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Irv Weinstein, the king of local television news, is retiring after 34 years at WKBW-TV.

The 68-year-old local broadcasting legend will say his signature "finally" at the end of his newscast for the last time on the station's 6 p.m. news on Dec. 31.

The announcement was made late Friday afternoon by Weinstein and General Manager Bill Ransom at a meeting at Channel 7.

In a brief commentary at the end of Friday's 6 p.m. newscast, Weinstein said he was retiring "to investigate some other challenges and pleasures before the train passes me by."

He concluded by telling a story about his then 5-year-old grandson innocently asking him: "Grandpa, if you didn't do the news on television, would you still be Irv Weinstein?' "

"Well, folks," said Weinstein, "I'm about to find out."

And Channel 7 is about to find out what life is going to be like without Irv Weinstein.

The announcement came five days before the end of the November ratings period, which will be the last one for Weinstein.

Ransom said he has tried for four-and-a-half months to talk Weinstein out of retiring.

"This was his own choice," said Ransom. "He agonized over this for four months and gave it his complete consideration. For all the right reasons, he wants to start his second life.

"If I could clone him, I'd clone him. I could have him for the rest of his life," Ransom added.

Weinstein, who has been at Channel 7 since 1964, certainly is far from the typical TV news clone.

The pudgy little guy with glasses has successfully survived numerous competitors at Channel 4 and Channel 2; changes in the way news is covered; and the life span of five Buffalo News TV critics who have tried to explain the unexplainable -- the reason for Weinstein's unprecedented ratings success.

Out-of-towners are often surprised when told that Weinstein has been the most popular anchor in town for decades.

Weinstein, who now has residences in California (near his children and grandchildren), Ellicottville and Kenmore, started his broadcasting career at WHAM in his native Rochester at 15. He was hired as a part-timer to act on one of the station's drama shows.

Many would say that he was just as much an actor as a news reader throughout his Channel 7 career, using colorful, alliterative phrases to describe the news, such as "pistol packing punks." But he adapted to the station's change in tone in recent years, away from the fires and crime coverage that first made "Eyewitness News" so popular.

Though he had a diminished role at the station in recent years, Channel 7's current owner, Granite Broadcasting and its previous owner, Queen City Broadcasting, have always wanted the assurance that Weinstein would stay when they purchased the station.

But his role was changed most recently in March 1997, when Susan Banks was named co-anchor for the 6 p.m. newscast that Weinstein had been anchoring alone.

Back then, Ransom declared that "Irv still is the keystone of the station."

Weinstein's pending departure leaves only weatherman Tom Jolls from the legendary trio of Irv, Tom and Rick Azar, which had led the station to No. 1 status in the market for about 24 years. Azar was the first to break up the gang, retiring in 1988.

As far back as 1988, there had been rumors that Weinstein would retire, too. But shortly after he signed a new deal that year, Weinstein cracked: "Right now my ambition is not only to be the best anchor in television but the oldest."

He fulfilled that goal in this market, which little by little is seeing its broadcasting legends exit stage left.

Channel 4 sportscaster Van Miller retired in June. Jolls toyed with the idea of retiring in the spring, but was persuaded to stay for another year.

Weinstein's star status was not only legendary in Buffalo, but also nationally and in Canada, where he is considered a cult favorite.

If Buffalo is known for anything besides the Bills nationally, it is for Irv Weinstein.

During a Buffalo News interview with high-powered, Hollywood agent-television producer Brad Grey last year, the University at Buffalo graduate recalled watching Weinstein during his college years and asked if he was still on the air.

Weinstein's initial goal was to make it in California as an actor. As a teen-ager, he skipped college and headed west and met Robert Mitchum through a friend.

"I was totally speechless," recalled Weinstein in a 1983 interview. He finally asked Mitchum how he could get into the movies. Mitchum said he was having trouble staying in the business himself and couldn't offer any good advice.

Weinstein eventually returned to his native Rochester, enrolled in the School of Radio and TV Technique in New York City and had jobs in Waterloo, Iowa and Parkersburg, W.Va., before moving back to Western New York to work at WKBW-AM in 1958.

At the time, the station manager thought he sounded too much like Walter Cronkite so Weinstein changed his style to be more like Paul Harvey, as he had done in West Virginia. He found his own unique style in Buffalo.

He moved from KB radio to WKBW-TV in 1964 on a 15-minute newscast when the station was a low No. 3 in the market. It took several years before Channel 7 became the news leader, a position it has held with a few interruptions ever since.

His success has earned him the respect of his competition.

"Obviously, the guy is a Western New York institution," said Channel 4 News Director Chris Musial. "For many years, he set the tone for what news in Buffalo was -- for better or for worse. Obviously, it worked. He was No. 1 for all these years. He was a heckuva competitor."

Musial declined to say that Weinstein's departure was cause for celebration. He said the station recently changed its anchor teams "to put the best newscast together whether Irv is down the street or not."

"This certainly changes the landscape," said Channel 4 anchor Carol Jasen. "It is hard to believe he won't be at Channel 7. He's been a very good friend, and I'm going to miss him."

Why did she think he was so special to Western New York viewers?

"Because he was just himself," said Ms. Jasen. "No one owned him. No consultant, no owner owned him. He was so unique in looks and style."

"Irv defines television," said his news director, Bob Longo. "His persona and delivery overcome the homogeneous delivery you get here and everyone else. He's different, unique and successful. That's a tough combination."

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