Thursday, April 1, 2010

The comforts of KEYC Mankato

For people who didn't grow up in southern Minnesota or never lived there, it's hard to explain the allure of KEYC, Channel 12 News out of Mankato. The production values were average, wrong sports scores invariably popped up - leading to numerous conversations such as, "Well, it said on Channel 12 the Timberwolves beat the Bulls, but it's Channel 12, so who knows" - and there was the occasional film of a rodeo while the newscaster talked about a grisly triple murder in Iowa.

But we watched it religiously. Unlike the Twin Cities stations, it focused on the local news and gave area high school and college sports results - most of the time those scores were even accurate. A revolving door of people occupied the news desk for a few years. But much of the staff stayed for years, most notably longtime sports anchor Perry Dyke, a fixture and minor legend on the local media scene. A poor weatherman named Bob manned the meteorologist chair for a few years and became a celebrity himself. Wide-eyed Bob came off as the nicest guy in the world, but struggled on-camera, often using a halting, cracking voice while looking into the wrong camera, as if he missed class the day they taught TV presentation in meteorology school. He sounded like a 13-year-old boy asking a senior girl out on a date. Sometimes he donned a goofy hat on cold nights, the type of thing that would get snowballs thrown at him if he wore it in front of a group of unruly youngsters. On one unfortunate night, he squashed a bug that had landed on his head. People tuned in for the five-day forecast, but also to see Bob's antics.

Still we loved Channel 12. I often watched it over noon hour, both during the school year and in the summer. I'd catch up on the local news and watch "Mr. Food" in the final moments, segments that always ended with the catchphrase, "Ohh, it's so good." We trusted Mr. Food to tell us how to prepare a delightful cheese tray, even while docking him points for unoriginality.

Channel 12 was a CBS affiliate and always signed off late at night, usually around 1 in the morning. Before going dark, the station played a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, a version that included images of eagles, rivers, mountains, and a patriotic dwarf saluting the flag. Numerous times, I fell asleep on the couch, only to have the song wake me from my slumber. After watching that, I was always either ready to storm a beach or go to bed.

KEYC was also home to the incomparable polka dance festival Bandwagon, which started on the station in 1960 and has had the Bandwagon name since '61. According to Wikipedia - grain of salt, take it or leave it, read with raised eyebrow, be skeptical - it's "possibly the longest-running televised music program in the world." Or possibly not. On its own website, KEYC assumes a more humble stance, saying, "It may be the longest running locally produced entertainment program in the history of Minnesota television." That's a tight definition, and probably more accurate. Bandwagon's a dance show set in a ballroom in Mankato, where couples - most of whom qualify for discounts at restaurants and are in bed by 9 p.m. - dance while wearing red and white polka outfits. For the longest time, it seemed like no one with their original hips was allowed entry. The hosts give shoutouts to viewers and interviews the band. They read out happy birthday greetings to those at home. Then the band strikes up the music and the couples dance again. It's almost a caricature of Midwestern life, but people love it. In the 1980s, it always seemed to air at about 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. Before cable, we'd often end up tuning in. As a kid, watching Bandwagon was about a hundred times worse than having to go to church. If I see the show now on a trip home, it has its charms and I understand the appeal, which means I must be nearing the show's coveted demographic, because it's basically been the same show since before JFK beat Nixon. Local news legend Chuck Pasek hosted the show for more than 30 years, finally ending his reign in the mid-90s. Here's an audio documentary on the show.

Someone on youtube has compiled a bunch of old KEYC videos. I'd use the word classic videos, but I don't want to abuse that word. I couldn't find any Bandwagon online and no Bob the weatherman.

Here's an intro to the Noon News in 1986. A highlight is the ad for a local Embers (coincidentally named the worst restaurant in the state by my cousin Matt), which features a gigantic breakfast for $1.99. There's an odd promo where every relative of staff members gather on the set, part of the "Home" message KEYC drilled into the heads of viewers. This broadcast features the aforementioned Pasek, who brought the news - and polka - to several generations of southern Minnesotans.

Channel 12 shares many characteristics with its home state and the area it represented: earnest, competent, a bit dorky. Its heart is always in the right place, even if the cameras aren't.


Mike said...

Remember the freakishly tall weather guy, Tall Tom Schmansky (sp)? It was fun to watch Bob screw up on a nightly basis.

Shawn Fury said...

Too Tall Tom went to Fargo eventually and was huge there (with popularity, not just height). He eventually got let go because of budget concerns and there was a huge uproar. Fargoans were outraged. He played either high school or college ball against Magic, if I remember correctly.

Anonymous said...

I was eagerly awaiting the 50th Anniversary special, but I've been told they are scrapping that idea! Love the blog and I am sure we're not the only ones that have problems explaining the allure of KEYC to anyone. **Sigh** "We're 12, We're Hoooooooooome" **sigh***

Shawn Fury said...

What was the reason for scrapping it? It seems like there'd be an audience for it. They could gather everyone who ever worked a newscast, which is probably about 767 people, when you include the weekend weather people who were a revolving door.