Kent Hormann’s career was set up by Blizzard of ’78
Though he’s an Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame member and has built an incredible career on local television, Kent Hormann still gets the most public notoriety for his work during the Blizzard of 1978.
And, oh, is that a story.
Consider that WFFT, Channel 55, premiered as an independent station on Dec. 21, 1977, or about the same time Hormann’s job interview to become a Campbell Soup traveling salesman was canceled because of an ice storm. Instead, he applied at WFFT over the Christmas break following a fall graduation from Ball State with a major in… political science. He started at WFFT on Jan. 3, 1978 in the control room doing every odd job possible. He was so far down the totem pole he was under it.
“I was having a celebratory dinner with Mom and Dad, and Mom goes, `What would you do if they put you on the air?’ ” Hormann recalled. “I scolded her, `Mama, they wouldn’t put some bonehead like me on the air! You have to go to school and learn how to do this and get master’s degrees.”
He also remembered not sleeping for two days before having to deliver a three-minute book report at Villages Woods Junior High. While the teacher watched her stopwatch, he’d get a flop sweat from “Broadcast News” going after 30 seconds before diving under his desk to take a D.
In fact, this may sound odd considering how much Hormann is known for talking now, but he had to be dragged in front of the camera for the first time, interviewing Komets during intermissions when WFFT broadcast Monday night NHL games. As a former Junior Komet, he was the only person in the building who knew anything about hockey. Luckily, hockey players like to talk a lot so he only had to a little.
Four days after his 24th birthday, Hormann went to work at 8 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 25, with one eye on the forecast, but by 4 p.m., he was excited because he was getting off in an hour to play a hockey game that night.
But then the boss came in and asked, “What would you do if I told you our newsman is flat on his back with the flu?” A salesman was stripped of his shirt, tie and sportcoat to dress Hormann who would be the replacement to deliver the news updates 55 minutes after every hour.
It’s important to remember that there aren’t many windows in the WFFT building which is located between some hills.
“Then about 9:30 the boss comes back and says, `What kind of stamina do you have?'” Hormann said. “I thought, `What a considerate man, he’s worried about me working a double shift, what a great guy!’ not knowing that this snow is building outside.”
Having just received a truckload of movies, sitcoms and variety shows, WFFT was the only one of four local stations that produced all its content from within the building. The boss came up with the idea of broadcasting throughout the blizzard, and, being quite young and a little naive, Hormann suggested they call it a “Snowathon.”
Now a little bit of perspective: At the time there was no such thing as a 24-hour Fort Wayne television station as every local station signed off at midnight with the national anthem and resumed with the national news shows at 5 or 6 a.m. Also remember the internet, cable television, cell phones, VCRs/DVDs or video games had not even been contemplated yet. Home entertainment mostly consisted of board games, books, playing cards or watching one of Fort Wayne’s four television stations. However, the radio stations, even the AM ones, actually played music.
Despite having only 12 employees — six of whom were trapped in the building — WFFT basically had a captive audience. Though he had started earlier in the month, Hormann was the only on-air talent in the building.
“They pointed the camera at me and I’d go on literally holding up film reels, going, `Folks, we don’t have a log so we’re going to let you program the station. What do you want to see `Big Valley’ or `McHale’s Navy,’ the `Sands of Iwo Jima’ or `I Dream of Jeannie?’ Call us and let us know.”
But the snow kept coming, eventually building to 17 inches over three days, which meant for five days no one could get to the station to relieve Hormann. Luckily, the boss had gone out ahead of time to bring in some groceries, and eventually, a snowmobiler delivered some more, but adrenaline carried the group.
“We had this little patio right outside our news area so they’d open the door and put the camera in the doorway and I’d go outside and do the weather forecast and say, `Remain calm and try to make sure you get to your home,’ ” Hormann said. “I’d start out there with the snow on my shoes, and then it got up to my ankles, and then to my calves and to my knees. Before you know it, I had my own little mountain out there I would go climb.”
Some of his coworkers, who by this time had to be getting slaphappy, pelted him with snowballs, and another time he interviewed a German shepherd who he found playing out in the snow. Hormann estimates he might have slept 2-to-4 total hours over five days.
“It was probably the best experience of my career,” Hormann said. “You talk about a baptism by fire, the station had literally been on a month, but that gave it an identity. Because so many people watched us and for so long and we answered the bell during that storm, they just stayed with us.”
The February 1978 rating period was the first time WFFT qualified and was ranked the country’s No. 1 independent station.
Finally, Hormann was air-lifted out by a mini-helicopter at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 29 — 40 years ago today — so he could go home, but the blizzard set up his entire career. During that spring he became WFFT’s overnight host on Friday and Saturdays, and within three years he had moved on to WKJG as a sports reporter, eventually becoming the sports director. Now he’s buried as an early-morning reporter on WKJG, but Hormann still hears plenty of comments about his work during the blizzard.
“I’m perfectly fine with that,” he said. “I wear that like a badge of honor, especially when they talk about how important it was to them. People to this day tell me, `You kept us calm.’ Rare is the opportunity to be in on something that was cutting edge, something that was new. To think we had that much impact on so many people at such an important time, that’s always going to be very, very special to me.”
Whenever he tells the story at schools, the kids all think he must be making it up. They can’t imagine having such limited media options.
“Anybody who knows me knows that sports has been my life,” Hormann said. “I dreamed of being a Komet, and I cherish that I’ve done some play-by-play for the Komets, the TinCaps and Wizards, and IPFW volleyball and some Fury games. I will always cherish that, and one of the biggest plums of my life was being inducted into the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, but all that said, that unbelievable four or five days in the infancy of WFFT is one of the most special moments of my entire life.”