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The day television came to Kingsport: WKPT-TV signed on the air 50 years ago

By CALVIN SNEED • Aug 22, 2019 at 1:36 PM

Editor’s note: Kingsport native Calvin Sneed’s 48-year broadcasting career began at WKPT AM-FM-TV, four months after WKPT-TV signed on the air in 1969. He was hired at the age of 15 to work part-time on-air shifts on the radio stations and to help out in the fledgling TV control room. Sneed is now retired from news anchoring at WTVC-TV, Chattanooga. This is the first of a two-part series.

The initial idea was to bring ABC-TV to Kingsport on a local station instead of viewers here having to watch the network on WLOS-TV, Channel 13 in Asheville, North Carolina.

“When I was growing up on Duke Street near Lynn Garden, cable TV was out of the question,” remembers radio personality Steve Howard, formerly of Kingsport. “My dad put up a 50-foot antenna mast on the side of the house, because he didn’t want to be charged money to receive TV signals he knew he could get for free. WLOS-TV carried the entire ABC network in real time, not on a tape delay like WCYB and WJHL did. They just ‘cherry-picked’ whatever ABC shows they wanted to air, and you couldn’t watch every ABC show on them.”

Although located in western North Carolina, WLOS-TV always considered the Tri-Cities part of its primary coverage area. Its powerful signal 87 air miles distant, on the summit of mile-high Mt. Pisgah “sent Channel 13 (and all of ABC) into parts of six great Southern states,” the station’s daily sign-on message once boasted.

“That’s all well and good, but whether we got a clear picture from Channel 13 depended on how many leaves were on the trees on top of Bays Mountain that the signal had to cross over from North Carolina,” Howard laughs. “Nice picture, easy on the eyes in the fall and winter, but sometimes snowy and ghosty during the spring and summer.”

THE MATTER OF UHF

A bit of television history from the Federal Communications Commission files explains the dilemma.

Johnson City already had a television station, WJHL on Channel 11. Bristol also had one, WCYB on Channel 5. Both channels were on the coveted and more-desirable Very High Frequency (VHF) television band, meaning their signals were easily receivable over the air in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, despite the hilly, mountainous terrain.

When the Kingsport Broadcasting Company, original owners of WKPT AM and FM, applied for a license from the FCC to build and operate a TV station in the Model City back in the 1950s, it proposed a couple of VHF channels so the company could compete on the same playing field with Channels 5 and 11.

The government ruled that since Kingsport’s population was only about 20,000 people in the ’50s, the small city did deserve its own channel, but it would have to be on the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band because no other VHF channels were available in this region.

Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word ultra is: “going beyond due limits ... excessive or extreme,” and that perfectly described UHF television signals in the early days: signals way past VHF reception, “extremely” difficult sometimes to receive, requiring “excessive” effort occasionally to clearly pick up. Add to that, many early TVs in Kingsport households did not even have UHF dials.

But UHF Channel 19 had been assigned to Kingsport, and WKPT Radio, realizing there would be no other channel available here, took the plunge and applied for an operating license on that frequency. They were awarded an FCC construction permit in 1966 that gave them the authorization to build a television station.

Kingsport native George DeVault, who began his career at WKPT, was about to become a UT graduate and was working at WTVK, the struggling UHF ABC station in Knoxville. He would soon come back home and be one of only two people with TV experience at WKPT (general manager Bob Ratcliff was the other), tasked with putting Channel 19 on the air, securing a local ABC affiliation and building a legacy TV station in his hometown.

He found the going rough.

“The government finally mandated in 1962 that all new TV sets had to include a UHF channel selector, but since there were no guidelines, the old UHF tuners had sliding indicators much like radio dials,” DeVault remembers. “That was our first problem. Even if the signal was receivable, you could accidentally touch the dial and it might go off the channel. In terms of television back then, UHF stations were nothing more than holes in which to throw money. The reception was difficult at best, and it was a struggle to get people to watch.”

WHERE TO TRANSMIT FROM

Once the license was granted for WKPT-TV, the first order of business for the small staff headed by chief broadcasting engineer Harold Dougherty was to find a suitable place to assemble a transmitter and build a tower for the transmitting antenna. “At first, Bays Mountain was practical, because we already owned a tower and transmitter building there for WKPT-FM,” DeVault says. “But while that would have worked for Kingsport, we needed a much taller site to be able to reach into Johnson City, Bristol and over the mountainous terrain of the region.”

Only one site in the region made sense.

High Point on Holston Mountain, 2,300 feet above the surrounding terrain, not only fronted Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, but it provided the extra height necessary to send a broadcast signal as far north as Pikeville, Kentucky, as far west as Morristown, as far south as Asheville and as far east as Wytheville, Virginia.

Once the transmitter was installed and the tower built on the south end of Holston High Point (eventually WJHL would move its own transmitter and tower next door), the herculean task of bringing ABC to the station and the Tri-Cities began.

The network helped by granting the affiliation. But ABC was no help in delivering a signal.

“ABC refused to spend the money to provide us its network signal through AT&T Telco directly to Kingsport because we were not a big enough city,” DeVault remembers, “and initially WLOS-TV would not give us permission to rebroadcast ABC via their on-air signal on Mt. Pisgah.”

Possibly because of DeVault’s former employment and both stations being in the same UHF boat, WKPT-TV was given permission to rebroadcast ABC from the on-air signal of WTVK, Channel 26 on Sharp’s Ridge in Knoxville. WTVK charged Channel 19 $100 per week to get ABC programming, “and I still remember those checks going to Knoxville once a month,” DeVault said later.

“LET’S GET ON THE AIR ... TONIGHT!”

The day of sign-on arrived. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, it was a cloudy day in the Tri-Cities that late summer day, Aug. 20, 1969. In an article DeVault once wrote, he described the first day of telecasting from Kingsport that was made hectic by a late telegram from the FCC.

“In a Western Union telegram from Washington, we’d just received a waiver from the FCC, letting us off the hook for not having a required piece of equipment essential with regular operating authority,” he remembers. “I ran into Bob Ratcliff’s office with the telegram and pleaded with him to ‘Let’s not wait ... let’s get ABC programming on the air that very night.’ Everybody was as excited as I was. After little resistance, he gave in.

“Kingsport’s local Chevy dealer (Looney Chevrolet) wanted to be the first commercial sponsor,” DeVault wrote, “and slides had already been shot for a commercial. Once the decision was made to go on that night, I recorded all of the non-network audio for the night in the radio station’s production room, grabbed the slides, picked up my Wollensack tape recorder and a sandwich at home and headed for (Holston) Mountain.”

After broadcasting a test pattern of “color bars” to tune and keep the transmitter aligned on its assigned frequency, the national anthem finally played over a slide of the U.S. flag. WKPT-TV’s official sign-on occurred at 6:29 p.m. with a station identification slide, followed by the voice of George DeVault proclaiming for the first time, “This is WKPT-TV, Channel 19, Kingsport-Johnson City-Bristol, Tennessee.” The first show airing on the station was “The ABC Evening News with Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith” via WTVK. Since local programming had not been established yet, at 7 o’clock viewers were treated to the same station ID slide from the mountain, along with instrumental easy listening music for the next half-hour. ABC prime time shows on WTVK began at 7:30, starting with the comedy “Here Come the Brides.”

WKPT-TV was out of the starting gate.

“It was quite an evening with lots of calls into the station office,” DeVault remembers. “Since there were no phone lines to the mountain yet, (general manager) Bob got on the two-way radio to tell us, ‘We just got a call from somebody watching us in Oak Ridge more than a hundred miles away on the other side of Knoxville!’ That was a good feeling.”

“The Kingsport audience, and more importantly Tri-Cities viewers, could now watch ABC in real time on a hometown station right in their own backyard,” DeVault proudly says.

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