NUVO at 25: 25 years of LOCAL media



To sum up the Indianapolis media landscape in 1990, you really need only one word: staid.

You had The Star – the newspaper equivalent of a 70-year-old man peering out from behind the wheel of a large automobile – the News (60-year-old man, slightly smaller car) and to a much lesser extent the Indianapolis Business Journal and the Indianapolis Recorder. Your TV news most likely came from Channel 6 or 8. Bob & Tom ruled the radio.

Nobody stepped on anyone's toes, no one challenged anyone on any grand scale, everyone knew their place, and everyone seemed to like it that way. Maybe not everyone, but you get the idea.

That was the Indianapolis media world in which NUVO was born.

There had been other alternative publications – I seem to remember New Times and 12x, but I'm 25 years older now and so is my memory, so don't hold me to that – but none so audacious as to charge (which NUVO did when it started; $1).

I remember going to the newspaper box outsideThe Star (I was a general-assignment arts reporter then, soon to be the pop-music critic) to see about this alternative paper. And I remember thinking: eh. The word "meh" was not yet in use.

It took a while for the paper to find its footing, for Harrison Ullmann to take over the operation and burrow under my skin with his opinions.

NUVO caused some ripples then, to be sure – and still does.

But ripples are ripples. If you want to talk about how the city's media landscape has changed over the past 25 years, you need to look at two pivotal events. The first was in 1994, when Channel 13 hired John Butte to run its news operation.

At the time, 13's early-evening newscasts would finish behind all the local stations and reruns of Punky Brewster in the ratings. WTHR had some talent (Tom Cochrun was a celebrated anchor and reporter; Bob Gregory an enormously popular weatherman), but it had no presence and not much stability when it came to air talent.   

Butte changed that. He dispensed with the niceties. WTHR became aggressive in its reporting and its promotion. The station went live (covering the Denny's hostage crisis, for example) and it went big. It was the first station, for example, to report live from inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the morning of the 500. Michael Jordan's return to basketball (at Market Square Arena) and Mike Tyson getting out of prison received massive coverage.

In 1996, WTHR sent 17 people to Atlanta to cover the Olympics, and it had three members of the anchor team there for opening weekend. (I'm not ignoring past years' coverage of the Coliseum explosion, the Tony Kiritsis hostage situation or The Star's flooding-the-zone reporting of the Pan Am Games. I'm simply saying that 17 people was an extraordinary expenditure of resources and airtime. That woke up everyone.)

Suddenly, 13 was in your face. And the public noticed. So did the people who handed out awards.

Local TV has never been the same since. Look at the number of local TV personalities who have switched stations in recent years. Look at the number of billboards around town hawking the respective stations. What B.B. (Before Butte) had been mannerly is, A.B., a battle.

The second sea change came in 2002, when WENS-FM (97.1) poached the morning team, Julie Patterson and Steve King, from WZPL-FM (99.5) and paid them for six months to stay off the air and honor the non-compete clause in their contract.

Both 'ENS (which became the country station WLHK in 2005) and 'ZPL were fairly middling stations ratings-wise, and the move did little to change that. In fact, Julie and Steve were fired a year later.

But till then, hiring away talent Really. Was. Not. Done.


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