1948 was the year when one man's vision had its birth. Colonel J. H. Long, a man of rare foresight and courage -- a leader of the Huntington community and in the state of West Virginia -- wanted a "video" station to serve the area. At the time, there were about two dozen television stations operating in larger metropolitan centers across the country, and all were losing money.
Despite these prevailing circumstances, heavy objections from some concerning this uncertain new media, and a lack of available trained personnel, Colonel Long, a man in his 80s, wanted to take the risk.
So, it was in October of 1948 that the Federal Communications Commission granted approval for construction of station WSAZ television in Huntington.
It was the summer of '49 and typical of any other along the banks of the Ohio, but something special was taking place on the south side of Huntington. The seed planted the year before was beginning to grow. But instead of green foliage, 8th Street Hill was covered with the likes of gigantic spools of steel cable, bat wings (without the bat), and a dish that might belong on the table of a giant.
Strange looking as it was to people in the area, this was the beginning of the Tri-State's new communications medium... television. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fit together, forming a 310 foot tower capped by a 50 foot bat wing antenna, soon to transmit a new form of entertainment.
At the same time, in the center of downtown Huntington, broadcast facilities were being readied on the 14th floor of the West Virginia Building. But, the area's first television pictures were to be transmitted from a small building 50 x 50 feet located at the transmitter site on 8th Street Hill.
WSAZ television became a reality when Channel 5 began its first test pattern on October 14, 1949.
On October 19, an endless loop of film was aired for the benefit of 14 television set distributors and few individual set owners in the Huntington area, making WSAZ the 72nd station in the nation. Television had arrived in Huntington.
That same month, on October 24, regular programming began with an NBC kinescope film (what's this?) of "Stop the Music" telecast for 300 viewers at the Governor Cabell Hotel.
The new studios were occupied in the West Virginia Building on November 8, and some of the programming included the then familiar "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" with their friends Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison. Plus, everyone's favorite in 1949 and television's first cowboy hero, "Hopalong Cassidy."
The first live Marshall basketball game was aired on December 3 of 1949 with Jack Bradley as WSAZ-TV's first sports director. It was realized early in 1950 that live network programming was needed to stimulate lagging TV set sales and to increase the size of the viewing audience. The station had been using film replays of network programs.
In July, 1950, the FCC granted WSAZ permission to construct a microwave relay system to Cincinnati, in order to pick up live network shows. In the late summer of 1950, the nation's first privately owned microwave system was completed, with relay stations at South Portsmouth, Kentucky, Grassy Knob and Macon, Ohio.
The first live network service was scheduled for Labor Day of 1950. However, the relay system failed. Instead, WSAZ broadcast live, a fire at a nearby hotel -- four hours of a fire instead of a baseball game.
1951 was special for WSAZ television, too. Farmer Bill Click, after having been a county agent in West Virginia for nearly 40 years, joined the WSAZ staff and began his weekly farm programs. Farmer Click was one of the leaders instrumental in establishing the 4-H club movement in the Mountain State and was later named farm director in 1952.
This same year, Nick Basso joined the staff, with responsibility to create a news gathering team for the area's television pioneer.
1952 is remembered by most people as the year of the Korean conflict -- a year when a World War II hero, Dwight David Eisenhower was headlining the news almost daily as the Republican candidate for President of the United States.
About this time, WSAZ personnel determined that the network picture quality from the Cincinnati relay system needed some improving, and construction on a new microwave relay system from Columbus was started. By September of '52, the Cincinnati relay system was abandoned and the Columbus system put into use, with relay points in South Portsmouth, Kentucky, Chillicothe and Columbus, Ohio, thus allowing the broadcast of live network programs with fewer interruptions. It was in the late summer of 1952 that WSAZ put the "World's most powerful transmitter" on the air, and the station changed from channel 5 to channel 3. With a boost in power from 16.8 to 84 kilowatts, people as far away as Cuba, Australia and Nova Scotia were receiving the signal, which later had to be reduced.
1953 was a big year for television and for WSAZ. By then, television was a definite household word and viewers were able to see such historic events as Eisenhower on the campaign trail and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. It was in January of '53 that WSAZ-TV introduced a national first by filming the West Virginia legislature from the floor. And 1953 saw activity on Second Avenue in Huntington. WSAZ-TV moved into a new home with a new transmitter on the way.
1954, the year work began on the West Virginia Turnpike, also brought about some more "firsts." WSAZ-TV became a basic NBC Network Station, which included color programming. The station also introduced its very own first local colorcast.
In those early years, there was a constant quest to strengthen the station's signal to increase the numbers of people to be served by WSAZ. A second transmitter site was under construction off Route 2, north of Huntington. Once again, the landscape was engulfed by heavy equipment, with crews constructing and erecting huge towers and antenna systems. The big leap forward came for the station in the fall of '54, when the transmitter site was moved from 8th Street Hill to its present location at Barker's Ridge. A tower height of 1,102 feet -- second only to the Empire State Building at the time -- improved the station's signal and coverage area.
LOCAL PROGRAMMING & NEWS
New local programs introduced in 1954 include "Parson's Study," a live religious counseling program with the Rev. Griffin Callahan, and "Camera Goes To School," which offered an educational outlet to viewers in the area.
Another unforgettable was Don Wagoner who broadcast live from a tiny island in the Kanawha River in Charleston, then flew off clutching a rope lowered to him from a helicopter. The first in a long line of WSAZ children's program hosts as the "Beachcomber," he made a rousing public appearance following his return from the moon -- and whirled about town surrounded by adoring fans. Then there was George Lewis as "Steamboat Bill," with his friend "Merlin the Sea Monster" -- followed by Jule Huffman as "Mr. Cartoon." One of the most popular local live efforts was the "Saturday Night Jamboree," featuring such local entertainers as Dean Sturm, Norma Lee, Sue Chambers, Connie Smith with Harry Mills and the Haylofters.
Soon, WSAZ had its first live remote program when the "Jamboree" was telecast from Charleston. Charleston has always been a part of WSAZ, as was demonstrated with the opening of studio facilities, completely equipped for production and live programming. This made it possible in August of '54 for WSAZ to complete another national first -- telecasting a dual-city newscast, with Bos Johnson anchoring in Charleston and Nick Basso in Huntington. Two months later, the WSAZ news operation was cited by the 'Radio Television News Directors' Association for outstanding service in the community. In 1954, Jim Thacker was named WSAZ sports director. The West Virginia Broadcasters Association's Executive Director Marilyn Fletcher was Women's Director at that time, hosting "The Good Morning Show" cut-ins live from the Charleston studio, with the major portion of the program coming from the Huntington studio. She also starred on the afternoon children's program as "Miss Marilyn." The Charleston studio and offices were located on Dickinson Street, downtown, with offices upstairs above a dress shop. The studio was on the main floor, a converted garage and called 'small, but adequate.'
IN THE FIFTIES
In 1955, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver was the honored guest for the third annual Adkins Reunion at Camden Park. As a presidential nominee in '52, Kefauver had adopted the Coonskin Cap and the old-fashioned handshake as his two campaign weapons, which were quite in evidence that day. There was also a gas war raging in the Huntington area, with prices often dipping as low as 20 cents a gallon. In January of '55, WSAZ instituted "Operation Big Switch" when the FCC granted approval for the station to more than double its power of 48 kilowatts.
It was the year Bob Horan became the first Charleston news director. Bob and Jan Carr joined the staff on the program "Current" and Mickey Banga became "Aunt Dru."
April 24 and 25 of 1956 were big and busy days around the station as preparations were taking place to originate a two-day "Today" show from WSAZ and the sternwheeler "The Weber Sebald." The show cast finally arrived, including Dave Garroway, Lee Ann Merriweather, Jack Lescoulie and Frank Blair -- all amid great fanfare and throngs of people. Then, on Sunday, the station originated a major segment of a Sunday afternoon NBC-TV program, "Wide, Wide World" showing a steamboat race on the Ohio River." During the race, the director in New York asked the director in Huntington if he could "slow down the boats" because the program was running early -- then it ran late, and the network audience never saw the end of the race.
In 1957, WSAZ broadcast another national first: live coverage of the opening of the West Virginia State Legislature and "State of the State" message by Governor Cecil Underwood. The very latest innovation in television service arrived at WSAZ in 1958, and with it, another blue ribbon first for the station. The acquisition of an Ampex videotape recorder made WSAZ the first station in the market to bring the ultimate of recorded television viewing to its public.
Neil Boggs joined the Charleston news staff in July of 1958. 1958 brought some sadness, as Colonel J. H. Long who, at the age of 95, died with the realization of a dream few men ever conceive. Born 6 weeks before the battle of Gettysburg on a Pennsylvania farm, his success sprang from humble beginnings, and was not without its setbacks. He began as a printer's devil, and lived to see the installation of color television at WSAZ.
The station lost a man who had become beloved by all, city and country folk alike, farmer Bill Click -- winner of numerous awards in the field of agriculture. He was succeeded by another well-known farm figure, John Heiskell, who passed away in the 60s.
The first years in the history of WSAZ were really the most active; a decade when dramatic changes and innovations were taking place in television around the country, and particularly at WSAZ. It was a period of great growth.
WSAZ began the decade of the 70s with new, modern facilities. The beginning of this new home was in December of 1971, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 7th Street. This was another investment that would enable WSAZ to improve its capabilities and better serve the area. The move into the new plant took place in January of 1973. Another pioneering effort began in 1971 when WSAZ was one of the first stations in the nation to institute the live series "Town Hall." In cooperation with the League of Women Voters, this community affairs program was a live four-hour prime time special that provided an opportunity for the voter and the candidate to become better acquainted. The series continues today.
In 1974, WSAZ opened its third full-time news bureau with an office in Parkersburg. And another first in 1974 was the introduction of "The Vidicam," a light weight fully portable electronic color camera that permitted the viewer to see events almost as soon as they happened. In 1976, WSAZ introduced to the area the first lightweight portable microwave live equipment. This new technology permitted the instant broadcast of news and community affairs events.
WSAZ has always been a part of the Kanawha Valley, so in 1977, the Charleston operation moved into new modern facilities off the interstate on Columbia Avenue -- near the intersection of Virginia Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This was just another investment in the future that strengthened the earlier pioneering effort as the only station in the region operating with live newscasts originating from studios in two cities.
In 1980, the stars came out for the Scarlet Oaks Celebrity Golf Classic. Bob Bowen and Budd Dailey hosted the affair when WSAZ broadcast live coverage of the two day event from the country club in Poca.
WSAZ-TV also began the 1980s with the addition of a modern state of the art mobile production unit that would provide quality on location production to area businesses, plus origination of area events of importance to its viewers. The station added "PM Magazine" to the primetime program schedule, a weekday magazine featuring people, places, and lifestyles of this region and the country; introduced the "Live Eye" -- equipment and technology that enabled the WSAZ news team to get news as it happened and report it on-air live. Some of that equipment is still used today.
THE NEXT LEVEL
A local effort to recognize academic achievements of top scholars from high schools throughout the area with "Best of the Class" was started in 1984. This includes a series of announcements that pay tribute to the efforts of these young people.
In the late '80s, WSAZ's introduced the Kavouras Triton Radar System, which gave the station the ability to present the weather information in a whole new way using computers.
It also wasn't until the late 80s when WSAZ switched to a Ku Band Satellite System for reception of program service from the NBC Television Network. This ended 36 years of network interconnection by microwaves and coaxial cable, providing the viewer with a more reliable, versatile and superior quality picture.
The 1990s brought on some major innovations and the start of the digital age. First at Five debuted on August 23, 1993. The station launched the region's first news Web site, WSAZ.com in 1995 (click here for more WSAZ.com history. During the summer of 1995, WSAZ achieved another technological first: the station became the first in the nation with the ability to deliver two different news programs to the same market at the same time. WSAZ added a low-power transmitter in the Kanawha Valley and secured the cooperation of cable companies within that area to accomplish a unique programming breakthrough. Viewers in the Kanawha Valley received a separate signal from the WSAZ Charleston studios, which was tailored specifically for the Charleston area viewer.
In late January 1996, that newscast became WSAZ's Capital City News. Not only was the content focused on the Kanawha Valley, but the news was re-branded and marketing efforts could be better focused. Today, the concept of this "split" newscast continues, but is now called "WSAZ Charleston." Click here to learn more about how the split works.
In the late '90s, WSAZ-TV purchased the nation's first digital satellite uplink truck, enabling the station to go live from almost anywhere. The truck is equipped with a video switcher and audio board, so it can be used to provide full-live production of major events in the region, including sporting events and breaking news situations.
For the newsroom, the '90s brought First At Five --- the television market's first 5 p.m. news. The morning newscast was expanded to fill two full hours -- 5 to 7 a.m. 5:30 Edition was added to the 5:30 to 6 p.m. slot in August 2001. The station upgraded its newsroom gear to the Sony Beta SX format in April 2000. It's a digital tape that replaced the station's analog Betacam SP equipment has superior picture quality.
The next major advance in technology at the station happened in March 2003 when WSAZ started broadcasting a digital signal on channel 23. At first, programming on the channel was not a simulcast of WSAZ, only the high definition feed from NBC. But, as the popularity of digital TV grew, the station began simulcasting its main feed on 3.1.
The digital broadcast technology, though mandated by the FCC, enables broadcasters to carry more than one channel at once. On September 5, 2006, channel 3.2 also known as myZtv, went on the air. WSAZ launched a 10 p.m. newscast, "myZ Ten O'Clock News," for this channel premiere and eventually added "Your Day on myZ," which airs from 7 to 8 a.m.
WSAZ simulcast both channel 3 analog and channel 23 digital until the digital transition date on February 14, 2009. As requested by the FCC, the station carried an "enhanced nightlight" service on the analog channel that provided information about how to hook up a digital converter box to pick up the digital channel. WSAZ's analog transmitter was officially turned off on June 12, 2009.
THE COMPANY, EMPLOYEES
Over this period of 60 years, seven different companies have owned WSAZ-TV. The Huntington Publishing Company sold WSAZ-AM-TV to Goodwill Stations, owner of WJR radio in Detroit and WJRT-TV in Flint, Michigan, in 1961. Goodwill was merged into Capital Cities Communications in 1964. Capital Cities sold the radio station in Stoner Broadcasting in 1970, but kept channel 3 until 1971, when it was sold to Lee Enterprises. Emmis Communications bought the station in 2000 after Lee decided to bow out of broadcasting. Emmis then sold WSAZ to Gray Television in 2005.
Even when changes occurred, they might well have escaped notice had they not been announced in newscasts, because the same attitude toward community service and community involvement has dictated the policies of this station, regardless of the corporate name of the licensee. That's only natural, since the same people have been in most of the management positions in the station regardless of ownership. Many of the staff have worked at WSAZ-TV for more than 25 years. Many are natives of this immediate area.
It was just 60 years ago that the number of television sets in the Tri-state area was just a few hundred, and at that time there were actually only a million sets in the entire country. Television was just a conversation piece and this new medium, at the time, faced some basic questions. Would it be just a passing fad in the communications medium? What would the public reaction to it be? What would be its responsibilities? Well, it didn't take 35 years for us to get the answers to many of the initial misgivings concerning television. WSAZ pioneered this growth in the Kanawha Valley and the Tri-State. Its dedication and accomplishments over the past six decades demonstrate a continuing commitment toward service to the peoples of the area as it looks ahead to the future.
WSAZ GENERAL MANAGERS
The current general manager is Don Ray, who has been in the position since 1989, and also serves as Regional Vice President for Gray Television. He replaced Gary Schmedding, who joined the station in 1987, replacing Howard Kennedy, who in turn replaced George Andrick. George had been general manager since 1961, retiring in 1987.