Long before 1953, the Mechanics Bank building on Gay Street was already famous. Mark Twain had mentioned it in his best-known work of nonfiction, Life on the Mississippi, concerning a rare event in October 1882, when Joseph Mabry, Joseph Mabry Jr., and Thomas O’Conner, all prosperous and well-respected middle-class gentlemen, shot each other to death, almost simultaneously.
Early one evening in another October 71 years later, it was set to make history again. But on the fifth floor, engineers and executives looked anxiously at the monitors.
As a radio station, WROL was a quarter-century old and famous. It helped launch the careers of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and Flatt and Scruggs. Tennessee Ernie Ford was once a DJ, and Cas Walker had a popular show. But what was happening that evening wasn’t radio. WROL employees stayed after work that Thursday, expecting a celebration. It was a town where only beer was legal, and that wasn’t allowed in any office. They did have coffee.
The big event was supposed to happen about supper time, at 6:30. That’s when the United Fund’s kickoff show would both inaugurate television in East Tennessee, and, as a popular charity, prove that television was worthwhile.
Most Knoxvillians didn’t need convincing. Dozens of Knoxville retail outlets sold televisions in 1953—hardware stores, electronics stores, even tire stores—and sales had been pretty brisk, especially lately. And televisions weren’t cheap. The lowest-priced TVs in 1953 were selling for $169; adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of about $1,000.
In fact, some Knoxvillians had been buying televisions for months, even years, just to see what they could pick up from other cities. And they knew this day would come.
The schedule had been published on the front page of the papers. At 7 p.m., WROL-TV would show the film The Story of G.I. Joe, starring Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum, the young actor who’d become a little better known in the eight years since that movie first came out. They weren’t connected directly to a network yet, but they had a whole lineup of shows and movies on film in cans. They’d also show a short promotional film called “Knoxville, Gateway to the Smokies,” and the 11-year-old Veronica Lake comedy I Married a Witch.
But there were witchy problems, some of them connected to the audio signal. All around the Knoxville area, people waited at home, crowded around their new Zenith or Philco sets tuned to VHF channel 6. And nothing happened. What viewers saw at home that evening was a test pattern, a collection of geometric shapes, with, for whatever reason, the portrait of a plains Indian at the top. Some likened it to the wooden Indian in Hank Williams’ recent hit “Kaw-liga.”
“Caliga, wooden Indian, still glared stolidly from the top of the test pattern,” reported the Knoxville Journal—as a “dial tone,” roughly E-flat, hummed.
WROL staffers expecting a party instead found themselves answering the phone, one call after another, strangers asking, “Whassamatter?” They received some relief when the overloaded phone system shut down, too. “It was a madhouse for a while,” staffer Wayne Hudson said. “At one time we had over 100 calls in five minutes.”
By the time it got dark, engineers were trying to get the signal up, and a telephone repair man was trying to fix the lines.
As congratulatory parties go, it was an especially discouraging one. According to the Journal, most of WROL’s employees “crumpled their coffee cups and silently headed home.”
Hugh Allen, the News Sentinel’s rotund entertainment columnist, spent the entire evening at home staring at WROL’s test pattern. “I was unable to look away even for a moment,” for three solid hours. “I didn’t want to miss anything.”
There were similar scenes in homes all over the region, from Newport to Jellico.
But at 9:30 p.m., the Indian disappeared, and the national anthem came on. WROL-TV ran the schedule of programs and movies they’d planned, well into the wee hours. At long last, East Tennessee had television.
“A little dizzy and shaky, it’s true,” wrote Allen, “but a real, honest-to-goodness picture. I twiddled all the knobs that the books said should be twiddled occasionally. There was some improvement. Then I twiddled all the other knobs the book said should never be touched except by a trained serviceman. The picture got still better.”
We couldn’t find anyone who was in the WROL studio that evening. But just two weeks later, a second station, WTSK, began broadcasting on a scratchy UHF frequency, broadcasting directly from their 210-foot tower on Sharp’s Ridge, in a spare studio at the top of a dirt road so steep cars couldn’t climb it. WTSK would prove to be an altogether different sort of experience.
Carl Lawson had been studying engineering at the University of Tennessee when in 1950 he got a job teaching at the Tennessee Radio Service School, which had just moved from Gay Street to its location in the Emory Place area. A colleague suggested Lawson get into installing televisions and antennae; Lawson recalls people were mainly interested in stations from Atlanta, Greenville, S.C., and Huntington, W.V.
Joe Broyles was the chief engineer, and called Lawson to help him set up the station on Sharp’s Ridge. “Our construction permit allowed us to test,” Lawson says. “We actually were on the air with a test pattern right before Channel 6 was.”
Some memories conflict, but there’s print evidence that Channel 26 responded to the Channel 6 launch with the broadcast of an unnamed old movie the same night, then went back to the test pattern for several days.
WTSK finally went on the air full time, mid-month, with a canned children’s show, and, beyond that, a lot of energetic, imaginative amateurs with ideas for live shows in the tiny hillside studio.
For almost three years, WROL, later to be WATE, and WTSK, later to be WTVK, would be Knoxville’s only two television stations. Their story will be part of an upcoming exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center, curated by Bradley Reeves of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, which recently became a division of the Knox County Public Library’s McClung Collection.
The arrival of television was more dramatic here than in some markets.
Television wasn’t new in 1953. Compared to most communications technologies going back to the telegraph, its spread was remarkably slow.
Radio had happened much faster. Knoxville was quick to catch it, in 1921. Young Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrated television technology in 1927, the year of the first sound movie. It was much improved by 1939, when television was the star of New York’s World’s Fair. Delayed by World War II, television picked up again just after 1945. In 1948, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Memphis established TV stations. (It wasn’t just a matter of size. In 1948, Charlotte wasn’t quite as big as Knoxville.)
But the Federal Communications Commission—established during the New Deal, it hadn’t existed during the chaotic early days of radio—was trying hard to disseminate TV around the country in an orderly fashion, without interfering with the signals of other stations. That bottleneck year of 1948, swamped by applications, the FCC issued a freeze on processing new stations. Knoxville just got in line and, for five years, hoped.
Around 1950, Woodruff’s on Gay Street was carrying TVs. William “Stoney” Stonecipher was a guitarist, but he was making a living as a stock clerk there. He was at least curious. “Up on the fifth floor, there were dozens of TV sets,” he says. “At lunchtime I would turn some of the sets on, and I would just stand there eating my sandwich, watching snow.” That floor was loftier than most antennas, but he could never pick up anything.
Eventually, Knoxvillians with the right equipment—often a “Roto-tenna,” Motorola’s product that you could aim in any direction—could pick up Atlanta or Charlotte stations. It was fuzzy, but it seemed like magic.
Ray Rose was a Fulton High kid. He didn’t have a TV, but a friend’s father had rigged one up with a 50-foot tower right in the yard on Beaumont Avenue, and could pick up Channel 2 in Atlanta. “The first program I ever saw was The Lone Ranger,” he says. “But what you saw was snow. If you looked enough, you could find the Lone Ranger in there. It was more snow than picture, but you could see what was going on. Of course, we were excited just to see TV.”
Many American cities got practical TV even before they had their own station, by tuning in neighboring cities. But Knoxville’s market was known in the industry as a “stretch area.” Not only were there no TV stations in town, there were none within almost 200 miles, and the rugged topography didn’t help. By 1953, lots of American cities still lacked local TV stations, but few had as poor reception as Knoxville did. Even Johnson City, where they could pick up Charlotte pretty well, had an estimated 2,000 TV sets in 1952.
They were expensive and sold so slowly that reporters thought they could guess at how many sets there were in town. In January 1951, one educated guess was that there were only 55 TV sets in Knoxville. Just three months later, another reporter stated with some authority that there were 300 sets in town.
Some TV owners, proud of the contraptions, carried them from place to place, plugged them in at friend’s houses, and made an instant party. Many of them explored the new technology with the enthusiasm of ham-radio operators, boasting that they once picked up New York, or Chicago, or Oklahoma City. A man on Lyons Bend said he was watching The Lone Ranger from Philadelphia while getting audio from a jewelry talk show in Charlotte. It was amazing even so. Another claimed he once tuned in a baseball game from Louisville so clearly he could even read the players’ numbers.
A few stations slipped past the FCC’s freeze, like Nashville, which got TV in 1950. But in Knoxville, Atlanta was still easier to pick up. During the Vols’ championship-contending years, some Knoxvillians of a certain age remember fuzzy images of the 1951 Cotton Bowl and the 1952 Sugar Bowl, when Neyland’s Vols, already chosen national champs by the AP, nonetheless lost to Maryland.
The FCC freeze was lifted in May 1952. Representatives of Knoxville companies kept lobbying FCC officials, attending sometimes very lengthy hearings. The FCC had its priorities. In January 1953, there were reports that it might be late 1954, maybe later, before Knoxville had a single television station up and running. Worse, there were reports that Chattanooga was seven places ahead of Knoxville in the list.
The good news, for the practical-minded TV watcher, was that Atlanta’s WSB, Channel 2, would be boosting its signal all the way up to 100,000 watts. Thanks to WSB, an NBC affiliate, Knoxvillians with TV sets would at least have better pictures in 1953. For months, it appeared Johnson City’s WJHL, scheduled to be up on Sept. 16, would be East Tennessee’s first TV station.
The FCC had approved Knoxville for four television stations, on Channel 6, Channel 10, and UHF channels 20 and 26. Existing media companies, especially radio companies, competed for the best stations. UHF was known to be problematic, so the big money was behind the two VHF frequencies, 6 and 10.
In summer 1953, rivals Clarence Beaman of WKGN and Paul Mountcastle of WROL unexpectedly partnered to get a license for TV station Channel 6. They began converting an FM tower on Sharp’s Ridge for TV transmissions.
In late July 1953, the FCC granted Mountcastle Broadcasting a construction permit. Suddenly it seemed likely that Knoxville would have TV as early as the fall of 1953. WROL would boast they set national records for starting from scratch to getting a signal on the air. They set a date of Oct. 1 and stuck to it. “We haven’t had time to give it a shakedown,” admitted executive W.H. Linebaugh as the day approached.
But their 8,000-watt transmitter on Sharp’s Ridge was ready, or close to it. And Johnson City’s WJHL, having “tower troubles,” wasn’t quite there yet. In August 1953 when a young singer and actor showed up in WROL’s radio studios to talk about his new film, So This Is Love, about the life of East Tennessee opera star Grace Moore, but TV enthusiasts took no special notice. Years later, through his efforts in creating game and talk shows, Merv Griffin would become one of the most powerful men in national television.
When TV finally arrived in Knoxville that October, first with WROL-TV, and then with WTSK, the city wasn’t in the back of the pack. That year, I Love Lucy was starting its third season, but fewer than half of all American households had televisions. Dozens of American cities, including Chattanooga, Asheville, and Lexington, Ky., were still waiting for their own stations.
Up on the top of the hill, WTSK was trying harder.
The letters represented the company, Television Services of Knoxville, which, unlike WROL, didn’t have a track record in town. The TSK name was around, on billboards, and the skeptical liked to say, “tsk, tsk.”
WTSK began broadcasting regularly 17 days after WROL-TV did. John David Englebrecht, the station’s president, once remarked, “We had clown shows, monkeys, circuses—anybody with any talent was on. They were all we had.”
Their early schedule included a Bible puppet show, newspaper columnist Vic Weals, The Smoky Mountain Jamboree, and, several times a week, The Melody Inn, featuring the local Jack Morten Orchestra. WTSK was also the first to broadcast I Love Lucy.
“If we didn’t have anything else to show, we just shut down,” Lawson says. “It was an impossible situation. I look back on it now, and am amazed we were able to get a picture out.”
One early announcer was “Big” Jim Hess, whose booming voice was already well known on radio. “I used to tell Jim Hess he could stand on the roof of the studio and talk and get better coverage,” Lawson says.
Ultra-high frequency was troublesome to begin with, no good with hills. It required a separate antenna and dial, included with some sets but not others. And one tube vital for UHF reception, the 6AF4, was unreliable.
“Those doggone tubes wouldn’t last any time at all,” Lawson says. WTSK staffers had to harass hardware stores to keep them in stock for their viewers and prod the manufacturers to keep the hardware stores supplied.
Stoney Stonecipher knew one of the original engineers, and the guitarist performed on the air a couple of times. Joe Broyles asked him if he wanted to try his hand at running a camera. “I knew what microphones were, that sort of thing,” Stonecipher says. “I immediately left the hard work downtown.” He says television was too much fun to consider it work: “It was very new and unique to me, and to everybody.”
“But I trained on the job,” he says. “I knew some musicians. We were the first to start putting country musicians on the air.” The first one he remembers was Kenny Anderson’s band.
Ray Rose was a teenager working in a grocery store. A guitarist who played on WNOX’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and one of WTSK’s first live shows, he wasn’t sure TV was for him. It impressed the high-school girls he was dating. “But I was a little bit bashful. I didn’t get the full fun of it, just because I was a little bit embarrassed about it,” Rose says.
He was surprised when the production manager approached him. “How’d you like to work in a TV studio?” the manager asked. Doing what, Rose responded. “Running a camera,” was the reply. “Monday’s soon enough.” And Rose was a cameraman, working 3 p.m. to midnight.
“There was no Television 101 at UT,” Rose says. “What we put on TV, we just made it up as we went.”
Stonecipher remembers the cameras WTSK used, DuMont models. “We got these old, square things, about a wheelbarrow full. With tripods of course, but stationary. Innovative staffer Pete Fennelly was responsible for much of what made WTSK different from other stations.
“We took some wrought-iron stuff, made a triangle, wheels, and an old steering wheel,” says Stonecipher, and made what may have been Knoxville’s first camera dolly. But it was so heavy it was hard for one man to move around.
“We had so little equipment to work with, just two studio cameras.” The room was “not much bigger than some people’s living room,” he says. (Archivist Bradley Reeves quotes TV personality Carl Williams about it: “You had to go outside to change your mind.”) But that small room was divided into two, forming two sets, with the cameras and a boom mike in the middle. One side was arranged as the cameras shot a show on one side, then turned around to shoot the next program.
At the time, Rose recalls, the dirt road up Sharp’s Ridge was so steep no ordinary car could make it up to the studios, so they had an intercom telephone down at the bottom. “Just like in the Army, you’d crank a crank and call up,” he says, and a cameraman like him would drive the Jeep down and fetch them, up to six at the time, in benches in back. One night, he heard there was a visitor, and he drove down to find Miss Universe waiting.
Meanwhile, Knoxville’s most famous radio station, WNOX, seemed confident of bagging the Channel 10 slot. At tremendous expense, the company refurbished the old Whittle Springs Hotel, adding a large state-of-the-art facility with a 1,250-seat auditorium and a stage big enough to park new automobiles for local dealerships’ ads. It was, by far, Knoxville’s biggest and most modern television studio.
But WNOX lacked a television station. It turned out the FCC didn’t like WNOX. One of Knoxville’s most popular radio stations, it was owned by Scripps-Howard, which also ran the city’s most popular daily newspaper. Giving WNOX the primo VHF TV channel would give Scripps monopolistic control of the media in Knoxville.
WNOX kept angling for some hope, maybe a Channel 8. But when its magnificent TV studio at Whittle Springs was ready to open in 1955, it was billed as “the most unusual radio studio in the South,” with no mention of TV.
For many Knoxvillians, early television was mainly WROL. On Channel 6, Oak Ridge justice of the peace Art Metzler became Knoxville’s first newscaster. Even at tonier Channel 6, it was a seat-of-the-pants ethic. Another early Channel 6 newscaster, Jim Early, first came to local television as a singer, the star of the cowboy band Jim Early and the Westerneers. One of WROL’s first live shows was hosted by Marion Chapman, an actress at the Carousel Theater, a talk show called People You Know. (Several early TV personalities had credits acting at the Carousel, then a community theater not entirely programmed by UT.)
The station’s main affiliation was with NBC, and by Oct. 13, they were broadcasting Milton Berle, whose show had been around since ’48. “What’s he up to tonight?” newspaper ads asked. Knoxville’s closest thing to Milton Berle was radio singer-comedian Archie Campbell, who began hosting his first mostly country music show that November. By then, WROL was broadcasting other familiar shows, like Abbott and Costello and the Dennis Day Show.
But television was so earnest in those days, you get the impression the program directors of 1953 assumed TV’s audience was pretty smart. There were prime-time forums about state constitutional referendums, and City Council candidate debates about property taxes. WROL-TV was one month old when it broadcast a show called Stroke of Fate, which asked the question, “What Might Have Happened If the French Had Won at the Battle of Quebec in 1759?”
WROL spoke of putting Vol football on the air. Word came through Gen. Neyland himself that it wasn’t going to happen. Just retired as coach but still athletic director, the 61-year-old Neyland cited technical difficulties. The scuttlebutt is that Neyland feared televising games would be an unnecessary liability to Vol strategy.
However, on Nov. 25, WROL-TV did broadcast edited film of the final game of the regular season, a loss to Kentucky played four days earlier. As if explaining why anybody would broadcast football on television, University of Tennessee President C.E. Brehm announced the game film would be shown “due to the tremendous interest of UT supporters, and because it was impossible to supply many with tickets.” That first UT game shown lasted only 45 minutes.
WROL-TV didn’t take as many chances, but sometimes got in trouble unexpectedly. James O’Connor, a Fountain City attorney and private eye, heard some Spanish dialogue on a show called Lucky Larigan, and demanded, in a letter published in the newspapers, “The people of this area have waited a long time for television, and they have spent a lot of money on TV sets. The least we have a right to expect is programs we can listen to and understand.”
WTSK proved itself nimble, broadcasting a wrestling match before that first football broadcast. By February 1954, the little station that could broadcast the first live game, a UT-Vanderbilt basketball game at Alumni Hall, with John Ward announcing. Not everybody from WTSK remembers that landmark broadcast, but Carl Lawson does, and newspaper clips back him up. For whatever reason, it wasn’t a regular thing. Some say there wasn’t another live sports broadcast in Knoxville until a baseball game in 1957.
“It was the station nobody could get,” says Bradley Reeves, who’s curating the upcoming exhibit about the history of local television at the East Tennessee History Center. WTSK had nothing to lose. “They were the scrappier station that tried everything.”
WTSK made up in ingenuity and flexibility what it lacked in signal strength. Jeanni Sparks was known mainly as an opera singer who later performed on Broadway and got an audition at the Met. On WTSK, she sang on shows like the late-night Penthouse Party, but also did a cooking show.
Another show organized by the Knoxville Toastmistress Club was called Table Topics. Schrivers’ clothing store on Gay Street sponsored The Big Playback, a liberally defined sports show. A square-dance show every Saturday was shot in a building on Emory Place. A show called Anne Carroll’s House was reportedly shot in an apartment in Shelbourne Towers, near UT. Carroll hosted a “Beauty Board” to debate cosmetic issues. Claude “the Cat” Tomlinson, Knoxville’s hepcat, jive-talking DJ, was an early host.
By 1955, WTSK hosted the Sundown Serenade, showing teenagers dancing to the latest hits in the tiny hilltop studio. That was noteworthy in itself, when American Bandstand was still new. But about the same time, Albert “Acey Boy” Wilson, a popular R&B DJ, hosted a dance show for black kids. In a market with only two television stations, the fact that one was broadcasting a show hosted by a black man is one of the biggest surprises Bradley Reeves has encountered. “I’d always thought Nat King Cole was the first African-American to host a show,” he says. The Nat King Cole Show, which went on the air some months after Acey Boy Wilson’s show, was controversial in mostly segregated middle America.
Ray Rose remembers working the Saturday-night show, which offered much more up-tempo music than the white show, which favored romantic ballads. “Acey Boy’s music was”—he pauses to consider adjectives—“very intense. Much more than the other.”
Penthouse Party was hosted by suave hipster Dave Deucey. They mocked up a non-existent nightclub in a city where a glass of wine with dinner was still illegal. They set up tables, New York nightclub-style. “There was only about six of them, the studio was so small,” says Rose, but they worked on making the illusion of a spacious nightclub. “You didn’t realize you’d see every one of them in every shot.”
The sponsor was restaurateur Dolph Brown, who always sent up a batch of Big Boy hamburgers. Rose admits they never knew how many people were still watching UHF at 11:30 p.m.
Of course, grocer Cas Walker, though he’d been mainly associated with WROL, covered all his bases and hosted a show on WTSK.
In 1954, WROL-TV switched its call letters to WATE. Executives said there was no particular reason for the shift, but it was a new era, and WROL, founded in the 1920s, carried its own freight. Some thought WATE might sound positive, weighty, while others worried it might hark back to that first night, when viewers waited for a picture.
As soon as something started working on WTSK, Channel 6 would buy it, especially in terms of national programming. There were four networks, NBC, CBS, ABC, and DuMont, which became an almost-forgotten fourth network despite launching Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners.
One of WTSK’s assets acquired by WATE was Stoney Stonecipher himself, who was hired away when Channel 6 wanted to start a cooking show. They said, “You’re the only one in town who has worked on cooking shows.” The show that started was the Mary Starr show, which would become one of the most popular shows of Knoxville television’s first decade or two. She was Knoxville’s 1950s Martha Stewart, a sophisticated host who seemed to live a perfect life, and wanted to share what she’d learned.
Starr’s Homemaker Show opened with Charlie Chaplin’s sadly upbeat composition “Smile.”
“She was extremely good,” Stonecipher says of Starr. “She wasn’t just off the street.”
Jack Wiedemann, the well-traveled late-’50s operations manager who redesigned Starr’s set, was especially fond of her. “She was a great person,” he says. “I still use her recipe for beef stew. It’s the best damn beef stew I ever put in my mouth.”
After leaving the cramped quarters of the old Mechanics Bank building downtown, Channel 6 had settled into an old mayonnaise factory on Broadway, near the foot of Sharp’s Ridge. “It smelled of it when we moved in,” says Stonecipher.
Stonecipher brought some of his country connections to WATE, too. He was director of the Flatt and Scruggs show, on WATE, early evenings. The famous bluegrass duo had recently lived in Knoxville, but by the mid-’50s were traveling through the region, doing weekly shows in several different markets. Their sponsor was Martha White Flour, a Nashville-based company, for which Flatt and Scruggs had written a theme song they performed at the top of every show. On one broadcast, they were featuring an impressive young singer then living in Knoxville named Don Gibson.
“He was just beginning to make a lot of noise,” says Stonecipher. “Flatt and Scruggs had him singing their song. And instead of Martha White, he said ‘White Lily,’” a reference to Knoxville’s flour and a competitor with Martha White. Lester Flatt responded, “No, no, no, no!” They tried to ad lib a joke of it, but sponsors generally don’t look kindly at such irreverence.
WATE isn’t always mentioned in discussions of the popularization of country music, but at one time Channel 6 also hosted weekly shows featuring the latter-day Carter Family and the Willis Brothers.
For political junkies, television came to Knoxville just in time to see the Army-McCarthy hearings on WATE, in which Knoxville attorney Ray Jenkins figured prominently, cross-examining Sen. Joe McCarthy’s allegations about Communist infiltration.
In late 1955, WTSK upped its power dramatically, from 21,000 watts to 316,000. By then they were even paving the steep road to their studio. Under new ownership anyway, they picked new call letters, WTVK. Carl Lawson says their power bill was unbelievable. But for most viewers, Channel 6 was still easier to pick up. Ray Rose followed Stonecipher to WATE, eventually to become that station’s senior-most staffer. The UHF channel was beginning to seem like the training ground for the VHF channel.
In August 1956, WBIR finally broadcast on Channel 10, the frequency WNOX had pined for for years, becoming Knoxville’s third television station almost three years after the first two. They offered some appealing on-air personalities, like Doc Johnston, the piano-playing DJ on WBIR radio, with his famous yellow canary and “gal Friday” Linda White and his theme song, “Sunrise Serenade.”
And like WATE, WBIR made a practice of hiring WTSK’s best talent, and got creative program director Pete Fennelly.
A few months before that first broadcast in 1953, a Dr. John Mohr, a television owner who’d recently moved to Knoxville from Washington, remarked, “Once we get a TV station here, it will change the whole life of the city, at least for a while. People won’t go out as much.”
Perhaps coincidentally, it was just a couple of years after Knoxville got television that the Lyric Theatre, which began life 80 years earlier as Staub’s Opera House, closed, to be torn down in 1956. But then vaudeville and live drama had been ebbing for years, with radio the main culprit.
In the seven years after those first television broadcasts, 10 Knoxville movie theaters—most of them neighborhood cinemas, like Burlington’s Gay Theatre, the Booth on Cumberland Avenue, the Roxy on Union, and even the big Broadway Theatre—closed.
Some radio execs worried about the effect of television, and in the ‘50s, formats shifted, eliminating the drama and comedy radio-network shows that had been a staple of radio for 20 years. One local radio exec sounded confident: “A housewife washing dishes can’t look at TV, but she can sure listen to Eddie Arnold.”
WIVK’s adaptation to the TV era may have been the most dramatic and the most permanent. Jim Dick thought he had the key to surviving in an era of national programming, and in 1953 revealed his strategy: “We don’t think TV can ever give out enough hillbilly music. If we program more of it, we’ll get correspondingly more listeners.”
Knoxville professional baseball experienced a decrease in attendance, and in 1967, when it appeared to be dying, sometimes drawing crowds of only 50 or 60, many blamed the distraction of television. (According to one article about the decline of Knoxville baseball in Harper’s Magazine, the chief culprit was The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Somehow the football Vols, who had never drawn crowds of more than 50,000 before television, thrived. Half a dozen days a year, at least.
But 60 years ago this month, television obviously brought Knoxville something it wanted. The years to come would present Romper Room, Clayton Star Time, and the long-running, phenomenon known as the Heartland Series, as well as national personalities like Peabody and Emmy Award-winning TV reporter Carol Marin and Ann Taylor, the local TV newscaster who would later be one of the main announcers on National Public Radio.
In putting together a television exhibit, Bradley Reeves has found it a challenge to nail some things down. “Television is of the moment, it’s got to go out now,” he says. There were few efforts to save early television recordings at the time, and several efforts to deliberately dispose of it, both locally and nationally. Most of what was locally broadcast in the 1950s is lost, never saved to begin with, except for a couple of scraps here and there. “What survives of this era really is an accident,” he says.
Reeves says that’s been a challenge, even getting TV’s pioneers to value their own work. TV was exciting at the time, but few saw it as “historic.” But looking back honestly at how we’ve spent our lives over the last 60 years, television’s historical significance is clear, for both better and worse. Few obviously “historic” events have affected American lives more.
Corrected: The spelling of Pete Fennelly's last name.