My first real job after college was at Channel 9 Action News at WTVC-TV in Chattanooga. If you want to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in life, just become a news cameraman. You'll see it all.
I'd usually team with a reporter for the day. Our news director, Gil Norwood, would assign each reporter three or four stories each morning. On slow news days, it was a real stretch to find enough stories for everyone.
There were only four reporters and only a dozen or so on the news staff. Because we were shooting 16mm movie film (not videotape), we'd have to race back to the station in time to develop the film, splice it into a story, and get it cued up in the control room before airtime. I remember many a day when we'd still be editing film while the six o'clock news intro started playing. Talk about panic!
I worked with a real bunch of characters, most of them type-A personalities. Let me introduce you to some of them.
(L-R) Bob Johnson, Darrell Patterson, Don Welch, Don North, Mike James, me, Jerry Wilson, Gil Norwood (in front), Roy Crowley, and Gary Wardlaw. We're waiting to get our official portrait made on the hill above the station. Channel 9 moved from the old Zayre's (or Golden Gateway) shopping center several years ago.
Say cheese! (L-R) Bob Johnson, Darrell Patterson, Don Welch, Don North, Mike James, me, Jerry Wilson, Gil Norwood, Roy Crowley, and Gary Wardlaw. The hill we're standing on has been completely transformed by development since this photo was made. You may have noticed there were no women on the news staff in 1976 although the station was managed by a woman.
Gil Norwood and Jerry Wilson discuss the morning's assignments. I enjoyed having Gil for a boss because he was always patient with a newbie like me. He later left TV news and bought a little radio station in rural Tennessee. Fortunately for a nice guy like Gil, that rural area turned out to be the future manufacturing home of Saturn and Nissan.Reporter Don North using that high tech gadget of 1976, the typewriter. Notice the ashtray nearby. Don didn't smoke, but most of the others did and there was often a smoky haze when you stepped inside the newsroom. Last I heard, Don was a news director for a TV station in Tampa.
A high angle shot from above the news set. Notice the carpet going up the news desk and the state-of-the-art weather map. Channel 9 spared no expense! Top to bottom: Don Welch, Bob Johnson, and Darrell Patterson.
That news set reminds me of the time I covered a fire at McKee Bakery, home of Little Debbie snack cakes. When I returned to the station, I was told to get ready to go live from the news desk with a report. The last thing I wanted to do was appear on-air - I was supposed to work behind the scenes - but the show must go on so I complied.
Don North was filling in for Bob Johnson and I don't think he was any happier than I was. While I sat, knees shaking, reading my report, they rolled some of my film as background. My last words were something like, "And after the fire was extinguished, they passed out free Little Debbies to all the firemen." I should have won a Peabody for that!
Inside the control room. That's our director, Tony, in the foreground and producer Mike James in back.
They must have traded some free ads for that carpet. This photograph could not have been taken during the summer; Bob's not wearing his tennis shorts behind the desk.
The studio cameras put out so much heat that the engineers had to keep the covers open. The empty space behind the cameras was once home to The Bob Brandy Show.
One afternoon, somebody sneaked inside the station and stole Dingbat. Poor Dan East, our art director and puppeteer, was heartbroken, but he soon concocted Dingbat II and was back on the air with Dr. Shock.
They taped the Shock Theater inserts on Wednesday evenings and sometimes I would sit in the control room, holding my stomach and trying valiantly not to laugh at all the inside jokes Shock and Dingbat were making at the expense of our general manager. She must have never watched the show. Otherwise, there would have soon been a puppeteer and Dracula wannabe out hunting for another job.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1976 we shot 16mm news film. Portable video equipment was just coming onto the market and would take years to improve in picture quality and portability.
Here are some scans from 16mm news film I've kept in storage:
Ronald Reagan came to town in May 1976, campaigning against President Ford for the Republican nomination. Reporter Gary Wardlaw is just out of camera range. Reagan was asked if, as part of his desire to decrease big government, he would abolish the TVA. He gave his famous shake of the head and said, "I never called for the elimination of TVA." Not exactly a denial...?
Gary was an interesting person to work with. He was hired by the station for some entry-level job, but rose through the ranks of the news department to become a reporter. He fought to get the best assignments and wouldn't take "no" for an answer. Gary had a huge following in the black community and the other stations did everything they could to get their affiliated stations in other markets to hire him away from Chattanooga.
By some miracle, the cheapskate station management flew reporter Don North and myself to Johnson City, TN to cover President Ford's visit, also in May of 1976. Senator Howard Baker is next to Ford, wearing glasses. Baker and I talked about one of his favorite hobbies, photography, after this film was shot.
It was a real thrill for a 23-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears guy from Summerville to watch Air Force One pull up to the tarmac, the President of the United States step out, wave to the crowd, and walk right up and say hello. In fact, we local news guys were so dumbfounded, Ford made a joke about it being too early in the morning.
How does the President's limousine get to Johnson City?
Just off camera, there's a huge transport plane that carries all the Secret Service vehicles, including the President's.
And now, let us segue from a president to a pugilist.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee...
... yes, it's Muhammad Ali. That's Darrell Patterson doing the interview. Ali said, "I wish Howard Cosell was a fire hydrant and I was a dog." Ali was "on" the entire time we spent with him whereas some famous people would put on their "happy face" only when they saw me raising the camera viewfinder to my eyes.
Incredibly, Darrell still works at Channel 9 and has more hair than when I knew him. Rumor has it that Channel 9 only hired me to keep Darrell from shooting his typically out-of-focus sports footage. I can't say that's true, but I do remember Darrell as a nice guy.
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