Ken Hoffman grills a popular Houston TV anchor on a major anniversary
I bumped into ABC 13 morning news anchor Tom Koch at H-E-B a couple of weeks ago. Don’t worry, nobody was hurt. But during out brief hello-goodbye, Koch (pronounced Cook) mentioned that he just celebrated his 37th anniversary at KTRK-TV.
I was surprised by the number because when we think of long-running anchors in Houston TV news, names like Bill Balleza generally come to mind. Balleza has 48 years in the tank, 39 at the same station, Channel 2. When Balleza meets his judgment day in 2021, his announced retirement date, he’ll have half a century in the TV news business.
However, with no scoop info, just guessing, if I had to bet 50 cents, I’d put it on Balleza not quitting the anchor desk in 2021. But that’s another story.
Today, let’s focus on Koch reaching 37 years at Channel 13 under the radar, right under our noses. Maybe it’s his quiet, low-key style, maybe it’s what’s under his nose — that distinguished news anchor mustache.
Trivia note: Koch started at Channel 13 the same day that anchor Melanie Lawson did. We’ll tackle her story next month, but in the meantime, here are 10 questions for the reigning, Bill Balleza-in-waiting, king of morning news, Tom Koch.
CultureMap: Where were you raised, and where were you working before Channel 13?
Tom Koch: I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin, 35 miles southwest of Green Bay. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I got a job anchoring the news in far northern Wisconsin in Rhinelander. It wasn't the end of the world, but you could see it from there. After a year of shooting film and freezing, I moved to WBAY-TV in Green Bay, where I was a reporter and weekend anchor for three years. On September 13, 1982, I started as a reporter at KTRK-TV.
CM: Can you believe you've been at one station this long — and it's in Houston?
TK: This is the longest I've ever held a job. If you had told me in 1982 that I would spend my career here in Houston, or anywhere in Texas, I would have bet the farm against you. Luckily, I didn't own a farm. But it's been a great ride with great people.
CM: Give me all the jobs you've had at 13.
TK: I was a reporter here for six years before I became the morning news anchor in 1988. But then I still reported after the show was over. Then in 2001, I started doing the new hourlong, 4 pm newscast with Gina Gaston. It was a tough split shift for me, coming in at 3:15 am, doing the two-and-a-half morning show, and going home at 7:30 am.
Then, I would return to the station at 1 pm and go home after the 4 pm news at 5:15 pm or so. But many days I also filled in for Dave Ward, doing the 6 pm news. I stopped doing the 4 pm in 2008. I also edited a lot of my stories early on.
CM: What time do you go to bed?
TK: I should go to bed at 7 pm, but most days I don't go until 8:30 or 9 pm. On the rare occasion that I have an event during the week, I sometimes don't get to bed until 11 pm.
CM: How many co-anchors have you gone through in the morning?
CM: When hosts on Good Morning America and the Today show leave for different jobs, they invariably say that morning show hours burned them out. How have you managed to stay somewhat sane with your schedule?
TK: Who says I'm sane? People ask what I do and I say with some candor, ‘I put on makeup and read out loud.’ It's a great gig, but the hours can burn you out. I'm a big believer in exercise. I work out and run three miles almost every day. But for most of those years, I was running six miles a day. I love what I do, so that drives me as well.
CM: You've worked with some colorful characters at Channel 13 over the years. Who was the absolute kookiest coworker?
TK: Marvin Zindler probably wins for most eccentric. But he really was a wonderful guy who cared about helping people. He just did it with flare, a lot of flare. Don Nelson wins hands down for the funniest, most creative person I've ever worked with. His wit was lightning quick, his mind was always coming up with something, and you had to practice mental calisthenics to keep up with him.
Once, when we were interviewing Mike Ditka about Viagra or drugs for ED, Ditka said there was a warning on them, that if something lasted longer than four hours, you should call your doctor. Don, without missing a beat said, ‘I'd call everybody.’ We all laughed so hard, we had to throw it to a break. And it’s the only time in my career that I almost couldn't go on with the newscast because we kept laughing.
CM: How come you never left for a different job in a different city with better hours?
TK: In 1984, a fledgling outfit called CNN called me about being the Dallas bureau chief. But the pay was about the same as I was making, our assistant news director didn't think CNN would last, and I just loved Houston, so I stayed. I also had offers later on to be an anchor in Cleveland, Austin, and one other market, but nothing seemed right or as good as Houston.
CM: When was the last time you didn't have a mustache?
TK: I think it was 1980, though over the years I've shaved it off a few times when I had two weeks off. My kids said, daddy, grow it back.
CM: Have you ever anchored the news wearing shorts behind the desk?
TK: Yes, twice, filling in on the weekends before we had to stand up in front of various screens and move around the studio. But for almost 20 years, I never wore socks during the morning newscast. I never really liked wearing socks as a kid and so one day early on, I just started doing the morning news without them, seeing how long I could go before someone said something or noticed.
Then, around 2008, we got a new set with a down-the-line shot where you could see our feet, and my ‘sans socks’ days were done. After Harvey, when my house flooded, I forgot to get socks from our house before we moved into a temporary house. People immediately noticed I wasn't wearing socks and said so on Facebook and Twitter, and many sent me socks or dropped them off at the station. Love our viewers.
Two bonus questions:
CM: Have you ever presented a story knowing it was incorrect or fake news?
CM: How come you don't pronounce your last name correctly, ‘Kotch,’ like Mayor Koch of New York?
TK: He was wrong, and I once told him so when I interviewed him at the Democratic convention. My grandmother was Hungarian and she pronounced it ‘Kalk’ with a rolling K. My dad found it much easier to pronounce it ‘Cook,’ and that's the right way to say it. Google it.