Mort Lloyd at WRGP TV
photo by David Carroll
Mort Lloyd was a pioneer in Chattanooga television broadcasting with some of the highest news ratings in our city’s history. Forty-eight years ago Mr. Lloyd was on his way to visit family in Shelbyville, Tn., when his small plane crashed taking his life at the age of 43.
It was Aug. 24, 1974, and a near-normal news day. I was a young and inexperienced reporter at WDOD radio. My phone rang and it was a friend at the Tennessee Highway Patrol who said, “Earl, are you listening to your scanner? I’m hearing some distressing traffic out of Middle Tennessee.”
The dispatcher went on to say, “I’ll call you back.” The next call was from my friend Tom Hogue who worked for WDEF. I’d known Tom since my first day at WDOD in 1965. Hogue said he had the day off and was working at the Civil Air Patrol and we have a plane down south of Nashville….(long pause). “Earl, the plane is registered to Mort Lloyd.” Hogue said he would stay in touch. My next call was again from the friend at the THP. “Earl, it’s true, the plane that crashed was Mort Lloyd’s and he was the only one on board.” I hung up the phone and called the Mort Lloyd for Congress campaign headquarters and they confirmed the news.
Immediately I asked seasoned broadcaster Lloyd Payne, who was on the air, what we should do. “Should we go with what we have?” He said, “Call The Associated Press. They can get all the details and we can put the story on the air.” In 30 seconds, the AP bell started ringing with a bulletin and we ran the story.
In 1974, Watergate dominated every newscast and newspaper. Mr. Lloyd told his family he felt he could make a difference in Washington and decided to run for the Democrat Party nomination, Third District congressional seat. He won and was set to face incumbent Republican Congressman Lamar Baker in the November general election. Baker was a staunch supporter of embattled President Richard Nixon.
In a wide-ranging interview with Marilyn Lloyd (Mort’s widow) on May 30, 2002, Mrs. Lloyd said Mort came to Chattanooga from WSIX Radio in Nashville after being hired to work for WDEF Radio. She said when WDEF TV signed on the air in 1954 they tapped Mort to anchor the evening news.
During our conversation, Mrs. Lloyd said in addition to broadcasting, Mort loved airplanes. After arriving in Chattanooga he hung around Lovell Field and became good friends with Harry Porter. She said Mr. Porter, who had a 65-year aviation career, taught Mort how to fly.
Mrs. Lloyd said she met Mort through mutual friends and they got married. She had worked in radio while in high school and the two shared a common interest. Mrs. Lloyd said the couple applied to the FCC for the 92.3 FM frequency in Chattanooga but the license was given to Park Broadcasting who owned WDEF AM radio. WDEF FM signed on the air in September 1964. Mrs. Lloyd jokingly said, “Luther should have been working for me,” referring to Luther Masingill, longtime morning radio host.
The Lloyds didn’t give up on their dream, applying for an AM station license in Dalton, Ga. The FCC approved WTTI, 10,000 watts at 1530, but Mrs. Lloyd said it was an uphill battle since they could only broadcast in the daytime. 1530 KHz is the frequency for the 50,000 watt WCKY which covers 38 states (including Georgia) at night.
Mrs. Lloyd said when they went on the air she spent a lot of time at the Dalton family business because Mort was still anchoring the 6:00 news in Chattanooga. Mrs. Lloyd said the couple did host a talk show, “Mornings with Mort and Marilyn.” She said, “Mort would read poetry and we both discussed a lot of issues in and around Dalton. I wrote the commercials, did the books and he sold advertising,”
Mrs. Lloyd said when Mort switched from Channel 12 to Channel 3 in the late 50s and back to Channel 12 in 1970; it was his decision. She said they discussed the moves, but she told him, “You have to make up your mind as to what is best for you.”
Mrs. Lloyd said she was by herself working to get her husband elected at the Chattanooga campaign headquarters when the phone rang. It was WDEF newsman Hogue who also served as the public information officer for the Civil Air Patrol. She said when Mr. Hogue broke the news she was in shock and left speechless.
Doris Ellis was at WDEF for 50 years serving part of that time as program director and she remembers Aug. 24 very well. Ms. Ellis said, “Mort came into my office the day before his plane trip asking me to hold his mail; that was the last time I saw him.” Ms. Ellis said in early afternoon the next day there was a loud commotion in the hall; someone called out that Mort’s plane had crashed and a few minutes later she learned he’d been killed. She said: “I had the strangest feeling because he was just in my office.” Ms. Ellis described Mort as “a staunch newsman but the nicest person with a heart of gold; it was one of the saddest days of my career.”
Mike King was Mr. Lloyd’s backup news anchor at WDEF TV. King said that day he was alone in the newsroom and the phone rang. King said it was the Coffee County, Tn. sheriff where Mort’s plane had crashed. King said to the sheriff, “Is it bad enough to send a film crew?” and the sheriff responded, “Yes.” Investigators said the crash was caused by the loss of a propeller blade.
Retired broadcast executive Ben Cagle was working at WDEF TV at the time of the tragic accident. Lloyd was in his office the day before for about 20 minutes and they talked about his family. “Mr. Lloyd has been a friend of ours since I was a kid and Mort wanted to know about my mom, dad and the boys.” When the conversation ended Cagle said he got up from his desk and told Lloyd to have a safe trip. “That was the last time I saw him.” The next work day, Cagle said “there was very little conversation among co-workers, but lots of tears and lots of closed doors. We all loved Mort, he was our friend.”
Cagle said he was in the Lloyds’ Brainerd home several times as a guest. Cagle said, “There’s never been a news anchor to compare to Mort Lloyd, he was so believable and honorable, we never had trouble getting advertisers for the 6 p.m. news; at times there was a waiting list.”
Mort Lloyd was often seen around town with photographer Tommy Eason who shot a lot of the film for the evening news. One of the major stories of Lloyd’s career was the Bonny Oaks tank fire of 1972 which claimed three lives. Lloyd flew his plane over the scene while Eason did the filming.
Mr. Lloyd’s favorite news writer was Dave Carlock. Mr. Carlock would prepare the copy for Lloyd’s preview and have it ready about 5 p.m. Carlock said the anchor used a black flair pen to make notes on the script. Carlock was asked what made Mr. Lloyd so popular; “Mort Lloyd was always interested in the facts, not rumor, and his audience believed him.”
For most of the time the deep bass voice anchor brought the evening news into our homes, John Gray did the weather. In the early part of his career, Gray worked at WDOD Radio in Chattanooga and he knew the market. Mr. Carlock said, “John Gray was the perfect match with Lloyd.”
Both Ms. Ellis and Mr. Cagle said it was several weeks before the staff adjusted to Lloyd’s absence. Cagle said, “It wasn’t the same, he was just part of the WDEF family.”
Popular TV news anchor David Carroll wrote about Mr. Lloyd, “We’ll never know what Mort might have achieved in government. Would he have chosen to run for U.S. Senate, as many House members do? Would his popularity have spread statewide as it did in southeast Tennessee? What were his interests, his causes? What committees might he have served on? Would he have used his influence in constructive ways for TVA, the Chickamauga Lock, our highways and health care? Or would he have become frustrated by Washington, and opted to return to the local TV business?”
The WRCB news anchor went on to say, “There are no definitive answers. It’s important to note that he made quite an impact on the Chattanooga area in his life, cut short all too soon by tragedy.”
News Free Press Editor Lee Anderson wrote in 1974, "Lloyd was boosted by his television popularity, the Watergate Scandal but most of all his ability to connect with the people. Mort was one of the best communicators of our day. Luther is morning radio, Mort is television news.”
After Mort’s death, Mrs. Lloyd said friends quickly got her name on the November ballot. Mrs. Lloyd won the election and served in Congress for 20 years becoming the fourth woman elected from Tennessee. Mrs. Lloyd died at the age of 89 in 2018.
In that 2002 radio interview, Mrs. Lloyd told me while in Washington she thought often of the issues dear to Mort’s heart (veterans and seniors) and would ask herself how he would vote. “I tried to fill my husband’s shoes while representing the people of the Third District.”
Bill Fauth recalls, "Back in the day, I was an air traffic controller at Lovell Field. Mort kept his airplane parked in front of the tower. All of us with the FAA enjoyed “working” Mort in and out of the airport. He was cooperative and friendly, the latter being difficult to convey via a radio transmission, but he did.
"Navigation aids have names. One radio beacon is called Daisy while another is known as Choo Choo. After Mort’s death we wanted to honor him in an FAA kind of way so we requested that the outer marker (a navigation aid) to runway 2 be renamed “Morrt” (had to have five letters). Our request was approved. Inbound aircraft from the south use Morrt every day."
Mort Lloyd, left, and John Gray at WDEF TV
photo by David Carroll