M.D. Smith, IV

Memories of special times at WAAY-31-TV from 1963 to 1999. From Operations Manager to General Manager & CEO.

By M.D. Smith, IV (in 5,000 words or less).

Here's a sample of business cards I had from 1962 (WABP in Tuscaloosa) and the first 31 Blue card with the TV set on it, to more recent cards, finally with the 31 with Star in the center of it.

1963: We had planned to put Channel 25 on the air from scratch on the parcel of property we owned that later became Ch. 19's transmitter building. But the owners of Ch. 31 seeing two new stations being built at the same time (19 and 25) decided it was time to sell, so they negotiated a deal for $500,000.00 to purchase it and 20 acres of property.

I remember my father and I dealing with Big Jim Beasley, owner of Sweet Sue that canned chickens and dumplings in Athens. It was a big operation and ch. 31 was just a hobby for him. He was the majority stockholder and while some of the local management and minority owners in Huntsville did not want to sell, when Jim told his buddies "we're gonna sell that station to M.D. Smith" it was a done deal. We turned over the check at his office in Athens in July 1963. He was late because he was tending to a sick race horse, worth $20,000 and that was a very lot for a horse in those days. He showed up in old jeans, boots and work clothes and certainly didn't look like the millionaire I had expected to see.

It was going to take the FCC about 3-4 months to approve the deal, so we just had to sit tight until be got the approval. In the meantime, I continued as Merchandising Director at WAAY Radio, did some late night DJ shifts because I had a First Phone FCC license required for directional arrays at night and met one of the engineers at Ch. 31 named Bob Gay. I got my ham license at Tuscaloosa in 1961 (WA4DXP) and was glad to find out that Mr. Gay (Cactus) had one also. We had a lot in common and told lots of stories about building our own equipment. Mr. Milwee was Chief Engineer at Ch. 31 at the time.

The FCC approved the sale in early November of 1963 and we took over that operation of 17 people. Everyone did multiple duties. As Operations Manager, I wrote copy for advertisements and promotions, learned to sign on the station and get all the tube equipment up and running for the day (much of it would NOT come up and had to be trouble shot with a tube tester, or direct substitute with another same type tube until the trouble cleared, then throw the bad tube away and return all the other new tubes to their cartons. I managed all departments except sales, and Maury Farrell was hired from Birmingham to fill that role. At that time, I believe the total year gross income from sales was about $240,000.00 and the station was not operating at a profit, but nearly break even.

Then, later in November 1963, President John Kennedy was shot. All stations started carrying network coverage (we had ABC the 3rd network at the time) and NO commercials for FIVE days. That really hurt a new station just in the peak of the Christmas buying season so that November was the worst ever in the history of the station.

I had graduated with a BA degree in Radio and TV with a minor in Commerce from the University of Alabama in May of 1963. In college I worked for WNPT and WJRD as an first-phone engineer. I also worked for the student AM station WABP as the Sales Manager. This is my first Business Card.

(This was just before Gov. George Wallace "stood in the school house door" at Grayson Hall at the University of Alabama in June and it was broadcast nationally.) I had spent a number of years directing shows, writing shows, running camera, control boards, audio consoles, printing super cards on the type setting machine and learning FCC rules and regulations from other classes. I knew all the technical things I needed to make a small station run and did many of these jobs (including talent of a number of occasions) as the need arose. Either we had a turnover, or someone was out doing something else, like shooting slides on location for a commercial, so I had to TD the newscast for Sam Arnold when he was not there. Sam was a top man on processing B&W slides and changing chemicals in the B&W processor and running the raw film through it when the news guys (2 of them) returned in the afternoon with their stories on film. We had one OLD 16mm Auricon Sound-On-Film camera that even used battery powered tubes in the associated audio system and motor drive. It was a monster and it cost a lot to buy all those different "A" and "B" batteries. The other camera was a silent 16mm Bolex with a turret of 3 lenses on it for wide, normal, and telephoto work.

The director's booth had a very simple switcher with two banks of eight inputs and a set of fader bars. That's it. You could put one camera on a black art card with silver lettering and by pulling the fader bars in opposite directions get both cameras on the air and you'd see the white-looking titles "supered" over the other camera, slide, film or whatever source you had selected. There were no "keys" in 1963 for us. A few years later we did buy an OLD, used RCA keyer that allowed for video keying and some special effects like split screen, boxes, etc. It stood over 3 feet high, solid tubes top to bottom, and was as cranky and temperamental as hell. Cactus could only keep it going sometimes, and it ran up the monthly tube cost budget, which was one of the biggest expenses we had in those days. The cost of film and chemicals was the other large costs. Some years later when we went color film and slides, it really got expensive.

My Managing Experience(s) The one type of training you didn't get in school was management (no, not even in marketing and commerce). That is the process of controlling people, getting desired results and trying to keep everyone happy. My father never had schooling on this topic, so a lot of my earlier methods I got from him. He was the one that told me I didn't have to be liked to be a manager. In fact, he said, it would probably be good to be disliked, then you get things done when you say to do them - - or else!

I was not inclined to feel deep down, this was how to manage. After all, I had worked for several radio stations in Tuscaloosa while I was in School (WJRD and WNPT) and I knew nice managers from horses' asses and I felt like I not only enjoyed pleasant managers, but that I would produce more results for those I liked, instead of simply doing what I was told and let the cards fall where they may if something screwed up.

But my dad was the owner and my boss, so I did my best to do what he said. We did keep expenses down, and Cactus (bless his heart (as he would say)) was one of the world's best at making do on a shoestring and used or free equipment. He still is in 2003. So we kept expenses down, sales were not bad and we had a bit of prosperity. It seemed like a lot of it kept getting used up when we had to have more than one video tape machine. We bought the station with one Ampex VR-1000 monochrome 2" video tape machine. It was a monster with pumps, motors, servos and hundreds of tubes to make it work. In addition to what was in the housing of the machine (4 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet) there were two 7 or 8 foot racks full of tubes, transformers and power supplies for that beast. There was no electronic editing, but we didn't have a second machine to edit from anyway. So one of the biggest expenses we had was buying two used, and reconditioned 2" tape machines. The TR-70 was built for color and was a "Cadillac" by our standards, and in addition, all we could afford for another, was an RCA-TR-22 that had been "colorized". More about going color later.

Back to "managing" the staff. I tried being "not-liked" as a management style and things were sure quiet in the station for several months. A couple of the employees, like Carolyn Smith and Cactus said they liked things better when I was not trying so hard to be not liked. I felt the same as they did, and gradually let down and went back to being one of the boys and girls in the station, and at the same time, having a bit more fun in the TV business. I enjoyed learning and doing every single job in the station, but sales. I was not cut out for that, and I was glad Maury and his several salesmen, took care of that end. If sales were down, HE got chewed out for that, not me.

So I didn't really start to manage anyone until late 1963. In 1964 and part of 1965, I realized how much I didn't know about managing people and how different they were. What motivated one and got them to work with a good attitude, didn't work on someone else. I needed to know more about people. About this time, John Patton of Dale Carnegie Courses came around. He had talked to me once that summer at WAAY Radio, but my father would not even discuss the fee for me taking the course. John came by to pitch it to me again, and this time I was ready, but again, my father turned a deaf ear to my recommendation for tuition. John did tell me a lot of the course was based on How to Win Friends And Influence People, so while I could not take the course, I could buy the book and read it. That changed my life. I was so enthusiastic and I tried parts of the book and they worked. Now I had to have the course, and we finally worked out a TRADE where John got advertising for the program and I got to take the course. Another revelation over that 14 weeks in 1965. I learned a lot about how people "ticked" and what things motivated them and what things turned them off. You will have to ask people who were with me during those periods about the changes. Cactus remembers. It made my job so much easier, even made it fun. I saw people's attitudes change and real teamwork begin to grow. I also recognized when some "prima-donna" was hurting morale and I worked on changing those things or "let them find someplace else to work."

The advent of color. WE were the first TV station in the valley to be able to broadcast local color with a color film chain Cactus and I went to WTOP in Washington and bought in 1965.

I have added a color "target 31" ID from the 60's at the bottom of the main web page at www.31alumni.com. It was originally in B&W hand painted by Howard Troutman. We had a "Coloring Contest" when we bought the used color film chain in 1965, and printed a "coloring book version" in the newspaper and asked viewers to color it and send it in. The winner got a color TV set and we would use the colorized version of the logo on the air, which we did. So, that's the history of the color target ID. My father liked the term "First In Huntsville" as 31 was the first station on the air, but it gave the impression we were #1 in the ratings, which was not always the case. My thanks to Val Ginter for sending it to me.

We also got color broadcasting started with the Network in 1965 (in 1967 we switched from ABC to the NBC Network) by passing color through the transmitter with a handful of parts Cactus was able to make and saved the great expense of buying an exciter made for color TV. So we added the film island and now could broadcast color movies (but the cost extra for the "print charge" for a color movie was $100, so we didn't order many in color unless they were a prime time blockbuster that was fully sponsored.

We could also do color slide commercials, but only live since we didn't have color tape recorders (those mentioned above came later). We went to audio cart machines and the new ones had "trip cues" to change the slides at the right spot. You recorded your audio commercial on an audio cart tape, then played it again, and as it played, you pressed a button on a box that inserted a tone on the other track of the cart tape. When it was played back on the switcher, each trip was sensed and did the same thing as pushing the slide change button on the dual drum RCA slide projector. This caused untold problems. The trip pulses were either two quick and nothing happened, or too long and the changed two slides at once, getting the whole commercial out of sequence on the air. This caused many problems and the short term solution was to continue B&W video tape commercials or create the commercial on color sound-on-film. The problem with a film master was that it wore out pretty soon, got scratched and forever, the "film master" which was all the film commercials spliced together for the day, would break a splice and mess the break up. Also, the film leader got shorter and shorted until you were cutting into the spot, or having to splice new leader again at the old splice and those often didn't hold. These were the problems for salesmen selling commercials that seemed to keep getting messed up on the air, but the technical crew was doing everything in our power to prevent it from happening. We even tried mylar tape splices on both sides of the film for strength, but we also succeeded in tearing up some projector gates, even more down time and trouble. We even found a TV station getting rid of their GPL (General Precision Labs) projectors and bought them and their parts and finally had enough parts, gates, spiders and such to keep the old monsters going a while longer. The Color Film Chain from WTOP we got, came with RCA projectors, so at long last, we retired the GPL projectors when we put in the RCA island. ( I think we kept the B&W chain going for a while both during installation and operation as a backup and spare and had to use it more than a few times.)

Artillery Punch for Christmas Party in the Studio. The 10 p.m. news was a complete mess that night.

Color Studio Camera arrive, the TK-42's. In the early 70's it was clear we had to continue our conversion to color and needed studio color to have full 100% color on the air all the time. It looked strange to see people on the news in B&W while the commercials and everything else was color. We had converted our processor to a HUGE color one in another new part of the building and sent Eric Eisgrau to school to learn how to mix chemicals and process color film (that at that time cost $25 a 100' roll). That was a lot of money at 2 minutes out of a 100' roll if you shot 10 rolls a day, it was costing $250 plus the cost of color chemicals and it was a major outlay. Some stations only got 10% to 30% used out of what they shot in news each day. We tried for a minimum of 50% and even higher was rewarded. That meant you only turned the camera on when you knew it was stuff you wanted. Editing sound over B-roll footage ate up a lot more footage, of course, since you had the original film with the sound track and then shot silent film to run while the interview was going on. It was spliced in to the interview film, the magnetic sound track lifted off the original, and recorded back on the magnetic track of the silent footage. Quality was lost in the process, but it was accurate. To try to run an audio tape of the interview when the B-roll was running was asking for disaster. But it was how you came to look like a REAL TV station.

In 1972 we got our first consultants. It was the firm of McHugh and Hoffman. Phil McHugh was one of the owners and our consultant. We were being beaten 5 to 1 in the news ratings and he did both research and observations on what all we were doing wrong and open our eyes like they had never been opened before.

Several things resulted from this research. One, that M.D. IV was not well perceived as the weather man (I had been doing weather for over a year at 6 & 10 - being a pilot, I liked it and did it my way) so we needed a meteorologist. We hired "Wally Weather" as we called him around the station, but on the air, it was serious and he was Walton Jones, meteorologist. Wally still had a pleasant personality. We needed a high powered anchor man and we heard about Sam Depino who was available in Mobile. When I talked to the GM at the station Sam had worked for he warned me, "Sam is a terrific anchor on the air and presents a fine news product, but behind the scenes, he's difficult for everybody to work with." I told the GM I appreciated his honesty, but I was in need of a top man that I could afford and Sam filled the bill, and I would just have to accept the other aspects of this man and get along with them.

As it turned out, Sam and I got along splendidly. I had long finished my Dale Carnegie training and would soon take the Management Seminar and then be qualified as an instructor for the course. I liked hobbies in woodworking, ceramics and flying and Sam liked and did the same ones. I still have several lamps I turned on my wood lathe from a trip Sam and I made to an old barn that was being torn down and we got some very good 6x6 beams of oak that day. Sam, however, did not get along so well with others on the staff. Sam was/is very smart and was a member of MENSA, the very high IQ organization. He often lacked tact, however, when expressing his critical ideas, objections and observations. I used to get VERY long reports from Sam, typed on green paper (second sheets). There was one occasion when a cameraman got into a huge argument with Sam and the cameraman said it's either Sam or me who is going. That time, it was the cameraman who left.

Ed Sisson was another hire about that same time, and Ed was smart and did a very good job reporting and anchoring some of the news shows (usually the 10 p.m.). Ed and Sam got into many "discussions" but Ed was one that appreciated Sam's depth of knowledge and experience so that they ultimately got along pretty well, even though some "discussions" they had could be heard all over the station. As I said, others came to like Sam less and less because he spoke his mind without holding anything back.

Our news ratings, with all we were doing with color film, starting to use a little bit of Color Video tape in the newscasts on a small basis, looking to the day we might go entirely tape, continued to grow. With the help of the McHugh-Hoffman consulting company and many different research projects over the years, Dan Whitsett made a chart that showed us originally being beaten 5 to 1, then 4 to 1, then 3 to 1, then 2 to 1, and finally, we WON the 6&10 p.m. news in total homes (that's what counted in those days) in 1974. Channel 19 responded and said over their two-way, "It looks like "Gangbusters" (as they called us because of all the hard news we covered too) have won. Now we have to play catch up." So they fired Hans Sitarz, got co-anchors ( I think Tom Kennemer and Missy Ming, but I could be wrong on the first of their co-anchors) and they started to grow and took the #1 rating away from us. We got it back again in 1976 and the race was on for years to come.

I was impressed by the Frank N. Magid company and switched our research and consulting to them in 1975 and we stayed with them until I sold the station in 1999. I give them and their consultants a lot of credit for the ratings successes we scored over many years. Frank Magid is a genius and in several meetings with him, I developed great respect from the knowledge he learned about the TV business from his combined research projects from networks and TV stations. His stories about consulting for "Good Morning America", then "Today" then back to GMA were fascinating.

One of our news directors, Steve Ridge, went on to WKBW-TV in Buffalo and finally to Magid as a consultant. Today, he is the Vice President of Magid. Steve popularized the saying, "No Guts, No Glory" at our station. Many times he wanted to try risky remotes, live shots or news series. I would get very uncomfortable and that's when he'd repeat his saying. We failed a few times with live shots and dramatic events, but the successes outweighed the failures by a large margin. Steve was right and a lot of reporters and other members of our news department benefited from his wisdom and drive.

Getting our 1,000 foot tower built in 1976 (to match 19's new tall tower) was a good idea and we needed to get a better signal into the shoals, which was becoming ever more important in the rating books. We could not afford a RCA transmitter, so Cactus negotiated again with George Townsend (we put the first Townsend amplifier in the station when we built our 400' tower that was removed when the 1,000 foot was built) to get a 50kw transmitter using Varian Klystrons. The aural used the same tube, but at 50% power (some years later the FCC let stations go to 10% of visual power for the aural transmitter). We could multiplex out of either transmitter if there was a failure of one of the tubes. Cactus and the engineering department built a LOT of the plumbing, custom patch panels, spare pumps and heat exchangers and we had a lot of backup. Thanks to Cactus and the engineering "boys", we had the lowest costs and smallest amount of lost air time of any station in the country compared to the perfect product we put on the air.

The "tower and power" and our #1 news ratings, helped us get the ABC network in 1977, which was then, the #1 Network in the country. It was a very big event. We brought the entire cast of "Carter Country" to Huntsville for our change-over party at the Hilton and all our best sponsors and VIP's were invited. The custom jingle package we had made was the same as the "Still The One" theme music, but included our call letters and channel number.

Years past and we continued to wage the "News Wars" with channel 19. Channel 48 was not a factor in the news ratings until the mid 90's. At one time, we grew to a staff of 175 people. For a market ranked around 90, this was over double what most stations, including both local Huntsville stations, of even markets near 50 employed. But we had news 24 hours a day (LIVE reports on every hour) and 7 days a week. We had many special remotes and events we sponsored every year. In 1995, we had double the news cars and live trucks as well as five manned bureaus in the coverage area, including Fayetteville.

Side note here. The Lower Lot. It was originally just a small concrete pad near the bottom of the big 1,000 foot tower, but we enlarged it to use for parking and built about 90 wood steps going up the mountain to the edge of the "top" parking lot. As you can imagine, it was not a popular place for employees to park and walk up all those stairs (no matter how good it was for you). But parking was overflowing on the top lot and we needed to get some employees to park on the lower lot to leave room for clients, guests and others who needed more than the one visitor parking space we had. So the "Lower Lot Sweepstakes" was born. Here's how it worked. We had a cash prize for the person whose name was drawn each month. You got a "name slip" each day that you walked the steps and went by the receptionist and registered. The more times you parked down there, the more slips you got and thus increased your chances to win. It did work to a large degree and I was happy to pay the cash prize (somewhere between $50 and $100 - if someone wants to correct me) and a round of applause at our regular Employee of the Month meetings, where we also announced other company business and had some limited discussions. I do remember a consistent winner. It was Karen Petersen. She walked the steps consistently more than other employees, but sometimes even won with less slips than other regulars who walked the steps.

We did a commercial for News in early 1995 showing our Fleet of News cars and trucks. Our four news anchors at the time, Don Phelps, Heather Burns, Cliff Hill and Liz Hurley did the on-camera parts. We showed our entire fleet of marked news cars in the lower parking lot and it was impressive. Our big Live Satellite Truck (LIVE STAR 31) was on the way and would arrive in July of '95. (just a week before Channel 19's smaller live truck came to town, and THEY claimed to have the first live truck). We put a stop to that.

In 1999 we decided to sell the station from an offer that was too good to refuse (and facing growing costs from expanding HiWAAY and the facing of High Definition cost on the near horizon). This was just before the dot.com bubble burst, 9-11 and other factors that made the timing perfect to sell a local station.

People have asked me if I miss the business. The answer is yes and no. Yes, I miss the excitement of live TV, breaking news events and planned live remotes. The complete news casts on location from places like Opryland and on the Tennessee River on a barge were amazing. Playing the ratings games, news and weather wars, and out-promoting the competition (or beating them to the punch on major breaking stories) were all the fun and exciting parts of the business. Dealing with the disgruntled public (I always allowed direct access without having to go through a "screener"), some of the personalities of anchor people who got to believing the promotion about how great they were, lawsuits, and a thousand other urgent emergencies (including lightning strikes that could cost us thousands of dollars) are not missed a bit.

I have a thousand "small stories" of individuals who worked for 31 over the years and from some of the Christmas Parties for staff only in the studio. (We had a very strange 10 p.m. newscast one December after the party when the director, audio op and switcher had been imbibing). It happened more than once, until we forbid anyone working that night from having anything alcoholic to drink.

We valued creativity and let a lot of people have more reins that they could get anywhere else. Lew Koch, production manager (later Operations Manager) understood this and that was the birth of some wild commercials (many of which never made it to air). We even had a few promos we ran just a couple of times, late at night so we could enter them in the Addy Awards because they were so creative. But they were in bad taste, took direct shots at the competition or simply didn't get the core message across, so we never ran them for a length of time. Most of them took first place in competition.

The "WAAY TOO LATE" crew and program that came on very late on Saturday nights, was extremely creative and sometimes even got me in hot water with the public (yes, at 1:30 a.m. a few people were watching who got offended by the weird or gutter humor). But these same people, enjoyed the atmosphere and stayed to produce great shows, commercials, promos and programs. That goes for sports and news as well.

I wish there was more than a few hundred aging " tapes in my storage office to show for all those years of great things Channel 31 accomplished (only because of the people). This bit of recollections and the web site which host it currently (2003) are an attempt to have these stories and great memories live a bit longer. Perhaps someone will commit these stories and web pages to hard storage media some day.


The View I had looking out of my office for many years. I never changed the orange shag carpet because to move my desk, two computers and all that audio and video hookup was just too much trouble. When I left to move to the home office on Clinton Street, and Redge Swing took over as G.M., that was the first thing he changed. I don't blame him.

Did you sit in that same black leather chair that you see in my office when you visited me?

© 2003 Smith Broadcasting, Inc. [update 10-1-2010]