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.”
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.