The RYTHER Factor
The broadcast career of sports guy Tom Ryther
by Jeff R. Lonto
©2009 by Jeff R. Lonto
Tom Ryther’s long and illustrious career in television news and sports came to an end in 1991 when he was fired by Minneapolis television station KARE-11. The younger female news director who fired him allegedly remarked, “How does it feel to be a failure at age 53?” Ryther sued the parent company of the “KARE-Bear” station, Gannett Broadcasting for age discrimination and won – all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Nowadays Tom Ryther is comfortably retired in a Twin Cities suburb. He travels occasionally and plays golf whenever he can. A current television news personality he admires is Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and he suggests that if he were still in television, that’s the kind of show he’d enjoy doing. Many remember him only for the lawsuit and the fact that he used to be on TV, but he had a distinguished career spanning four decades as a broadcaster and journalist. I sat down with him recently as he told the story of his career and shared with me some vintage photos and videos.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, born in 1937, Tom Ryther decided he wanted to be a television personality from the get-go, the moment he saw television for the first time at the age of eleven. KSD-TV in St. Louis had just gone on the air in 1948, and after seeing a movie with his mother at the Avalon Theater, mother and son stopped in a store next to the theater that sold television sets. They came in just to look, not to buy.
KSD’s Frank Eschen was doing a newscast as the mesmerized eleven-year-old stared into the magic window that was television. The news was followed by a St. Louis University basketball game. “I thought, what a neat way to make a living. And that’s when I decided in 1948 at age eleven that that’s what I want to do.” In his sophomore year in high school, Tom, who was active in varsity baseball and basketball, said in his yearbook entry that he aspired to work in TV as either a sports announcer or news announcer.
In high school, along with being athletic, Tom found himself comfortable with public speaking. He became student body president and the president of the St. Louis Association of Student Councils, giving him many opportunities to handle himself with a microphone, in front of an audience.
After graduating high school in 1955 he spent two years working and saving money so he could pursue a journalism degree at the University of Missouri. In 1957, during his freshman year at the University he landed his first job in broadcasting, spinning records and reading news and commercials for KBIA Radio in Columbia, MO, making fifty cents an hour, the same wage he earned working at a car wash some time earlier.
On his first day on the air at KBIA, Tom Ryther played “Poinciana” by jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, from a live album called But Not For Me. There was applause on the record, and when he opened mic, the somewhat nervous 20-year-old blurted out, “Listen to them crapping for Ahmad Jamal.” Immediately the phone in the studio started ringing with his buddies calling to razz him about his faux pas. Later during his shift, lightning struck the transmitter, knocking the station off the air for three hours. “I thought God was trying to tell me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You shouldn’t be there.’”
Decades later Tom got to meet Ahmad Jamal when he performed at the Dakota Bar and Grill in Minneapolis. “They took me back to meet him and I told him the story. He hugged me and said, ‘Well, we’re both still around.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I think you’re doing better than I am.’”
Within four years Tom got his journalism degree and then had a six-month tour of duty in the United States Army. It was 1961 and “Vietnam was a whisper then,” he says.
After the Army stint he landed his first full-time radio job at WDXI in Jackson, TN for $85 a week. “The only thing that Jackson was known for is it was the home of Casey Jones the railroad engineer who crashed his train,” he says. Tom was there only three months before getting a job at WIBV Radio in Belleville, IL, a suburb of St. Louis, where he spent five years. At WIBV he got a ten-dollar raise to $95 a week running the news and sports departments, broadcasting high school football and basketball and selling advertising during the day. While Tom had always been a sports enthusiast, he was at first a little naïve about football. “I had never done football before. My high school to this day doesn’t have football and I remember the first game that I ever did I came up with the 53 yard line. I said, ‘He’s at the 45, to the 50, to the 53 and knocked down at the 53!’ And then all of the sudden I said ‘Ah, check that, make that the 47.’”
Tom Ryther drives the WIBV news car in the early 60's
Tom was on the air on WIBV on November 22, 1963. “It was high noon on that day in 1963, and we had an old newspaper guy who was our news director and all he did was rip and hand us the news copy [off the news wire]. He hands me this thing, ‘There have been shots fired in Dallas. It is believed that President Kennedy has been wounded.’ I was on the air reading a newscast, and I said, ‘We’ll bring you further details as they develop.’ Al [the news director] goes to lunch. When he came back I said ‘Al, what the…the President of the United States has been shot!”
In the hour after the first bulletin had cleared the wire, while the news director was out to lunch, Tom ran back and forth between the newsroom and the studio, getting reports from the Associated Press and United Press International wires and getting the information on the air as quickly as possible while playing records and taped commercials in the interim.
Finally came the bulletin, which he read on the air: “Word just in from the Associated Press, President John F. Kennedy has died of wounds suffered in Dallas during a motorcade. It is unknown at this time who did the shooting. Investigations are underway.”
“Luckily I had gotten some training so I had some experience, [and] I had a cool head that day,” he says.
As a journalism student in 1958, Tom had actually met then-Senator Kennedy when he went to Washington with other journalism students as a guest of Sen. Stuart Symington of Missouri. The future President met with the students outside of Senate chambers and answered questions from the students, including Tom. “I never wrote a story about it, but I was in on the interview. I sat there, asked him questions, talked to him. Great charisma.”
While working at WIBV, Tom says, “I was probably doing about 150 high school broadcasts a year and I was selling [advertising] during the day. And I thought, I know I can do more. The salesmen would show up for work in brand new Oldsmobiles and I had a rusted-out old Chevy. I was working for 95 dollars a week.”
By this time Tom was married and had a family to support. Daughter Lisa was born in 1962 and son Tommy was born in 1964. After five years at WIBV he moved on to KXOK in St. Louis selling ads and announcing part time, and then to KIRL in St. Charles, MO as a sales manager. However, he clashed with the station manager there, “so I got four new tires and a tune up at a gas station and just drove away.” He returned to work at WIBV in Belleville, IL while auditioning for television jobs in the St. Louis area. During his second stint at WIBV he became friends with an announcer there named Bill Addison. Bill had “one of those huge voices, something I never had. He was a great talent. Nobody liked Bill but I did.” After Bill left WIBV he gave Tom a call.
“Tom, I’ve just been named anchorman at KPLR-TV in St. Louis. I’d like for you to come over and audition for the news reporter’s job,” he said. The call came at just the right moment for Tom Ryther.
“That was in 1968 and I was just struggling. I was drinking a little too much and kind of feeling sorry for myself. I remember driving out to this little country cemetery in Dixon, Missouri where I’ll be buried with my family some day, thirty miles southwest of St. Louis, and I got down on my hands and knees and I touched the tombstone of my Grandpa and I talked to my Grandpa. I said, ‘I know I can do more than what I am doing. Will you put a good word in for me with God? Will you do that for me please?” He chuckles. “And a month later Bill Addison called me from KPLR. I went over, I auditioned for the job, and it was the most fun I ever had.”
KPLR-TV St. Louis
Tom Ryther reporting for KPLR-TV in
St. Louis, in 1968
KPLR-TV Channel 11 in St. Louis, MO was an independent station with a smaller budget for news than the “big three” network affiliates, but it was a respectable operation. With a news staff of around seventeen, the news programs were broadcast in color by 1968 using three bulky sixties-era color cameras in the studio, two-inch wide videotape was used for in-studio recording, and outside news reports were shot on 16mm film. As a reporter, Tom Ryther did two stories a day and then went back to the TV station to develop the film and edit it himself before it went on the air.
He did light stories (his first report for KPLR was about an exhibit that had come to town on the many inventions of Leonardo da Vinci) and he did heavy stories that enabled him to use his journalistic skills. “I helped to solve a murder in Mascoutah, Illinois…Some guy had murdered two teenagers on a lovers’ lane and I can remember the chief of police in St. Clair County told me, ‘We think the guy’s a drifter.’ So I thought, ‘Where would this guy stay?’
“So I went around to a bunch of trailer courts, and the third one I went to I asked [a man there], ‘Have you had any strange people, kind of loners around here?’ and he said ‘Yeah, I had a guy by the name of Marshall Stouffer.’ And we went in there and there was a cigarette still in the ashtray and some of his belongings were still there, and to make a long story short, that turned out to be the murderer. They captured him in California. That was in 1969.”
Eventually anchorman and news director Bill Addison, the one who invited Tom to audition at KPLR, was let go. Station management offered the job to Tom but he was reluctant to take it. After all, he’d be replacing the man who got him there in the first place. Before making a final decision, Tom called Bill up and asked him what he thought about it. Bill told him to take the job and so he did with his friend’s blessing.
“I took over as news director. We had only seventeen people but it was a great news staff. Wonderful people.”
As an independent station, KPLR wasn’t as competitive in news, and Tom had to work with a lax budget in that department. But he was able to be creative in how he used the budget he had, and he came up with the idea of doing prime time news updates at the top of the hour, just like the network stations did, making KPLR one of the first independents to do that.
As news director and lead anchorman, Tom was responsible for hiring news staff, including a reporter he particularly liked named Dave Layman. But Layman wasn’t there for very long, landing a job up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area at KSTP-TV as a field reporter. KSTP was in the process of completely revamping their news programs and was looking for a new anchor team.
Meanwhile there were budget and staff cuts at KPLR, bringing the already small newsroom staff of about seventeen down to five. Dave Layman told Tom that KSTP was looking for a new sports anchor. Tom was interested in doing sports so he sent a tape to the station. Station management was impressed enough to fly him up to the Twin Cities late in 1970, and in March 1971, he was offered the job. He was a little apprehensive about moving. After all, St. Louis was home and he would have to uproot a family with two young children to come to Minnesota. And the winters were a lot colder than they were in St. Louis, which he quickly found out having come up for his first interview in the month of December. But it was a chance to work for a big-budget, big-time network affiliate in a major market, and besides, “I couldn’t seem to catch on in St. Louis,” he says.
The World Today
KSTP-TV Channel 5 was a much different operation than KPLR had been. KSTP was a bigger station, affiliated with the NBC Television Network. Station owner Stanley E. Hubbard was a close personal friend of NBC founder David Sarnoff. “I was impressed with the set up because KSTP really was a legendary news operation,” Tom Ryther says. “I met Old Man [Stanley E.] Hubbard [and] he and I hit it off right away. Then there was young Stanley, [Stanley S.] Hubbard, and we got along pretty well, and they offered me the job.
“I was paid all of $17,500 a year by the very generous Hubbard Broadcast Corporation. I was married, had my two kids. I had always wanted to work for a major network affiliate.”
For years KSTP-TV had been number one in the market for news, but in recent years they had been slipping behind CBS affiliate WCCO-TV Channel 4, which had started a new news program called The Scene Tonight in 1968 with local favorite Dave Moore in the anchor chair. The Hubbards responded by firing their entire anchor team, including long-time anchors John MacDougall and Bob Ryan (MacDougall remained with the station as a staff announcer, Ryan went to the NBC affiliate in Rochester, MN), and starting a whole new news program with a new look, new faces and a new name. It wasn’t just the news, it was The World Today premiering on July 19, 1971, with anchorman Ted O’Brien, Barry ZeVan the Weatherman and sportscaster Tom Ryther.
“It was exciting. It really was,” Tom says. “We had people. At KPLR in St. Louis we were an independent, we didn’t have a big budget, we had [a few] people, all very good people, but we didn’t have the budget to sustain it. I came up here and we must have had fifty people in that newsroom. And it was, ‘You need something done? Grab a camera and let’s go do it.’ There was enthusiasm.”
In addition to anchoring the sportscasts at 6 and 10 p.m. on Channel 5 and heading the station’s sports department, Tom would be co-hosting The Bud Grant Show with Minnesota Vikings head coach Grant on Monday nights during football season, and doing play-by-play for Minnesota Vikings pre-season football games broadcast on Channel 5 (no “53 yard lines” called this time). He was promoted in ads on the station and in newspapers, billboards and TV Guide as “An all-sports pro! A real champion!”
Tom wanted to be just a sports journalist but consultants hired by the station insisted he should also do commentary, ala Howard Cosell. Tom didn’t particularly want to do that but he followed orders and as a result, viewers who didn’t agree with his sports commentaries did not care much for him and let the station management know. He ranked low in some audience research and the same consultants who said he should opine on the air were suggesting perhaps he should be let go because viewers didn’t like his opining. But his saving grace at KSTP was of all things a game show, Bowling For Dollars.
Bowling For Dollars
Tom Ryther hosting Bowling for Dollars
Bowling For Dollars began in the Twin Cities in the summer of 1973 and its phenomenal success there was a surprise to just about everyone, including Tom. “Bowling For Dollars came into my life when [KSTP general manager] Ralph Dolan called me upstairs and said ‘How would you like to do a bowling show?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘This sounds like fun’ so they flew me to Baltimore where I underwent training, and I’ve always sort of laughed at that, how do you undergo training for Bowling For Dollars? But it was really quite an experience. Claster Productions was in charge of it, and they sent me there to learn the ins and outs of the show.”
The concept was simple. The program would be set up in a local bowling alley and contestants from within the community would have a chance to do one round, winning certain dollar amounts for a strike, spare, etc. If two strikes were rolled, the contestant won the jackpot, which would increase gradually with each round. To add an element of audience participation, viewers were asked to send in postcards with their name and address, which were put in to a large barrel labeled “Pin Pals.” The contestant would reach in and pull out a postcard before bowling his or her round and would share whatever dollar amount won with the “pin pal.”
The shows were taped on Sundays at the designated local bowling alley, with four to six half-hour episodes made at a time. Lanes 1-5 were taken up for the show while open bowling continued to take place on the rest of the lanes. Temporary bleachers were set up to accommodate an audience of friends and family of the contestants. Tom’s job as host was to introduce and interview the contestants after they walked through the sliding door on the Bowling For Dollars set. After shooting was done for the day, the entire set was taken down, packed up and hauled back to the TV station.
The format was franchised out to local markets all over the country by Claster Productions of Baltimore, so there were local versions of Bowling For Dollars across the continent, with varying degrees of success. In some cities it bombed terribly, but in Minneapolis-St. Paul it was wildly successful, generating up to a 40 share within weeks of its premiere. On KSTP-TV it ran initially at 6:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, right after the news and leading into NBC’s prime time programming. Soon a third show was added Saturday night.
“If I had known it was going to be that successful, I certainly would have asked for more than $30 a show,” Tom says. However, through the course of its run he was able to up his price to $225 per show.
“Bowling For Dollars saved my career,” he says. “My audience research as far as doing the sports was not that good because they had me doing commentaries and making people angry half of the time. But then they saw the real Tom Ryther doing Bowling For Dollars and that lead me to having a 90 percent approval among the viewers.”
The evening news team of Ted O’Brien, Barry ZeVan and Tom Ryther clicked well with viewers, and KSTP’s ratings improved, but not enough to satisfy the Hubbards. Adjustments were made. Beginning February 11, 1974, new anchorman Ron Magers joined Tom and Barry, replacing Ted O’Brien, and the name became Eyewitness News, although the theme music and overall format remained pretty much the same. Another station in the area had recently dropped the “Eyewitness News” brand, and KSTP snatched it up and was able to make it their own with little or no viewer confusion.
“Ted O’Brien got a raw deal at KSTP and he went on to Boston, and they brought in Ron Magers and that team clicked,” Tom Ryther says. “Ron Magers was very good at what he did. I always knew my role. I was a supporting member of the cast.”
At the end of 1974 Barry ZeVan the Weatherman left for a station in Washington, DC and was replaced by meteorologist Dr. Walt Lyons. Tom says, “Barry was good, but Walt had phenomenal credibility. He revolutionized TV weathercasting. This guy didn’t just have a degree in meteorology, he had his doctorate in it. It was a thrill to be part of that team.”
By the May 1975 ratings sweeps Channel 5’s Eyewitness News overtook WCCO at 6 and 10 p.m. and could genuinely claim to be not just number one in the market but in much of the country. The anchor team of Ron Magers, Dr. Walt Lyons (or Barry ZeVan) and Tom Ryther, was recalled years later by more than one local media critic as the best Twin Cities TV news ensemble ever. But beneath the surface, trouble was brewing.
Tom recalls, “Ron Magers had become news director and I remember one time we had a beer together at some local bar, and Magers said to me, ‘You ain’t gonna make it, Pally.’ I’ll never forget that as long as I live. And I thought, ‘I’m being fired. Oh, okay.’ So I started sending out tapes and I got a job offer as a news anchor at KCRA in Sacramento.”
Just as he was about to accept the job in Sacramento he got a call at home on a Saturday morning from Stanley S. Hubbard telling him the initial audience research they had on him was wrong, he in fact had a 90 percent approval rating. Hubbard offered him a new contract with a “pretty good sized” raise and a cut in workload from six nights a week to five. Tom decided to stay.
By late 1977, however, a decision was made to remove Tom as host of Bowling For Dollars after four and a half years and almost 500 shows because audience research suggested it was hurting his credibility as a sportscaster. “I was told that audience research was showing that I should be ‘above’ doing Bowling For Dollars…I used to tell people I got the job taking an IQ test and I had the lowest IQ so that’s how I got the job. It was fun. It was a no-brainer, it was a people show.” His occasional work doing commercials for local merchants such as Jim Lupient Oldsmobile and Pacific Pool and Patio also had to end. Bowling For Dollars meanwhile lasted another year on the station hosted by former WDGY rock jock Johnny Canton.
Things came to a head when Tom was informed he would be put back on a six-day workweek while his colleagues would continue working only five days a week. Tom was not happy about this and felt he was getting stabbed in the back by station management. “I remember leaving Hubbard’s office, going downstairs, the phone rang and it was Don Dunkel, the vice-president of NBC owned and operated [stations] calling me from New York. It was amazing. Dunkel said, ‘We want you to come work for our station in Cleveland.’ I made a huge mistake [however]. I could have gotten them to pay me a lot more money but I was so pissed being the only one who got put back on a six-day week.”
Tom flew out to Cleveland to check out NBC’s owned and operated station there and was impressed with what he saw. It would give him the opportunity to do things for the NBC network and get out of what he was starting to view as a hopeless situation at KSTP. He accepted the job, put in his resignation at KSTP, and that’s when things got ugly. Stanley S. Hubbard didn’t let his talent leave so easily, and in recent months there had been some major fights with Dr. Walt Lyons and reporter Skip Loescher trying to leave the station.
“I didn’t even have a contract at Channel 5. I had what was called an employment agreement. They had to give me sixty days or I had to give them sixty days. And then they had come up with another employment agreement—someone had forged my signature on it, saying I had to give them a year’s notice. I’d never sign anything like that.”
There were threats of a lawsuit and Tom hired a lawyer. Stanley S. Hubbard of KSTP commented to a Minneapolis Star columnist at the time, “I’ll be very surprised if Tom Ryther wants to go to Cleveland…Why would someone want to leave the number one station and go to a shoddy operation?” Hubbard offered Tom more money to stay but Tom’s reasons for leaving went beyond money. In fact, he was willing to take a pay cut to go to Cleveland.
In the end, Tom agreed to stay with the station through the February ratings sweeps period, and then he would move on. His final appearance on KSTP-TV Channel 5 was on Sunday, March 12, 1978. He was not allowed to bid farewell to his viewers or reference the fact it was his last show, and at 10:30 p.m., after the credits rolled on Eyewitness News, Tom Ryther was handed a check for $6,000 that had been withheld from him in an attempt to keep him from leaving the station. He was then escorted out the back door by an armed security guard and general manager Ralph Dolan (who apologized to Tom and explained he was under orders). The door was locked behind him.
From Vikings to Browns Territory
The move to WKYC Channel 3 in Cleveland, Ohio was a bold one professionally for Tom Ryther. At the NBC owned-and-operated station he was sports director as well as sportscaster on Action 3 News. He also would do play-by-play for Cleveland Browns pre-season football games and would host a Monday night Browns highlight show, similar to the one he hosted with Vikings coach Bud Grant.
As a full-fledged employee of the NBC Television Network (not just an independently owned affiliate) he made a number of appearances on the network, doing sports reports for NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, and NFL ’78 with Bryant Gumbel. He was on track to becoming a network star. But a dark cloud hovered over him.
“I really got to missing my kids when I was working in Cleveland,” he says. “I was divorced and my kids and their mom lived in Bloomington [Minnesota]…I can remember taking my son to the airport in Cleveland after he’d come to visit me and I broke down after he got on the plane. I sat there and literally cried.”
During a subsequent visit by his teenage son in the summer of 1979, they visited the Civil War memorial in Gettysburg, PA, where Tom made a crucial decision about his future. “I’m a history nut, and we were standing by all the Minnesota graves. The First Minnesota volunteers got mowed down at Gettysburg pretty badly.” It was at that moment that Tom decided he would come back to Minnesota some way, and he let his son Tommy know about it.
Father and son came up with code names related to Civil War battles to keep each other informed on his progress in coming back, such as “I’m in Bloody Run” and “I’m in the Wheat Field.” The commanding view of the Gettysburg battlefield was called Little Round Top, and once Tom had a deal signed to return to Minnesota, he would tell his son “I’m on Little Round Top.”
Meanwhile back in the Twin Cities, KSTP switched affiliation from NBC to ABC effective March 5, 1979, almost a year to the day after Tom left. Tom says that the move proved to him that Hubbard “not only didn’t have loyalty toward his employees, he didn’t have any loyalty to his business connections.” But the network switch opened a door for him. NBC in the Twin Cities was picked up by WTCN-TV Channel 11, a long-time independent station that was trying to build a competitive news operation from the ground up. They wanted to have a “star,” a familiar face to local viewers. When Tom happened to be in town to shoot a commercial at the WTCN studios, general manager Bob Fransen asked if he might be interested in coming back. Tom said, “Let’s talk.”
Tom sat down with Fransen in his office and a deal was worked out. He returned to Cleveland and put in his resignation, and then flew back to sign a contract with WTCN-TV making him sports director and sportscaster for NewsCenter 11. “Tommy didn’t even know I was in town,” Tom says, “and I found him in a local grocery store and I came up behind him and put my arms around him, and I said ‘I’m on Little Round Top.’ And we both cried. It was a great decision.
“I was pretty successful in Cleveland but I just missed my kids. It was really getting to me. I thought I was going to have a mental breakdown because I missed my kids so bad. I’ll never regret coming back and going to work for Channel 11, WTCN.”
Tom Ryther made his debut on WTCN-TV Channel 11 on December 31, 1979 with great fanfare by the station. The station had been an independent for years, much like KPLR in St. Louis had been, with a nominal news operation. Having just become an NBC affiliate in March, the station tried in vein to compete with the well-established local news programs at 6 and 10 p.m. on Channels 4 and 5 with little success. News anchor Jim Dyer, sportscaster Bob Kurtz and weekend meteorologist Keith Eichner, as well as several reporters and others were dropped before the end of 1979. The ownership, Metromedia, Inc. primarily ran independent stations and didn’t quite grasp the concept of spending the kind of money needed for a news operation worthy of a major market network affiliate. Nevertheless, Tom Ryther welcomed the challenge.
“First of all it was a thrill to come back, and they had made me the centerpiece of their operation, and that sort of made [news anchor] Stan Bohrman angry. I was flattered. But it was very obvious that Metromedia wasn’t going to put money into the operation,” he says.
At WTCN he was sports director as well as sportscaster on the 6 and 10 p.m. editions of NewsCenter 11. He once again had the opportunity to do play-by-play for Minnesota Vikings pre-season football as well as boys and girls high school basketball tournaments, and for two TV seasons beginning in 1980, he had his own Saturday early evening show, Tom Ryther’s Sports Magazine. He loved the gig, but budgets were always a problem.
“One thing Metromedia did do was build beautiful studios. We had an art display that was worth millions on the walls of Channel 11. Yet would they buy us cameras that were worth a darn? We wanted to get a helicopter, and one of the executives said, ‘Well let’s just get a couple of old helicopters that aren’t in use and just have a motor in them with their rotors going around even though they can’t fly.’ I’m going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That’s a true story. I just said [to myself], ‘Well, I can’t let that stop me from doing my job. I’ve got to be the best there is.’”
Tom made many friends at Channel 11 but not everyone in the newsroom was enthusiastic about him. One was a reporter named Janet Mason. “Everybody had made such a big deal that I was coming back from Cleveland and I had been very popular at KSTP. I had done a couple of shows and she made the comment, ‘So that’s the great Tom Ryther. Well I don’t think he’s worth a damn.’” The acrimony with Ms. Mason would only get worse from there.
The KARE Bear Bunch
Tom Ryther in a KARE-11 ad from 1986
In 1983 Metromedia finally sold WTCN-TV to Gannett Broadcasting, which had a much keener sense of what was needed to compete in news. “Gannett came in and started pouring money into it. Not only did we get equipment but we got the best equipment money could buy. We got terrific helicopters, we increased our staff, we had photographers, a lot of photographers, they built us a whole new newsroom. I mean they came to do battle,” Tom says. With the new ownership came a new general manager, Joe Fransgrote, who supported Tom all the way.
Tom was kept on as sports director and sportscaster, and he was joined by a new anchor team of Paul Magers (brother of former KSTP colleague Ron Magers) and Diana Pierce, and new meteorologist Paul Douglas. Even Barry ZeVan the Weatherman came back, doing the weather on weekends and serving as the resident entertainment critic. Coincidentally NBC at the same time was turning around in prime time ratings under new management and with the improved prime time lineup along with the completely revamped local news operation, WTCN made a phenomenal turnaround, going from also-ran status to knocking KSTP’s Eyewitness News into third place within two years, where it has remained ever since.
The changes instituted by Gannett were completed with a call-letter change, initially to WUSA in July 1985, and finally to KARE eleven months later after the company bought a station in Washington, DC and decided the WUSA brand was better suited in the nation’s capital. Under the name KARE-11 the station promoted itself as the place that cared about the community, etc. with some of the most pretentious and sanctimonious ad campaigns for a major television station ever devised (“We Know What Matters,” “11 Cares For You,” “Handling the news with KARE”) which might have been nauseating to some, but many more Twin Cities viewers ate it up and made KARE-11 the number one station.
KARE-11 portrayed its news staff as one big, happy family. Meanwhile, Tom Ryther did his job and co-existed, however uneasily, with his nemesis Janet Mason. According to him, “My boss [news director] Tom Kirby took her off the air and put her on the desk just moving news cars around, and Magers and I asked, ‘How come you moved Janet to the desk?’ He said, ‘Well number one, she’s the worst on-air talent I’ve ever seen in my life. Number two, she moves news cars around pretty good, and number three, Asians turn me on. I like being around her.’ [Ms. Mason was of Japanese-American heritage.] Don’t think those words didn’t rattle around in my brain for a while.”
But in 1988, Tom Kirby left and Janet Mason was appointed to the position of Vice-President of News, making her Tom Ryther’s supervisor. Immediately he noticed he was being treated a little differently in the workplace. His workload was cut back and given to his younger colleagues in the KARE-11 sports department, Jeff Passolt and Randy Shaver. He was removed from Prep Sports Extra, a football highlights show, apparently at the request of co-host Shaver, who indicated he did not like working with an “old fart.” After new general manager Linda Rios Brook came in, in 1989, he was taken off as sportscaster on the 6 p.m. edition of the news, replaced by the twenty-years-younger Passolt, and reassigned to a “recreational segment” on the 5 p.m. show. Tom continued as sportscaster on the 10 p.m. show.
In 1990, Ms. Mason appointed Randy Shaver to the position of executive producer of sports, a position that belonged to Tom under the contract he signed with the station, and in early 1991 he realized he was being left out of staff meetings, photo shoots and promotions with the station. In addition, his son Tommy, who had become a television news photographer, was about to be hired by Channel 11 but, Tom claims, Janet Mason blocked his hiring.
“I knew something was up. Something was not right. So I went up to general manager Linda Rios Brook, another of the great idiots of all time, and I said, ‘I just want to know what’s going on.’ She said she couldn’t say anything. And then about a week later [in March 1991] Janet called me in and said ‘We’re not going to renew your contract.’ And then she said to me, ‘How does it feel to be a failure at age 53?’ That’s what she said to me.
“I walked out to my car and I said, ‘I get a numb-nut like this saying I was a failure?’ When I had a really good career, over 38, 39 years? An hour later, I called a lawyer. I was already warned the minute [Mason] was made news director, ‘Watch out, you’re on her hit list.’”
Dismissal wasn’t immediate. He would remain with the station under the terms of his contract until it expired in July 1991. “When [Janet Mason] said, ‘How does it feel to be a failure…’ I’m sure that gave her a great deal of joy. So I called the attorney Donna Roback and we began having meetings in early ’91. In fact I [started] a file. Desert Storm was going on at the time in Iraq and Kuwait, and I called [the file] ‘Ice Storm’ as a code name. I documented everything Janet Mason tried to do [such as] insult me, send me down to do promos with [NBC Sports personalities] Dick Enberg and Bob Costas with me sitting like a bump on a log while they’re talking about Channel 11 sports. I was in the picture but no one was allowed to mention my name.” Tom says that Enberg and Costas finally spoke up and defended Tom, mentioning him in the promo anyway.
“It was so evident that they [management] were trying to humiliate me and were having meetings [where] I’m not invited. All of this measured up against the Age Discrimination Employment Act. You have to be over 40, you have to be treated in a lesser manner than the younger employees and then later being replaced by younger employees.” In spite of the plethora of evidence he gathered, Tom says he would not have considered suing if it wasn’t for the ‘failure at age 53’ comment by Ms. Mason.
In July 1991 Tom Ryther called a news conference and announced he was suing KARE-11 for age discrimination. No one at the station knew he was even talking to an attorney, he says, not even star anchor Paul Magers. “It was the best kept secret since the Normandy Invasion. That’s what I refer to it as.”
After the news conference he went in to work and was soon escorted out the back door by an armed security guard. “Paul Douglas [station meteorologist] was my friend and Douglas said he wept as I was once again being lead across the newsroom with a security guard and somebody else and being walked out the back door. But what I kept thinking was, it’s over. They can’t really screw with me anymore.
“I was going through a divorce at that time, my mother died and I was losing my job. It was just a real fun time. But I figured I’m bigger and better than these bastards, I’ll outlast all of them, and I have.” One of his supporters early on was none other than former WCCO-TV anchor Dave Moore, who had been pulled off that station’s newscasts as he was getting up in years (but remained with the station). Dave called Tom up and offered encouragement the day he announced the suit.
Tom Ryther initially filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As the station dug in its heels and a settlement couldn’t be reached, he took his case to federal court in September 1993.
Tom and his attorneys presented evidence and testimony that he was demoted and eventually terminated specifically for age-related reasons and that Janet Mason, as well as younger colleagues in the sports department provided a hostile work environment due to his age, saying derogatory things about him being an “old man” or worse, criticizing him for the bags under his eyes and for wearing glasses on camera, and complaining that he couldn’t “grasp” the new computer technology coming in to the station because of his allegedly advanced age, unlike his younger colleagues. A document, found in KARE-11’s files was presented that the plaintiffs contended suggested ways to get rid of employees over the age of 40.
In their defense, KARE-11 insisted Tom’s termination had nothing whatsoever to do with age, but with performance and audience research. A 1990 Gallup Survey commissioned by the station in particular found that Tom was not as recognizable to viewers as competing sportscaster Mark Rosen of WCCO-TV, that some people didn’t like him and that he was “not a strong player” for KARE-11. He failed the audience research, they insisted, and that’s why he was a “failure at the age of 53.” But age had nothing to do with it.
Tom and his attorneys pointed out flaws in the Gallup Survey that skewed it against him and in favor of Rosen and younger sportscasters at KARE, and in spite of that, he still ranked higher than younger KARE sportscasters Jeff Passolt and Randy Shaver. In testimony, Ms. Mason and general manager Linda Rios Brook admitted that sports was “unimportant” to the station and its news operation, while WCCO in contrast put a lot into promoting its sportscaster Mark Rosen and its sports department, something Tom was unable to get from his station in spite of numerous requests. A Gallup vice-president who came to testify on KARE’s behalf admitted the station’s lack of sports promotion might have had something to do with his poor showing in the survey and that Rosen’s popularity was “unusually” high. In spite of all of that, Tom was still the second most popular sportscaster in the market.
Furthermore, in spite of her personal acrimony toward Tom, and his alleged “poor performance,” Janet Mason had actually given Tom a glowing performance review as late as March 1990, rating him “commendable” and that “his work is done quickly and accurately; total job responsibilities are met.” The plaintiffs presented evidence that the positive job review might have been given to deceive him into thinking there were no problems that he needed to correct, thereby making it all the easier to ultimately dismiss him.
Upon taking the witness stand, Janet Mason contended that she only gave him the positive job review because she feared he “would have an emotional breakdown” if she didn’t. Tom says, “She was on the witness stand and she did a pathetic job. They had rehearsed her. First she would look at the attorney, then she would look at me, it was like someone putting a robot head on a stick [looking] left-right, saying things like ‘and I being Japanese, I would never think of discriminating against anyone.’ I said to her out in the hallway, ‘You know, I thought your air work was bad, but you really superceded it with that performance.’ I could tell the jury wasn’t buying it.”
Indeed the jury didn’t buy it and the verdict came back in favor of Tom Ryther, awarding him $1,254,535 in back pay, front pay, liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees. “We’d gotten word that the jury called for a calculator” while deliberating, Tom says. “I thought that’s a good sign.”
But KARE-11 wasn’t about to pay up without a fight. They appealed the jury verdict, and Judge David Doty refused to overturn it in September 1994. KARE then appealed to a three-judge panel on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2 to 1 in favor of Tom Ryther in June 1996. Judge James Loken was the dissenting judge, enabling KARE to appeal to the entire Eighth Circuit Court.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 9 to 3 in favor of Tom in March 1997, so the station took the case to the United States Supreme Court. On June 17, 1997 the high court declined to hear the case, making the Circuit Court ruling stand. Tom Ryther was victorious after six years and five court rulings. KARE-11 had to pay up. But victory was bittersweet.
“The sad part of it is when I finally won the case, I went to the Masonic Nursing Home to tell my dad that I was the winner. My dad was dying of congestive heart failure. We had a glass of 7-Up and we were toasting and the phone was ringing and a newspaper reporter showed up to do an interview with me. I stepped outside the building and all of the sudden I heard ‘Tom Ryther go to your father’s room.’ I went to my father’s room. He died. He died the same day that I won my case, within hours after I told him. I thought he was going to last until Christmas, I really did.”
The age discrimination case of Ryther vs. KARE-11 set a precedent that defined what an employer, including a television station that relies heavily on the way somebody looks can do and not do legally, and it has been referenced in over 1,500 cases since. “It was a great moral victory,” Tom says. A framed copy of the check issued to him by KARE-11/Gannett Broadcasting for $1.3 million dollars hangs above his desk in his home office as a proud symbol of his victory.
After being dismissed by KARE and while the court case was pending, Tom was able to get a little more work in broadcasting. He emceed some sports programs on then-Twin Cities Fox affiliate KITN-TV Channel 29 for a couple of years, although that station had no nightly newscast and little budget for any real local programming, and he did some sports reports for FM country station K102. But he was considered damaged goods by many in the industry specifically because he had the audacity to sue KARE-11 and by the time he won his case, his career in broadcasting was pretty much over.
But Tom Ryther is doing just fine. He’s quite proud of his son Tommy, who is now a sports photographer with WCCO-TV working with his old rival Mark Rosen. Tom keeps plenty busy as well.
“I travel. I’ve been to Russia, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Panama Canal…”