An Essay: A look back over the last 60 years - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

An Essay: A look back over the last 60 years

Posted: Updated:

The First 60 Years

Part 1

1949 - 1959

This is a special year for us here at WBTV...It's our 60th anniversary!  It was the summer of 1949.  World War II was over...Elvis would soon be crowned King...the very first baby boomers were born that year and so was WBTV!

Imagine going back in time...it's Friday morning, July 15, 1948...12,000 people crowded into Charlotte's Armory to see history being made.  A young announcer named Jim Patterson was speeding to the Spencer Mountain transmitter (and was nearly late)!  But at high noon the first Carolinas' television broadcast was heard..."This is WBTV, Charlotte, North Carolina, signing on Channel 3 television."

For the next five hours, all viewers saw was a test pattern and a time and temperature screen.  They were entranced.  That first night, a movie aired, "A Star is Born" with Janet Gaynor.

Charlotte historian Dan Morrill vividly remembers that time.  "Just think about the fact of what it meant when you could get a picture in a box in your home.  I mean,, that was just astounding."  Morrill continues, "Jim Patterson was the voice of Charlotte to me.  I didn't know who the mayor was...I had no idea who the mayor was...and quite frankly, didn't care."

But remember, back in 1949, television was a gamble...a TV set cost a month's salary...the station didn't even own a camera.  When WBT radio staffers were offered jobs in TV, most refused to make the jump.  The last Jim Patterson kept his radio job...and hedged his bets, "Yes, in July of 1949, we who worked in radio had no idea whether television would last a year."  Many figured TV was just an experiment...a flash in the pan.

Bill Quinn was the second employee hired at WBTV.  "To me...it wasn't an experiment.  I figured this is the coming entertainment medium and I wanted in on the ground floor.  I took a 20% pay cut to come.  I was making $50 a week ad morning man at WTYC and I came to work at WBTV for the magnificent sum of $40 a week."  The first programming wasn't very exciting; Quinn ran films and the test pattern from the transmitter.  Quinn adds, "People would see that test pattern fade in and out and would go "whoo"...a television.  And then three months later, they're all critics, writing letters complaining about the programming."

That first day...there were only 1,000 TV sets in the Carolinas.  A year later, that number had grown to more than 19,000.  WBTV was ready to take the next giant step.  The mayor threw the switch for the very first live network broadcast...the defeat of UNC by Notre Dame.  WBTV was off and running...and a new age had truly begun.  The very next year...television news was born.

It was another three years before the first TV news show hit the air.  In the 50's, there were no satellites, cable or videotape.  WBTV opened with "WBTV presents the early report...sports with Big Bill Ward...news with Doug Mayes...and weather with Clyde McLean."  Doug Mayes was making history as the very first anchorman in the Carolinas.  He says, "They didn't call the anchors, though.  There was no such word as "anchorman" in those days.  It had never been done, and we were new in the business.  I don't think we were aware of the fact that maybe we were establishing the rules that would guide television news in the future.  But I guess we did...we learned by doing."

In the falloff 1952, Doug beat our Charles Kuralt to become the "Esso reporter", one of six across the country.  Walter Cronkite was the Esso reporter in Washington.  Doug read 15 minutes of national news written by the Associated Press, but he knew right away he needed to cover news closer to home.  "We knew we had to have a news organization together to do that."  Soon, a staff of reporters and film photographers were jumping in their news wagons...lights flashing and speeding off to cover plane crashes and bank robberies.  Doug adds, "Ours was the only camera there."

Then came the story in the mid-50's from a young reporter named Nelson Benton...about an elephant that lived at Charlotte's Airport amusement park.  The elephant's name was Vickie and the film on her has long since disappeared.  Her story remains one of Doug's most memorable.  "Alas, one day, Vickie broke her tethers and escaped into the brush."  For ten years...Mecklenburg County police and law enforcement officers from across the state...even a white hunter from Africa who was working for Ringling Brothers in Sarasota, Florida...looked for Vickie.  She was finally spotted, corralled and caught.  She was later sold to a park operator in Hickory, died and had a great funeral that was covered on the news.

By the time President Eisenhower came to Charlotte in May 1954, technology had exploded...the station was able to do a three-camera remote broadcast for the network.  Television news was starting to mature.  Doug continues, "We had all learned television together...and the audience watched us growing with it and learning with it, and they learned with it."

When the first camera arrived in September 1951, a whole slew of local stars were born...and the golden age of television had begun.  Those first shows weren't much more than radio with pictures or glorified talent shows.  The quarters were cramped...the sets were simple...and there were absolutely no rules.  Jazz musician Loonis McGlohon says, "I'm afraid those of us in the business in the early years were naïve.  We didn't know what we were doing.  That we managed to get anything on the air is surprising."  Loonis had one of those first local programs, a late night jazz show call "Nocturne".  He and his producer, Norman Prevatte, were extremely particular about their guests.  Loonis adds, "We're probably the only show in existence that turned down Elvis Presley.  The colonel called and wanted to put Elvis on the show and Norman Said "I'm sorry...he's not a jazz performer.""  Even without Elvis, those first shows created overnight sensations.  Local folks became household names here...weatherman Clye "Cloudy" McLean...anchorman Doug Mayes...singing cowboy Fred Kirby and loyal sidekick "Uncle Jim" Patterson...editorial philosopher Alan Newcomb and homemaker Betty Feezor.

Another mega-star was born in the 50's...here at WBTV's studios.  News is broadcast there now, but back then, bleachers rolled out around a center ring.  The very first television "rasslin" took place at WBTV.  Today you know this league as the WCW...or World Championship Wrestling.  The early shows were fun...and unpredictable.  Producer Bill Quinn says that unpredictability was one of the secrets to their success.  "...they were wildly successful because people watched to see what we were going to do to them."

 

WBTV

The First 60 Years

Part II

1960 - 1969

We're opening our family album and sharing some of our favorite moments with you.  In this segment, we feature the decade of the 60's...a decade of turmoil, marches, moonwalks and change.

When the decade began, we still held to the innocence of the 50's and country music ruled the morning.  Before "CBS This Morning"...before "The Today Show" or "Good Morning America", folks across the Carolinas started their day with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks, along with his country music and corn-pone humor.  It was "Carolina Calling", the original "breakfast TV."

"I have people stop me any day out on the street or going to a restaurant, and tell me...some of them gotta be 100 years old...that they got slapped by their mom for not leavin' in time to catch the bus", says Arthur Smith.  He adds, "We were the guys and gals next door, and we had fun!"  Arthur hand-picked his cast for the show.  They were all first-class musician, including two brothers, Sonny and Ralph.  Arthur continues, "My theory has always been...if you do a show, have people that the audience identifies with."  Arthur's cast also included a young newsreader, fresh out of school...one Charles Kuralt.  "The boy that went to CBS and did a lot of stuff up there.  Kuralt. Yeah, Charles", Arthur adds.

During those years, Arthur was an undisputed star...enough of a star to weather controversy.  Each morning, Arthur announced a Bible lesson for the day...Sonny read the scripture and the Crossroads Quartet sang a hymn.  Arthur says, "I had one group that tried to get us off TV several times by writing to the sponsors...and said as long as we were doing that sort of thing on the show, they're gonna boycott our products.  But the sponsors came back and said do what you're doin."

A big part of what Arthur did was live commercials.  Things didn't always go right...like the time he was supposed to open a roll of biscuits by rapping it on the counter.  "The first time we did the show live, I hit ‘em and nothin' happened.  My brothers Ralph came around with a hammer."

Today, Arthur is still playing and writing.  He's just started a new record label in Nashville.  He says it all goes back to his years at WBTV.  "The Citadel of everything that I have done was the TV show."  Many people don't realize what a fine musician Arthur really is.  His record "Guitar Boogey" was the first song ever to cross from the country charts to rhythm & blues and pop.  He also wrote "Dueling Banjos" from the movie "Deliverance."

The 60's...a decade when many say we lost our innocence.  President Kennedy was killed on November 22, 1963...a day anchorman Doug Mayes says television cane into its own.  "Television news is always at its best when it's doing it live on the scene of a, regrettably, a disaster."TV cameras also brought the turmoil of the civil rights movement right into Carolina living rooms.  UNCC's Jack Clairborne covered the movement for the Charlotte Observer in the ‘60s.  Jack says, "I think the civil rights revolution is, in large part, a product of television news reporting, and television should take great pride in that."

It was a decade of firsts...in 1960, WBTV was first to take a TV camera into an operating room for a documentary on open heart surgery.  We also debuted the first news show at noon with Ty Boyd and Clyde McLean...a show where Clyde and Ty could have a little fun.  Ty says, "It was a special place...like Broadway is to the theatre world...WBTV and Charlotte was to the Carolinas.  It was as big a time as you could get."  After the news and weather at noon, it was time for a visit with Betty Feezor.  Betty's advice was aimed at stay-at-home moms, but she was one of Charlotte's highest profile working women.  "I've been here most all the time, except the three maternity leaves when my children were born," Betty commented then.  She knew the two secrets of success...she shared her life with her viewers...and the food she cooked with the crew.

Twenty year-old Mike McKay arrived at WBTV towards the end of the ‘60s.  Although he was best known for doing weather, Mike did what ever needed doing when he first started.  "You had to be someone who could wear a lot of different hats, and hopefully wear them with some degree of dignity," he says.  Today...Mike hosts a morning classical music show in WDAV in Davidson... and has fond memories of those early days.  "It was much simpler.  Instead of having computers that generate the maps, and bring in satellite shots and things of that sort, we would take a black pen and squirt some ink on it and draw the lows and the highs and fronts and thing like that. It was a very different era to do weather in."  Mike also hosted a daring Friday night show called "Those Were The years".  It featured shows from the ‘50s and very imaginative skits.  Mike adds, "We had a little more room to just take chances."

Towards the end of the ‘60s, color brightened television screens, providing a whole new dimension to WBTV's coverage of world and local affairs.  Weather radar was also new...but at the time...wasn't as helpful as it could have been.

 

WBTV

The First 60 Years

Part III

1970 - 1979

Sixty years ago...WBTV made history as the very first television station in the Carolinas.  In this segment...we'll take a look at some of our best memories from the ‘70s.

During the ‘70s...things were changing fast and WBTV was keeping pace.  The station started the first hour-long newscast in the Carolinas and debuted a feature that made ordinary folks stars.  On September 7, 1970...a young reporter names CJ Underwood introduced us to Watauga Country moonshiner Willard Watson...and Rusty.  CJ created "Carolina Camera" to travel the back roads and small towns...to find the people and places that make the Carolinas special.  CJ says, "We did people in obscure places, and we did people who were fairly prominent...as long as they were great stories about how people came to be what they are.  That to me is the best story you can tell in this world...is that a person who's known for a given thing...and show how they got to that point.  I love doing that."

Over the years, other reporters stepped in...Ken Eudy found a real-life adventure in Kiawah Island.  He spent a day with the park service, catching alligators that were showing up in backyards and golf courses.  These days...John Carter is our morning anchor...but in the ‘70s, John did Carolina Camera.  He focused on people, like ‘60s singer Little Eva.  Reporter Mark garrison found Flatnose, South Carolina's tree climbing dog.  Flatnose went on to be a national celebrity.

The years changed...so did we...and so did you.  But through it all, Carolina Camera showed what's special in all of us.  CJ adds, "The greatest experience of my life was to be able to put just average, everyday people on TV...give them that moment in the spotlight."

For more than 20 years, Bob Inman was the face and voice of WBTV News.  In 1970, Charlotte had grown and it took longer to tell people what was going on here.  Bob comments, "When I first came to work here in October 1970, this station had just launched an hour-long newscast.  And it was unheard of in local television news anywhere in the country...even in the big markets."

What WBTV started, other stations quickly copied.  The hour-long local news cut its teeth on a disaster...the crash of Eastern Airlines flight #212 on a foggy morning in September 1974.  All  but ten of the 82 people on board lost their lives.  Mike Cozza was the first reporter on the scene,"...we didn't have videotapes; we didn't have live trucks; we didn't have microwave; we didn't even have cellular telephones.  We had film.  We had to run out there, shoot film pictures, run back, develop the film...which took and hour...before we could put it on the air."

Covering news in the ‘70s meant keeping up with the times.  The women's movement brought women to the anchor desk.  At WBTV, Janet England was one of the first.  She says, "It was a period of time you had to prove yourself to the public and also in the newsroom."  The same was true in newspapers...the articles were more on fashion than reporting.  While the women's lib movement of the ‘70s caused some to burn their bras, the message for Janet was clear, "I can remember being told by a consultant to put on a padded bra because I didn't quite have the figure they needed for an anchorperson.  The next day I felt myself...I had this ledge here and I said...forget it, I'm not going to do this."

It was a decade of social change...and not just for women.  WBTV put John Blount on the air.  He was the first African American TV anchor in Charlotte.  Ken Koontz jointed him...fresh from Johnson C. smith University.  He laughingly recalls being sent to cover a small fire, "First day I ever worn my brand new, navy blue, pin-striped, three-piece suit.  And I just knew I was clean.  And so I, a little tongue in cheek, did a little piece where we started out on the smoldering flames and I said...that, ladies and gentlemen, is a forest fire.  And we pulled back to a wide shot ...and this, ladies and gentlemen, is a three-piece, $200 (at that time) suit."

In 1957, UNC couldn't fill its own home gym...but when the Tar Heels Played Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain for the national title, viewers in Charlotte were glued to WBTFV.  Charlotte Observer columnist Kays Gray was a true-blue Tar Heel.  Jack Claiborne says of Kays,"...he couldn't watch the game and so he walked around his house on the outside, and as he went by the window, he would say, what's the score?"   That kind of fervor gripped viewers...even those who'd never been to a game in person.  In 1974...another made-for-TV moment...the ACC tournament finals...as NC State defeated Maryland in overtime.  WBTV's sports director Jim Thacker was behind the mic.

NASCAR made it to TV in the ‘70s...in 1978, WBTV mounted the first live TV camera in a stock car race.  Now, cameras mounted in race cars are quite common.

As the decade of the ‘80s began...a kid from Jacksonville, Florida named Paul Cameron...he and his "loud" sports jacket...took over for Thacker.

 

WBTV

The First 60 Years

Part IV

1980 - 1989

Sixty years ago, WBTV signed on the air as the very first television station in the Carolinas.  We're celebrating our anniversary by sharing our memories with you.  Today...we look back at the ‘80s...when Madonna was the "Material Girl"...President Reagan was in the White House...and on TV...magazine shows were king.

In March 1977, WBTV launched an hour-long, lunch-time magazine show with Clyde McLean as host.  Everyone, and we mean everyone, on the talent staff took part.  The atmosphere was decidedly relaxed.  The show also had a cooking segment; hosted by a young home economist named Barbara Stutts...today she's known as Barbara McKay.  "I grew up in Shelby, so I was in awe for about the first 10 to 15 years.  I've been here for 21 years now... and I was so excited."  Today, Barbara still does ad cooking segment in that same kitchen...her segment airs three days a week after WBTV's noon news.  Barbara remembers those first years of "Top of the Day" as the show broke new ground.  It made full use of the station's brand new microwave trucks for live interviews.  Sometimes...the entire show hit the road.  Barbara adds, "One of the best parts of "Top of the Day" is that it was all live, and no matter what happened, it was out there."

That was especially true one snowy January morning in 1981.  They took the show live to the ski lodge at Beech Mountain.  The producer decided the set needed something extra...so just seconds before air, they tried to build up the fire.  Barbara comments, "They put a great big box in there and it just burst into flames...and I can remember thinking, I think my hair's on fire, or possibly my clothes!"  Barbara didn't miss a beat.  "We were taught...you just go right on smiling and don't know what...people must have thought we should stop, roll and whatever it is you do."  Barbara knows that lack of perfection was part of the appeal.  "It was about being real.  I think that was one of the reasons the audience related so much...because they'd think, that would happen to me if I was on TV."

On September 3, 1979...WBTV launched a new show, PM Magazine, which was completely different.  The hosts were then WBT radio's morning man Bob Lacey and 24-year old news photographer Moira Quinn.  The formula was simple, be entertaining...get out of the studio...and do stories about people, places and trends in the Carolinas and around the world.  They spent a lot of time showcasing the area...finding what was good about the area.  Bob says, "I mean...there are a million characters in North and South Carolina...the hollerin' contest guy."  Moira adds, "Yeah...the seafood festival and all that sort of thing."  Sometimes they took risks...like the time Bob agreed to be part of a trick shot with a champion horseshoe thrower in Statesville.  Bob remembers, "...and he said...I am so good...you put your head on that stake and I'll ring the stake.  And, it was one of the greatest shots I've ever seen, but you know when I look back on it, I'd never do that today."  Moira continued, "That happened a lot...we would get done doing something...I'd look at him and say what were we thinking?"

Bob and Moira also did a lot of traveling for PM Magazine and visited places like Hong Kong, Tahiti and Rio.  Moira says, "Bob and I were supposed to have gotten theses bonuses for doing national stories...we didn't...we put them in a fund and we traveled on it.  We took the whole show."

Of course, no matter how well you plan, things go wrong.  Like the time they were shooting story introductions in Key West.  Moira comments, "We had our smiles...and a guy walked right between us and the camera...we couldn't believe it.  Excuse me!  Well, as soon as he got out of our eye range, but still in camera range, he dropped his drawers!  We didn't know it, so we just...in our little Bob and Moira fashion... (Went) "Hi, we're Bob and Moira"...we're idiots, but we didn't see it...who knew?"

Today, Bob Lacey works with Sheri Lynch on the Bob and Sheri Show.  Moira is executive producer in the WBTV newsroom.  Both say PM Magazine was one of the best jobs they ever had.  Moira ends, "We never lost our enthusiasm for what we did."  Bob adds, "We really loved what we did...honestly loved it."

Satellite technology of the ‘80s made it possible to cover local teams form far away.  So, WBTV traveled to a frigid Super Bowl in Detroit and to the Final Four in Albuquerque.  WBTV even followed a guy names Shinn to Phoenix, as he talked the NBA into selling him a franchise.  Home was wherever our satellite truck went.  Paul Cameron and sports hit the road, but news had plenty to cover here.

The PTL scandal caught the eye of the nation...and the national networks.  WBTV reporter Steve Crump was on the scene, "There was a flotilla of satellite trucks that (were) out at the Heritage Grand Hotel.  For the first time, Charlotte was the city that was on the map every day."  He remembers local reporters pitted against the national pack.  "When the networks fly in the big gun reporters...the big gun anchors...we had to work harder..."

By far, THE most significant news story of the ‘80s, as reported by Sara James, "The eye of the hurricane is expected to pass nearby in the next hour."  There was unexpected devastation from Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.  Eric Thomas was the new meteorologist in the weather office.  The eye of the storm was clearly defined on weather equipment.  Giant plate glass windows were blown out of Uptown Charlotte.  Trees were down everywhere. ..Many on houses.  As in the past, viewers counted on WBTV to cover an event affecting more than just Charlotte.  Bob Inman, former WBTV anchor, says, "Channel three has always had a regional feel...we were not just a Charlotte station...we're a Carolinas' station.

 

WBTV

The First 60 Years

Part V

1990 - 1999

If you've kept up with our anniversary series, you already know we're getting ready for a milestone here at WBTV...the station hit the big "6 - 0 on July 15th.  The people you get to know on TV...the folks you've invited into your home night after night (via your TV) have become good friends.  And when friends move on, or just seem to drop out of sight, the natural question to ask is "Where are they now?"

WBTV gets more questions about Mike McKay that just about anyone else.  Viewers to this day still call or e-mail the station.  For 27 years Mike did the weather, entertainment shows and telethons.  Today...you can listen to Mike spin classical music weekday morning on WDAV in Davidson.

In the ‘60s, Ty Boyd was morning man on WBTV Radio...and a certified TV star.  Today he's one of the most successful motivational speakers and trainers in the country.

Arthur Smith ruled morning television here for nearly 25 years.  He's still writing and performing, but says things now take a little longer.  Arthur comments, "If I'm gonna do an album it'll take me sic weeks to get ready to do it.  And I used to do it...you know...wake up one morning and say, we'll cut an album this afternoon."

Sometimes people you care about leave for big city lights.  In our family, it was Lisa Cooley and Diana Williams.  Both women are anchoring in New York City.  Sara James is also in New York, as a correspondent for a national news magazine.

Some folks have stayed close to home.  Bob Inman retired from the anchor desk in 1996.  Today he's in Charlotte, writing novels, newspaper columns and movie scripts.  Former co-anchor Janet England is a marketing and public relations executive in Charlotte.

Throughout the years we've lost some members of our TV family...pioneers and neighbors who still live in our memories...and whose spirit shows in everything WBTV is today...Alan Newcomb (1921-1966); Pat Lee (1926-1977); Betty Fezor (1925-1978); Jim Patterson (1924-1986); Clyde McLean (1925-1987); Fred Kirby (1910-1996); and Charles Crutchfield (1912-1998).

Some pioneers are still with us...their wisdom and memories...retired anchorman Doug Mayes says he'll never forget the chance he got to live his dream.  He says, "WBTV gave me an opportunity to see some of those dreams come true."

In the ‘09s, computers, the internet and digital technology are driving the future of television.  In many ways...the future is now.  Today WBTV's newsroom uses satellites, digital cameras and banks of computers...its technology that helps us bring you the news fast...and technology that's changing by the hour.

"TV will be something completely new and different by 10 years in the future.  It won't resemble anything that we grew up with.  Our experience will not be the experience of our children."  So says Dr. John Crane who teaches about the media at UNC Charlotte.  He also says the newest buzzword we all need to learn is "convergence"...which means that soon, TV, radio, telephone and internet will come into our houses on the same wire...into the same box...and onto the same screen.  Crane adds, "Increasingly, I think television will converge with all these other technologies and simply become digital."  Here...at WBTV...that digital future is here now.

Last March we became the first station in the entire country to broadcast full licensed power HD-TV.  WBTV Broadcast Operations Manager Terry Phillips says you've got to see it to believe it.  "The pictures will actually jump out at you and you feel as if you are a part of the movie."  The HD-TV picture is even shaped like a movie screen...with CD-quality sound.  That's because the signal itself is digital, similar to a computer code.  Phillips says this opens up whole new opportunities for two-way TV.  "Hopefully, in the future we can have technology where we can be interactive."   This means a future including "news on demand"...seeing what you want, when you want it.  Students may soon be able to ask us for a special video for reports and we'll send it right to their computer.

No matter how far the technology goes, some things will never change.  TV news is really about people, the people who live in the Carolinas...and the things that affect our families.  We've enjoyed sharing some of our favorite memories of the last five decades with you. 

Thank you for inviting us into your home.

Powered by WorldNow