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This just in: At 91, anchor Doug Mayes makes a comeback at WBTV

Mark Washburn
Mark Washburn writes television and radio commentary for The Charlotte Observer.

Doug Mayes, who launched Charlotte’s first television newscast 61 years ago, returns to the anchor chair at WBTV Friday, a comeback that spans generations and was inspired in part by Facebook.

Mayes, 91, will sit in for the vacationing Paul Cameron on the 11 p.m. newscast. Their job-share grew out of a lunch they had a few weeks ago at a restaurant in Denver, on the western shore of Lake Norman, where Mayes has a lakefront home named Station Break.

Cameron, who started in WBTV’s sports department in 1981 while Mayes was in news, took a picture of the two of them together and posted it on the station’s Facebook page. “It got tens of thousands of hits,” says WBTV news director Dennis Milligan, an extraordinary volume.

WBTV thought it would be fun to invite Mayes back for a victory lap. “He took about five milliseconds to agree,” Milligan says.

“It made me feel good,” says Mayes, “and very humble.”

Last week, he went by the studios to practice reading the teleprompter.

“It took him about a minute of reading to get used to it,” says Milligan. “You could tell when the old news guy kicked in, kaboom. He had full command.”

Mayes also sat in on the station’s news meeting, where the police shooting of an unarmed man was the key topic.

“He knew every detail,” says Molly Grantham, who will be his co-anchor Friday night. “He had great questions to ask. He was still the newsman, even at 91. That was when I was sure this is such a great idea.”

Remembered well in Charlotte

Mayes’ deep voice with its distinctive Tennessee twang is engrained in the city’s collective memory. He began as “Your Esso Reporter” on WBTV’s first nightly news show in 1952.

He was working in the newsroom one autumn afternoon in 1963 when bells started ringing on the United Press International wire ticker, signaling urgent news. Seconds later, he was on WBT radio announcing that shots had been fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade, minutes before CBS News broke into a soap opera on Channel 3 with the first bulletin.

CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, in Charlotte for a speaking engagement in the 1960s, went over to WBTV to meet the staff. Mayes was surprised that Cronkite not only knew who he was, but was keen on WBTV’s 6 p.m. news ratings lead, which was No. 1 among all CBS affiliates at the time. “He said, ‘I know who you are, and I want to thank you for what you do for me, and what you give me each night at 6:30,’” Mayes says.

Mayes stayed at WBTV for three decades, but by the 1980s, a new generation of managers wanted to go for a younger look on newscasts. Mayes was moved to reading editorials, a position that left him feeling marginalized.

Rival WSOC (Channel 9) was by then making inroads against the entrenched Channel 3 news lead. After quiet negotiations, Mayes took over Channel 9’s midday newscast, which was rechristened “Mid-day with Mayes.”

WSOC bought 200 billboards in Charlotte to trumpet Mayes’ defection, and soon the midday newscast was No. 1 in the ratings, the first beachhead leading to Channel 9’s eventual dominance in local news.

Mayes retired from anchoring in 1988 but continued doing occasional special reports for WSOC. He keeps his fingers in the news business by writing a column for the Lincoln Times-News.

His appeal continues

Milligan, WBTV’s news director, says he’s still surprised by how many people remember Mayes. When they go out to lunch, people recognize Mayes and come up to meet him.

“A lot of them are middle-aged or on the younger side of middle-aged,” says Milligan. “He was on TV when they were kids.”

When WBTV celebrated its 60th anniversary in July 2009, Mayes was featured in an hour-long retrospective. It was the highest-rated show on the station that month.

Mayes’ country roots

Mayes was born in a log cabin that his grandfather built in Westmoreland, Tenn., about 40 miles north of Nashville.

“I was born with nothing, and still have most of it,” says Mayes.

He started in broadcasting as a teenager at a Kingsport, Tenn., station, where he performed with a country band. He was at the station one Sunday, when bulletins began arriving about the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was put on the air to read them, his debut as a newscaster.

Mayes was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in 2002, for his other broadcasting endeavor, his “Carolina Country Style” program that aired on WBT in the 1950s.

When Cameron came up for that lunch a few weeks ago, he brought his guitar along. Mayes got out his and they jammed, playing “Wildwood Flower” together. “Cameron plays a mean guitar,” says Mayes.

Mayes plans to wear a blue shirt, necktie and a blazer for his Friday night gig beside Grantham, six decades his junior. He’ll be working for free.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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