Channel 3 Celebrating Fifty Years

Sunday, April 30, 2006 - by Harmon Jolley
Channel 3 studios were originally at 1214 McCallie Avenue.  Click to enlarge.
Channel 3 studios were originally at 1214 McCallie Avenue. Click to enlarge.
- photo by courtesy of Chattanooga-Hamilton County Library

On May 6, 2006 Channel 3 celebrates fifty years of broadcasting in Chattanooga. Travel with us back in time now to the 1950’s – the era of Ike, Elvis, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon – as we drop in on Chattanooga resident T.V. Phann, who is readying his new television to watch Channel 3 on its first day.

MAY 6, 1956 – THE FIRST DAY OF PROGRAMMING

It’s 10:30am on a Sunday morning, and we see T.V. Phann in his living room, where he is unpacking his new Motorola television for the big day. He bought the set from Osborne Appliances on Ringgold Road, which had advertised, “See Channel 3 WRGP-TV Sunday.” Even in the early years of television, Osborne was already offering trade-ins on a new model.

“Oh, boy! That test pattern goes on in 15 minutes,” says T.V. to himself. “Let’s see now. They said to place the TV set on an outside wall for best reception. Honey! Can you bring me some pieces of aluminum foil? I’ve heard that if you wrap aluminum foil around the rabbit ears, it will make the picture clearer.”

T.V. turns on the set just as the test pattern begins. The whole Phann family – T.V., his wife Ima, daughter Bea, and son Junior say a collective “Ooooo” in response. At 11:00am, the first show broadcast on Channel 3 begins as the Highland Park Christian Church holds live services in the studios at 1214 McCallie Avenue across from Warner Park.

The new station has a variety of local programs, as well as network shows of NBC and ABC. Chattanooga’s first television station, WDEF, has recently given up the rights to NBC broadcasts. With 100,000 watts of power, WRGP Channel 3 reaches surrounding counties during a broadcast day that is 7:00am until 12:00 midnight.

T.V. Phann is excited about the shows that he can watch on his new television. At 3:00pm, there is the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Meet the Press, sponsored locally as a public service by the Electric Power Board, is on at 5:00pm. “I need to be sure to watch Meet the Press,“ says T.V. “You never know when they might cancel a news show like that.”

Junior’s favorite show, Roy Rogers, is on at 5:30 pm, and Bea is a big fan of actress Loretta Young, who has an NBC show at 9:00pm.

The weekday schedule begins with the Today Show. Ima is glad that Junior can watch the educational Ding Dong School with Miss Frances at 9:00am. At 3:30pm, Ima dreams of what it would be like to be chosen “Queen for a Day” during the show hosted by Jack Bailey. T.V. is home from the office by 6:00pm to catch up on the day’s local news, a 15-minute wrap-up anchored by Steve Conrad.


GETTING THE STATION ON THE AIR

To T.V. Phann and his family, it all seemed so easy. Plug in the television, and tune it to channel 3 with the rotary dial. Getting the new station on the air was anything but easy, though.

Ramon G. Patterson, who had worked with his father at WAPO radio, had been trying for several years to win the rights from the Federal Communications Commission for a new television channel. His competition had come from the ownership of WDOD radio.

In early 1956, the FCC decided in favor of Mr. Patterson. The Mountain City Television, Inc., with Patterson as president and former Judge Will Cummings as secretary/treasurer, was granted rights to the new Channel 3. The details of the decision show how much that broadcasting has changed since 1956. The Times reported, “The commission found that WDOD had made “a common practice” of running two commercial spot announcements in sequence…”

The new TV station had call letters comprised of the standard “W” (being east of the Mississippi River) and “RGP” for the acronym of the station’s president. Ramon Patterson had already been searching for personnel to bring the station on the air. Wayne Abercrombie, the first employee hired by Mr. Patterson, recalls how that he joined WRGP.

“I was working at WISH-TV, channel 8 in Indianapolis, Indiana and through a weekly media publication known as “Broadcasting-Telecasting”, I read that a Raymond G. Patterson, owner of WAPO Radio in Chattanooga, had just been awarded the franchise rights to build and operate a TV station on Channel 3 in Chattanooga. During my three years of employment at the station in Indianapolis, I was constantly looking for a chance to move back to the South where my family and my wife’s family lived.”

“I called Raymond Patterson on the day the publication came out and since I had been through the experience of building a TV station from the ground up, he was very interested in talking to me about coming to work. I made an appointment with him two days later and came to Chattanooga for an interview. Mr. Patterson offered me a job and I worked a two-week notice there in Indianapolis. I came here to be an employee of Channel 3 the first week of January, 1956.”

A two-story building at 1214 McCallie Avenue was remodeled to serve as WRGP’s studios. Mr. Abercrombie recalls, “While this was being constructed, I spent most of my time cleaning out the “Quonset Hut” as it was known, up on Signal Mountain where the transmitter was to be located. A brother of mine named Joe Abercrombie who also worked at the Indianapolis station came down two weeks later and went to work as the transmitter supervisor. The chief engineer was B.B. Barnes who was an engineer for the radio station WAPO that Patterson owned in the Read House. Barnes continued his work at the radio station while at the same time became the chief engineer of the soon to be TV station.”


After remodeling was complete, Mr. Abercrombie recalled “I went to work there daily and began helping with the layout and wiring of the studio and control room. While I had much engineering experience, my main job was in production as a producer-director. As the new equipment began to arrive for the control room and studio, we spent several weeks installing and wiring each piece. We mounted all the lights and hung the curtains around the wall in the studio.”

From January until May, 1956 the crew of WRGP raced to get the station on the air. Wayne Abercrombie remembers the first telecast: “By May, several employees had been hired for a complete staff and we were ready to go on the air. I directed and switched the first program we had on the air which was a church program held in our studio by the Highland Park Baptist Church. Many dignitaries were present for the first telecast.”

The short amount of time required to get WRGP on the air was reported in the Chattanooga Times of May 5, 1956 as possibly being a new record in broadcasting. Still, Channel 3 could have been on the air sooner had it not been for an accident, Mr. Abercrombie said. “We were delayed a few weeks from our projected on the air date because of a minor accident up at the transmitter site involving the tower. The boom that was lifting up the antenna with all the bat wings on it collapsed and bent most of the antenna. We had to wait for a new one to be shipped in from RCA.”


THE EARLY YEARS OF TELEVISION AT WRGP

Wayne Abercrombie’s day usually began at 6:00am, when he arrived to prepare for the 7:00am start of the station’s day with the Today Show. Technological innovations were many years away, so station crew had to do most of the work using great ingenuity. Mr. Abercrombie shared some of the behind-the-scenes activities:

We had no camera operator, sound person or projectionist. I had to turn on and align the camera to be used and put it in place in front of the news set. I had to load all the film for commercials and the news clips myself prior to the cut in.

All commercials of a local nature in those days were done live as we had no video tape. Products to be shown in a commercial were placed on a stairstep table and the camera operator would pan them according to the direction given by the director.

All station break announcements were mostly on reel to reel audio tape that was made up daily according to the traffic log and script book. From the directors position, the tape could be started as you switched into the break from the network or a program as needed.
Most of our graphics were from Opaque slides early on and then 35 mm slides later. Often times, we used art cards made up by our art department that had white lettering on them and we would shoot these with a live camera to super-impose the message over the live camera and etc.

In addition to working with black and white cameras, we had no computers in those days. The weather was done with the announcer standing in front of a 4 X 5 chalk board with the states outline on it and a few stick on symbols for weather information. At the top was a slot for sponsor ID to slide into. The weather man made a daily trip in the afternoon to the weather bureau located at the airport to gather infor to make up the evening forcast .

We used lots of movies, all in black and white with commercials spliced into them at intervals. We had 2 large 16 mm projectors in the projection room for playing both movies and commercials.

Speaking of movies, would you believe – Shazam!– that Jim “Gomer Pyle” Nabors worked in the film room? He spliced commercials and programs together onto 16 mm film. Nabors also sang on-camera during “Holiday for Housewives.” The 1958 city directory lists “James T. Nabors, film director WRGP.” Jim Nabors later moved to Los Angeles, where his stand-up act was discovered by Andy Griffith.

The station had a variety of live programming. Country music acts, including Flatt and Scruggs and Porter Waggoner, traveled from Nashville to do live shows in the WRGP studios. Harry Thornton’s popular live wrestling show began at WRGP. Mr. Abercrombie worked on Chattanooga’s first remote telecast of the state Tennessee Junior Miss Pageant from Red Bank High School.

On June 7, 1957 Dave Garroway brought the Today Show to Rock City for a live remote which was telecast on WRGP. However, this became a “battle in the clouds” – a battle for Mr. Garroway to see the camera in the midst of dense fog. The Chattanooga Times quoted Dave as saying, “This probably is the first time in history a television program has been presented from inside a cloud.”

In an intra-market personnel change of 1958, WRGP and WDEF swapped news directors, with Steve Conrad going to Channel 12 and Mort Lloyd relocating to Channel 3.

Ownership changes eventually led to a change in Channel 3’s call letters. In 1959, Ramon G. Patterson sold 70% of his stock in Mountain City Television to WSTV of Steubenville, Ohio. Greeting card publisher United Printers and Publishers acquired the station in 1961. Rust Craft Broadcasting, a division of Rust Craft Greeting Cards, Inc., changed the call letters of Channel 3 to WRCB in 1963.

WRCB moved to its present studios on Whitehall Road in 1968. The new location gave the station visibility along Chattanooga’s new freeway into downtown.


GROWING UP WITH CHANNEL 3

Many of the members of the audience of Channel 3 have since grown up with the station, and have watched its local and network programs from kids shows to reality shows.

We remember News for Little People, Bulletin, PM Magazine, Jaycee Question of the Week, and numerous other local shows. Remember those magnetic animated weather symbols that John Gray used? Their concept is still there in the computerized weather maps. Remember all of the great Channel 3 on-air personalities who have brought us the news or hosted charity fund-raisers?

Think back to your first color TV that was tuned to Channel 3, and seeing the NBC Peacock announce that a Channel 3 show was in color. Now, they’re all that way. We remember all of the great NBC programs shown on Channel 3. Recall all of the great game shows that were fun to watch when you were too ill to go to school? Remember when you were old enough to watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?

It’s been fifty years? Well, like sands through the hour glass, they say. Oh, that’s how another show on Channel 3 started out.


REFLECTING ON FIFTY YEARS OF CHANNEL 3

As Channel 3 observes its golden anniversary, Wayne Abercrombie shared these reflections.

“As I look back 50 years ago to the beginning days of Channel 3 when television was in black and white, no videotape, no satellites for remotes, and no wireless audio, I would never have dreamed that one day, years later after the inaugural telecast of Channel 3, that we would be watching TV in "color", using satellites for instant news happenings from all over the world, being able to videotape programs and commercials, send TV signals by way of video phones, and the use of computers in the TV industry.”

“When I look at the changes in technology over these last 50 years, not only in TV, but in so many of the things that dominate our lifestyles today, I wonder what the next 50 years will bring.“

By the way, as a note to T.V. Phann, your fears in 1956 about the longevity of Meet the Press were unwarranted. The show is now in its fifty-eighth year, and is currently hosted by Tim Russert. I remember when College Bowl, Meet the Press, and Bullwinkle were the shows on Sunday evening for real intellectuals to watch.

If you have memories of Channel 3, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.



Advertisement for Channel 3's first day on the air.  Click to enlarge.
Advertisement for Channel 3's first day on the air. Click to enlarge.

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