M.D. Smith IV was one of the
last local television owners in the business when he sold
WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, to Grapevine in 1999. In
addition to owning the station, he was also the General
Manager. I consider working for him one of the high points of
my career in broadcasting, because he represented what the
business of local television used to be all about. Despite his
considerable business acumen, we operated without a budget.
Life in the TV world to M.D. was much less about business than
it was serving the community. For example, the station not
only televised the annual Christmas parade; it also paid for
The bottom line TV people of today don't have a clue about
any of that, of course. And I suppose they'd call a guy like
M.D. "foolish" or "eccentric." But M.D. Smith IV grew up in
broadcasting and understood it like few others. It was his
Along the way, he was an innovator and visionary — ahead of
his time in many ways. He built and operates HiWAAY
Information Services, a profitable, creative and reliable
Internet Service Provider in North Alabama. He's "sort of"
retired these days, and remains one of the nicest people you
could ever meet.
As you survey the broadcasting landscape
today, what thoughts do you have?
faster than Radio did in the days of TV coming on the scene.
With the many, many choices people have for their free time in
front of a TV set or computer screen, the slice of the local
broadcaster's share of that audience is going to continue to
get smaller and smaller. Hundreds of satellite or cable
channels is the main reason for that. The internet also gets a
growing slice of that same pie.
You pioneered many things in your years as
a broadcaster. Which makes you most proud?
being the ONLY station with weather radar during the very
destructive tornadoes of April 1974 was one of the biggest
"highs" to experience. We got hundreds of letters thanking us
for saving lives and even Governor George Wallace wrote a
personal letter to us for a job well done. (Yes, I still have
the letter and a copy is on the Smith Broadcasting History web site).
The other part of the coin is a continued effort to improve
the TV station and with the help of (Chief Engineer) Cactus
(Gay), we did it on a shoestring, but not so that the audience
would notice. We first started transmitting color from the
network with Cactus' genius and a few dollars of parts he put
in the transmitter.
Many other "firsts" followed including stereo, local live
studio color, uses of the SAP channel for IFB and even
transmitting weather data for Bob Baron as he built his
enterprise. We were first with closed captioning, and that
made a lot of deaf people very happy with our station's
newscasts. We were the first and only station to have a
generator in 1989 when another major tornado wiped out many of
the Airport Road businesses and apartments and then over the
hill to Jones Valley School and the Tony Drive neighborhood.
We were the only station on the air from about 5:25 pm for the
rest of the night. The share that night (during November
ratings) were through the roof and the other stations made ARB
re-print the rating books taking out that night because we did
In the early 90s, you tried to adopt the
Video Journalist concept of putting a camera in everybody's
hands. How did you structure that?
The thought was
as cameras got smaller and cheaper, to have more FRESH news,
the more people we could put on the street and in local area
bureaus, the more we'd have to fill our newscasts, which were
eventually running literally live 24/7 with our LIVE hourly
newsbriefs. The quality of the reports suffered and the cheap
equipment didn't hold up like we'd hoped it would. The bureaus
DID work out and we were the only station to have FIVE fully
functional bureaus in the coverage area with the ability to
transmit LIVE back to the station. This included one in
Fayetteville, TN and we were the only station to ever have one
I'd still like to see a station have hundreds of
"stringers" with small DV cameras in their hands and cars to
tape breaking news and send it to the station. The Internet is
making it possible to send video via high bandwidth
connections directly back for air use.
Why do you think it didn't
Who said it didn't work? As outlined above,
there were some weaknesses, but to a degree it did work. A
single talented VJ (Video Journalist) working by themselves
can often do the job of two people. It just takes creativity.
Jamie Cooper did it for years with the Country Rover, and
sometimes even got people who were standing around, to zoom or
pan the camera which was sitting on the tripod. Viewers don't
need to see much talking head, so the story that is fully
illustrated with B-roll and good video can make a VJ story
Do you think this is something that could
be done today? The cameras are better and now individual
editing is available.
Of Course. That's what I was
getting at. A DELL $500 computer with video editing software
and a $300 DV little camera with the small DV tape, can do an
amazing job. Cost are continuing to be a factor in making a
profit in TV these days, and all GM's and News Directors are
going to have to think creatively on how to fill their
newscasts for less money and still put on a quality product.
Talking heads in boring live interview segments are a great
example of how NOT to do it. Reporters still need schooling
and training on how to do interesting stories. They need daily
supervising with critiques of their work and how to make it
better and even more interesting.
Your station was also one of the first to
venture into the Internet. How did that go? What were the
early efforts like?
Yes, I saw a demo of a web page
in 1994 that Joe Lowe showed me and I was hooked with what was
available. Our traffic department wanted a better way to get
email orders and I could see lots of reasons for the news
department to be connected to the internet.
We had daily news text posted as it aired, and created a
morgue file of all back stories. We had the entire day's worth
of video newscasts available on-line and I could literally
view one of our newscasts from anywhere in the world. Soon as
a new show for 6pm aired, it replaced the current one. Anyone
could stay updated of news at home by watching one. Or you
could fast scroll on the screen to weather or sport segments
of the shows. We never made any money specifically on the web
site, but giving big sponsors ads as added inducement for a
large commercial order, did help sales close the large orders.
We had "behind the scenes" tours of the TV station on line,
with shots of all parts of the TV station along with key
personnel shown in the photos. We had one of the first almost
live radar pages on the internet. We had to delay the image 5
minutes by agreement with Bob Baron who sold the truly live
images to customers.
The web site was ahead of its time. It was labor intensive
and not only required two technical people to add all the
content and pages, but news people learned how to input and
post headlines directly to the web pages each day. That meant
some of them had to learn how to spell. I was most proud of
our efforts and we tried to set the best example we could and
almost landed some other big market TV stations for HiWAAY to
do their web sites. The reason we didn't was that they wanted
a local person (like we had two of) to talk to and be in the
same town. But we got some great "wows" from some much bigger
markets in the U.S.
How did HiWAAY Information Services get
started? Rather than pay a rather high connection fee
to a local company operating in a single 10x10 old office
building in a cheap part of town, I talked with Mark Derrick
(our computer guru) and he went to Atlanta to an internet
conference to find out all about it. He returned and told me
what it would cost to get a T1 connection and buy enough
equipment to connect about 200 people which would more than
pay back our monthly line costs and pay back our investment in
less than a year.
So in February 1995 we had a booth at the local IEEE
computer show and sold subscriptiions. A local Ham, Josh
Kelly, was one of the very first to sign up and he's still a
HiWAAY customer. We went "live" the first of March 1995. With
publicity from the TV station, we were swamped with orders and
people wanting to sign up. We could not get equipment fast
enough to handle the crush. I wrote the first billing software
for our little internet division, but in less than 6 months,
it was taking 24 hours to crunch and get the billing out. We
had to find a commercial solution, which we did. I had hoped
to have 200 by the end of the first 12 months. Instead, we had
2,000 subscribers. The rest, is history as they say. HiWAAY (a
coined term using our WAAY call letters and the twist on
"Information Highway" that was being used at the time),
celebrates its 10th anniversary this coming month.
What did you see that others didn't about
I saw what a lot of people saw. It was
technology at its best and I loved it personally. I loved what
information it brought to our business that included the news
department. Changes were being made at almost the speed of
light, and it still is that way today. We had already been
through re-engineering the TV station to get people off their
dead centers, content with #1 ratings and they kept saying "if
it was not broke, don't fix it. " That's always been the
Achilles heel of a #1 station in any market. The internet
keeps you hopping. Nothing stays status quo for more than a
few days. TV stations need to react a bit more like an
internet company. No one is complacent, or they get replaced.
It's the way it has to be to survive in the internet business
and the TV business is getting much like that these days.
You were one of the last local owners in
the business. Why did you finally let go?
reasons. The TV station was making a smaller and smaller
profit. We had to go through one downsizing from 174 employees
down to 140. Today, I believe all the local TV stations (in
Huntsville) are working with 75-100 employees only. High
definition was looming and looked like a disaster if you take
expenses vs. returns into account. It still looks similar to
AM-Stereo where 4 systems were authorized and none were
compatible with each other. 90% of the public is well
satisfied with a DVD quality TV signal at their home (via
cable or satellite) and don't want to replace every TV set in
their house and have all their current VCR's, Camcorders, old
tapes, etc. become instantly obsolete. I have 10 sets
scattered around my house and they are telling me none will
work when everything's digital high definition, unless I buy a
rather expensive converter box for each TV set (oh joy!)
HiWAAY was continuing to require large capital to grow and
accquire other ISP's as it was clear we needed to do. Then, an
amazing offer for the TV station came out of the woodwork from
Grapevine in early 1999 and I could not resist cashing in the
chips when I believed it was the most I'd ever be able to get
for the TV station. I think I was right.
That allowed us to have some residual capital to pay off
HiWAAY debts (which were significantly large) and have a
cushion that was sorely needed after the "dot-com" bubble
burst. Between the economy and other leveraged companies that
were desperate to sell connections at any price (even though
they eventually went out of business), we have been through
some very tough years of losses in the early 90's. If we had
not had that capital, HiWAAY might be a branch of Bellsouth or
some other big internet conglomerate. We have stayed as only
an Alabama company and service to customers is vastly superior
to what you get when you are talking to India with other
Do you ever get the itch to get back into
the business? What would it take, and what would you do
differently than is already being done?
Sure, I get
that itch every now and then. I try to do something else until
it goes away. The business today is more business and
satisfying the bankers than it is real TV. The bottom line of
making a large profit to pay back loans and stockholders
outweighs the "art" of television. I was in my early 20's when
I began at 31TV in 1963. The station had only 17 total
employees and we put on a live Romper Room in the mornings for
an hour and a live 6 & 10 pm news five days a week.
Everyone had multiple jobs. Secretaries ran studio cameras,
were talent for commercials and promos, and whatever else they
could do. Most salesmen had some kind of airshift. Johnny
Evans was full time sales and then did the weather at 6&10
in the very early days, and later an afternoon's live kids
show, featuring TEX, the talking dummy. We often tried to
decide who was the smarter of that pair.
Perhaps, we will come full circle in the coming years, with
17 people running a TV station and with computerized tools
(similar to many radio stations of today) able to still
attract an audience, sell commercials and make a profit. But,
no, I would not want to be back in it again full time. That's
for the young who don't know better or don't care and will
make a success of the business anyway.
There are a lot of frightened people in
broadcasting these days, both in management and especially at
the employee level. What advice do you have for
Perhaps being frightened is a good thing. They
won't be on dead center and they won't be caught napping when
another RIF (reduction in force) is necessary. Some TV
stations are actually adding a few people as they climb to the
#1 position and want to do even more to be "more things to
more people." My advice to the many in stations that are still
feeling the crunch is get training in other aspects of the
business. Become more multi-talented than you currently are.
Work hard and have a good positive attitude so you'd be the
last person a manager/GM would think to fire. There's always
going to be a solid place for the best employees who speak
highly of their company, no matter what is happening. Come to
think of it, that's been good advice for the last forty years
for people in broadcasting.
Channel 31 Alumni Website