Ronald Reagan was president, very few people had ever heard of high definition television, and a small CBS affiliate with the call letters WYMT was about to revolutionize the way Eastern Kentuckians got their news each day.
It was 1985, just two years after Ernestine Cornett and husband Keith had returned to their native Perry County with their four-year-old daughter Ashley in tow. Keith had just sold his accounting and income tax business in Lexington.
They were, as Ernestine put it, “starting over in familiar surroundings.”
A graduate of Hazard High School, and then Morehead State University, Ernestine Cornett had been substituting in the city and county school districts when she ran across an ad in the Hazard Herald for a position at this new television station. She answered the ad, interviewed with a Lexington broadcaster by the name of Ralph Gabbard, and got the job in the avails coordinator position, a job which she described as consisting of inputting advertiser information and ensuring that the ad would have time on the air.
“Frankly, at the time, I had no idea what I was suited for in the television business,” Cornett said. “Certainly I had no experience, but evidently Mr. Gabbard knew.”
Mr. Gabbard must have known, because in a couple of years she took the position of sales assistant and then office manager. And then, in 1990, when Station Manager Wayne Martin was promoted to the WKYT station in Lexington, Cornett also received a promotion and began what would be a career heading WYMT that would last more than 20 years. That career will come to an end with Cornett’s retirement later this month, but it was Martin whom she credited with her long tenure at WYMT, and with her landing the job in the first place.
“Certainly Wayne Martin was a big part of my success at WYMT, as he recommended me for his replacement, and although I was intimidated at the prospect, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cornett said.
Martin returned to Hazard on Tuesday of this week, as he attended a special lunch to honor Cornett’s career and noted that her leadership has been a cornerstone at WYMT now for 22 years.
“Her leadership has been one which I know I’ve tried to emulate because of her integrity, and sense of fair play, and her absolute passion for Eastern Kentucky,” Martin said.
WYMT was purchased by Gray Television in 1994, an Atlanta-based media company that owns several other stations, including WKYT in Lexington and WVLT in Knoxville. When Gray took over WYMT, Cornett’s title changed to vice-president and general manager.
In the years that Cornett has headed WYMT, the station has shown growth and success, and has also maintained its relevancy as Eastern Kentucky’s only localized television broadcast. There are no other television stations that cater solely to the Eastern Kentucky market. The station has been able to do that, Cornett explained, because the station serves the community, both as a local advertising source and a news outlet that offers hard news updates and features, as well as weather, sports and entertainment options for the residents of Eastern Kentucky. That was something that had never been done on television prior to WYMT’s creation.
And as a native and resident of Eastern Kentucky, as well as the leader of a media outlet, Cornett knows well the importance that a news organization can represent, and the service it can provide.
“As a local, I was a manager fully invested in the success of this station because I can remember what it was like before WYMT came along,” she said. “I would not want to return to those times. Now, I will be fully invested in the station in new ways, as a viewer, as a consumer.”
But there have been a lot of changes and challenges along the way that Cornett oversaw during her career. Gone are the analog broadcasts, and WYMT’s newscasts are not solely offered on television anymore.
“Our news can be watched on the world wide web and on mobile devices,” she noted. “And, although it took us years to get a satellite truck, there are now small portable devices that can transmit news packages through phone and data lines. Technology in this business is always moving forward. Our challenge is to keep up.”
Cornett will spend her last day at the station in Hazard on Friday, and of course, after a long career there are going to be some things she will miss, from the people she meets every day in the station’s hallways to the excitement of being inside the news machine as it does its work. But at the same time, she knows that WYMT won’t miss a beat with the management team in place, and she’s certainly happy about that.
“We have a great cohesive crew here and a great management team in Neil Middleton, Jim Boggs, Louise Sizemore and Philip Hayes,” she noted. “I am leaving the station in very capable hands, thus I have am leaving with a wonderful sense of pride and peace.”
Cornett said she doesn’t have any specific plans after her retirement is final, and after attending school or working for the majority of her life, she is ready for what she called “unstructured days.”
“I have no immediate plans except to enjoy my family, get up every day and do what pleases me,” she said, and from all accounts that is something she has certainly earned.
“She’s a very compassionate person, and she realizes the needs, day to day, of the people that work here,” noted Phil Hayes, chief engineer at WYMT. “She didn’t micromanage anyone, but she was able to comprehend and anticipate what it took to make this station operate as efficiently as it has, and she’s just a great person to work with.”
“You couldn’t have a better boss than Ernestine Cornett,” added Neil Middleton, WYMT’s news director. “I think the way we look at Ernestine is, she was our boss, but more importantly she is our friend, and she is family.”