Good afternoon, M.D.!
Again, let me say how fantastic it was you called yesterday. I’m sorry I won’t be able to make it to Huntsville this weekend, but I thank you for the opportunity to add to your website. I offer you several takes. Please feel free to pick and choose whatever works for you.
I was news director at WAAY-TV from Sept. 1980 to March 1984. I went on to work as a news director in Nashville, Charleston, SC and Tulsa, OK. In 1992, I took over as ND at WTOC-TV in Savannah where I stayed for eight years. After spending about a year and a half as an executive recruiter for a firm in Jacksonville, FL, I joined the marketing and communications staff at Georgia Southern University (Statesboro) in 2001. My ever-patient wife, Patty, has managed to stick it out and we celebrated our 27th anniversary this summer. Our children, Colin (23) and Katie (21--born at Huntsville Hospital), are both still living at home, and going to school and working.
Home: 108 Druid Rd., Savannah, GA 31412
Words of wisdom from Dan Whitsett
I remember one time during my tenure at Ch 31, our news ratings dropped slightly. You had made the decision that even though the numbers had dropped, the sales department would continue to maintain the same rates. We were discussing it in the weekly department head meeting. You explained your intention and asked Dan to tell us what he planned to do about it. Dan said he and Redge Swing were very concerned because they didn’t know how they could sell at that same price. But then he continued, “Then Redge and I looked at each other and realized, heck, if it was easy anyone could do it, and they wouldn’t need us!” That thought has stuck with me through some tough goings over the years.
When I arrived in the fall of 1980, we were, as they say at my alma mater, “hurtin’ gators.” An exodus of key news personnel left the news dept. with just the bare skeleton of a staff. Brenda Wood had left. Dave Stanley was on his way out. LuAnn Cahn left the Friday before I arrived. Several others, whose names I don’t recall had also just recently left and had not been replaced. One of the first goals was to hire a weeknight co-anchor team. (Bob Baron and Rick Davis were still in place in weather and sports.) We hired Jim Marsh from Lafayette, La, but were having difficulty attracting and hiring a female coanchor. Bruce Northcott, from Magid, came for a visit and asked if we had looked at the weekend “weather girl” at Ch. 48. (At the time, even considering hiring someone from Ch 48, let alone a weekend weathercaster for a front-line anchor job, was heresy.) We had not idea how this person could read news, so we contacted her and arranged for a “midnight audition” at the station. We literally waited until almost everyone had gone home one evening and snuck her in with a minimum crew, sworn to secrecy. As it turned out Kelly Cooper did a fantastic job and we hired her. She was a very instrumental part of our climb back to #1 before she left us for a station in Austin, TX about two years later.
The WAAY TV-Radio All Volunteer Christmas Parades were always big events when I was there. We were always torn between putting our front-line on-air talent into the live broadcast or to put them on the station float. One year (1982 or 83) we decided to put all the key anchors on the float, so it was left up to Liz Hurley and myself to anchor the 2-plus hour long parade broadcast. We knew it would be interesting, seeing as neither of us had ever done a parade before. And I wasn’t even a regular on-air person. As it turned out, we had a terrific time doing the show and no one threw any rotten vegetables at us for the effort. I think Carl Spurlock directed. It was a wonderful experience.
The live show that wasn’t
In the summer of 1981, the Huntsville TV market was turned upside down when Ch 48 conducted a very successful talent raid on the other two stations, snaring the front-line news anchor team of Tom Kennemer and Missy Ming from WHNT and our sports director, Rick Davis. In the end, we probably benefited from this event more than anyone else. While we missed Rick, the loss of Tom and Missy chopped WHNT off at the knees. Unfortunately for Ch 48, the addition of these three doubled their ratings, which were pretty small to begin with, but still did not make them a serious competitor in the ratings competition.
However, at the time it happened, we were all very concerned. It was decided at the last minute, we would do an entire week’s worth of road/theme shows the week the new team premiered at Ch 48. We started off with a couple of easy ones, like from the Space and Rocket Center and from downtown. Then, around mid-week, we planned to produce our entire newscast from a boat in the Tennessee River. We had some concerns about sending our entire on-air team out of the station with no back up. MD and I had a lengthy discussion about this. He was quite adamant that we should put all our eggs into this basket. I think the term “no guts, no glory” probably came up a couple of times. He said, “Mike, if there is something you just absolutely have to do and you have no other option, then you’ll do whatever it is you have to do to make it happen. So just go do it.”
We tried to cover every possible scenario. I think we even had a spare generator on hand. I’m sure you probably know what happened next. Fast forward to the evening of the telecast. At about three minutes to air, the microwave signal from the river failed. As it later turned out, a “diode” (I still don’t know what a diode is.) failed in the microwave transmitter. Even with Cactus, Bob Sullivan and most of the engineering staff on hand, there was nothing they could do to get it repaired in time. In the newsroom, I grabbed my coat and tightened my tie and ran to the studio. The worst wasn’t over, because we had no weather, no sports and only about five minutes of content, the rest having been planned to be live interviews and such from the river. I started the show, praying that the microwave would come back to life. In the meantime, Helen Howard (Carroll) started bringing me scripts, wire copy, network packages, anything to fill time. We “packed and filled” for 30 minutes until, mercifully, we finally managed to get to the end break. The viewers probably saw the worst excuse for a newscast in the history of Huntsville television, but from studio on top of the hill, we were just glad we got through it. (Editor's note: "And hey, Mike, we got all the spots run in the show and the sponsors paid for them")
Elections Ahead of Their Time
Before the days of computer/character generator interfaces, election coverage was an interesting proposition. It was virtually impossible to manually enter numerical results into a Vidifont or Chyron fast enough to keep up with the activity. In 1982 (I think) we joined a consortium of other Alabama news media to run a statewide tabulation system for key races. It would be delivered to the station via a computer. The problem still remained, “How do we get the numbers on the air.” Someone, I believe it was Bob Sullivan, came up with the idea of using a computer monitor with a “video out” port. We ran a coax from the computer monitor into an input at the switcher. At that point we only had white characters and numbers on a black screen. However, by using color backgrounds and keying the numbers that came from the computer, we ended up with a pretty-darn-good looking election graphic. As a result, we were able to put the latest results directly from the computer and onto the air without any delay. Today that kind of capability is just taken for granted. But in 1982 it was pretty radical and demonstrated a lot of ingenuity.
When I went to Huntsville for the job interview, we had lunch at your house, MD. You were nearing the end of an incredible weight-loss program and were about to run in your first marathon. When we went to your house, we were standing in your kitchen and you asked me what I wanted to eat. I said a sandwich would be great, and you gave me the ingredients to put together a ham or bologna sandwich. Then, while I watched, you took an entire can of tuna and emptied it on to a piece of whole wheat bread. You laid a few sardines across the top of the tuna, added some chopped onion and sprouts, and topped the entire thing off with picante sauce. (I may have confused a few ingredients. It was 23 years ago. But the general picture is accurate.) (Editor's note: "What a great memory, Mike, that's exactly the things I was eating on the Weight Watcher's Diet). I just remember as we were sitting down at your kitchen table thinking to myself, “I’m glad when he asked me what I wanted to eat, I didn’t just say ‘Whatever you’re having, MD.’”
I hope this is helpful. This weekend, I’ll check old albums. I think I may have some good pictures to contribute. If so, I’ll have them scanned and sent along.
Thanks again for getting in touch. My best to all the alumni!