WBTV celebrates its 65th birthday quietly

When you reach a certain age, say three years after you become eligible for Social Security, you tend to get shy about celebrating your birthdays. Such appears to be the case at WBTV (Channel 3), which marked its 65th anniversary this week quietly with a story by veteran reporter Steve Crump.

WBTV flickered to life as the first TV station in the Carolinas on July 15, 1949 from the old Wilder Building on South Tryon Street. There were an estimated 1,000 TVs in Charlotte then and no one was quite certain that the new invention would catch on.

“When you stop to consider that television actually transports you to a front-row seat at a multitude of interesting events,” The Charlotte News said in an editorial, “or brings straight into your home the animated, talking images of entertainers and informants, you begin to grasp the tremendous revolution this new development is going to make in our lives.”

No need to worry. Over the next year, an average of 50 televisions were sold each day in Charlotte. WBTV’s signal flew more than 100 miles in those days when there was little interference on the dial.

Soon, the new medium made household stars of people like Arthur Smith, singing cowboy Fred Kirby, forecaster Clyde McLean, homemaker Betty Feezor and anchors Bob Inman, John Wilson and Doug Mayes.

A number of people have served at the station for decades. Steve Ohnesorge, the station’s western North Carolina bureau chief, is the longest-serving on-air personality, now marking 38 years at the station.

Among those interviewed by Crump for the station’s 65th anniversary was Jim Babb, a WBTV pioneer and Charlotte broadcast veteran who now works as chief operating officer at Bahakel Communications, parent company of rival WCCB (Channel 18).

Babb recalled doing sports highlights in the early days on the old Central High School. Charlotte historian Dan Morrill remembered walking into someone’s home when he was growing up in Winston-Salem to find more than a dozen people gathered to watch Arthur Godfrey’s CBS show on WBTV.

WBTV maintained a huge lead over other stations for decades in the region. Competitors used to say that it seemed like TV dials were rusted to Channel 3.

WSOC (Channel 9) didn’t sign on until 1957, delayed for years by legal opposition to its license by Channel 3, and other stations came later. WBTV maintained its lead in local news ratings until WSOC took first place after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

For its 60th birthday, WBTV did an hourlong show with highlights of its decades of broadcasting. This anniversary got about two minutes on the 5:30 p.m. broadcast with the report by Crump, who has spent 28 years at Channel 3.

“We’ll probably do something big at 70,” says news director Dennis Milligan. “Somehow 65 doesn’t feel as big.”

Media Movers

Earlier wake-up call for Channel 18’s Kaitlin Cody, Derek James, Kristine Zell, Terrance Bates and Jon Wilson – “WCCB News Rising” joins Charlotte’s other morning news shows by adding a half hour at 4:30 a.m. … Sammi Jo Francis departs as morning traffic reporter on WBTV (Channel 3) to do video features for the Carolina Panthers. …

Kendall Ramseur, a cellist from Charlotte who made it through the first audition round, is scheduled to appear again on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 36. … Leighton Smith, who has handled Carolinas HealthCare System’s media planning and buying for 12 years, joins the agency Spark Strategic Ideas as senior media buyer and planner. …

As part of a new programming deal between the Carolina Panthers and Time Warner Cable, Jordan Gross will host “This Is Gross” on Thursdays and Mick Mixon will host “Inside Panthers Football” on Fridays on TWC channel 323 beginning in August. … Alumni from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts who received Primetime Emmy reality programming nominations for their work on Discovery Channel’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier” include Brian Mandle, formerly of Hickory, director of photography; Frank Gibson, formerly of Charlotte, producer; and Scott Garner, formerly of Davidson, camera. NBC will broadcast the awards Aug. 25.

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