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A Bit on 6...
On July 4, 1949, Birmingham, Alabama received its second television station: WBRC-TV. Eloise Smith Hannah borrowed $150,000 to begin WBRC television (which is the only Birmingham station to use its original call letters) and hired four employees. Evelyn Allen was one of the original employees, and she became the first local person to appear on local television. She even took part in the station's first commercial: Faultless Starch.
Few people know that WBRC-TV, then owned by WBRC radio, began as Channel 4. But for a variety of reasons, and no one really knows the real reason, the station moved to 6 on the dial and aired CBS programming.
M.D. Smith, III, Ms. Hannah's son, was operations manager for the station that aired programming for about three to four hours daily. In 1953, Eloise Hannah sold WBRC to Storrer Broadcasting for $2.3 million — quite a payoff for a four-year investment.
Horace Pumphrey of WBRC radio became the station's first announcer in 1949. During this time, the station would sometimes air goldfish in their bowl to remain "on air" because they were required to have a picture and motion! In 1957 Country Boy Eddie began his show after years of "playing the fiddle" on WBRC radio. And radio was the birthplace for others: Harry Mabry (newscaster from 1958-1969), Bill Bolen, Tom York, and Joe Langston.
Pat Gray gave her weather report with Tom York's sports and Joe Langston's news for years. In 1952 the station received live studio cameras and ran a 5- to 15-minute newscast. In the 1960s and '70s, WBRC-TV newscasts were the highest rated local newscasts in the nation. And when NBC and CBS went to the 30-minute newscast format in 1965, ABC followed in 1967. So, as an ABC affiliate at that time, WBRC, you would naturally think, would do as the network asked. But they didn't! Channel 6 said that they didn't want an hour-long block of news, so this unusual market kept its 15 minutes of news, weather, and sports and ended up beating out the other local airings of the national news on NBC and CBS!
The 1960s brought great technology to WBRC. In 1966 WBRC-TV got two color cameras. And one of the first local shows produced in color was the Bear Bryant Show — featuring the great Alabama Crimson Tide football coach.
In 1969 Harry Mabry left the news desk, but Bill Bolen joined the WBRC-TV staff. He had begun his career at WSGN radio (standing for the South's Greatest Newspaper — now WZZK-AM based in Gadsden) in 1954 with Ward McIntyre, Channel 6's own Bozo the Clown! McIntyre did the popular children's show along with filling in for anyone else with news, weather, or sports. He and Pat Gray even took part in the Friday Night Horror Film.
The 1970s brought Larry Langford to Channel 6 as a reporter. Now the mayor of Fairfield just outside of Birmingham, Langford covered the shootings and even produced reenactments of the crimes. Later that decade, in 1978, the station became the first local station to put a microwave truck into service. Now taken for granted, Channel 6 became the first local station to be able to go live to a breaking story.
The 1980s produced even more memories for WBRC-TV. The news consisted of Frank O'Neil, Bill Bolen, Tom York, and Dave Pylant. Later in 1981 Scott Richards joined the staff. In 1983 the city's first African American anchored evening news. She was Bev Montgomery who is now in Seattle, Washington. And still later, in early 1987, Eli Gold, the famous voice of the Alabama Crimson Tide and NASCAR moved from WERC-AM 960 to Channel 6 to become the station's sports director. He stayed until 1989, and then took the Alabama football play-by-play job.
The calls WBRC (which stemmed from WBRC radio owned by J.C. Bell) stand for Bell Radio Corporation.
With notable personalities such as Tom York, Joe Langston, Pat Gray, Bill Bolen, Herb Winches, Henry Mabry, Fannie Flagg, Larry Langford, Eli Gold, Mike Royer (who is now at WVTM-13), Ward McIntyre, Happy Hal, Country Boy Eddie, Benny Carl, and countless others, WBRC has come a long way. Having had 16 news directors over 50 years, Channel 6 now holds a news department with 87 people. From CBS to ABC to their current affiliation with Fox (effective September 1, 1996), WBRC provides "Coverage You Can Count On" twenty-four hours a day.
Information about FOX 6 came from the two-hour "Good Day Alabama" show which aired on WBRC-TV Friday, July 2, 1999 at 7:00 am along with the WBRC website, www.wbrc.com.
A Bit on 13...
In May 1949, Birmingham, and the state of Alabama, received their first television station: what we now know as NBC 13. However, Channel 13 didn't start as WVTM, and they didn't start as NBC.
When Channel 13 signed on the air waves as a venture by one of the four Birmingham radio stations, WAPI-FM, the call letters for 13 were WAFM. TV was a dangerous venture — the television industry had lost over $15 million in 1948. There were fewer than 40 TV stations in America, and only a few Birmingham households had a TV. This was new territory that was thought to only last about five years.
Channel 13 began by carrying ABC and CBS programming along with a lot of local shows. Cousin Cliff Holman had local kid shows for 15 years. His Tip-Top show lasted from 1954 to 1958, and his Popeye show lasted on Channel 13 from 1958 until 1969.
Meanwhile, in 1951 Channel 13 organized the state's first all-news department. And in 1953 the call letters changed from WAFM to WABT standing for Alabama's Best Television. Broadcasting NBC and ABC programming now, they sent their signal out at 316,000 watts of power.
Then in 1958, parent owner WAPI-FM radio changed the call letters to show that Channel 13 was a part of their radio station: the calls became WAPI-TV (standing for owner Alabama Polytechnical Institute in Auburn) and stayed that way for over 20 years.
A lot changed in the '60s and '70s, but when 1980 rolled around, another change occured at Channel 13. The station was sold to Times Mirror Broadcasting, and the call letters were changed to a fourth set. Standing for Vulcan Times Mirror, Channel 13 became WVTM-TV and remains that way today. (For you outside of Birmingham, Vulcan is the largest cast-iron statue in the nation that stands atop a very tall marble pedestal on top of Red Mountain, home to WBRC-6 and WVTM-13 studios.)
In Birmingham, the late '70s and early '80s brought the city "ActionNews 13" from atop Red Mountain, while the late '80s gave the people "13 And You" stemming from NBC's successful campaign, "NBC And You." And the '90s gave us Alabama's 13 — "People Who Care."
Today, WVTM-TV, NBC 13, broadcasts more than 35 hours of local news programming every week. While the call letters, faces, slogans, sets, features, and shows have changed, NBC 13 remains Alabama's first television station. And as they say, "We've got you covered!"
Information about NBC 13 came from the hour-long "NBC13: Celebrating 50 Golden Years Special" which aried on WVTM-TV Friday, May 28, 1999 at 6:00 pm.
A Bit on 33/40...
ABC 33/40 is Birmingham's newest station. But, it's not really new if you examine it.
33/40 is a combination station of WCFT-33 Tuscaloosa and WJSU-40 Anniston. Birmingham happens to have the WBMA-LP call letters (standing for AlaBaMA) and the low power frequency of 58.But it is so low powered that some people within the city can't even get it.
WCFT and WJSU were about 15 to 20 years behind Alabama's first television station, Channel 13, but these two stations have had interesting histories. WCFT signed on the airwaves from Tuscaloosa in 1965. WCFT stands for Chapman Family Television, the original license holder. Eight Tuscaloosa businessmen saw the benefits of the station in both the business and the community service lights.
Beginning as an independent station was difficult and not very profitable, so the orginal owners sold the station to Hattiesburg, Mississippi-based Service Broadcasters in 1967. The new owners rejuvinated the station by pumping money into it. They purchased new equipment and improved the station's image.
And through an interesting deal with Birmingham-based WBMG-42, the Birmingham Market's CBS affiliate, WCFT was granted rights to CBS network programming. Yet it was not until 1970 that WCFT became a full-fledged CBS affiliate.
Meanwhile, on October 29, 1969, on nearly the other side of the state, Channel 40 made its way to being. Founded by Anniston Broadcasting Company with parent owners being members of the Harry M. Ayers family, Channel 40 took the call letters of WHMA-TV (the family already owned radio stations WHMA-FM and WHMA-AM).
The Ayers family owned the local paper, The Anniston Star, and their station served approximately 100,000 households. The station became a CBS affiliate in the mid '70s.
By the early 1980s, WCFT was the leading local news station in Tuscaloosa (with newscasts called "Eyewitness News"), beating out all of the Birmingham stations broadcasting into the Tuscaloosa area. In 1987 Arbitron made Tuscaloosa its own television market.
WHMA-TV changed its call letters in the '70s or early '80s because in 1989 Osborn Communications purchased WJSU (standing for Jacksonville State University). The station was again sold to current owners Flagship Broadcasting before combining with WCFT.
This combination came about in 1995 when Allbritton Communications purchased WCFT in Tuscaloosa. Since WBRC was changing from ABC to Fox, Allbritton contracted with Flagship to LMA WJSU and convert both WCFT and WJSU from CBS affiliates to ABC affiliates as satellites of a low power station based in Birmingham. WBMG (at the time — now WIAT) would serve as the region's CBS affiliate.
The deal went through and Arbitron ended up collapsing the Tuscaloosa and the Anniston Markets into the Birmingham Market in September of 1998 making it the 39th largest DMA in the nation. WMBA holds the affiliation with ABC, and WCFT and WJSU, while full-power stations, are actually satelites of the low power Channel 58. ABC 33/40's coverage stretches from the Alabama-Georgia line all the way to Columbus, Mississippi.
When the station debuted on September 1, 1996, their first slogan was "We're building our station around you." This was quite accurate because ABC 33/40 asked a lot of people about what they wanted, and they also literally built a new station in Birmingham. Since then they have changed their slogan to "Where news comes first" and now then back to the original slogan of "We're building our station around you."
Information about WCFT/WJSU/WBMA ABC 33/40 came from the ABC 33/40 website at www.abc3340.com along with other "common knowledge."
A Bit on 42...
In 1965 the Birmingham television market was small — small meaning two main stations: WBRC 6 and then-WAPI 13 (now WVTM). With these stations having a 15-year headstart, it made it difficult for a new kid on the block, WBMG (now WIAT) to make a name for itself. Complicating matters even more was how the station had a poor broadcast signal (42 on the UHF band) that many residents found difficult to pick up clearly.
Bill Dubois, a local investment banker, and some partners, started WBMG as a business venture. Carrying CBS programming helped since Walter Cronkite was the nation's most popular news anchor, but the station was known more for its local shows.
Local shows sometimes became interesting...like live studio wrestling. Household names like Len Rossi and Tojo Yamamoto emerged while DJ Neal Miller hosted the Sgt. Jack children's birthday show. On the news scene, the late Tommy Charles would sometimes finish with a sports story and throw the paper over his shoulder or let inflated balloons fly around the studio. The newscast many times became a comedy show.
Despite the on-air behavior, Park Broadcasting purchased the station in 1970 and made few changes. Some attempts were made in the '80s to produce quality newscasts, but viewers didn't much care — they stayed away from 42.
Park Broadcasting sold the station to Tampa-based Media General in January 1997 and changes began! Eric Land was brought in as general manager, and in December of 1997 he fired all on-air talent. He jerked the news off the air on January 1, 1998 and replaced it with a countdown clock to the new news debut set for Monday, February 5 (which coincided with CBS's coverage of the Winter Olympics).
The set was replaced, the image was changed, the scarlet letters of WBMG (standing for BirMinGham) were changed to WIAT (which couples their slogan, "It's About Time"), and fresh talent was brought in. Meanwhile, many on-air faces sued the station for a variety of reasons, while others did not dare to comment for fear of Media General's wrath many had heard of.
Lacking field reporters and ample local faces, 42 still remains at the bottom of the ratings heap. Land and Media General have vowed to stick to their news format saying that viewers will eventually come around to like it in today's fast-paced world. That has yet to be seen.
WIAT-TV 42 has had some improvements, though. For the first time in the station's history, Channel 42 was nominated for three Emmys recently for 1998 performance. Amazingly, the station won two of them! Anchor Keith Cate won for best news anchor, and the station won for best live reporting. Maybe this is the change that CBS 42 needs.
Information about WBMG/WIAT 42 came from the article "'Live Studio Wrestling' and Tommy Charles: History of Channel 42" by Gilbert Nicholson in the September 14, 1998 issue of the Birmingham Business Journal.