Sixty-five years ago this month, Chattanoogans doubled their TV viewing pleasure.
With the flip of a switch, that miraculous picture box in the living room suddenly had not one, but two channels to choose from. Could it possibly get any better?
There was no longer a monopoly on entertainment and news programming. For the previous two years, WDEF Channel 12 had been the only station in town, carrying local programs plus an assortment of shows from four different networks: CBS, NBC, ABC and DuMont.
When WRGP Channel 3 (named for owner Ramon G. Patterson) signed on, signed up exclusively with NBC, a partnership began that remains today. Channel 9 came along in 1958, affiliating with ABC, and Channel 12 aligned with CBS.
All three original stations are still affiliated with their original networks.
Channel 3 has changed hands a few times over the years. One of the previous owners, Rust Craft Broadcasting, renamed the station WRCB in 1963 and the station retains those call letters today.
Now owned by Sarkes Tarzian, Inc., Channel 3 is proud of a few firsts over the years: first to do live remote broadcasts (back in the early 1960s, when such an event would take days to set up) and first to do live breaking news shots (via microwave signals). The station also employed the first female news anchor (Jackie Schulten in 1974) and the first Black news anchor (Fred Johnson in 1980).
In 1988, Channel 3 was also the first to purchase a satellite truck, enabling the news division to go live from pretty much anywhere. It seemed like a miracle at the time, but we had no idea that by 2013 we would be able to beam breaking news events into your home with a tiny telephone that fits into the palm of your hand.
We now do this on a daily basis and the satellite truck is already obsolete.
The station was also first to broadcast programs in color, thanks to NBC’s early adoption of color TV. When I was a kid, very few people had expensive color TV sets and it was a real treat to see anything in color, without going to a movie theater.
Our preacher was the only person we knew with a color TV, so I would often find excuses to go home with his family and watch “Bonanza” in color on Sunday nights on Channel 3 and NBC. Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe sold a lot of color TVs for NBC’s parent company RCA, which was the whole idea.
At that time there were only a handful of shows broadcast in color. Within a few years, that would change.
Then came cable, satellite, the internet, streaming and all the choices we have today. But thankfully, there’s still a Channel 3, doing local news, weather, sports and, yes, providing me with a job for the past 33 years.
Channel 3’s early programs (from 1956 to 1968) were broadcast from 1214 McCallie Avenue, across from Warner Park. I visited the old studio, later converted into an electrical supply building, back in 2006 for the station’s 50th anniversary.
It was a pleasure to see the old dressing rooms where Dolly Parton would put on her giant wig for the Porter Wagoner Show. It was the same studio where Harry Thornton was ringmaster for Saturday Live Wresting, and Mort Lloyd delivered the news with that incredibly deep voice.
Through the years, the people have come and gone, but Channel 3 is fortunate to have some folks both in front of and behind the camera who have made the station their home for most of their careers. Wayne Jackson started directing the 6 p.m. news in 1974 and still pushes the buttons today.
Tom Tolar was station manager for 35 years, easily a record in Chattanooga, and is still with the company today. Cindy Sexton has co-anchored the evening news since July 1985. In September of that year, meteorologist Paul Barys joined the team and will have completed 36 years at the time of his retirement this July.
About a dozen folks who are behind the scenes have worked at Channel 3 even longer, providing stability and mentorship.
The tone is set at the very top. Tom Tarzian, the company’s board chairman, is one of the few independent television station operators in the nation. Unlike most stations, Channel 3 is not owned by a huge media empire.
Mr. Tarzian runs the company under a simple belief: “Do the Right Thing.” He backs that up by encouraging us to give back to the community by promoting fundraisers for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and area food banks, among others.
So Happy 65th, Channel 3! And thanks to those of you who have supported “my favorite channel” for so many years.