Media Scene

TV exec Charles Crutchfield and the plot to blow up WBTV tower

Charles Crutchfield before the microphone at WBT Radio.
Charles Crutchfield before the microphone at WBT Radio.

Charles Crutchfield, who rose from studio announcer for a popular bluegrass show on WBT-AM (1110) to one of the nation’s most influential – and outspoken – broadcast executives, is the focus of a new biography by Jerry Shinn.

So much of Crutchfield’s career is foundational Charlotte lore that it’s hard to believe that Shinn, a former Observer editorial page editor and columnist, could find much new about the broadcast visionary who led WBT into the television age.

Crutchfield, nicknamed “Crutch” and born with a voice built for radio, started as an announcer at WBT at $20 a week in 1933. He served as announcer for the popular “Briarhoppers” music show in the ’30s and ’40s (and ultimately killed the show in the ’50s as tastes changed) and rose to become president of the station’s parent company, Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting Co., in 1963.

Along the way, he counseled a young firebrand evangelist in Charlotte named Billy Graham to take his message to the newfangled medium of television.

History has treated him as one of the city’s great success stories, but Shinn reveals some difficult struggles, including a little-known chapter of his career involving the birth pangs of WBTV and a bitter battle it unleashed.

WBTV, which dominated the region’s TV viewing for nearly four decades after signing on in July 1949, was a serious drain at first on the fortunes of WBT radio. Channel 3 was losing about $10,000 a month in its early days.

At the same time, Crutchfield was in a contract dispute with union technicians operating the two broadcast properties, says Shinn, who was commissioned by Crutchfield’s family with the support of Lynnwood Foundation to write the bio, “A Voice Of His Time.”

WBTV fired 10 technicians who passed out handbills criticizing the TV station; Crutchfield considered the action disloyal. “While we are struggling to expand into and develop a new field, and, incidentally, losing large sums of money in the process, you are busy trying to turn customers and the public against us in every possible way, even handing out leaflets on the public streets advertising that our operations are ‘second class,’ and endeavoring in various ways to hamper and totally destroy our business,” Crutchfield wrote in a blistering letter dismissing the technicians.

Soon the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which ultimately upheld the firings because the handbills were critical of WBTV but carried no mention of the labor dispute. An appeal went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Crutchfield and upheld the NRLB.

But it would be a a long time before hostilities settled. In 1950, police arrested a man trying to dynamite the WBTV transmitter on Spencer Mountain. For many months, Charlotte police kept a guard posted at Crutchfield’s home on Mecklenburg Avenue, Shinn reports.

Sales of television soared in the early 1950s and WBTV finally began turning a profit. By the time WSOC (Channel 9) signed on in 1957, it had such a head start, Shinn says, that it seemed TV sets across the region “were rusted on Channel 3.” Crutchfield ultimately emerged as the executive who navigated the station through the straits of start-up and into a long era of prosperity.

Jerry Shinn will be reading from his book “A Voice Of His Time” at 7 p.m. April 20 at Park Road Books.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs