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WKPT at 50, a rebirth through 'nostalgia' TV

CALVIN SNEED, Community contributor • Aug 23, 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.

While getting ABC on the air in Kingsport had finally been accomplished, simultaneous work was continuing on converting the huge WKPT AM Studio A into a television studio. The room was so big that the Kingsport Symphony Orchestra used to practice in it because it was soundproof. Former TV creative services director and WKPT Radio announcer Bob Lawrence remembers the organized TV conversion.

“It was the only second-floor TV studio I’d ever heard of,” he remembers. “There was one big RCA camera (a used TK-41), one huge RCA videotape recorder that arrived in several big boxes (a second was added later), microwave transmitters and receivers, racks, gigantic studio lights, a fully-operational RCA 16-millimeter film chain... all of that was hauled up the stairs at 222 Commerce St. There were wires, cables, monitors, technical equipment and electrical conduits all over the place.”

Quickly tiring of the iffy on-air WTVK signal on Holston Mountain, technical work had begun on a better way of providing the ABC network from Knoxville to Kingsport.

It utilized a simple idea. Think of shining the narrow beam of a flashlight into a mirror, and seeing that same narrow beam focused on the wall across the room from you. Television microwave relays work the same way, using huge “dishes” aimed at each other to transmit a signal from one point, receiving it at another point miles away, then sending it to still another point further away.

“We looked at the TV microwave relay systems that other stations had used,” says DeVault, “and decided to build a link system of our own from Knoxville to Holston Mountain. The first microwave carrying the ABC network signal was established from WTVK on Sharp’s Ridge, to Camp Creek Bald on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, nine miles south of Greeneville. That first link in the chain was 70 air miles. From there, another microwave relay picked up the ABC signal and sent it 27 air miles to Holston Mountain, where still another relay, sent it 25 air miles to the WKPT studios downtown. After it went through the master control board, that same signal was then sent back to Holston, into the Channel 19 TV transmitter, and out to viewers.

“It was a 125 air-mile trip to get ABC from Knoxville that most viewers never knew about.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY

The process of getting on the air, getting a reliable ABC signal into WKPT-TV, and building a local studio had been completed. But the toll of those accomplishments was exacted during the next four years, with the station trying to make money, stay afloat and pay for everything.

“I wondered sometimes whether this was really what I should be doing,” DeVault reminisces. “There was discussion along the way about maybe selling the TV station. Back in those days, you’d get to work around 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning and you couldn’t leave until about 8 or 9 o’clock that night and you wondered if it was really worth it. We had station bills to pay. It was a frustrating time for all of us.”

Finally, the red ink turned black.

“It took about three or four years to finally turn the corner and make a profit,” he remembers. “I was so proud of our employees because they were working really hard. Everybody was doing more than one job. All of a sudden, it became fun. It wasn’t a huge profit, but it was something. It gave us all hope. It even allowed us to eventually expand the TV station into the old W.B. Greene Store space next door.”

RADIO NEWS ON TELEVISION

Kingsport residents had long felt left out of the local television picture, with just two stations in the area in other cities. Now that they had their own station, it became no secret that they wanted local news and programming. For years, they’d listened to the chiseled tones of Martin Karant, Bill Freehoff, and Bill Trailer and others on WKPT Radio. Those broadcasting icons now made the transition to television.

“We knew we could not compete with the 6 o’clock news on WCYB and WJHL,” DeVault remembers, “so we came up with our own newscast that ran, I think, at 4:30 in the afternoon weekdays with Martin and Bill from the radio dayside anchoring it. We also started an 11 o’clock show that did compete with Channels 5 and 11 and Bill Trailer pretty much did that whole half hour by himself. We had an old U.S. Navy black-and-white 16-millimeter film processor that developed the film from news stories out in the field.”

While the other stations had invested a lot of money in color film processing, DeVault says that situation opened the door for WKPT-TV to hang a “first in the Tri-Cities” label on its wall of fame. Channel 19 was the first TV station in the Tri-Cities to use electronic news-gathering (ENG) with portable video cameras and tape recorders to record field stories and get them on the air quickly by simply rewinding the videotape and editing it. Channel 19 had now joined the “electronic journalism” age already in place at stations in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

That distinction did not go unnoticed at WCYB and WJHL.

Claude Wood was working at Channel 11 at the time and remembers one of the cameras out in the field. “It was a JVC single saticon tube camera and a video recorder,” he remembers. “They promoted it heavily as being the first Tri-Cities station to have an ‘ENG CAM.’ Despite their obstacles, I thought that was quite progressive. Not long after that, both Channels 5 and 11 acquired similar videotape news gathering equipment.”

“We always had good relations with WCYB and WJHL,” recalled DeVault, remembering a visit he made to Bob Smith, Sr., one of WCYB’s 1956 founding partners, just before Smith passed away. “We spoke of the intensely competitive nature between Channel 5 and Channel 11, but we noted how well WKPT got along with both their managements and staffs. I think they admired us for giving television a shot, even though they never really viewed WKPT-TV as an equal competitor because of Channel 19’s limited UHF signal. We did put out a good on-air signal from Holston Mountain into Bristol and Johnson City but in Kingsport, Chestnut Ridge and Bays Mountain pretty much blocked off a lot of the city. It wasn’t until we installed a repeater on UHF Channel 70 at Bays Mountain did the Kingsport Channel 19 coverage improve greatly.”

“WKPT-TV was a UHF station in a VHF world,” Steve Howard remembers. “That Channel 70 repeater brought the signal into my daddy’s house clear as a bell 24-7 and he loved it.”

DIGITAL TV UPS AND A BIG DOWN

Still more firsts were claimed by “WKPT, Tri-Cities ABC.” The station was the first to transmit its TV audio in stereo, and the first to offer its audience a separate audio program (SAP) under its main channel. It was years later in digital television, that WKPT-TV recorded yet another first. “We were the first digital TV station in Tennessee,” DeVault says. “It allowed us to multicast several different TV streams or programs all at the same time. As a result, you now had Channel 19-dot-1, 19-dot-2, dot-3 and so on. We had already signed on another analog channel, WAPK-TV, which gave us a lot of flexibility.

But ironically, it would be digital television that would deal WKPT-TV its most severe setback in 2016.

It would cost the station the network it fought so hard to bring to Kingsport.

“ABC executives had already indicated that they wanted to affiliate with group-owned TV stations because it was easier for the network to negotiate the fees it receives from cable and satellite companies,” DeVault says. “Holston Valley Broadcasting was just a little company in a small TV market.. we did not have the clout the bigger station owners had. At the time, we had the best attorney in the country (the lead counsel for the ABC-TV Affiliates Association), negotiating our case with the network for us. We followed his advice to the letter. When it seemed we were making progress, at one critical point ABC abruptly told us they’d decided to explore their other options. When I heard that, my heart sank. I knew the end of ABC on Channel 19 was near. That was a bad day in my life.”

Within a few days, the Times-News headline told the Tri-Cities world: “WKPT’s Affiliation with ABC coming to an end.” At the same time in a separate news release, Media General, then-owner of WJHL announced that ABC would be coming to its Channel 11-dot-2 digital channel and be rebranded as “ABC Tri-Cities.”

At a somber staff meeting at WKPT that day, “I basically broke down, telling a wonderful staff that without the network revenue, we would have to shut down the television news department,” DeVault recalls.

“Some people thought that we had sold the station to WJHL,” DeVault says. “The loss of ABC to the community was the loss of local news on Channel 19.”

WKPT-TV: BACK TO THE FUTURE

After WKPT-TV announced the addition of MeTV to two of its digital subchannels, audience reaction to the network’s 50’s, 60’s and 70’s nostalgia shows was very positive. “MeTV is the best thing going in these parts with over the air broadcast,” commented one viewer. Another wrote “I like MeTV much better than the ABC lineup.”

“The question is, will WKPT-TV realize that they can improve their viewing audience by taking on MeTV?” asked another.

That one thoughtful question might be the key to success, DeVault figured.

“We positioned MeTV to headline a list of nostalgia-based programming on the WKPT-TV and WAPK-TV stations,” he says. “We already had COZI-TV on one video stream, LAFF-TV on one, Grit TV and its westerns on another, Heros and Icons on still another, Escape on yet another, Bounce on one, and now the big prize MeTV would be a stream on each of its two TV stations. It seems that people like family-oriented, wholesome shows on the networks that the entire family can watch.”

And then, good news.

“Early on, we received ratings information from the MeTV network showing that on average, MeTV in the Tri-Cities on Channel 19-dot-2 and Channel 36-dot-1 beat out ABC on the other channel during most of the day,” DeVault reveals. “WKPT-TV was also the number one ‘audience share’ affiliate in the entire country for MeTV in primetime, and number seven overall, 24-7. It’s been very good for the station so far. There is definitely an audience for nostalgia programming, and a silver lining for WKPT-TV in bouncing back.”

“WKPT-TV is, and always will be Kingsport’s hometown television station,” says Steve Howard. “It’s amazing how they found a way to survive.”

Even now, there are no hard feelings from WKPT-TV towards ABC or WJHL.

“The network made a business decision,” DeVault says, now retired as Channel 19’s president and general manager following a half-century-plus career there. “They looked at their options in the Tri-Cities and we looked at our options once they decided what they wanted to do. Meanwhile, we were, and still are, friends with everybody at WJHL. It was uncharted waters on a new horizon for both stations, but we set our sails and years later, we are still afloat as a company representing the good of Kingsport.”

“50 years later, I’m happy to report that all is well at Holston Valley Broadcasting and WKPT-TV.”

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