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Historical marker spotlights Wilder Building, broadcasting’s Charlotte birthplace

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

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  • Braves out, Knights in on WZGV-AM
  • Broadcast history

    Among the highlights of early WBT, WBTV history:

    1922: WBT gets the third commercial radio license issued by the federal government.

    1925: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll do comedy acts on WBT. They later move to Chicago as “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

    1928: Luther Little becomes the first minister to do a radio show in the nation.

    1933: Charles Crutchfield is hired. He goes on to organize “The Briarhoppers.”

    1945: “Carolina Hayride,” later renamed “Carolina Calling,” originates from WBT and is carried by CBS.

    1948: WBT launches an FM station.

    1949: WBTV goes on the air.

    1952: “Your Esso Reporter” becomes WBTV’s evening newscast, hosted by Doug Mayes.

    1955: Stations move to new home off Morehead Street.

Little remembered and long extinct, Charlotte’s old Wilder Building will flicker back to life Friday, if only in the imagination.

A historical marker will be unveiled at Third and South Tryon, where the building stood and made its reputation as the most interesting place in town. It not only rocked, it crackled.

It was the longtime home of WBT, which got the third commercial radio license in the nation in 1922, and the birthplace of television in the Carolinas when WBTV signed on there in 1949.

A ceremony will be held at 2 p.m. for the marker. Gov. Pat McCrory, a WBT veteran of sorts, has been invited. He used to have a Sunday show on the station while he was Charlotte mayor.

Through the portals of the Wilder Building passed broadcasters entwined in the region’s history.

People like Fred Kirby, who started singing on the radio in the 1930s and remains today in the memory of native baby-boomers as a TV cowboy. And Clyde “Cloudy” McLean, whose weather forecasts made him such an authority that it is said farmers planted crops on his command. And Charles Kuralt, the UNC Chapel Hill student who worked summers at WBT, honing the skills that would take him to network prominence at CBS.

And like Grady Cole, a character who possessed perhaps the best-known voice in the Carolinas for the decades he was on WBT and about whom entertaining stories are still told.

Cole, Dempsey and the cop

Cole joined WBT in 1930. He held a variety of positions, including the morning show.

Cole drove a big Packard convertible. Among his activities was promoting boxing matches. He got the best-known boxer of the era, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, to come referee some of them.

En route to a match in Rutherfordton, Dempsey at the wheel, a state trooper pulled them over for speeding. Dempsey handed over his license, the trooper examined it and was headed back to his cruiser to write a ticket when a familiar voice came from the Packard.

“Officer,” Cole said, “don’t you know who that is?”

“Wait,” said the trooper, spinning on his heels. “Is that you, Mr. Cole? I’m tearing up this ticket if that’s Grady Cole.”

Anyway, that’s the way Doug Mayes tells it. Mayes met Cole at the Wilder Building on Aug. 19, 1951, after Mayes made an all-night bus trip from Nashville, Tenn., to audition at WBT.

Cole walked in the studio that morning and laid his pistol next to the microphone. Someone had threatened his life, Mayes says, and Cole took precautions.

“A Colt .45, polished silver,” says Mayes, 91, who worked up from WBT radio to become Charlotte’s first official TV anchor at WBTV in 1952. “Carried it on his belt. Never went anywhere without it.”

In a 1952 Collier’s magazine profile on Cole, a county agent said at least one pig in every litter he’s seen is named Grady. To demonstrate how inflation was making money worthless, Cole once borrowed a dollar from a beggar.

He was killed in an accident in 1979, hit by a drunken driver, at age 72. Cole was known for being tardy for appointments; his wife scheduled his funeral to start 45 minutes late.

Slave wedding, rebel yells

Charles Crutchfield joined WBT in 1933 as an announcer and eventually ran the station. He had a showman’s flair.

In 1935, he wrangled eight Civil War veterans into the studio, 70 years after the surrender at Appomattox. When they were done reminiscing, he called upon them to demonstrate the fearsome “Rebel Yell,” and they complied with gusto (it sounded like small dogs barking at the doorbell). It is believed that the was the first time the battle cry had ever been broadcast.

In 1936, Crutchfield broadcast the wedding of two former slaves, 92 and 97 years old, first marriage for each.

He went on to run the company and brought it into the television age. He encouraged a young, little-known evangelist to harness television for his ministry and persuaded his friend, ABC executive Leonard Goldenson, to carry “The Billy Graham Crusade” on the network beginning in 1957. WBTV picked up the broadcasts in the Carolinas.

At his 1977 retirement party, Crutchfield was presented with a two-volume bound book from CBS News president Richard Salant. It was a collection of decades of complaints that Crutchfield had sent to the network about its news coverage, much of it ranting about Dan Rather and liberal bias.

Included was a 1975 letter from Salant to Crutchfield, responding to a Rather complaint. “Good to know that you’re alive and kicking,” wrote Salant. “Kicking us right in the groin.”

Crutchfield died in 1998 at 86.

Unsanctioned activities

Robert D. Raiford, still heard on radio’s “John Boy and Billy” show mornings on WRFX-FM (“Fox” 99.7), arrived in the Wilder Building in 1952 as an announcer. When CBS owned WBT, it put in two large studios and an announcing booth with turntables. Network-quality stuff, Raiford says.

“Used to be a dice game in the ‘B’ studio after the office staff got out,” he says.

Another alumnus of the Wilder Building: David Brinkley. He worked there in the early 1940s for United Press International in the wire service’s Charlotte bureau, long before he became a star at NBC.

Legend has it that Crutchfield turned Brinkley down when he tried to get a job at WBT. “It’s a good story,” Brinkley once told the Observer. “Unfortunately, it isn’t true.”

Western Union’s Charlotte office moved into the Wilder Building in 1926, and courier boys were constantly spinning through the doors, telegrams in their clutch.

Getting a marker

Historic markers are rarely erected about existing businesses, says Michael Hill, research branch supervisor for the N.C. Office of Archives and History.

“But we did it for WBT and WBTV. They’re important landmarks in the state’s history,” Hill says, noting the marker is believed to be the state’s first about broadcasting.

“People’s memories of broadcasting are remarkably ingrained. It’s more than nostalgia, it’s an essential part of the makeup of North Carolina’s memory. Somehow the immediacy of radio and TV is something that gets people’s memories flowing.”

Part of Hill’s job is to boil down complex history into about 25 words for markers. “It has to fit into 140 characters,” he says.

Wait. How many?

“Yep, hear that? We anticipated Twitter.”

Demise of the Wilder

WBT and WBTV moved out of the 10-story Wilder Building in 1955 to a spacious new home off Morehead Street. Western Union moved out in 1966.

By the time it was demolished in 1983, it had been largely vacant for years. A Courtyard Marriott stands there now, renting quiet rooms for $169 a night.

Oh, but the commotion the Wilder made in its day – country music, Sunday preachers and Rebel Yells. Rich memories, distant echoes and an aluminum marker are all that are left.

Washburn: 704-358-5007
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