The King of Wyoming

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AS A CHILD, I was always intrigued by the state of Wyoming. It sat just a few hours north of my native Denver, but it seemed like a different planet. It was a place foreign to a boy of suburban Denver. It appeared as a world of open plains, horses, and cowboys.

I was also fascinated with cowboys. I sat through the movies of John Wayne. I inhaled the novel Lonesome Dove, once asking my much more astute stepbrother, “What is a whorehouse?”

I carried this fascination into my adolescence. My friends and I cranked the music of Chris LeDoux out of the speakers of the beautifully worn pickup truck I was gifted to me on my sixteenth birthday. We donned felt cowboy hats atop our heads and tins of Copenhagen in our back pockets as we traveled to see country music concerts at the Grizzly Rose and the Colorado State Fair. We wanted to be cowboys. We were not, but we wanted to be.

Always there was Wyoming. The state sat close enough for occasional trips to Cheyenne Frontier Days or a family vacation to Jackson Hole. Yet, it was far enough away to hold mystery.

I even briefly considered applying for college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. But I settled on the University of Colorado at Boulder, namely because I love Colorado football and its campus sits on one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In Boulder, I made the fateful decision that I was to become a television sports anchor. So, I enrolled in the university’s journalism program. Between moonlight endeavors, I allowed the exquisite faculty at the school to attempt to turn me into a respectable journalist.

Upon graduation, I spent months looking for a job in television news. I almost gave up. In fact, it was in a moment of deep lament for my direction in life when I received a phone call from, what was then, the largest television news station in the state of Wyoming. After a four-hour trip north to Casper and a successful interview, I had earned a job. I was a working television sports journalist. 

The author reports from outside the Casper Event Center with the Casper skyline in the background

CASPER, WYOMING sits off Interstate 25, about four hours north of Denver and about four hours south of Billings. At somewhere between 50,000-60,000 people, it is Wyoming’s second largest city, trailing only the capital Cheyenne. The city sits like a large island dotted sparingly with much smaller islands around it. It seems to sprout out of the sagebrush and antelope milling about.

My father and his best friend moved me into a small apartment not far from Casper’s downtown, an apartment where I would reside the next four years of my life.

My new employer was KTWO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Casper. K2TV, as it was more commonly referred to, was Wyoming’s longest tenured and most far-reaching television news station.

Casper was a television market numbered in the 190s. If New York is number one and Los Angeles number two, Casper was far down the list. In fact, it was one of the smallest television markets in the country. However, K2’s reach was broad, stretching across the vast landscape of Wyoming, from Gillette in the northeast, to Jackson Hole in the northwest, to Evanston in the southwest, and to Laramie in the southeast.

The headquarters of K2 sat inside a non-descript building on the outskirts of Casper. It was in that place where a group of people, many of them fresh out of college, attempted to bring the population of Wyoming daily news, sports, and weather. Most of these people had only come to Wyoming for an opportunity to work in television news. They were there to begin their careers. They didn’t plan on staying long.

These were individuals, most of them in their early twenties, far away from home, in a foreign place where everyone was a stranger. This was shared between them, this, and a passion to become something, to move to markets like Denver, Atlanta, New York, or even the national news. Casper was but a steppingstone toward something greater.

Those in the K2 newsroom became a platoon or a coed fraternity. We worked hard for little money. We spent six, sometimes seven, days a week in that newsroom. We rushed to edit tape. We ran out to stories and flew back to put together something before the newscast. We covered fires and bake sales and local politics. We traveled to nearby Douglas and Glenrock to film high school football games. We put miles on station vehicles. We reported on the inspirational and the devastating. Some of us graced billboards at the local mall. We applied on our own makeup, dressed in inexpensive suits and ties, and attempted to report the news like the professionals we knew we could become.

And we played hard. We were in our early twenties, eager to experience life, even if it was in a place far from home. We took shots at the Wonderbar. We went sneakin’ to the Beacon to fumble our way through a twostep. We danced late into the night at Sidelines. We sang poor karaoke at Karen and Jim’s. We drank cheap beer at single A baseball games and enjoyed front row seats at indoor football games.

We became family, and Casper slowly became a sort of home.

We fell in love with the people, those who would stop us on the street to tell us they enjoyed watching us on the television and that we were doing a good job. We were asked to join Rotary Clubs and invited to participate in golf tournaments. We road in parades and waved at cheering crowds.

We were young. We made mistakes. We desperately tried to hide our inexperience, which is not always easy with a camera pointed at your face. We grew up. We didn’t know what we had. We were racing toward something. Did we stop to appreciate the moments around us? Probably not. But that is the curse of the young. You don’t really value something until it no longer exists.

Throughout all of this, my duration in Casper, I was graced with an opportunity to spend time with the King of Wyoming.

George Kay

GEORGE KRONSCHNABEL began his career in Casper, Wyoming in December of 1966. He shortened his on-air name to George Kay.

George Kay spent forty years at KTWO-TV where he worked as a newsman, as well as a sports and news director. He also served as a radio color commentator for the University of Wyoming football broadcasts among many other things. He was inducted into the Wyoming Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2005.

The above are all bullet points on the PowerPoint of life. Between those bullet points are the really meaningful moments of the distinguished career of a Wyoming legend:

There are the high school sporting events he covered; the young athletes he interviewed; the way, each night, he beamed into living rooms across the state of Wyoming and told people the score; the way he articulated the news in his baritone voice with a deep smile on his face; the way he fought to bring Wyoming high school sports to television.  

There are the young journalists he mentored, the ones who would spread across the country and become notable news and sports personalities themselves.

I met George Kay on my first assignment for K2. It was at the state high school basketball tournament. I was to film George interviewing victorious boys basketball players and their beaming coaches.

George had retired at this point but would return to the microphone on occasion to fill in for his former television station if it needed help. George’s ease in front of the camera was quickly apparent. So was his genuine kindness. It was a kindness I would get to know well.

George would often usher me toward a seat at the table with Wyoming sports luminaries while I stood, like the new kid at the cafeteria, wondering where I belonged.

We would spend long hours together in the car driving. We drove to Buffalo to interview legendary college football coach Joe Tiller. We drove to the campus of Chadron State to speak with Danny Woodhead before he broke the all-division college football rushing record. We drove to Laramie for University of Wyoming football and basketball games. He would regale me with stories of Wyoming athletics lore, of Kenny Sailors’ jump shot, of Rulon Gardner’s prowess on the mat. He would also welcome me into his home where I would be hosted by his beautiful wife Marge.   

The author working at a University of Wyoming football game

I STARTED MY career in Casper in 2006. I would leave in 2010. Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone in 2007. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were still young. In 2008, a great recession hit. These are forces that would impact the journalism industry in ways I couldn’t anticipate.

About the time I was promoted to sports director at K2TV, the housing market crashed, Wall Street titans fell, and “too big to fail” entered the lexicon. Companies across the nation tightened their belts. This meant cutting advertising budgets, money that television news stations counted on for revenue. In turn, television news stations slashed their own budgets. This meant decreasing staff while increasing the number of newscasts. Photographers and editors were scrapped. Reporters and anchors were left to film, edit, produce, and broadcast their own stories. More stories were needed to fill more newscasts. Overworked journalists were asked to do more with less. When the recession ended, within local news stations across the country, austerity did not end with it.

Smartphone cameras improved rapidly and dramatically. Soon, a camera stuffed into one’s pocket would become more powerful than the one I heaved on to my shoulder and ran down the sidelines at University of Wyoming football games.

Facebook’s News Feed would become ubiquitous. Over the ensuing decade, people began ingesting their news from social media. News stations, like newspapers, played catchup. There began an insatiable push for online content. News station websites were hastily created, with all of their popup ads and buffering videos. Reporters were asked to live tweet at breaking news stories while balancing a camera and trying to actually report on the story unfolding in front of them. People cut cords and started hearing their news from their more vocal Facebook friends.

The news industry consolidated. Conglomerates snapped up local television stations for bargain bin prices. Venture capital firms picked at local newspapers and news stations like coyotes, selling off whatever assets they could and jettisoning the rest. Citizen journalists were elevated, for better or worse, using the backbone of omnipresent camera phones and social media feeds. Working journalists fought to move up market for career survival, climbing up a collapsing hill.   

Technology, economics, and changing news consumption have all played a role in the erosion of the journalism industry my college professors prepared me for. In hindsight, they couldn’t have seen what was to come.

George Kay anchoring a K2TV newscast

WHO NEEDS THE local newsman today when all information is just a Google search away? Who needs the local sportsman when every high school football game is recorded by 75 parents on their smartphones? Of course, we do.

Has local news ever been more important? We live in a time when state legislatures across the country are discussing bills about banning books from school libraries and hamstringing history teachers around what they can and cannot discuss in their classrooms. Gerrymandering is rampant. Local school board meetings have turned into Wrestlemania events. Nextdoor, an app created to connect neighbors, is filled with those same neighbors posting warnings about the black guy they saw walking around the neighborhood in hoodie.

We need the local newsman because we are drowning in information, and we need a place to turn. We need someone who we can trust who can help us understand the developments in our communities. We need someone who spends his or her time digging into important local issues and reporting the stories in a thoughtful and truthful way. The journalism industry I was cultivated for employment in is not the one that will rise from these tectonic shifts. But it will rise. Our democracy depends on it.

Exterior of the KTWO-TV station headquarters (Photo courtesy K2 Radio)

IN JUNE OF 2020, about a decade after I left Casper, a rather surreal and shocking meeting took place inside the K2TV office. The meeting was later reported on by K2 Radio (not affiliated with K2TV).

While KTWO employees were working to put together the evening newscast, the CEO of Coastal Television Bill Fielder stormed into the workspace waving a new employee handbook and demanding employees sign the document. Coastal Television had taken over ownership of the station three weeks prior. The handbook Fielder was demanding his new employees sign declared, among other things, that all Coastal Television employees could be let go at any time for any or no cause. This clause was not included in employee contracts under K2’s previous owner.

Some journalists were hesitant to sign the handbook and were also concerned with, well, doing their jobs and producing a 6pm newscast that evening. “You don’t have a 6pm newscast if I say you don’t have a 6pm newscast,” Fielder reportedly told the journalists.

“We were very level-headed, and he was just freaking out on us,” a person present at the time told K2 Radio.

Eventually, with the 6pm newscast approaching, the staff handed over the signed handbooks, although the 6pm newscast was scrapped in favor of a replay of the 5pm newscast.  

The week following the encounter, Coastal Television fired four on air personalities at K2, including award-winning Chief Meteorologist Erik Dean. Dean had been at K2 for six years making him Wyoming’s longest tenured on-air television news personality at the time. Dean had been hounded to sign the handbook while he was on vacation for his wedding. He was immediately terminated after returning to work from his vacation.     

The new ownership also rescinded the offers of two new employees who were scheduled to begin working for K2.

The station dropped its local newscasts and began instead showing NewsNet, a Michigan-based provider of national and international news. NewsNet does not report local journalism. It only gives affiliates the option to break into NewsNet programming with their local segments.

As of this writing, navigating to K2’s website (K2TV.com) leads internet browsers to warn, “This Connection is Not Private.” The reason, according to the browser Safari, “The website’s certificate expired 490 days ago.”   

A moment captured during George and Marge Kronschnabel’s 62-year marriage

GEORGE KAY spent 40 years as a news and sports man at KTWO-TV in Wyoming. In that time, he interviewed world class athletes and high school hopefuls, too many to count.  

I learned more about Wyoming on those hours long drives with George Kay than I did anywhere else. He gave me an education, and I am so grateful for those moments I was able to spend with him. He freely gave his experience away, and I was, with all hope, a better journalist in the state of Wyoming because of it.  

I left Casper in 2010. We didn’t communicate after I left, but I would keep periodic tabs on his life through Facebook. I read of his declining health. I read of the death of his beloved wife Marge. Finally, in February, I read of his passing.

The author interviewing the Hanson brothers from Slapshot fame

DURING MY FINAL broadcast at K2TV in 2010, I signed off by saying “a piece of my heart will always remain in Casper.” At the time, it was probably just something poetic that a young, dumb kid thought he should say. But, in hindsight, it is truer than I understood at the time.

When you love something, you must peel off a small fragment of your heart and give it to that thing. When it is time to go your separate ways, you can ask for that fragment back, but often it is not returned. So in Casper a piece of my heart remains buried in a field of sagebrush.

In the K2 newsroom, between stacks of tapes, desktops with editing software, and camera batteries, I grew up. I sweated the small stuff. I cried over the meaningful and the meaningless. I tried to cover up my flaws with foundation, but the camera is perceptive. It finds the blemishes.

I was young. I was immature. I was entitled. I was filled with assurances about life’s directions. In that newsroom I would learn hard lessons about reality.

Yet, in spite of these flaws, the people of Wyoming welcomed me into their living rooms. They stopped me in supermarkets to thank me for my work. They allowed me to chronicle the victories and defeats of their children, the triumph and the tragic. They forgave me for my youth and inexperience. They valued me in spite of it. And they took a piece of my heart. A piece that now belongs to them.

Most of us who graced the K2 newsroom during the four years I spent in Casper have left television news. Some remain, fighting the good fight, in markets in Colorado, Nebraska, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. However, most have moved on to start careers in areas like real estate, public relations, and education.

My dreams of ESPN anchordom faded away into the distance, like the sun in a western sky. But I have a good life. I have a meaningful career teaching leaders about the promises and perils of digital technology. I couldn’t imagine as a child that I would give a TEDx talk about how algorithms can amplify human bias, but I did.

Such is the journey of life. We can order our steps toward our dreams. But life has a way of confusing those steps. It disassembles a dream into a jigsaw puzzle and then reassembles it. Only when we step back are we able to recognize the puzzle has presented us with something greater.

KTWO-TV is now piping in news from Michigan. KCWY-TV, the NBC affiliate in Casper (and once KTWO’s only direct competitor) combined with a television station in Cheyenne in 2019. It, like KTWO, jettisoned its Casper news staff and is now beaming in news from Cheyenne, two and half hours south of Casper.

Things end. The world keeps turning. The bags under your eyes expand. Gray starts appearing in your beard. You receive a horrifying Facebook request inviting you to your 20-year high school reunion.

The days start coming faster. You attend less weddings and more funerals. You start saying more goodbyes. You are powerless to prevent this as you are powerless to impede the sun from setting. All you can do is appreciate the moments you have been given and the weird turns that life puts on its course.

When you love something, not only do you give a piece of your heart to it, but you also take a piece of it with you. You carry it on your journey, stuffing it into your backpack before sticking your thumb into the air and waiting for the next car on the highway to stop.

Those of us who were there, we will carry it with us. We will carry with us the memories: the evenings editing tape, the late-night shenanigans, the softball games, the joy and pain inside the newsroom and outside of it, every single moment. It will live on, through us.

George and Marge Kronschnabel will live on as well through their children and grandchildren. Their 62-year marriage will act as a lodestar for what it means to live well and to love well.  

George Kay also will live on in the tens of thousands of people he told the news to in his forty years at K2TV and in the hundreds of young people he mentored during his time at the station.

And he will live on in me. He will live on when my mind wanders to an open interstate, when it takes me back to a blue K2TV station vehicle pointed north, with the Big Horn mountains filling up the windshield, the western sky piercing my sunglasses, and a Wyoming history lesson sailing around the cab. He will live on in my memories of when a legend sat shotgun. He will live on when I recall riding with the King of Wyoming.              

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