By Neal Karlen
Suppose "Murphy Hall" was a category on "Jeopardy!," the brain-busting quiz show that requires answers to be posed in the form of questions. The opening answer would be something easy:
"Murphy Hall for $200," says emcee Alex Trebek. "God."
Quick buzzer. The correct response? "Who is Professor Mitchell Charnley?" Or:
"Murphy Hall for $400. In 1935, the same year he graduated from Murphy Hall, he published the classic adventure yarn, 'Canoeing with the Cree.' Later he was one of Edward R. Murrow's 'boys' covering World War II in Europe and later offered commentary while sitting next to Walter Cronkite on the 'CBS Evening News.'"
Bob Fransen celebrates the silver anniversary of WTCN-TV. During his tenure, WTCN—also known as Channel 11—became the top-rated independent station in the United States. Fransen later convinced NBC to snap up the station; its call letters later became KARE.
All three contestants would probably buzz instantaneously and respond, "Who is Eric Sevareid?"
At the bottom of the Murphy Hall category would be the $2,000 stumper:
During his five decades in broadcasting, Bob Fransen worked at several television stations including channels 4, 9, 11 and 29 in the Twin Cities. During that time, he held positions ranging from on-air weatherman and local kiddie show king to managing newsrooms and stations.
"After skipping down Murphy Hall's steps for the last time as a student in 1943, he invented Harry Reasoner as an anchorman and sent him on to New York. On Channel 4, he rose from kiddie show star Cowboy Bob of the X Bar 4 Ranch to become a major force in local television who, at various times, managed newsrooms at channels 9 and 11, was a general manager at Channel 29, and even did the weather on Channel 4. Later on in life, he had a hefty hand in the development of the digital news gathering epoch."
Only a media savant would know the correct question would be, "Who is Robert Fransen?"
So who is Bob Fransen?
"He is a very lucky man," says Fransen. "For 50 years I was always happy to go to work to a job I loved. I tell kids today that if you're going to go into the media, you have to love your job."
Fransen is a man who exists perhaps one footnote below some of his more famous fellow graduates of Murphy Hall, which is a reflection of his personal style, not of his accomplishments. A plainspoken, likable and self-effacing man, he eventually found his place not behind a microphone, but behind entire stations.
After brief forays into anchoring the news, hosting a variety show, serving as WCCO's on-air weatherman and serving as short-term king of a local kiddie show, Fransen helped shape local television journalism from the early days in the 1940s -- when people would watch the news through appliance store windows -- to the late 1980s, when he worked briefly at Hubbard Broadcasting on programming for a satellite project that was later sold.
Fransen's demeanor is spry and his analysis of the news industry is as cogent as today's edition of mediabistro.com. He understands how the journalism landscape has changed since he pounded out copy on carbon paper via a battered manual Smith Corona.
"Nowadays you could never do what we all did back then, which was everybody doing everything," Fransen says. "You'd be pigeonholed today, whereas I could go from variety show host to weatherman to floor director for the news to cuing actors for local shows to doing commercials to editing two-hour movies down to an hour and a half to fit the time slot. Mostly I was a senior director and production manager. Over the years I did everything but build a station tower. In the beginning, we'd come in at nine in the morning and leave at 11 at night, seven days a week. Everybody complained a lot, but we loved it."
Fransen also understands just how much things have stayed the same.
"Broadcasting is about news and entertainment," he says. "What I learned in Murphy Hall was how to find the truth when presenting information, and the comradeship of journalism. What Mitchell Charnley taught us about finding the truth and providing accuracy are what is still needed now."
It was no easier getting a job then than it is now. "I remember when Ralph Casey, the head of the journalism school, had all of us gather in this auditorium," Fransen says. "He informed us that 'the job market is very tight now. Some of you will have to go out of town. Some of you will have to go to St. Paul.'"
Thanks to the U.S. Army Air Forces, Sioux Falls was Fransen's out-of-town destination. He was a reservist activated straight from Murphy Hall and from his position as a columnist at The Minnesota Daily, and stationed in South Dakota in radio communications school. Soon he was announcing the news on the base radio. He'd also do radio shows in town, where he produced and emceed a program called "G.I. Breakfast Club" and served as the quizmaster known as "Dr. I.Q."
After the war, he was rescued via his journalism connections at Murphy Hall.
"Sig Mickelson, one of my professors at the journalism school, was now the news director at WCCO radio" in Minneapolis, Fransen says. "He gave me a shot, and soon I was writing news for Cedric Adams."
It was a big gig for a 25-year-old. The name Cedric Adams might mean little to a generation of graduates weaned on blogs and social networking. In mid-20th century Minnesota, however, Adams was the biggest show in town. As a gossip columnist for daily papers, Adams was to the Twin Cities what longtime columnist Herb Caen was to San Francisco. As a radio news host, Adams presided over a station with a 56 percent share of the audience. Adams, Fransen says, "was larger than life. He'd broadcast from his yacht. He substituted as the host for 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts,'" the "American Idol" of its day.
By 1948, KSTP (Channel 5) became the Twin City's first local television station, followed closely by an alphabet soup of stations that eventually evolved into WCCO (Channel 4), KMSP (9) and WTCN (11).
Fransen went to WCCO TV in 1949 before leaving to work for Kerr-McGee Corp., filing TV license applications for stations in Peoria, Ill., and Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla. He designed the studio and office building, hired the staff and programmed the areas not filled by the network for the Peoria NBC affiliate. He later returned to Minneapolis to put Channel 9 on the air. It was the area's first independent television station.
At Channel 9, he hired Harry Reasoner, another Murphy Hall alumnus, as news director and anchor of the station's 9:30 p.m. newscast. Meanwhile, Sig Mickelson -- who had graduated from WCCO to news director and vice president for the CBS network in New York -- offered Reasoner a position as a newsman there.
"He didn't know whether to take the job," Fransen recalls. "He'd actually make less money with the job in New York, and he had three kids. I told him to give it a try. And the rest is history."
Fransen spent the major portion of his career with WTCN, as Channel 11 was known at that time. "After Channel 9, I migrated to WTCN as an account executive," he says. "I was promoted to national sales manager, then general sales manager, and then VP and general manager, a post I held for 18 years."
During television's infancy, the "talent' often worked on news and entertainment shows. In addition to being the weatherman on Channel 4, Bob Fransen also played Cowboy Bob of the X Bar Four Ranch, as seen here in this photo from 1950.
During his tenure, Channel 11 was the top-rated independent station in the United States. When NBC sought a new affiliate for the Twin Cities market, it was Fransen who sold the network on adding Channel 11 to its group of stations, which it retains to this day.
No matter how much he is prodded to reminisce, the octogenarian -- who looks 15 years younger -- always returns to the present. Right now he's noodling over how the technology of the brave new world of broadband broadcasting will impact how audiences are monitored and thus how advertising dollars get allocated.
"People are getting their pictures off their computers and cell phones. Now the question is, how can you measure that audience? And how will that affect advertising?"
Take those questions, Alex Trebek -- they're the right ones.
Neal Karlen (M.A., 2009) served as an associate editor at Newsweek and as contributing editor for Rolling Stone. A long-time contributor to The New York Times, Karlen also has authored seven books including 2008's "The Story of Yiddish."