How a young Richard Lobo ‘ambushed’ Fidel Castro and helped Miami’s WCKT Channel 7 earn a Peabody

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Florida native Dick Lobo’s interest in broadcasting began as a child in Tampa, the grandson of Cuban immigrants who came to the United States to work in Ybor City’s cigar factories.
As he explained in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, “I was an only child without siblings to play with after dinner, and we didn’t have a great deal of money, so my entertainment was our radio. I fell in love with the medium–it transported me away from some of the hard times we were experiencing. I could escape.”
While in high school he got is first bicycle “and permission to ride it downtown . . . I used to hang around radio stations–WDAE was one of them, WFLA was another. There were some nice people there who saw I was interested.” As broadcasters generally did, they encouraged Lobo, asking him to help by putting away ETs (electrical transcriptions, the predecessor to records) and pulling wire copy from news services. “I’d roll up long rolls . . . and take them home. Sometimes in the privacy of my room, using a hairbrush as a microphone, I would read wire copy as if I were an announcer reading a newscast. I really loved doing that. Not only did I love the medium, I loved the news part of it.”
Lobo’s interest in news continued at University of Miami where, through its strong relationships with the fledgling television industry, he had opportunities to train at several local stations. “My professor was Ralph Renick. He was iconic in Florida.” That relationship led to a part-time job as a reporter/photographer for WTVJ Channel 4.
After graduation and a stint in the army, Lobo returned to Miami and joined WCKT Channel 7 as a photographer. While there he was sent to Cuba, right after the revolution, where the bold young journalist, fluent in Spanish, got an exclusive interview with the new Cuban president, Fidel Castro. “I ambushed him coming out of a meeting outside Havana. It aired on the Today show and Huntley-Brinkley.” The interview and the rest of WCKT’s coverage earned the station a Peabody Award.
That was just the beginning of Lobo’s broadcasting career, which included his leadership over a sea change in local television that would reshape the network-affiliate relationship and change much of the business of broadcasting forever.
Read more about Dick Lobo’s broadcasting career and many others in Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, available now at by clicking here.

“Booze, Broads and Bribes” convention sparks Payola investigation

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Former Palm Beach Post columnist Thom Smith, now writing for The Coastal Star, wrote a nice piece on Towers in the Sand this month. In addition to general comments about some of the people featured in the book, including Katie Couric, Roy Firestone, Red Barber, Steve Kroft, and Bryan Norcross, Thom focused on the 1959 Radio Programming Seminar and Pop Music Disc Jockey Convention, held in Miami and headlined in The Miami Herald as “Booze, Broads and Bribes.” The convention’s excesses helped launch a Congressional investigation into payola.

Click here to read the story.

Also, check out Thom’s sidebar piece about how “Days of our Lives” star Deidre Hall got her start on “all-girl” radio station WLIZ-AM in Lake Worth.

Please click here for more information about Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting. Click here to buy the book in paperback ($29.99) or e-book ($8.99) formats.

Seventy-eight years ago tonight, Orson Welles terrifies Tampa Bay and the nation

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In the spirit of “trick or treat,” I thought you would enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 7 of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting.

On the eve of Halloween 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air played a giant trick on an estimated thirty-two million radio listeners across the nation when it interrupted what seemed to be a regular entertainment program with a special bulletin.
“Salty Sol” Fleischman was the announcer on duty at WDAE that Sunday night. As Tampa’s CBS affiliate, WDAE was carrying the broadcast live when the network announcer said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish, Ramón Raquello leads off with ‘La Cumparsita.’” Just after the band started, Fleischman and the rest of the nation heard the music stop and another announcer urgently say:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello . . .”
Thus began a series of bulletins, each with more urgency, interrupting the dance music in Tampa and around the nation:
“8:50 p.m., a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey . . .”
“9:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring with a radius of twenty miles of Princeton . . .”
“This is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey . . . that’s the thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force . . . the object doesn’t look very much like a meteor . . . it looks more like a huge cylinder.”
“Hundreds of cars are parked in a field in back of us . . . headlights throw an enormous spot on the pit where the object’s half buried. Some of the more daring souls are now venturing near the edge, their silhouettes stand out against the metal sheen.”
“Here’s something I haven’t mentioned in all this excitement, but now it’s become more distinct. Perhaps you’ve caught it already on your radio. Listen . . . do you hear it? It’s a curious humming sound that seems to come from inside the object.”
“Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific . . . the top is beginning to rotate like a screw!”
“She’s off! The top’s loose. Look out there! Stand back!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone . . . or something . . . is crawling out of the hollow top.”
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather . . . The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate . . . the thing’s raising up . . .”
Back in Tampa, Sol Fleischman said WDAE’s phone began ringing off the hook. “I tried to tell everybody that it was only Orson Welles, and then I got panicky and I thought, ‘Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is real.’”
Fleischman told of a man driving down Florida Avenue in Tampa, listening to WDAE on his car radio, when he heard the bulletins: “He was right in front of the First Methodist Church . . . he jumped out of the car right there and they were having a prayer meeting . . . He rushed into [the church] and there the late Bishop Branscomb was conducting the services. He rushed up to the pulpit . . . and the Bishop turned around as if what in the world is going on and the man said, ‘Dr. Branscomb, something terrible is happening in New Jersey. There are little men coming out all over and the army and navy is mobilized, the country is going to the devil and we’re liable to be killed any minute.’ And Dr. Branscomb immediately stopped the services and announced for everybody to please bow their heads and pray for this terrible catastrophe out in New Jersey so it won’t get to Florida.”
Also in Tampa, Fleischman recalled, residents of apartment buildings around Plant Park “got panicky and they grabbed furniture and belongings,” putting them in the field at Plant Park because “somebody had said on this broadcast . . . to take your belongings there because it’d be safer than a home that might be devastated by fire.”
Across the nation, panic ensued. On the fictitious broadcast the Martians were invading Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City, where a “reporter” breathlessly told of citizens “falling like flies” from the toxic black smoke spewed by the aliens. “Now the smoke’s crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it’s fifty feet . . . [BODY FALLS].” A ham radio operator tries the reach the city: “2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . New York. Isn’t there anyone of the air? Isn’t there anyone . . . 2X2L.”
Once the fictional smoke cleared, CBS and the radio industry in general received threats of lawsuits, condemnation by the newspaper industry, tongue-lashings by politicians, and reprimands by the FCC (but no sanctions). However, the public was quick to forgive, and soon became focused on very real threats from Asia and Europe.

Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting is available now in paperback and e-book formats. Purchase your copy by clicking the Buy the Book tab.

THE HAT STORY

Today I attended the funeral of a great guy and superb broadcaster named Murray Green. Murray was general manager of WFLX Channel 29, originally a pure independent station then later the FOX affiliate in West Palm Beach. At that time I was working my way up the ladder at WPEC Channel 12, a CBS affiliate. Murray was a classy competitor and a broadcaster down to his bones. He was also a great salesman, a skill learned through hard knocks in big city radio.

I interviewed Murray for my book in 2005. Some of the stories he told me about the early days of WFLX are in the book, but as always, some fell to the cutting room floor. I was reminded of one of those stories at the funeral today.

The story is from his first radio job after serving in the US Army Air Corps during the war. He was a rookie radio salesman for a Syracuse station managed by Bert Lebhar. Here, in Murray’s own words from the 2005 interview, is

THE HAT STORY

“Lebhar sent me to the Hat Corporation of America, which made Knox Hats and Dobbs Hats, which were the big hats of the day, at a time when everybody wore hats. We had New York Giants football. We had a quarter left [to sell] in the games. I called on this man named ‘Park’ or ‘Parks.’ This was 1949. I had no agencies. The rookie salesman always got direct business, and there was no direct business in New York.

“I called on this guy, I went in and told him we had New York Giants football. He said, ‘I want that.’ It wasn’t a case of me selling it—it was a case of him wanting it. He was a Giants fan. I wrote up the contract.

“As I got up to leave he said, ‘Don’t forget your hat.’ I said, ‘I didn’t wear a hat.’
He said, ‘Give me the contract,’ and he ripped it up.

“It was probably 10 blocks back to the office, and I was sure by the time I got to the office and told Lebhar about this, I was out. I had been working there three months, hadn’t made a nickel. My salary, incidentally, was 50-bucks a week. We survived because my wife was making 85! The commission on that sale was over $5,000.

“By the time I got to the office there was, on my desk, a small, miniature hatbox. I opened up the hatbox, and inside was a gift certificate. On it was a note that said, ‘You wear shoes when you call on the shoemaker.’

“The end of the story is that I called him up and thanked him for the gift certificate for the hat, and he said to me, “It was a good move that you called on me. Bring me back the contract.” And I did, and he signed it, and he also gave me a hat.”

“Bringing call letters to life,” The Palm Beach Post reviews Towers in the Sand

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Caption: Bill Gordon in the WPTV Channel 5 “Action News” car 1960

The Palm Beach Post published its review of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting.

Longtime staff writer and presentation editor Jan Tuckwood really captured the spirit of the book, “sprinkling funny anecdotes about crazy characters and gimmicks,” with serious stuff, like ”The industry .  . . has survived dramatic change — from analog to digital, from charismatic solo owners to corporate giants, from networks to cable … and now internet streaming services like Roku and Hulu. But none of the new technology can replace free, over-the-air news when a big hurricane hits and wireless fails.”

Click here to read the online edition.

Towers in the Sand is available now in paperback ($29.99) and e-book ($8.99) editions. Click here to order.

Fla broadcasters prep for hurricane threat, as they have since 1926

September 30, 2016: With Hurricane Matthew intensifying and a forecast right turn bringing the cone of probabilities dangerously close to Florida’s east coast, broadcasters across the state are dusting off hurricane plans largely left dormant since the last major storms struck the state in 2005. Broadcasters on the state’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle had a refresher when Hurricane Hermine came ashore as a Cat 1 storm early this month. As reported in Inside Radio (September 6, 2016), “radio was ready to provide needed information and to comfort listeners with constant updates.”

Coverage of hurricanes and other natural and manmade disasters has been a cornerstone of broadcasting since the industry’s early days. And while radio and television have undergone dramatic changes and consolidation in the past few decades, most owners and managers still hold true to the admonition to serve “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

Broadcasters have provided lifesaving news and information about hurricanes since Florida’s first stations were licensed in 1922. The new book, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, chronicles every storm to strike the state and the efforts of radio and television stations to keep their audiences safe. The book is available now in paperback and e-book formats at www.towersinthesand.com.

Following is an excerpt from Towers in the Sand about The Great Miami and Pensacola Hurricane. (The author gratefully acknowledges the book Florida’s Hurricane History by Jay Barnes © 1998 University of North Carolina Press, which served as a constant source of hurricane information.)

1926-hurricane-mia-newsThe US Weather Bureau described the September 1926 storm as “probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States,” entering one of Florida’s most populous areas—the southeast coastal cities of Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale, and Miami before crossing the state and the Gulf of Mexico to continue its destruction in Pensacola.

Florida historian Stuart McIver, writing for Ft. Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel, set the stage: “It had not been a good year for South Florida. A wild real-estate boom had collapsed. Millionaires at the end of 1925 had become poor folks by the middle of 1926. Solid citizens skipped monthly payments and tax bills—and lost their homes. Businesses failed. The sun still shown, but its rays bounced off the bleaching skeletons of unfinished buildings. Where had the good times of the Roaring ’20s gone? Oh, well, thought battered Floridians, things couldn’t get worse. And then they did, on September 18, 1926. ”

The storm that would become known as the Great Miami and Pensacola Hurricane received little attention from local newspapers. The day before it struck, the Miami Herald ran a short story on page one, but said it wasn’t expected to hit Florida. That afternoon, the Miami News said “destructive winds” were expected by late evening. “The word ‘hurricane’ was not used in the story, and the citizens of Miami ended their Friday with no concept of the turmoil that was about to overtake them,” wrote Jay Barnes.

WQAM in Miami had the foresight to install a dedicated telephone line to the US Weather Bureau office on Northeast First Street and First Avenue—claiming to be the only station in the country to be so prepared. The phone line was in place well before the storm but provided little advantage since the science of predicting hurricanes was so primitive. Richard W. Gray, the official in charge of the Miami office, received only sketchy information from the national weather office in Washington. According to McIver’s report, the Weather Bureau issued an advisory at 10:00 a.m. September 17 about “‘a very severe storm’ that would pass through Nassau early Friday evening in a direction that would push it onto the Florida coast.” Barnes said that Gray didn’t raise the red and black hurricane flags until “the storm’s first squalls raked the Florida coast at 11:30 p.m.” Even so, WQAM’s storm warnings were later credited with saving thousands of lives as the hurricane smashed into Dade and Broward counties.

WQAM went off the air when the station lost power at some point during the storm, but perhaps not before playing a lifesaving role as the hurricane’s eye passed over Miami about six thirty Saturday morning, September 18. “Battered Floridians rejoiced at the brief lull the eye brought,” McIver wrote. “Many ventured out, kissed the ground and gave thanks they had been spared. Others piled into cars and tried to drive back to the mainland over coastal causeways and bridges. A horrified Richard Gray left his Miami Weather Bureau . . . and cried out: ‘The storm’s not over! We’re in the lull! Get back to safety! The worst is yet to come!’” The backside of the eye came ashore with winds of 140 mph from the opposite direction. Many of the one hundred deaths in Miami were attributed to people leaving safety during the lull of the eye.

As the storm swept out of Miami on a northwesterly course, it is hoped but not documented that WQAM’s powerful signal gave some warning to the residents around Lake Okeechobee. But there, as is often the case with hurricanes, it was the water, not the wind, that was the killer. As Barnes wrote: “In the years prior to the hurricane’s arrival, the state had undertaken a massive reclamation project to drain the Everglades’ vast grasslands for farming. Heavy rains in 1922 and 1924 had caused the lake’s level to rise, and the citizens of Moore Haven [on the southwestern shore of the lake] had built a muck dike to protect themselves from future floods. But the state of Florida and the people of Moore Haven had underestimated the awesome impact a major hurricane could have on the waters of Okeechobee.”

The hurricane whipped up the lake waters, and the counterclockwise flow piled the water on the southern shore. The dikes failed, and a massive liquid wall demolished homes and flooded the town with fifteen feet of muddy water. The death toll was estimated at 150–300.

WDBO in Orlando, owned by Rollins College, was on the fringe of the worst weather, and after WQAM was silenced became the only voice for the southern half of the state. “It operated for 84 successive hours, giving a graphic story of the catastrophe and detailed news bulletins,” said a wire service report carried nationwide.

Exiting the Lower Peninsula near Naples, the massive hurricane regained strength in the warm Gulf waters. Pensacola newspapers reported the death and destruction in South Florida as the beast took aim at the Northwest Gulf Coast September 19. Storm flags flew atop the American National Bank—the tallest building in Pensacola. “By sunrise on September 20, the hurricane’s eye was just south of Florida’s westernmost city, and the storm was slowing down. Its gradual turn toward the west just before landfall took it inland near Gulf Shores, Alabama, around mid-morning. But its slow movement along the coast delivered prolonged devastation to the region around Pensacola,” wrote Barnes.

The city-owned radio station, WCOA, had signed on just seven months earlier. Originally intended to be a promotional arm of the city and its chamber of commerce, touting the virtues of the Wonderful City Of Advantages, the station was now facing uncharted waters as the only instantaneous source of critical information needed to survive the storm.

WCOA’s storm coverage was being monitored by WSM-AM, a radio station in Nashville on the desirable frequency of 650, which extended its coverage to much of the eastern United States, especially at night. As the storm approached, WSM and WCOA were in two-way communication, and that dialogue was picked-up by WDBO in Orlando. The cooperative effort of the three stations, as well as others across the nation, provides a compelling story of the storm: “Throughout Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday [September 20–22] WDBO continued to keep schedule with stations all over the country, supplying the latest news and aiding its listeners as best it could. Many sad scenes were enacted in the offices of WDBO. Fathers and mothers having daughters and sons in the storm area came to see the list of dead and injured being compiled by the station.
“One of the most interesting features of the radio storm broadcast was the tracing of the path of the storm as it continued its ravaging course across the state. Both WMBF and WIOD, Miami’s two stations, were wrecked. The passing of WCOA at Pensacola, as carried by WDBO’s operator, James Yarborough, provides a thrilling incident which came at the height of the storm . . . the [WCOA] operator reported that the wind was then blowing at 40 miles an hour . . . that conditions were becoming alarming and that the wind was rising rapidly in velocity. At 3 in the morning the velocity was placed at 75 miles an hour and WCOA reported conditions were becoming worse . . . Yarborough heard WCOA state the wind had reached a velocity of 100 miles an hour and it was doubtful if the station could hold out much longer. The towers were swaying badly.
“The master thrill came shortly before 4, says Yarborough. ‘The Pensacola station was attempting to outline the conditions there and within a minute after it reported its towers were swaying and things were about to go out, WCOA’s sentence was abruptly broken. A sudden howl wrenched the air, and all was silent. I listened and immediately I heard WSM call: WCOA, are you there? WCOA, are you there? WCOA, what has happened? There was no response—just silence.’”

. . .

According to Florida’s Hurricane History, “The Weather Bureau recorded winds of hurricane force for more than twenty consecutive hours; winds of over 100 mph were recorded for five hours . . . Almost every pier, wharf, boat, and warehouse on Pensacola Bay was destroyed. The storm tide reached a peak of 9.4 feet above normal at Pensacola, 10.4 feet at Fort Pickens, and 14 feet at Bagdad. Large vessels were cast into the streets . . . No deaths were directly attributed to the hurricane in the Pensacola area, but the number of deaths from malaria and pneumonia increased significantly in the months after the storm. The total damages in the city were estimated at $4.3 million.”
. . . From all accounts WCOA’s manager and chief announcer, John E. Frenkel Sr., performed admirably before, during, and after the hurricane struck the city. The Pensacola News said WCOA “is literally swamped with cards, letters and notations commending the station for its excellent work in scattering warnings previous to the hurricane of a week ago.” Typical was a letter from Richard Joseph Scott of Montrose, Alabama, who wrote: “Our first thought, now that communication is established between us and the outside world, is to congratulate you on the excellent service rendered forecasting the path of the hurricane which did so much damage through Florida and our section. Our particular situation is such that the service was invaluable to our peace of mind and comfort. Montrose is situated on the Eastern shore of Mobile Bay, having lines of communication only through telephone and boat service to Mobile . . . The boats went out of service Sunday [September 26] and we lost our telephone wires Sunday midnight, leaving us in touch with the storm’s progress only through medium of radio. ”

WCOA’s storm warnings were also credited with saving at least two commercial fishing boats. Captain J. H. Laird and Horace Coburger of the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Company, and Captain Van Lark of the Bay City Fisheries fleet “called at the city hall to extend their thanks for invaluable aid received,” reported the Pensacola Daily News. “Captain Van Lark has a Crosley 5-tube set aboard his boat and daily takes time from the WCOA bulletins. Last Thursday [September 23] on the Campeche banks he tuned in to hear Pensacola predicting the coming storm. At subsequent periods he heard the warning repeated and mapped his course to steer clear of the hurricane. ‘My course originally would have thrown me through the storm, but by means of the warnings, I came through without the least damage . . . the hurricane warning saved the lives of ten of my men and myself’ . . . Mr. Coburger, a former resident of Pensacola, said that warnings from WCOA were picked up by Captain Roy Ecker 100 miles offshore aboard the smack Hazen C. causing [him] to return to port, saving the boat and the lives of his crew . . . ‘I am going to order radio sets for each of the boats which my company operates.’”
On a lighter note, Captain Van Lark referred to WCOA as his best friend. “You don’t know how we enjoy the programs at sea, and have no trouble in getting the Pensacola station while on fishing banks . . . just think how many more sailors and fishermen are given pleasure on the lone watches of the sea.”
After the storm, WDBO in Orlando produced an early version of a telethon “which swept the country and was taken up by more than 15 stations” to raise money for storm relief.

Florida’s first female news anchor, Molly Turner, got her start playing ‘Miss Molly’ on Ft. Lauderdale’s WITV Ch. 17

MOLLY TURNERI learned from a Facebook post by my friend and longtime Florida broadcaster Steve Wasserman that Molly Turner passed away July 22nd. Her obituary is posted on the Miami Herald website.

Connie Hicks, former WPLG Channel 10 reporter and good friend of both Molly and another broadcasting legend, Ann Bishop, posted this response to the obit: “I worked many years with Molly Turner and everything said about her in the article is true. She was a remarkable woman, had an inbred kindness rarely seen these days, but , as noted, could—and did—firmly stand her ground. Also touching—when her husband of many years would come by to pick her up at the end of the day, she blushed like a high school girl with her first crush.”

I didn’t know Molly and was not able to interview her for Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, but bits of her story are included in the book from other published reports and a 1975 interview she did with Audrey Finkelstein of the Gold Coast Chapter of American Women in Radio and Television, which Molly founded. Some of the timelines she gave in the interview differ from the obit; regardless she is a true Florida broadcasting pioneer and trailblazer.

Here are excerpts from Towers in the Sand:

From chapter 12, “We’ve got a barn, we could have a show!”

WITV ch 17Sometimes the stations set themselves up for problems. WITV Channel 17 signed on the air in Fort Lauderdale in 1953, boasting “the nation’s first outdoor television studio.” Sunset Ranch, starring Uncle Martin (Wales) and Miss Molly (Turner), broadcast weeknights from the four hundred-square-foot outdoor studio. Live production from an outdoor studio in tropical South Florida presented its challenges. “It would probably be called cinema verité now,” Wales said.

Turner, who appeared with a front tooth blacked out and freckles painted on her face, recalled, “We had a little shack with a hitching post out front. When it was just a sprinkle, we’d dash up on the porch. But on really rainy days, we’d go into the inside studio, and huddle in the corner. There were so many props stored there, we hardly had enough room. It was like a four-foot square. Someone would walk on, sing a song, then move off to let someone else on. There were problems, but it was fun.”

From chapter 16: Channel 10 in Miami—Bribes, Booze, and Bloodshed

Molly Turner, who had worked on a freelance basis in the Miami–Fort Lauderdale market on a number of television variety shows and commercials, signed on with WPST [in 1957]. “We operated out of an old house,” she told interviewer Audrey Finkelstein of American Women in Radio and Television. “There was no studio as such while they were getting the transmitter built and everything done. So the living room was the studio. ‘Studio A’ was one end of the living room and ‘Studio B’ was the other [end]!” The outdoor carport served as the weather set. Turner later became public service director for Channel 10, serving nine years before joining the news department as a reporter.

Steve Wasserman’s Facebook post included his own personal feelings: “Molly was one of a kind … A true broadcast pioneer and a gracious lady. Loved her holiday egg nog.”

Former WTVJ Channel 4, WPBF Channel 25, and WPTV Channel 5 anchor Jim Bosemer recalled: Had the pleasure of working with Miss Molly in the late 60s. At the time, she was the ONLY woman in WLBWs newsroom. Her trail blazing reporting was noticed by the station’s Post Newsweek management. Today, women dominate the nation’s newsrooms. And–my journalism courses at the University of Denver are filled almost exclusively by aspiring young female students. Nicely done Molly!!

Republican king-maker Roger Ailes once owned Florida radio station

Roger Ailes, the apparently-soon-to-be-deposed CEO of Fox News Channel and the network’s TV station group, played a bit part in the history of Florida broadcasting. Six years before becoming the founding chaNY Post Ailesirman of Fox News, Ailes bought Port St. Lucie radio station WPSL-AM. Here’s the story, as told in the new book, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting, which will hit the streets in a couple of months.

The booming town of Port St. Lucie got its first radio station, WPSL-AM on October 26, 1985. Mayor William B. McChesney and station owner Ray Sherwood threw the power switch, and local musician Fred Bogert played the national anthem on a synthesizer. Sherwood was a colorful character who flew a stunt airplane in air show competitions. “There were times when payday would hit and [general manager] Phil Scott would get a bag full of cash—prize winnings from an air show” from Sherwood to make the payroll, said Greg Wyatt, a Treasure Coast broadcaster.

The station was sold to Belmont Street Broadcasting in 1990. Sherwood stayed on as president and general manager. Belmont was owned by Republican media consultant Roger Ailes, whom the Miami Herald described as “feared, admired and loathed for is devastating political ads,” and who owned a vacation home in Palm Beach County. The company was named for the Warren, Ohio, street where Ailes grew up. “The 50-year-old consultant became famous as an advisor in Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, when he was credited with helping his awkward TV personality in favor of a more relaxed demeanor,” the Herald reported. “Ailes’ supporters portray him as a genius, an expert at understanding the American public. His critics describe him as a sort of evil media magician. ‘What he specializes in is diverting attention during a presidential campaign from the substantial issues to the superficial, jingoistic, symbolic, threatening images and buzzwords that lead people to vote with their emotions, not with their heads,’ said Chip Berlet, an analyst with Political Research Associates, a think-tank targeting the American right wing. ‘That’s deadly for a democracy.’ Berlet added that Ailes is precisely the type of individual who should not be buying up media outlets. ‘This is not a person who is devoted to a fair and accurate view of the world,’ he said.

“Ailes . . . dismisses such criticism of his tactics. ‘I get up every morning and try to figure out how to make my client look good. The media gets up every morning and tries to figure out how to humiliate him,’ he said. ‘I get paid better and I sleep better, so the media doesn’t like it.’”1 The FCC approved Ailes’s purchase—then he sold the Port St. Lucie station just three years later.

[1] Naftali Bendavid, “GOP campaign adviser tried broadcasting,” Miami Herald, Treasure Coast Edition, May 18, 1990, p 1B.

Florida Association of Broadcasters receive sneak peek of Towers in the Sand

I was honored to address the Florida Association of Broadcasters annual meeting June 23, 2016, at Miami Beach’s beautiful Eden Roc Resort. FAB, its president, Pat Roberts, and several of its members, were valued resources for my book. The organization, established in 1935, played an important role in the development of the broadcasting industry and has a legacy of service to the state of Florida. Following is the text of my presentation, which provides a glimpse into the content of Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting.

Thank you for being here and for the opportunity to share with you some stories from my new book on the history of Florida broadcasting.

Towers in the Sand is the story of the people, the radio and television stations, and the events that built an industry and the state of Florida. Told through published accounts and interviews of over eighty broadcasting pioneers and current leaders from the Keys to the Panhandle, Towers in the Sand is much more than a parade of call letters and frequencies.

It tells the stories of the men and women who created meaningful relationships with their audiences, and changed their communities. The stories are woven through the rich history of Florida, which, when the state’s first radio stations went on the air, was still in its infancy. I’d like to tell you just a few of the stories.

Florida’s broadcasting history officially began May 15, 1922, with a Tampa Daily Times article headlined: “STAND BY, FANS, TO THE TIMES TEST RADIO BROADCAST” on WDAE-AM.

The newspaper owned the radio station, and asked readers to drop them a card, letting them know how the reception was. “Do you notice any buzzing?,” they asked. The first night’s broadcast included baseball scores, a few songs, and several news reports.

The tests continued for a couple of days, because, as the Times told readers, “It takes several days to tune up the transmitting paraphernalia properly.” The newspaper reported receiving cards from all parts of Florida as well as other states and Cuba.

Even back then, broadcasting had its critics. L. B. Whitledge of Clearwater wrote, “Your test came fine last night with the exception of heavy static. Also, the voice sounds like operator was too close to the microphone and he talked too fast.”

Comments like that didn’t deter WDAE from expanding their technical capabilities, like this 1922 “Radio Car.” WDAE radio car

And WDAE was the first station in the nation to broadcast a church service live from the scene.

Setting the stage for competitive battles to come, the claim of Florida’s first station was not without controversy. WCAN in Jacksonville claimed to be first two days after WDAE started broadcasting, and Miami’s WQAM also claimed to be first, even though its original license is dated eight months later.

WDAE’s claim of “First in Florida” was confirmed in a 1971 letter from the FCC to Robert W. Rounsaville, the station’s owner at the time, in advance of its fiftieth anniversary. WDAE is still on the air today, with the call letters WHNZ-AM.

The next few months of 1922 saw a cavalcade of AM stations:

  • WCAN-AM Jacksonville, May 17, 1922
  • WDAL-AM Jacksonville, May 23, 1922
  • WEAT-AM Tampa, June 3, 1922
  • WFAW-AM Miami, June 16, 1922
  • WGAN-AM Pensacola, June 24, 1922
  • WIAZ-AM Miami, August 1922
  • WKAH-AM West Palm Beach, August 1922
  • WLAV-AM Pensacola, September 1922

All eight went silent within a few months.

The next enduring radio station was WQAM in Miami, licensed to Electrical Equipment Company January 23rd, 1923, and still operating with the same call letters today.

Television came to Florida March 21st, 1949, when WTVJ Channel 4 signed on in Miami. In announcing Channel 4, the Miami Herald likened it to “ . . . some spectacular circus clown.” After that backhanded compliment, the newspaper added,

“people are sure to realize . . . what a tremendous influence this electronic medium will bring . . . Qualified persons are confident that television . . . is going to make a heavy dent in the country’s social structure.”

Mitchell Wolfson and his brother-in-law, Sidney Meyer, were the licensees. They owned a nationwide chain of movie theaters under the company name, Wometco. WTVJ went on the air from Wometco’s Capital Theater on North Miami Avenue.

Its inaugural programming, hosted by Morey Amsterdam, featured nervous local dignitaries, including a Presbyterian minister who predicted, “This will help us stay at home. The family will be with mother and dad more. It may affect juvenile delinquency.”

WTVJ, and its news director and anchor Ralph Renick, are credited with helping to invent TV news. Renick was just twenty-one when he became news director—but that didn’t matter because no one had any experience with TV news anyway. Renick tells of using a map and a pointer stick and clipping photos from magazines, pinning them to a corkboard to illustrate stores he was reporting.

The fifteen-minute newscast soon evolved, and by the mid-1950s the station was producing special reports. One helped rid Miami of some crooked casinos. Another closed down houses of prostitution. And in what may have been the first hidden-camera TV news story, in 1955 Renick uncovered a rampant gambling and police-protection racket.

Six months after WTVJ signed on, WMBR Channel 4 in Jacksonville, now known as WJXT, began broadcasting. It, too, wasted no time in bringing the power of television to solve local problems. Under the leadership of news director/anchor Bill Grove, and with the strong support of station manager Glenn Marshall and its owner, the Washington Post, Jacksonville’s Channel 4 embarked on a series of special reports and editorials tackling the city’s toughest problems.

WJXT’s crowning achievement was its leadership in the campaign to end a corrupt bureaucracy, consolidating city and county, and turning Jacksonville into the Bold New City of the South.

In every part of the state, radio and television stations, courageous local owners and managers, and trailblazing employees sought to improve their communities. Orlando’s Joe Brechner, principal owner and manager of what is now WFTV Channel 9, used the power of news coverage and editorials, fending off cross burnings and threats from the K-K-K, to help bring peaceful integration to the city.

While blazing new trails and battling the bad guys, Florida broadcasting also entertained. In the days before videotape all local television production was live. Production values played second fiddle. It was filling airtime and experimenting that was important. The commercials were also live—making for some memorable moments. Like the time WTVJ’s Judy Wallace had to deliver a pork-and-beans commercial with a live, poisonous snake crawling up her leg.

And almost every TV station had a kids show—like WTVT Channel 13 in Tampa with “Popeye Playhouse,” starring Mary Ellen, with songs, bubble-gum blowing contests, cartoons, and of course, chow, provided by the local sponsor.

Early radio was mostly block formatted dominated by network shows from big cities and live, local music programs. All that began to change in the 1960s when transistor radios and automobiles freed teenagers from the living room, ushering in the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll, and the beginning of the sexual revolution. Teenagers in every part of the state had at least one rock ‘n’ roll radio station and a team of DJs, like the “Boys with the Noise” on WLOF “Channel 95” in Orlando, and the “Boss Jocks” at Miami’s WFUN.

Not to mention the “Radio Country Club of the South,” The Big APE, WAPE in Jacksonville, with a glass-walled studio overlooking a free-form swimming pool out front—and an open invitation for the young ladies of Jacksonville to come over for a swim.

The Big APE’s fifty thousand-watt transmitter, built by owner Bill Brennan, was so powerful that when the station first signed on, its music and Big APE Call could be heard on every telephone and barbed-wire fence in the area.

Then there is Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Tennessee, who you may know as the man who first recorded Elvis Presley. Sam established “all-girl” radio station WLIZ in Lake Worth, featuring an all-female on-air staff and a program schedule that included “News From A Broad.”

Florida’s broadcasting history also includes tragic stories – like the Sarasota television anchor who committed suicide with a pistol to her head live on the air from the anchor desk—the first and only time this has happened in the United States.

Our history also has its scalawags—like Florida native Richard A. Mack, appointed to the Federal Communications Commission by President Eisenhower, only to be stripped of his post three years later after charges of bribes and corruption tainted the licenses of Miami’s channel 7 and 10, Orlando’s channel 9, and Jacksonville’s channel 12. His glory gone, Mack died drunk and broke in a Miami flophouse hotel.

Florida’s broadcasting history also includes how President Richard Nixon and a band of cronies sought to steal the licenses of Washington Post stations WJXT Channel 4 and WPLG Channel 10 as retribution for the newspaper’s coverage of Watergate.

The story of Florida broadcasting is also a story of survival through decades of hurricanes and other severe weather. The first documented hurricane coverage was by WQAM in advance of and during the hurricane of 1926. WQAM remained on the air until it lost power, replaced by Orlando’s WDBO which operated for 84 hours straight. The storm then entered the Gulf and made a beeline to the Panhandle, where WCOA in Pensacola picked up coverage with lifesaving information.

Floridians have come to rely on over-the-air broadcasters to help them prepare for and survive every hurricane since, including the granddaddy of recent storms, Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when WTVJ and Bryan Norcross reset the bar for hurricane coverage.

Flashing back to the mid-1930s, broadcasting’s pioneers came to realize that while they cherished their independence, there was power in numbers. In 1936, Major Garland Powell from WRUF Gainesville; Frederick Borton, WQAM Miami; Walter Tison, WFLA Clearwater; Senator John Beacham, WJNO West Palm Beach; and Frank King, WMBR Jacksonville, established the Florida Association of Broadcasters. For years FAB shared offices with WRUF at the University of Florida before moving to Sarasota in 1982.

FAB was transformed from what Chairman-Emeritus Bill Brooks called “a nice, congenial outfit,” to a savvy political machine in 1987 to lead the fight against a sales tax on advertising. The tax began in July of that year and cost local broadcasters some twelve million dollars in lost ad revenue in just the first six months.

Under Brooks’ leadership FAB moved its headquarters to Tallahassee, hired lobbyists from both parties, and created a massive broadcast ad campaign, aired free on member stations, to point out the fallacy of the tax and urge repeal.

By December the fight was over—the legislature overrode the governor and repealed the tax on advertising. And the Florida Association of Broadcasters was firmly entrenched as a major business and political force.

Among FAB’s other accomplishments was spearheading the first audio broadcast of US Supreme Court deliberations in Bush versus Gore to end the 2000 presidential contest, and creation of Florida’s emergency broadcast system, which is considered a national model.

While Towers in the Sand celebrates broadcasting’s beginnings and the entrepreneurial spirit of its pioneers, it’s also a warning for the future. The final chapter of the book, optimistically titled “Florida Broadcasting’s Next 100 Years,” details the precarious path we are now on as local community partners have been largely transformed into lines on corporate balance sheets. I hope through this book to celebrate the past, but also bring into focus what broadcasters can and should be doing to ensure their future.

Last week I was given an example of what we can do, when a young woman friend, who knows about my book and some of its central themes, told me she has a new appreciation for her iHeart radio station. In the wake of the tragic events in Orlando, the station opened its phone lines for listeners to call and express their feelings, their anguish, their anger. She said that listening to others she felt comforted, and part of a caring community. Radio and television stations across the state did similar things, and gave voice to their audiences.

The networks can’t do that. Pandora can’t do that. Netflix can’t do that. Local broadcasters, in touch with their audiences, can do it. Broadcasting’s future depends on maintaining that connection and flexibility to respond to our communities, to be the ones to turn to when those who depend on us are in need. That is our challenge.

The good work done by broadcasters is fleeting—here one moment, gone the next. It’s like the air we breathe; we seldom give it a second thought. I hope this book will help preserve some of those wonderful memories and the people who made them, and cause readers from all walks of life to think about their own good times with their favorite local stations and personalities.

Over 700 pages in length, fully referenced and indexed, Towers in the Sand: The History of Florida Broadcasting will be on the street in paperback and e-book formats later this summer. The book can be preordered for $29.95 at my website or at the book’s Facebook page.