For Nevada broadcast pioneer Vern Van Winkle, this is what it means to pursue the elusive goal of personal and professional validation, a lifelong mission others insist he achieved long ago — everyone, that is, but Vern. The 61-year-old founder of KPVM-TV in Pahrump, among only a handful of privately operated television stations nationwide, reaches for his cellphone the moment he wakes up and never lets go, worried he will miss that one call that might put him over the top.
In Vern’s mind, hoisting the holy grail of accomplishment means expanding into a bigger market when most media companies are merely trying to hold fast. His ambition has led him to open a second studio in the Las Vegas Valley, an effort to attract a wider viewership to his array of 10 digital TV channels, which run the gamut from Spanish-language programming to a galaxy of politically conservative offerings .
Many days, Vern’s dream-chasing can turn tedious. For starters, there’s the regular 140-mile round-trip drive over the Spring Mountains to open his new studio in downtown Henderson. It seems he’s always behind the wheel of his Dodge pickup, along with his wife and business partner, Ronda, her laptop open in the passenger seat, as she answers Vern’s calls and texts and emails as well as her own.
“We’re burning daylight,” Vern will say. That’s just one of Vern’s mottos, which his staff calls Vernalisms. Another is: “Don’t think small. Think BIG.”
But before the couple can even get out of Pahrump, they must help launch their Channel 25 news staff to begin gathering stories for the evening broadcast. Turnover is astronomic, and there’s always a new editor or techie to train, another fire to extinguish. With a stressed-out staff of eight, there are constant meltdowns, people poking their head into the boss man’s office, saying, “Hey Vern, got a minute?”
Not only that, the couple need new business cards, another set of studio keys, there’s more wiring to do, and somebody needs to check out a report of an open door at the satellite office. Heck, maybe they should park a trailer over in Vegas so they have someplace to sleep and avoid that confounded drive?
Vern is so busy he feels like he’s neglecting his long-retired mother, Marianne, who at age 81 suddenly wants to open a flower shop in Pahrump and needs her son’s help.
“Oh, Vernie!” she’ll say over the phone, and he feels guilty because he can’t be there.
“From the moment we wake up until the moment we go to bed, we’re doing business,” an exhausted Ronda complains. “I can’t slow down because he won’t slow down.”
Last year, the couple chalked up a measure of international visibility that would have convinced most local broadcast bosses — anybody but Vern — that he had at last reached the mountaintop: Channel 25 was the subject of an acclaimed six-part HBO docuseries, “Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump,” that has made household names out of the station’s dedicated staff.
It’s not just the good-natured Vern, an earnest and unapologetic Trump supporter, and the indefatigable Ronda, a top-flight singer and musician who loves to produce jingles for local advertisers. There’s the do-it-all news anchor Deanna, whose acerbic wit, pranks on co-workers and dedication to her community steal many of the show’s scenes. She’s even fed Vern’s chickens.
And co-anchor Eunette, a broadcast news instructor at a local college, who admits she suffers from “resting smile face” on camera. And John, the Alaska transplant-turned-goofy weatherman who refuses to stay on his mark during his on-air segments, as Deanna demands, instead preferring to stick his face straight into the camera like Pahrump’s own version of slapstick Pee-wee Herman.
The show portrays a nonsexist work environment where the women are doing their share of the hard work. KPVM-TV staffers quickly become comrades, like shellshocked soldiers showing grace under fire. They all work far too hard for too little money, while manifesting an unvarnished professional ethic, taking on countless tasks outside their job descriptions to serve an unorthodox community of 45,000 residents.
Recognition has come via stories in such nationally syndicated magazines as Forbes and Parade. The cast is recognized on the street and fields countless fan emails. For a time, there was even a billboard featuring the entire crew posted along Hollywood Boulevard, a cocksure declaration that little Pahrump had come to town.
Local residents say the series presents a more positive side of their town than shows like “Live PD,” even though they can’t quite comprehend the national fan reaction — because these are just the same old folks down at KPVM-TV, right?
“The show isn’t targeted for Pahrump,” said Arnold Knightly, Nye County’s public information officer, who once edited the Pahrump Valley Times. “It’s for people like my sister in Tennessee, who called to ask, ‘Do you know these people? Are they really like that?’ And I said, ‘Yep, they’re really like that.’”
Everyone wants more. “We’re hoping for a Season 2, but the status is still up in the air,” producer Randy Barbato said. “There are fans all over the country. HBO loves the series. It’s just a waiting game.”
Viewers have bought into Vern’s pursuit of his vision. “People have fallen in love with Vern, including myself,” Barbato said. “Here’s someone on the opposite end of the political spectrum that I have come to adore.”
But there are minefields on the road to professional nirvana. Vern’s father, Dennis, an electrician and machinist, died from a heart attack at 61. Vern had his own “widow-maker” six years ago, at 55. “I should have died,” he said. But he hasn’t slowed down.
The small-town TV executive is first to admit to his insecurities, a nagging feeling of never measuring up. “It all comes down to approval,” he said. “Don’t we all try hard to have somebody in our cheer camp?”
Ronda worries it’s all going to kill her husband — maybe both of them. Vern doesn’t exercise or eat healthy, doesn’t make himself a priority. It’s all about KPVM-TV. “I’ve been through so much, dealing with him dealing with stuff,” she said. “I’m surprised that I haven’t had a heart attack as well.”
Fresh Start in Pahrump
Vern’s pursuit of the dream dates to the mid-1990s. By most accounts, he was already a success: He still had hair back then, and he was making $130,000 a year running his own media company, 21st Century Video Productions, churning out hundreds of wedding and corporate videos in Orange County, California.
By then, Vern’s parents had been long divorced, and Marianne, who once worked as a wetsuit gluer in a Phoenix scuba diving equipment factory, had bought 5 acres in a place Vern had never even heard of before: Pahrump, Nevada.
“Oh, Vernie!” she said on the phone. Could he go out and look at the land?
Marianne had been a force in her son’s life. Right after he graduated from college, while working as night manager at a Lucky’s grocery store, raising his two sons, she told him, “You gotta decide whether you want to be a grocery store manager or chase your dream.”
So Vern checked out the environs around Pahrump and didn’t like what he saw. “Oh, my God, Mom, there’s no way you’re moving out there,” he told her. It was isolated, a little bit of the Old West, he felt. The locals loved their fireworks and their privacy and their guns. His mother would not be safe there.
But what if Vern moved there to keep an eye on her? Truth be told, for a guy in his 30s, full of adventure, this was God’s country, with blue skies and untouched land. And business was getting competitive in California, so Pahrump represented a fresh start. He helped his mother buy a house in town and went to work on making a new life for himself. That’s when Marianne gave her son the professional tip of a lifetime:
There were licenses available for television setups in Pahrump, which did not have its own station. Vern was a tech nerd, a gadget guy who knew all about the latest electronic equipment. But what did he know about journalism and news collecting?
“I saw this thing and thought, ‘What a great idea! I’m going to start my own television station,’” he said. “I’m just stupid and young and naive enough to do it.”
He produced a brochure for his application, surveying local residents about what they would want in their own TV station. Then he called an old friend, Ed Collins in Orange County, about his plans. “I thought he was nuts — all those government hoops to jump through,” Collins recalled. “What was he doing?”
Not long afterward, Collins got another call from his pal Vern.
“I got it,” Vern told him. “I got the station.” His voice was shaking. It was an emotional moment. Then the line went silent.
Finally, Vern spoke up.
Yet Ronda felt the HBO producers failed to recognize her role. In the first group promotional photo, Ronda was placed at the back, with Vern front and center. Another publicity shot featured Vern in front of the station, but the producers wanted Ronda to pose before the couple’s double-wide mobile home in town.
“I had an emotional response,” she recalled. “Listen, I know the station is his baby; he started it. But I’ve put in the same amount of insane hours over the last 20 years. I told the producers, ‘I don’t mean to come off like this, but I own half of this station.’”
The HBO people finally figured out what the staff has always known: Ronda played the station’s organized big sister as an often-distracted Vern plotted his next chess move.
“I was shaped by both of them,” said Darbie O’Donnell-Westerman, who began following her news anchor mother Deanna to the station as a teen and was eventually hired as an editor. Today, she and her husband own several companies.
“Vern and Ronda encouraged me to chase my dreams,” she said. “Vern said if he could start a TV station out of a garage, then I too could accomplish anything I wanted.”
For years, KPVM-TV couldn’t offer its employees health benefits, but the owners tried to make up for that: They helped workers fix their cars, their eyes and their teeth, through trades of services with local businesses. They became a family that way. The boss man utters another Vernalism to express his sacrifices for the staff, even when they end up leaving: “The one who cares the most, hurts the most.”
Weatherman John Kohler calls the couple the real deal. “This sounds weird, but Vern has a lot of love in his heart, and you don’t see that much in today’s corporate world. I love both of those guys. They’ve been good to us. And what they’ve built here is good for the entire community.”
All the while, the couple knew that a bigger TV market loomed right over the mountains and slowly built plans to make a move. Just mention Las Vegas and Vern gets excited.
“I’ve outgrown Pahrump,” he said. “I can’t get the income here to pay my employees and stay in line with inflation. I’ve got to get bigger fish and find better opportunities.”
‘The Big Leagues’
On a cold Tuesday in December, Vern and Ronda unveiled the latest breakthrough in their combined dream at a soft opening of the new Henderson studio. Vern is proud of the location, which sits over a bar on the far end of Water Street.
In the first floor lobby sat a poster for the HBO series, showing Ronda standing right next to Vern under the slogan “The news doesn’t make itself.”
There are 65-inch TVs pointed at the street, displaying both the station logo and a studio feed, so passersby can see just what’s going on in here. You can see the Las Vegas Strip beckoning in the distance.
Vern could have put his station in Las Vegas. But he saw Water Street as a reflection of small-town America, one that was nonetheless growing. He wanted to get on the ground floor of that before rising real estate prices muscled him out.
Vern’s plan is to continue covering Pahrump news, while adding niche news coverage of Henderson and the communities of Summerlin and Mountain’s Edge. The station will target a younger market with three-minute segments that will air every hour, while simultaneously streaming on YouTube and the KPVM-TV website. Editors will then run the stories on a 5 p.m. newscast to continue serving an older, TV-watching audience.
Through it all, Vern is nagged by a looming question: Does he have the dream in sight? Is the entrepreneur whose subconscious has always listened to the hecklers ready to listen to his own mind?
“I ask myself whether I am a success, and I’m not convinced of that yet. People say, ‘Anybody could do that in Pahrump. They put the place down,’” he said. “For me, success in Pahrump is like winning the minor leagues’ World Series. Vegas is like the show, the real deal, the big leagues.”
Marianne doesn’t care what her son says: He’s a qualified success. Days before she stayed up all night crafting the floral bouquets for the open house, she told him, “Vernie, you made it. You’ve paid your dues. Now it’s time to reap the rewards.”
For everyone at KPVM-TV, including Vern himself, it’s hard to define just what those rewards might be. In the mind of a man who never quite believed in his own success, will this move finally do the job? It’s more than just getting the new office running, the phones ringing, the stories broadcasting, or seeing the profits that he can use to better pay the people he has and attract others. It’s operating a station the industry can look up to, one that someone might even eventually step up and make an offer on. Because Vern knows he’s running out of time, running out of heartbeats.
Whatever happens, Vern realizes he could not have done it without Ronda. Whenever he hears himself think “I did this,” he corrects himself: “We did it.”
“If I’m the engineer, the programmer, Ronda is the bread and butter,” he said. “She’s the moneymaker who goes out to make things happen.”
One afternoon, as the couple ran errands in Las Vegas before opening the Henderson studio, Vern was on his cellphone, negotiating traffic. Suddenly, he paused.
“Some guy hit a pedestrian right in front of us!” he said. He turned to Ronda in the passenger seat.“Is he sitting up?”
“No,” she said, sounding worried, “he’s still lying down.”
“There’s so much construction around here,” Vern said. “I can’t see what’s going on. I don’t think he made it. God, I hope he did.”
There were Vern and Ronda, two news execs on the scene of real news in their new Las Vegas coverage area, caring about what happens.
No longer chasing the dream, but living it.