Sixty-six years ago, in 1953, Montgomery was preparing to sign on its very first television station: WCOV-TV.
WCOV Radio was at 1170 AM (a frequency for which I later worked, in its incarnation as WACV-AM 1170, continuing today as News Talk 93.1). WCOV would sign on as a CBS affiliate but carry programming from NBC, ABC and DuMont. The station is still located on Adrian Lane in the Normandale neighborhood of Montgomery.
Downtown radio station WSFA was preparing to spin off its television station that same year. The radio frequency, 1440, became WHHY (continuing today as Y-102). WSFA would carry the NBC affiliation, but also carry programming of other networks as well. WSFA’s studios are still located on East Delano Avenue in the Cloverland neighborhood.
UHF, or Ultra High Frequency, had more limited range and was transmitted on Channels 14-83. VHF, or Very High Frequency, was far more desirable and broadcasted on Channels 2-13.
WCOV, owned by the William Covington family, was supposed to be on Channel 12. However, RCA was taking too long to send a VHF transmitter to Montgomery in time for the scheduled launch. In the rush to be the first to air, WCOV did not want to wait. They took the available UHF transmitter that was available, and signed on to Channel 20.
WSFA, with call letters meaning “With the South’s Finest Airport,” held out until a VHF transmitter was available and signed on 65 years ago as Channel 12. Waiting turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as WSFA became the dominant television station not only in the market, but the top NBC affiliate in the nation. Gordon Persons, later the Governor of Alabama, was the original owner of WSFA/WHHY.
So, 65 years ago this season, Montgomery began to have NBC and CBS programming available in this region. Prior to that time people with TVs had to move their antenna to try and pick up Columbus or Birmingham stations.
NBC, the National Broadcasting Company, was a pioneer in entertainment. Founder David Sarnoff had begun RCA, the Recording Corporation of America. The first radio networks in the country were NBC Red and NBC Blue. CBS was the Columbia Broadcasting System and was the dominion of William S. Paley. CBS was a fierce competitor with NBC on radio and records, and now television.
ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, was originally known as NBC Blue. In the mid-1950s, ABC was not yet a true player in the radio and television industry, but they would be soon.
Each network began its hourly programming with a sound effect. The NBC Chimes played the notes G-E-C, which stood for “General Electric Company,” RCA’s partner (and later owner). Even today, NBC programming utilizes the G-E-C sound effect. Over at CBS, programming began with a five-note electronic sound effect that is still in use on CBS Radio news broadcasts.
It is a curious accident of history, isn’t it? Mr. Covington wanted to have the first TV station, but Governor Persons waited for the better transmitter. While Channel 20 was successful, they stopped their in-house news operation in the late 1980s when they became a Fox affiliate. Channel 12’s owners gave them all the best equipment in the 1950s, making news gathering easier. As the Civil Rights struggle unfolded in Montgomery, NBC made WSFA its home base for southern news stories. 65 years later, WSFA remains a leader in news coverage.
Today, with the advent of digital and streaming options, it’s hard to imagine a time when the placement of a broadcast entity on the dial made a difference, but that’s how we got here. Next week: a review of some freshman and sophomore series on network television.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools and a weekly columnist for The Tribune.