun job in local television,” he says. “It's plenty of hard work, but you don't have the revenue pressure the general manager has. I'll probably always miss [those jobs].”
He'd get to know those GM pressures intimately, moving on to the top spot at WBBM Chicago, a CBS O&O that was in woeful shape when he came on in 1990. Injecting the newscasts with his trademark panache, Applegate moved WBBM from fourth place, say veterans of the Chicago news scene, to a tie for first in the span of two years. “He did something in Chicago that's never been equaled,” says Chicago Sun-Times television critic Robert Feder, who calls Applegate “a brilliant tactician.” “Once he left, it dropped to last again, and it's been there for 15 years.”
Colleagues say Applegate employed a unique philosophy: Instead of siphoning viewers from news rivals, he sought to reach out to those who'd given up on newscasts altogether. “Bill was never a man to fear trying something new and different,” says SmithGeiger Senior VP Mark Toney, who was Applegate's news director at WBBM. “He's aggressive and he's bold, and he's an absolute legend in his time.”
Applegate shifted to KCBS Los Angeles, which he ran from 1993 to 1996, until Westinghouse took over the station and laid off staffers. After jumping to bigger stages for so many years, Applegate slipped from sunny L.A. to snowy Syracuse, heading up Raycom's WSTM. While some big-market managers would've scoffed at toiling in the No. 80 DMA, Raycom offered Applegate equity and he welcomed the laid-back atmosphere after the staid culture of the network-owned stations. “If you're going to succeed in this business, you'd by God better be resilient,” Applegate says. “If you have to take one step back in order to take two steps forward, you do it…even if you're walking in 10 feet of snow.”
He's been with Raycom ever since, and calls Paul McTear the most supportive CEO he's ever had. “I have no interest in doing anything other than what I'm doing,” he says.
Applegate, who abhors Cleveland's weather but loves its sports, theater and easy commute, is still rethinking the concept of the newscast. He's pondering an hour-long program on WUAB, a MyNetworkTV affiliate, that would be modeled after the personality-driven talk shows on cable news, such as Countdown With Keith Olbermann. He's trying to figure out how to engage young people who don't watch local news. “If we don't find a way to build a TV newscast that's relevant to the next generation of TV watchers, we're out of business,” he says.
When he's not working, Applegate enjoys golf and gardening, and takes cooking seriously, dabbling in Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and various Chinese cuisines. That passion is a result of a roommate many decades ago who was a chef. “I was accustomed to eating out of a can, and he would do duck a l'orange,” Applegate says. “I'd say, my God, this is unbelievable—how do you do this?”
Applegate also enjoys unwinding with his wife, Kathy, a Cleveland native, and four children. Son Matthew is in college and the rest of the kids are in showbiz: Elizabeth is an executive producer at KTLA Los Angeles, Brian produces the late news at WCBS New York, and Bill Jr. was an executive producer at KOVR Sacramento, and now pens screenplays.
“I kept trying to tell them, why not architecture?” Applegate says with a laugh. “I guess they grew up watching me run news departments and thought, Gee, that's kind of cool.”
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