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The day an amoeba attacked Charlotte

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

This week marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which sent many people who took the radio play as fact into a tizzy.

It’s a good time to remember another radio scare – the amoeba that attacked Charlotte.

On Aug. 4, 1965, in the spirit of fun, a disc jockey named Rick Fight at the old pop music WIST-AM broke into his afternoon show to report the urgent news that an amoeba was loose in the city.

Of course, amoebas have been around Charlotte since the city was founded, and many millions of years before that. You may remember from high school biology that amoebas are microscopic, single-celled critters that like to dwell anywhere wet.

But on that summer day, Charlotte was effectively split into two groups: those who had paid attention in biology and those who hadn’t.

Those who had, telephoned WIST – and got on Fight’s broadcast – to report sightings of the mysterious creature. Those who hadn’t, got nervous.

Calls poured in to newspapers and the health department. Charlotte’s Nature Museum recorded 45 calls from the frightened populace, some of them asking whether their children should be kept indoors.

After only 55 minutes into the amoeba’s visit, Police Chief Ernest Selvey ordered an end to it. Calls to the dispatch center about the amoeba overwhelmed operators and he wanted the lines open for real business.

“We were afraid some emergency would arise,” the chief told The Charlotte News.

Douglas Bell, the general manager of WIST, ordered an announcement be run on the air that it was just a joke. “This reaction was totally unexpected,” he told the News.

Fight, an up-and-comer who had worked at stations in Greenville, S.C., said he’d used the gag before, but never to such acclaim.

Six months later, the guardian of the public airwaves – the Federal Communications Commission – issued a stern rebuke to WIST that was the last word in the episode.

“We can find no justification for what appears to have been an irresponsible use of a broadcast facility in an effort to attract public attention,” the regulators said. “This letter will be made a part of the public file of station WIST.”

Bo Thompson moves up

Beginning Monday, “Charlotte Morning News” adds an hour on WBT-AM (1110), cutting Keith Larson back to 10 a.m. to noon. In the 9 a.m. hour, morning host Bo Thompson will preside over a topical segment keyed to the day’s major story or something trending in the news.

Larson, who’s held the hour since coming to WBT in 2002 and announced the change on the air Tuesday morning, says he’s fine with it. He hopes to do more writing after the success of his book on Hope Stout and the Panthers, “That Season of Hope,” and his side advertising and marketing business is picking up steam.

WBT program director Jason Furst says it will give Thompson, who succeeded Al Gardner as the morning news show host in 2012, a chance to do more long-form content and give him a more prominent role.

“Bo is the rising star at the station,” says Furst.

Thompson is one of the few local broadcast personalities who grew up in Charlotte. He was still a student at Myers Park High School when he started working part-time at WBT in 1990, and here’s an irony: His first gig there was as an intern for Mike Collins, whose hourlong “Charlotte Talks” show runs at 9 a.m. on rival WFAE-FM (NPR 90.7), opposite Thompson’s new hour. …

Media Movers

Creative Loafing refuses to endorse either Patrick Cannon or Edwin Peacock in the upcoming mayoral election. Columnist John Grooms pens the editorial that says neither makes the grade: “Neither candidate has explained what, if anything, he would do to change, or at least ameliorate, the disgraceful fact that this city of bankers and high-rollers has some of the most intense, deep poverty in the state.” …

Rock Hill’s WRHI-FM (94.3 FM, 1340 AM) and sister station Interstate 107.1 FM will carry Winthrop’s basketball games this winter with Dave Friedman handling away games and home games being called by Chris Miller, with color from Pierre Wooten. … WFAE-FM’s next public conversion on how arts and cultural groups can be supported is 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square. WFAE’s Mark Rumsey will moderate and panelists will be Kathleen Jameson, president of the Mint Museum; Pat Riley, co-chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Cultural Life Task Force; and Jim Warren, executive director of the Carolina Raptor Center. …

Bill Goodwyn, CEO of strategic distribution and Discovery Education for Discovery Communications, was inducted Monday into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in New York. Goodwyn, a UNC Chapel Hill grad who works from Discovery’s Charlotte office, was responsible for much of Discovery’s cable growth during its formative years.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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