Local

Doug Mayes, Charlotte television news pioneer, dies at age 93

Doug Mayes on the set of “Your Esso Reporter,” an early newscast on WBTV.
Doug Mayes on the set of “Your Esso Reporter,” an early newscast on WBTV. Observer archives

With a courtly manner and a backwoods Tennessee twang, Doug Mayes launched the first generation of local TV news in the Carolinas, leaving a distinguished imprint perceptible six decades later.

Mayes, 93, died Sunday after a period of declining health.

WBTV (Channel 3) was only 3 years old in 1952 when he became the host of “Your Esso Reporter,” a 15-minute dinner-hour newscast sponsored by the oil company now known as Exxon.

He would go on to be the voice and face of WBTV News, which held such a grasp on viewers that the revered CBS anchor Walter Cronkite asked to meet him when he came to Charlotte in the late 1960s for a speech.

Mayes was surprised that Cronkite not only knew who he was but knew WBTV’s 6 p.m. news ratings were No. 1 among all CBS affiliates.

“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 later recalled in an interview with the Observer.

Mayes would come to define the first generation of television news anchors – bigger-than-life figures whose images and voices were familiar in nearly every living room in their broadcast area.

Well into the new millennium, if you had lunch with Doug Mayes in an uptown restaurant, heads would whip around at the sound of his voice. And not just gray heads – younger baby-boomers recognized him from the soundtrack of their childhoods.

Remembered for style

Bill Walker, who joined WSOC (Channel 9) in 1968 and was the station’s prime anchor for nearly four decades, said Mayes was the standard by which competitors measured themselves.

“Freeman Jones, who was general manager of WSOC, told me once when I was considering a move that I had a chance to be the next Doug Mayes,” Walker said, a bit of flattery that had the intended effect – he stuck with Channel 9 for 37 years.

“He could have paid me no greater compliment,” Walker said. “That’s how Doug was regarded inside and outside the business.”

Paul Cameron, WBTV anchor, said Mayes was magnetic.

“His personality drew people to him naturally,” Cameron said. “You couldn’t help but love a guy who had a folksy style and a deadpan sense of humor.”

Mayes was a dedicated leader in the Shriners, too.

“His philanthropic work behind the scenes for years with the Shriners was monumental,” Cameron said. “No wonder they named the street leading to the Shrine temple after him.”

Mayes was also an accomplished musician. Cameron and others would get together at Mayes’ Lake Norman home – nicknamed Station Break – for jam sessions.

“In the last few years, Doug returned to where it all started for him – music. He could play any instrument that had strings and I feel fortunate that he and I got together from time to time to bang out a few ‘oldies’ on the guitar,” Cameron said.

“By the way, no one sang ‘Mountain Dew’ any better.”

From musical roots

Mayes was born Dec. 12, 1921 in a log cabin that his grandfather had built in Westmoreland, Tenn., about 40 miles north of Nashville.

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

His father was a contractor and taught Mayes carpentry and farm work.

His father was also a hillbilly fiddler, and young Mayes learned to sing and play the guitar.

In 1940, when he was a high school senior, a group from the Grand Ol’ Opry, featuring Grandpappy George Wilkerson and the Fruit Jar Drinkers, came to town for a show minus a bass fiddle player.

Mayes was given a tryout and got the gig. Afterward, he was invited to play at the Opry in Nashville, where he played with the Crook Brothers. Bill Monroe heard him. “I like your pickin’,” Monroe said.

Monroe had a bass player who was having trouble with the union, so he let Mayes fill in. Mayes later went on tour with Arthur Smith and the Dixie Liners.

He got a gig on a radio show in Nashville, which opened his eyes to a broadcasting career.

“I decided I wanted to be an announcer,” Mayes said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a singer.”

Big news broke

He was living in Kingsport, Tenn., as a teenager, working at a small radio station for $5 a week as a musical performer. Mayes worked a deal with an announcer – in exchange for Mayes helping with the morning show, the announcer would coach him on reading for the air.

Mayes was practicing in the studio one Sunday afternoon in 1941, when the news came in that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. “I said, ‘What’s Pearl Harbor?’ ” Mayes said.

A minute later, he was delivering his first radio newscast.

Afterward, the morning announcer enlisted, and Mayes got his job. Mayes joined the Navy two years later and, while at Camp Perry, Va., read nightly news bulletins to other recruits gathered in the four theaters on the base.

When Mayes mustered out as a petty officer in 1946, he moved to a radio station in Greensboro and attended High Point College for a time, then landed at a station in Nashville, Tenn.

Joins WBT in Charlotte

In February 1952, he came to Charlotte’s WBT (1110 AM) and was soon chosen for the radio station’s TV partner as “Your Esso Reporter.” It was a new concept in TV news – it would feature the same news reader night after night, connecting a personality with the show rather than using revolving announcers, as had been the practice on WBTV.

By today’s standards, it was a crude affair.

Film would arrive from New York on the 3:30 p.m. Eastern Air Lines flight, and the script would come down the UPI wire, Mayes said. “We’d shoot local film on 16 mm Bell & Howell cameras. Wasn’t unusual for your splices to break on the air.”

Each weeknight, from behind thick-rimmed glasses and a battered Steelcase desk, Mayes would recite the events of the day with stern formality on a small set festooned with Esso logos.

“I’d do a story, then I’d say, ‘We’ll continue in a moment,’ and turn to the other camera and say, ‘Now I want to talk to you a minute about your car,’ and do a pitch for Esso,” Mayes said.

“We could take three minutes or more on a story. Today, they’re lucky to get 30 seconds.”

An uncertain risk

He was taking a chance on moving to the newfangled business of TV in the early 1950s. Many who worked in radio weren’t sure the invention would ever catch on and turned down TV work, which didn’t pay as well.

“Radio seemed pretty safe. We didn’t know,” Mayes recalled. “This was a new thing – you were suspicious. Was it going to work, or is it a fluke?”

But Mayes quickly learned the powerful reach of the new medium. People began recognizing him on the street and telling him he was in their home each night. He got a letter from a woman in Lenoir asking when they watched him on TV, could he see them, too?

In July 1949, when WBTV signed on, there were 1,000 television sets in the Charlotte area. One year later there were 19,000. By July 1952, there were 100,000.

First with Kennedy news

One of the biggest stories of his career came on Nov. 22, 1963. Mayes was in the newsroom when bells began sounding on the wire-service machines signaling an important story.

A bulletin from Dallas – President Kennedy had been shot. He got it on the air minutes before the first network bulletins.

“My first thought was that we had to get it on, so I ran into the radio studio, interrupted a CBS network show and reported it. We carried it about 25 minutes before CBS picked it up,” Mayes said.

Mayes also directed and emceed the country music “Spectaculars” that were held monthly at the Charlotte Coliseum in the ’60s and ’70s, once doing the Twist onstage with Minnie Pearl.

In 2002, Mayes was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn., citing his “Carolina Country Style” program that WBT (1110 AM) radio carried in the 1950s.

Business changed

By 1981, Mayes had been sidelined to a senior statesman role at WBTV, delivering editorials. He felt marginalized by a new management regime pushing for younger, more telegenic personalities to capture ratings.

Scrappy WSOC (Channel 9), which had gone on the air in 1957, was ever closing the ratings gap in newscasts and made a bold play for Mayes. Walker invited him to lunch to see whether he might be interested in jumping ship. To Walker’s surprise, Mayes was.

When his WBTV contract expired in January 1982, Doug Mayes moved from Channel 3 to 9, joining Walker and Doreen Gentzler on the 6 p.m. newscast.

It was a stunning defection, like Cam Newton signing with Atlanta or John Belk shopping at Ivey’s. With Mayes – then the face and voice of local news in Charlotte for 30 years – aboard WSOC, the upstart’s brand was gilded.

“Doug brought instant credibility and authority to our news product and was a key ingredient in the success we had,” said Walker, the longtime Channel 9 anchor.

WSOC rented 200 billboards across the Carolinas to tout its coup.

Mayes took over Channel 9’s midday newscast, which was rechristened “Mid-day with Mayes.” It soon became the No. 1 noon newscast.

Two years later, in July 1984, WSOC passed WBTV in viewers for the 11 p.m. newscast and six years later took the lead at 6 p.m.

Mayes retired from Channel 9 in 1988 but returned for occasional specials.

Hard feelings mended

For decades, Mayes bore a festering resentment toward Channel 3 for the way he was treated in his last years there. It didn’t dissolve until a new generation took over the news department after 2000 and, unaware of the animosity of the past, began honoring him as a pioneer in the station’s history.

He attended the station’s 60th anniversary in 2009 and, in 2013 at age 91, accepted an invitation to co-anchor a newscast with Molly Grantham, six decades his junior and one of WBTV’s rising stars. It was an 11 p.m. newscast, a bit past his bedtime, but the veteran anchorman hit all his marks.

“I’ll never forget that show,” Grantham said.

“When the camera light turned red, Doug Mayes was on. He was back. We all knew it. His voice was the same. His credibility was real. He still had it at 91 years old.

“He repeatedly, graciously said how touched he was by WBTV letting him come back for a final show – he didn’t understand it was him who made the real difference to all of us.”

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Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

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