Pioneering Northeast Ohio Broadcaster Betty Cope Dies at 87

Betty Cope (CSU Cleveland Press Colection)
Betty Cope (CSU Cleveland Press Colection)
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Technicians and office workers scurried around the new studio space that had been set-up in Max Hayes Trade School on Cleveland's near west side on February 7th 1965. They were immersed in last minute preparations as Cleveland Public Television station WVIZ was about to sign on the air. In a cramped office space, station manager Betty Cope described the stacks of flat boxes that surrounded her to an interviewer.

COPE: Films, tapes, back here you've got some programs from NET, our own network. And upstairs, you've probably got four or five times as many that are going to be beamed to the schools.

INTERVIEWER: Which means that, as far as programming goes, you are ready to go.

COPE: We are ready and eager.

Cope got her start in broadcasting in the late 1940s as a receptionist at Cleveland's first commercial TV station, WEWS. He star rose quickly as she assumed the roles of director and producer at the station. And that landed her a spot on the popular CBS quiz show, What's My Line, in the Spring of 1953.

JOHN DALEY: "Betty Cope" is that right? Please tell us where you're from.

BETTY COPE: Cleveland, Ohio.

JOHN DALEY: Miss Cope is salaried. With that, let's begin the questioning …

The panelists made many guesses, ranging from tennis player, and embroider, to talent agent. They were all visibly surprised to hear…

JOHN DALEY: Hang on to your chairs, panel. Miss Cope is a Television Director at WEWS.

In 1965, Cope was tapped to be the founding manager of WVIZ. In a 1987 documentary on the history of Cleveland television, Cope had fond memories of working at WEWS, but she said non-commercial TV had greater promise.

COPE: What its dreams were, what its missions were, the idea of sharing a classroom teacher with thousands of kids, instead of 25 at a crack, of keeping up with the population explosion and the knowledge explosion --- television had to be used for that. It was the greatest communications tool ever invented.

Cope used that tool to program a mix of school programming during the day and arts, culture and opinion at night. Among her first hires at WVIZ was a local radio broadcaster, named Fred Griffith, who got his first television exposure as host of a public affairs program on WVIZ. The veteran TV personality now recalls it was groundbreaking for a woman to be a broadcast manager.

GRIFFITH: Back in those days, if you were a woman and you were in this business, no matter how smart you were, you were never more than a secretary, or at least you never had a title higher than that. And Betty Cope became the first woman to head a major city television station.

Betty Cope's presence as a woman in the male dominated world of television proved to be an inspiration for a young woman named Connie Schultz who would go on to make her own mark in the media world as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Plain Dealer. Schultz says Cope was an important role model.

SCHULTZ: She always looked forward, and she was always pulling us along with her. To me, that really is the model --- you find whatever success you can carve out for yourself, but then you carry as you climb.

In 1993, Betty Cope decided to retire after 28 years at the helm of WVIZ. Her successor was Jerry Wareham, who is currently the CEO of ideastream. Wareham says Cope casts a large shadow in broadcast history.

WAREHAM: Betty Cope was a trailblazer in everything she did. She started WVIZ from scratch --- before there was a PBS. We are forever indebted to her for all of her contributions, and we're deeply saddened by her death.

Betty Cope passed away this past Saturday at her cabin in Geauga County, surrounded by family and friends. She was 87. A memorial service is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 12, at the West Woods Nature Center of the Geauga Park District.

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