Remembering TV Coverage Of The Riverbend Festival

  • Thursday, May 30, 2024
  • John P. Creel III
Anchors Darrell Patterson, Bob Johnson, Roxanne Stein – telecasting from Riverbend
Anchors Darrell Patterson, Bob Johnson, Roxanne Stein – telecasting from Riverbend

It started as a concert series called “5 Nights in Chattanooga”. Live trucks had yet to come to Chattanooga Television. Riverbend by the Tennessee River began in August 1982 and by then both WRCB and WTVC had live trucks. I suggested early on that the station should consider taking the newscast live from the event due to the predicted crowds. The news director wasn’t as excited as I was. Riverbend on the other hand needed the publicity and they were happy to put me right in the middle of things.

It was a straight microwave shot to the WRCB studios, but for WTVC it was a microwave 2-Hop. I needed extra gear to have a redundant path set up. I was turned down for the gear, but they still let me have the five live shots I wanted. I rigged a two-hop using a building across the river. (The anchors stayed back at the station since failure was an option with the new gear.)

The Chevy Suburban we called a Live Truck, had a three-input mechanical switcher, but to cover five reporter locations I was going to have to plug and unplug two cables during the show. We also lacked enough Comrex IFB receivers so I put TV sets with rabbit ears at several of the locations. We hit all five shots and the next night they sent one of the anchors down to us. It was great fun flying by the seat of our pants for the rest of the week. WRCB took notice too.

The gear worked great all week, but weather played havoc once or twice during the week cancelling several live shots. One of our anchors missed a complete show due to bad weather on site and not being able to get back to the station in time to anchor. During cleanup we got several of our low hanging A/V cables cut by trucks. (Next year our company electrician strung the cable with his bucket truck to avoid this.)

Next year we moved into a production van with a real synchronous video switcher and an intercom system. The reporters all had Comrex IFBs. The microwave was a portable unit on the roof with the same two-hop as before. We had a home window AC unit that blew directly into the producer’s area and he had to wear a jacket during the show to keep from freezing, but we were LIVE smack dab in the middle of Riverbend, with half the anchor team for 6 and 11 p.m. every night. WRCB was right next to us.

After the 6 p.m. show the first night Cindy McCashin from WRCB showed up with a checker board table cloth and lots of FOOD for her crew. My guys looked on with much envy! They asked me, "What are we getting?” I called the ND and he said use your credit card and feed the crew … every night. I cut a deal with a vendor and he also kept an ice chest full of water and sodas on hand.

Riverbend was very TV friendly at this time. They allowed us to put a camera on an elevated platform facing the main stage. We used it for crowd shots at 6 p.m. and the bands at night. By copyright laws at the time we could use 90 seconds of each song, so we cut in live with the band every chance we got, timing each one using a stop watch. We planned to include the fireworks on Saturday night, but the band played on, live of course, and WTVC had a movie to run.

The third year they moved us to Kirkman Hill overlooking Riverbend. It was a nice view but away from the crowd. The cables runs to site were very lengthy. All three stations had tents side by side. That eliminated the two-hop for WTVC, improving reliability. Both WRCB and WTVC brought their entire anchor teams. Dinners had become quite special and surprise desserts showed each time. Portable microwaves could feed shots to the production trucks from places too long for cables. We still had our stage camera as well.

The last night in year three of Riverbend everything was running late. We went on at 11 p.m. and ran our nightly news stories, punctuated of course with Band Cam for 90 seconds. The band Chicago was on stage all the way through the show. We desperately wanted to get the fireworks in too. I called the guy in charge of master control to see if we could stretch the newscast. He said since we were running a movie tonight I could stay live as long as I wanted; “Just call me back when it’s almost time to start the movie.”

I had researched the history of Ross’s Landing and Chattanooga’s river relationship. I sat in front of the anchors writing questions and answers on a clip board. After each question we went back for our 90 seconds of Chicago music. “Did anybody really know what time it was? Did anybody really care?”

We did this for almost 30 minutes before the fireworks started. After they ended, the anchors tossed to a commercial break and then the movie. The station, WTVC, signed off the air after the movie ended. I think we spent two years on Cameron Hill.

We also covered the Bessie Smith Jazz Strut on Mondays during Riverbends. For just one show we moved everything down to Martin Luther King Boulevard. We did multiple cameras with the whole anchor team for 6 p.m. The 11 p.m. was usually a single shot. Then we moved it all back to Riverbend the next day.

The stations got into more sponsorships and advertising agreements with many companies at the Riverbend Festival TV was able to move back into the heart of Riverbend. TV stations constructed plexiglass control rooms so the public could see how we went live. Sets were built so the public could see the anchors too. We stayed there a couple years and the public loved seeing and meeting their favorite anchors in person. Local TV weather forecasters began feeding the live screens at Riverbend with a pre-show forecast. Food and drinks weren’t bad either.

We moved after several years of being inside of Riverbend because the cost of being there as a station had gotten just too high. Copyright rules changed too and we were limited to 10 second audio clips of the bands. The stage camera was also gone. We turned the Bessie Smith Strut coverage into a single truck and talent shot. We settled on putting live trucks on the periphery of Riverbend. One camera and two microphones max became the norm. Riverbend was no longer the guaranteed lead.

Now we use Live-U backpacks and solo talent. Anchor appearances were rare and the stories became part of the daily mix at 5, 6 and 11 p.m.

I was chief photographer when Riverbend started and then I was ENG/SNG tech who helped with setup and operation of the multi-camera events. Call me anything, I was interested in Riverbend because the shear numbers of people warranted coverage. I also believed that if something happened getting to Riverbend to cover it due to pedestrian traffic, parking would be almost impossible. Remember this was before the cell phone backpacks that we have today. There was a PR angle, but I didn’t push that like the news director and general manager did.

This was 20-30 plus years ago. My memory isn’t what it once was and I’m withholding some of the names to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

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John P. Creel III retired from from WTVC TV, Channel 9, in 2009 as chief photographer and went to work for WRCB TV, Channel 3, before retiring from television in 2017. The Auburn University graduate described his television career as “a jack of all trades.”

John P. Creel III, longtime chief photographer at WTVC TV
John P. Creel III, longtime chief photographer at WTVC TV
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