Longboat Observer founder Ralph Hunter died Friday. He was 95.
In 1978, Ralph Hunter was 58, four years into retirement and bored.
His finances were limited, but Hunter, a longtime radio/TV executive and sales broker, saw opportunity on Longboat Key, the island he discovered four years earlier after getting lost en route to visit an old Army buddy in Sarasota.
Although the Key got frequent ink in the Anna Maria Islander, it didn’t have its own newspaper. Hunter felt the two communities were vastly different. Plus, he thought the Islander was too entrenched, liberal and scandal-loving.
On July 28, 1978, a newspaper was born. It had four pages and was produced and delivered by Hunter and his daughter, Janet, his only employee.
“He was always solving a problem,” Janet Hunter said. “They don’t have a newspaper out there? Well, then he’d start one.”
Longboat Observer founder Ralph Hunter died Feb. 26. He was 95.
He started the paper in July because he thought it best to make his mistakes during the summer slump. By September, he was out of money.
The paper went on hiatus for five weeks, but published again Oct. 13, 1978. It hasn’t missed a week since then.
On Nov. 1, 1978, Ralph and Claire married. They honeymooned at Longboat Key Town Hall that night, covering a commission meeting.
“They were partners in the paper, the Longboat Key community and everything else,” said Ralph Hunter’s son, Bruce.
Hunter founded the Longboat Observer as the Key was on the cusp of an explosion in building. His coverage of Town Hall informed readers about contentious battles over development in the 1980s and early 1990s. The new development itself fueled the newspaper’s advertising.
“Here’s a guy who is a classic entrepreneur in the sense that when he gets an idea, he goes for it,” said Matt Walsh, CEO/owner of the Longboat Observer’s parent company, the Observer Media Group. “There’s not a whole lot of market research. I referred to him as ‘the plunger.’ He would go for it, just plunge in.”
Asked in 1998, when the newspaper celebrated its 20th anniversary, if he foresaw the boom in new condominium projects and real estate sales, Hunter replied:
“Why do you think I started the paper?”
Born March 29, 1920, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Hunter moved with his family to Scarsdale, N.Y., in the late 1920s and went on to attend Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn.
Upon graduation, he spent three years enlisted in the Army Air Corps, then became a second lieutenant in the First Cavalry Division in Tokyo.
After he was discharged, he stayed in Japan for four years running Japanese-language radio stations.
Hunter returned to the U.S. in 1949 and earned a master’s degree in radio and television at Syracuse University.
He began his career in television as a studio supervisor for NBC in New York and went on to work at several radio and TV stations, eventually selling time on TV throughout the country and becoming a radio/TV broker.
Hunter moved his family to Cape Cod in the 1960s and started community radio stations WVLC-AM and FM, Orleans, Mass., an experience that would mold him as a newspaperman.
“He had spent a huge amount of time and effort starting from scratch the local radio station and using that as a sort of means to connect the community in a small market,” Bruce Hunter said. “I think he did much the same with the Observer…There was nothing really to connect the community, and the paper began to accomplish that.”
In Cape Cod, he approached every local high school, offering each a half-hour radio show. It was great PR, but it also boosted listenership every afternoon as communities tuned in when their schools were on the air.
He embraced a similar model on the Longboat Observer, building a small army of unpaid columnists who wrote mostly because of their friendship with Hunter and passion for their subjects.
Cee Edmundson’s father, the late Gen. Jim Edmundson, wrote a column, “Generally Speaking,” about local and national issues for Hunter for years.
“He was very open to letting people write,” Cee Edmundson said. “In almost every way, it advanced communications on the Key.”
He also learned the importance of connecting with the community in Cape Cod by being part of it.
Michael Saunders, who founded Michael Saunders & Co., in 1976 and was an early Longboat Observer advertiser, was drawn to the fact that she could reach local people through the newspaper.
“(Ralph) was passionate about the community and passionate about a newspaper to serve the community, so it was easy to buy in,” she said.
The Ralph way
When readers complained about a controversial story, Hunter’s response was, “Write something, and I’ll print it.”
One of his columnists, Jack Khan, drew the ire of many readers and advertisers for his ultra-conservative writing.
“Even though Ralph didn’t agree with him, he would publish it because he believed controversy was good,” said retired Longboat Observer advertising executive Wendi Simons, whom Hunter hired in 1981.
He was always willing to print the counter point of view, though. For several years, Hunter’s nephew, Jonathan Stoffel, wrote a column countering Khan’s column.
Hunter himself refused to write editorials until the Longboat Observer had been published for five years — “What did we know about Longboat Key?” he said.
When he started writing editorials, his pro-development positions caused many to accuse him of being in the pocket of his advertisers, a charge Hunter dismissed.
“I didn’t give a damn if I offended my advertisers,” he said in 1998, reflecting on the newspaper’s 20th anniversary. “Advertisers couldn’t get to first base with us editorially.”
Hunter devised some of the features that remain popular today, including Cops Corner.
“It was the simplest thing in the world just to take items off the police blotter,” Bruce Hunter said. “He loved that because it was an opportunity to let people see just how silly some of this stuff was.”
Hunter began asking friends to bring their Longboat Observer with them on vacation and pose for photos holding the paper.
It was the start of the Observer’s “It’s Read Everywhere!” contest that continues today.
Hunter was notoriously picky about everything in his paper — and fired, then rehired daughter Janet after they disagreed on multiple occasions.
On one of those occasions, Janet brought in a full-page, camera-ready ad for a chiropractor. But she had broken a rule: Hunter, the son of an orthopedic surgeon, insisted that no ads run for non-traditional medical services.
“Everything had to be cleared by Ralph,” Janet said. “People would get angry, and he was controversial. But he was Ralph.”
Hunter’s rules remained firm as the newspaper grew, room by room in its original Gulf Bay Road location, before moving into its current home at 5570 Gulf of Mexico Drive in 1990:
Copy was due Friday afternoon, no exceptions. Every employee was expected to read the paper each week and pitch in when someone was out — even if that meant hand-delivering papers.
But the most important rule was, “If you’re not having fun, leave.”
The Hunters took their staffs on trips to places like Disney World and EPCOT and sent unique gifts, like honey from a beehive they visited during a road trip in their RV, to their unpaid columnists when they traveled.
But in March 1995, Hunter broke one of his own rules when he ran a front-page photo of himself and Claire on the Longboat Observer.
The headline read: “The Observer has new owners.”
“Ralph Hunter, editor, publisher and founder of The Longboat Observer, has always believed his newspaper should observe the news, not make it. On Monday, March 27, he broke the rule,” he wrote before reporting on the sale.
By then, the paper had grown to 68 pages and nearly 20 staffers.
Hunter had been negotiating to sell the paper to Walsh and his father-in-law, David Beliles since summer 1994, but the decision still shocked Claire.
“I thought we’d die with our boots on,” she said in 1998.
Retirement, take two
Hunter, “the original ADHD guy,” according to daughter, Janet, didn’t slow down in retirement. When he died, he was reading three books simultaneously.
He served as president of the Longboat Key Historical Society, which he co-founded, and wrote “From Calusas to Condominiums: A Pictorial History of Longboat Key” in 2002.
Although the Hunters moved to Westminster Communities in Bradenton in 2010, they remained active on Longboat Key, attending Sunday services at Christ Church of Longboat Key, Presbyterian, and Wednesday bridge games.
Thirty-seven years after Hunter founded the Longboat Observer, his vision is present both in the newspaper and the community.
“I think (the newspaper) certainly brought the community together and promoted community discussion,” Saunders said. “Ralph left a big footprint on the island, and he was loved.”
Hunter was preceded in death by his wife, Claire. He is survived by his son, George Bruce Hunter, of Miami, and daughter, Janet Hunter, of Sarasota.
A memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 5, at Christ Church of Longboat Key, Presbyterian, 6400 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Memorial donations can be made the American Red Cross, American Heart Association or Boy Scouts of America.