WBRC in Birmingham [ recent Ch. 6 history courtesey of FOX6 ]

(v 3.0916) For Internet Web Page

Written by M.D. Smith, III, and others at FOX 6


While WBRC-TV has been atop Red Mountain since 1949, the real history of FOX6 begins back in 1928 with M.D. Smith, Jr. and WBRC radio. A local businessman, M.D. Smith, Jr. purchased WBRC-AM from J.C. Bell for $2,000. (In fact, WBRC stands for Bell Radio Corporation.)

In 1928 WBRC AM 950 opperated with a power of 10 watts. The transmitter facilities and studios were in the home of J.C. Bell in Fountain Heights, and WBRC-AM had a broadcast day of only four hours.

A year later Smith moved the transmitter to a location behind the Birmingham Awning and Tent Works (his place of business) at the corner of 12th Avenue and 27th Street North. Here, the power was increased to 500 watts. The studios were moved as well. The Old Athletic Club became WBRC's new home. The broadcast day was also expanded to 12 hours, and Les Conners became the first announcer.

1931 brought more changes. Besides an increase in power from 500 to 5,000 watts, the studios moved to the Temple Theater on the mezzanine floor. Known as "The Crystal Studio," this all-glass enclosure allowed people to watch live radio broadcasts.

Later that year the transmitter was moved to a location in North Birmingham known as Kilocycle, Alabama. Bill Young was hired as a second salesman, and John Connerly became chief announcer. The radio station was also incorporated in 1931. J.C. Bell bought 25 percent of the stock, as did Glenn Marshal, while M.D. Smith, Jr. and wife Eloise bought 50 percent.

Growing rather rapidly, the WBRC radio studios were moved yet again in 1932, but this time to the Bankhead Hotel. WBRC also paid its first dividend of $5,000 to its stockholders. In 1932 standards, radio had become a very profitable business.

Radio was so profitable and such a booming industry, WBRC radio had to move yet again, this time to the corner of 19th Street and 2nd Avenue North. Now affiliated with NBC, WBRC employed 20 people.

In 1937 WBRC radio suffered a loss. The man who had advanced this radio station so much in less than a decade died from blood poisoning he got from a cut. His wife, Eloise Haney Smith took control of WBRC radio. Two years later she bought out Glenn Marshal's stock for $25,000 and became the corporation's president. In 1940 when J.C. Bell died, Mrs. Eloise Smith purchased Mrs. Bell's stock for $35,000. Now owning 100% of WBRC radio, Eloise married Dr. Hanna and legally became Eloise H. Hanna.

In 1941 World War II began. Mrs. Hanna provided valuable services during this hard time. Besides becoming a member of the American Red Cross, Mrs. Hanna joined the Motor Corps where she transported troops to and from arrival and departure points.

Also during this time there was talk of a new type of radio: FM radio. After the war, Mrs. Hanna decided to venture into FM radio by applying for and receiving a construction permit to put WBRC-FM on the air. In 1946 WBRC-FM was the most powerful FM station in the world operating at a power of 500,000 watts.

The next year Mrs. Hanna's son, M.D. Smith III, joined WBRC-AM and FM as salesman. Later he was promoted to Program Director and Vice President of WBRC.

Despite all the talk of how great FM radio was going to be, it didn't sweep the nation like the proponents had hoped. Due to large losses, Mrs. Hanna removed WBRC-FM from the airwaves in June 1948. This move allowed her to focus on yet another new form of communication: television!

Many skeptics felt that TV would end up just like FM radio: losing money. However, Mrs. Hanna was determined to try. She borrowed $150,000 to put WBRC-TV on the air July 4, 1949. And it all started atop Red Mountain: where WBRC remains today.

Back then, there were only 12 television sets in Birmingham, and all of those were in dealers' show windows. WBRC-TV employed a grand total of seven people.

The man in charge of Channel 6 was none other than operations manager M.D. Smith III. Oliver Naylor, a salesman; Evelyn Allen, a traffic director; Bob Farris, a film editor; Felix Lewis, a cameraman; Hardy Carl, chief engineer; and Nora Harrimontrec, an artist rounded out the staff of seven.

Programs were shipped to the station on kinescope or film. A normal broadcast day then was three or four hours. The first newscasts consisted of a 35-millimeter slide showing a Channel 6 logo as an announcer read five minutes of news from the local news wire. This was usually done at sign on and signoff.

A big step came in September of 1950 when coaxial cable connected New York to Channel 6. This allowed the station to have a live link to air NBC and DuMont network programs.

The first live studio cameras were added in 1950, and this opened the way for live shows. One of the first was "Coffee Break." Others were "Supersonic Sam" and "Cowboy Theatre."

With the addition of live cameras, news expanded from five to fifteen minutes. Channel 6 added more anchors and divided the newscast into sections: news, weather and sports.

Still pictures received on a special machine gave viewers scenes of national and international events. Also, some 16-millimeter news-film shot by a local photographer was used.

In 1953, WBRC-TV's founder, Mrs. Eloise Hanna decided to retire and sold WBRC-TV/AM-FM to Storer broadcasting for $2.3 million. On July 4, 1954, only five years old, WBRC-TV switched from DuMont and NBC networks to CBS, then considered the nation's top network.

This called for a big celebration, so large newspaper ads were displayed in local papers and a giant fireworks display was staged atop Red Mountain. This may have been the forerunner to an annual treat that WBRC gave to the citizens each Fourth of July for many years.

Later that same year, Friday, September 17, 1954, we got a new home. The colonial building housing the studios and offices of WBRC-TV was completed and put into operation. This also called for a celebration in which top brass from Storer Broadcasting came to town and local tours of the new facilities were open to the public.

1957 was to be another benchmark in the life of WBRC-TV. Storer was to sell the station to Taft Radio and Television Corporation, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Four years later on September 1, 1961 Channel 6 was to make it's second network switch. This time it was to the rather fledgling ABC network.

Coming to town to help celebrate the occasion was James Hagerty. He had served as press secretary to former president Dwight Eisenhower, and at that time he served as vice president of the ABC network.

Other ABC stars also came to town to join in the festivities... Edd "Kookie" Byrnes of "77 Sunset Strip," Diane McBain of "Surf Side Six," Peter Brown of "Lawman" and Bob Conrad of "Hawaiian Eye."

A dramatic change came in 1966 when the station purchased two General Electric color cameras. One of the first local programs to be carried in color was "The Bear Bryant Show."

About this same time local news was also ready for a shot in the arm. More and more 16-millimeter footage was being used in newscasts, and in 1966 magnetic sound film that had been used primarily for commercials was used in newscasts.

But the giant step in news came in 1976 when electronic news gathering equipment or the "mini cam" came on the scene. To shoot, develop and edit 16-millimeter film was a time-consuming process. Now that videotape had come to television news, it took much less time to shoot, edit and get a breaking news event on the air.

Shortly behind the mini cam were live news trucks. They had already made their appearance in other markets, but WBRC-TV was the first station to put microwave live truck into service here in 1978. This enabled Channel 6 to go to the scene of a breaking story and within minutes show it on television.

The next year the news helicopter came to Channel 6. Our viewers could now see dramatic aerial pictures of train derailments, large fires and tornado destruction. And, with the help of Chopper 6, our news crews could quickly reach big stories happening far away.

The eighties brought another major advance in technology... satellites. The big dishes took root on Red Mountain in 1982, making it cheaper and more convenient for WBRC to receive network programs, news feeds, commercials and syndicated programs.

By 1988, Channel 6 could take that satellite technology on the road. Skylink 6 enabled us to beam back live pictures and stories by Channel 6 reporters from ten, twenty, or even a thousand miles away.

And perhaps the most recent advance in presenting news has been the introduction of the computer into the newsroom. This occurred in September of 1989. It has enabled Channel 6 to get instant information from around the world.

Ownership changes continued in the television industry and here in Birmingham. In October of 1987, Taft had sold WBRC-TV to Great American Radio & TV Corporation, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The most recent ownership changes would be a part of television history. New World Incorporated purchased WBRC on October 12, 1994. New World would go on to alter the network affiliate landscape across America as they aligned many of their stations with the FOX network.

Less than a year later, the FOX Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch would become our owner on July 22, 1995.

FOX6 has come a long way since July 4, 1949 when there were a total of seven employees. Today over 160 people make up the staff... more than seventy in our news department alone.

© 1942, © 2003 Fox6 Television and M.D. Smith, IV