Recollections by Ted McKay
In February 1953, Gus Zaharis, the owner of WTIP, withdrew his application for a TV station on UHF channel 49 and cleared the way for the granting of a construction permit to Joe L. Smith, Jr. (owner of WKNA/950 & 97.5) as Charleston's first commercial TV station.
When the construction permit was issued less than a month later, the first decision to be made concerned the location of the transmitter site. Al Ginkle, who was chief engineer of WJLS, Smith's Beckley station, was placed in charge of site selection, and set up residence in the old Ruffner Hotel on Kanawha Boulevard, about a block east of the WKNA studios. I remember how Ginkle and I rented a Jeep and traveled up and down unpaved logging and mining roads surveying possible sites around Charleston. Final selection for the offices, studio and transmitter was a spot atop Bownemont Hill, overlooking Charleston's west side near the Patrick Street bridge.
Smith named several key people at WKNA Radio to the TV staff, including George Gray as manager, Don Hays as program director, and myself as film and promotion director. Ed Miller, Dick Reid, and I were to serve as on-air talent.
It's hard to believe that the FCC would duplicate a blunder it had made in the 1940s when it changed the frequencies allotted to commercial FM stations after the sets were being built and broadcast stations were in service. The public became so confused about what FM really was that AM radio remained dominant well into the 1960s. But the FCC repeated its mistake when it decided to allow UHF broadcasting to begin before there was any requirement in place to mandate the inclusion of the higher frequencies on all new sets that were being built and sold (something that didn't happen for several years). Anyone interested in watching Charleston's new station would have to buy a converter and attach it to his present set, or pay considerably more for a new set with the UHF frequencies factory installed. TV dealers were actually telling prospective buyers "You don't need to spend the extra money for UHF because that station won't have anything you'll want to watch anyway" or "Here's the same set without UHF for $70 less." A survey by WKNA found that some dealers did not even stock "all channel sets" or even converters. (A station promotional advertising campaign titled "DON'T BUY HALF A TV SET" had little effect, because not only was a VHF set less expensive than the same set in all-channel configuration, but installation was cheaper as well.)
WKNA-TV seemed doomed from the start. WCHS had acquired a permit for VHF channel 8, so the future of UHF in Charleston seemed bleak at best. Management contributed to the failure when it was decided to go on the air with the basic RCA 1kW UHF transmitter, and add amplifiers later. Considering Charleston's terrain, this was a disaster, and when equipment tests began it was discovered that coverage was quite limited in all but the immediate downtown Charleston area, and reception over 5 miles from the tower was considered a fluke!
I lived in Nitro, about ten or twelve air miles from the transmitter site, and remember using a 20 foot mast and stacked UHF yagis cut for channel 49 to finally get a snowy picture in November 1953, only to see that picture vanish when the leaves came out in the spring of 1954!
Channel 49 went on the air September 17, 1953, affiliated with the ABC and DuMont networks ... but so was WSAZ-TV/3 in Huntington. Most national advertisers opted for WSAZ's VHF signal and assured viewership and excluded WKNA. The programs that were aired (Motorola TV Playhouse, Captain Video and several others) were broadcast two weeks late on kinescopes while WSAZ with its private microwave link from Columbus, Ohio to Huntington aired the best of all four networks (NBC, CBS, ABC and DuMont) on a live basis. WKNA-TV's national spot advertising was almost non-existent, and local advertising was next to impossible to sell at any price. Imagine trying to sell a spot to someone who couldn't watch the ad in his own home in St. Albans or Kanawha City!
Appalachian Electric Power provided the station with a home economist from its staff to do the daily cooking show (What's Cookin') in the full kitchen that had been installed by Charleston Electric Supply. The young lady, Sara Harshbarger, was quite talented, and was soon bitten by the TV bug! Sara came to work for the station on a full time basis, and with co-host Dick Reid, (himself an accomplished gourmet cook) the show developed a faithful, albeit small following. Sara, Dick and I hosted an afternoon "TV Juke Box" program that used the then popular pantomime format, and even though their resources were limited, it too became a popular feature.
Dick Reid had developed a children's show, The 49'ers Club which aired in late afternoon. The program proved so popular with children and parents alike that WCHS lured Dick away even before they went on the air in mid-1954. With Dick gone, I found myself filling still another pair of shoes!
In an attempt to stimulate interest in the station, several syndicated film programs (Liberace and Drew Pearson Reports) that were not broadcast on WSAZ-TV were purchased but failed to have the desired result.
Bill Barrett, who had been news director at sister station WJLS/560 in Beckley (also owned by Joe L. Smith) for some time, was transferred to Charleston in an effort to shore up the news coverage. Barrett, a long-time Smith employee, was well known in West Virginia news circles, and had been editor of The 560 News, Beckley's counterpart to WKNA's 950 News. (Both magazines had ceased publication in the late summer of 1953 because of Smith's cash flow problems.) With hardly any budget and no news film available, Barrett's newscast was little more than a TV camera aimed at a news announcer! There was a map for the weatherman, however. It could be wiped down each night and used again the next day!
Limited resources meant there was only one live camera, so two-camera shots, fades and dissolves (except to slide or black) were impossible.
Early in the morning of February 4, 1954 fire struck the building. One of the engineers, who lived in a trailer behind the building, had to be restrained when he tried to stop the fireman from dousing the fire with water. Although some electrical damage did occur, the station was off the air for only a few hours, and resumed operation on film that evening. Live programming continued the next day.
By the time the microwave link was finally installed in late summer 1954 and we could finally carry ABC programming live, it was too late. WCHS-TV had gone on the air with full power on VHF channel 8, an ideal tower location and the CBS network.
By mid-1954 most of the original staff had departed for greener (and more secure) pastures. Dick Reid and photographer Nilo Olin joined WCHS-TV, along with a young cameraman Dick Reid had nicknamed "Mumps" after he came down with a case of mumps a few weeks after he started at the station. "Mumps" and Dick had developed the kind of relationship that was quite common in the early days of TV, when the cameraman was more important than the director. Together the pair created the illusion of a multiple camera setup with a single camera! Dick felt "Mumps" was so vital to his future success that he convinced WCHS to hire them as a team!
Art director Boone Boggs (who had originated the WJLS 560 News while promotion director at that station in the late 1940s) decided to return to the same Roanoke, Virginia TV station he had left to join WKNA-TV a few months earlier. Ed Miller went to the announce staff at WLWT/5 in Cincinnati and George Gray moved to WLWD/2 in Dayton, Ohio. Will Jackson was moved to Charleston from WJLS as manager of TV and radio. In October 1954 I returned to my hometown of Cincinnati as a member of the radio news staff at Taft Broadcasting's WKRC/550. This left Don Hays as the one remaining staff member who had been at WKNA-TV from the time the CP was granted a little more than a year and a half prior; Hays left Charleston within a couple of years and formed Radio Reps, a company that specialized in placing spot advertising on radio stations in smaller cities and towns in the Midwest.
The station finally went dark on February 12, 1955. As you read WKNA-TV's original application later in this piece you might ponder how Charleston's television history would have been altered had the grand plans outlined by Smith in his original FCC filing been brought to fruition.
Smith kept the construction permit for WKNA-TV, in hopes the FCC would decide that UHF television was not feasible, at least in mountainous terrain, and give the station a VHF channel. According to one of Smith's CP extension filings with the FCC, he at one point made overtures to WOAY-TV/4, Oak Hill WV, to propose operation as their satellite. The FCC deleted the CP in 1965 after Smith had successfully fought to keep it during two previous attempts by the FCC to do so in 1957 and 1963.
This article originally appeared in Peter Q. George's "UHF Morgue" at his former RadioDXer site and is republished here with his permission. Reformatting and editing by K.M. Richards. Images from Jeff Miller's gallery, linked below.
Site concept © Clarke Ingram. Site design by K.M. Richards.