The family that founded Vermont’s first television station, WCAX-TV, has agreed to sell it to Atlanta-based Gray Television for $29 million, the buyer announced Thursday.
Established in September 1954 by former newspaperman Charles Hasbrook and his stepson, Stuart “Red” Martin, the South Burlington-based station has remained in the family for the 63 years since. Martin’s son, Peter, currently serves as president of parent company Mt. Mansfield Television, and his grandson, Alex, is executive vice president.
“You know, I think it’s been a pretty good run,” Peter Martin told Seven Days Thursday afternoon. “I think we’ve done pretty good work over the years. I think we’ve played a pretty significant role in the life of the state — and we can take pride in that.”
The 76-year-old president, who co-owns the station with three siblings, first worked there after school when he was a 15-year-old mimeograph operator in 1955. After stints in the U.S. Army, as a Montpelier reporter and as executive assistant to Republican governor Deane Davis, Martin returned to the company in 1973 and has been there ever since, succeeding his father as president in 2005. He plans to retire at the end of May.
“The station will go on without us,” Martin said, adding that he was “still processing” the change.
In a memo sent to employees Thursday morning, Alex Martin called the decision to sell “unfathomable” and “dizzying,” but he said the family had “done all that we can do with WCAX.” In a period of “ferocious consolidation,” he wrote, Channel 3 would be better off in the hands of a larger company that was better equipped to negotiate with networks, cable companies and satellite TV providers.
“Being a single station in a small market is akin to being a small, open boat in an ever intensifying storm,” he wrote. “The threats are many and the odds of survival are shrinking.”
According to Peter Martin, Gray Television will take operational control of WCAX on June 1. The two companies hope to close on the sale two months later, he said.
In Thursday’s memo, Alex Martin said there would be no immediate layoffs or changes in pay, though he said that he, his uncle Peter and business manager Peg Doolin would all leave the station.
“Of course there will be changes over time,” Alex Martin wrote in the memo. “It cannot be otherwise with new ownership and management. But change was coming in any event regardless of whether we or Gray owned the station.”
Gray, which owns 100 TV stations in 56 markets, has been on a buying spree of late, according to Broadcasting & Cable. It has recently purchased stations broadcasting in Alaska, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa.
“Gray is thrilled that the Martin family selected us as the new steward of Vermont’s very first television station,” Gray executive vice president Kevin Latek said in a written statement announcing the deal. “We will proudly build upon WCAX’s strong foundation and six decades of success as we expand into Vermont, northern New York and northern New Hampshire with another great leading local media institution.”
In the memo to employees, Alex Martin said his family was “not going to sell WCAX to just anyone.” He hailed Gray as “quality owners” who would “take care” of the station’s legacy and employees.
“Gray does not want to mess with what has made WCAX successful for more than half a century,” he wrote.
Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, who reported for Channel 3 from 1994 to 2006 and served as news director from 2009 to 2016, said the state “owes a debt of gratitude” to the Martin family.
“I think it’s so significant that we had local ownership for so long and that they invested so much in the community,” he said. “They could have walked away years and years and years ago, and they did not because they loved what they did, loved the station, loved Vermont.”
Disclosure: WCAX and Seven Days are media partners.
Corrected May 5, 2017, at 9:36 a.m. to note that Peter Martin is Alex Martin’s uncle.