‘Generations have grown up watching WJHL’ | News Channel 11 reflects on 68 years of local broadcasting

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Johnson City, TENN (WJHL) — The evening broadcast schedule at WJHL-TV for Oct. 26, 2021 appears pretty standard.

For decades, news on both CBS and ABC has originated from our broadcast headquarters on E. Main Street in Johnson City.

But on this day 68 years ago, the evening broadcast schedule looked very different.

Oct. 26, 1953 was the inaugural night of broadcasting for WJHL-TV.

Announcer Herb Howard walked into the audio booth and, after getting the cue that the transmitter was operating, his voice became the first to ever be heard on WJHL.

Local music talent “Bonnie Lou and Buster” were in the studio, and they were featured in the first program to ever air on WJHL.

“The first commercial was Free Service Tire,” remembers Patty Smithdeal Fulton, WJHL’s first production manager. “And then they had some girl from Bowling Dance school come and do a little dance.”

The women and men who worked for station founders Hanes Lancaster Sr. and Hanes Lancaster Jr. had worked for months to make that historic night happen.

Fulton said she didn’t think of it as historic at the time. It was a job, and they had a lot of work to do.

“We didn’t complain,” she said. “We did what we had to do. Period.”

At first thought, it would be expected that the inaugural show would have been a thrilling or exciting experience.

Fulton, who’s now in her 90s, remembers it differently.

“Well I can’t say it was exciting,” she said. “It was, ‘let’s see what the problem is, and let’s solve it.’ Or, ‘we did a good show today!'”

Sixty-eight years later, the reality of what happened that night on Tannery Knob in downtown Johnson City can only be described as significant.

After all, it was the start of something wonderful.

“WJHL is really kind of an institution not just for Johnson City, but for the whole region,” remembers Tony Treadway, longtime WJHL news anchor and sports reporter.

“They were the first station in the market. They were pioneers,” Treadway said.

Treadway, who now owns and operates Johnson City-based marketing and advertising firm Creative Energy, said WJHL’s impact on the region is hard to measure.

“Generations have grown up watching WJHL and depending on them for essential information,” he said. “The reason to have local television is to have local news that’s done well, and I think that’s one of the hallmarks of WJHL.”

WJHL’s initial broadcast almost didn’t happen. In the days leading up to the 1953 broadcast, the station’s broadcast tower collapsed onto the building. The staff working there narrowly escaped injury.

That first night of broadcasting included local shows, live commercials and taped programs shipped to Johnson City on reels of film.

In the fall of 1953, most homes didn’t even have televisions.

“There were stores that would put a television in the window, and you would find people standing on a sidewalk in downtown Johnson City watching WJHL-TV,” said Patty Fulton. “We should have taken pictures of that. But we didn’t think it was unusual.”

Soon, television became the rage. Every home had one. WJHL’s programming expanded, and the station moved its headquarters to downtown Johnson City. In September 1976, WJHL moved to its current home – a renovated federal post office building on East Main Street.

In 68 years of broadcasting, plenty has changed from the design of the studio to the faces and voices seen and heard on air.

But one thing hasn’t changed since the fall of ’53 – the commitment to the viewers at home.

“I can’t say enough about the importance of having a local media outlet that truly cares about the community,” said Treadway. “And that’s something that’s truly the hallmark of WJHL throughout its history,”

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