Monday, July 6, 2009

NIGHTMARE IN NEBRASKA



Left to right: Your Commander; Ed Scovell, CBS; John Fetzer, Chairman & CEO Fetzer Broadcasting


This story begins October 1, 1961, and I can remember the details as if it was yesterday. On that date a new television station, KGIN-TV in Grand Island, Nebraska, was dedicated and a huge open-house affair was scheduled to herald the event. Up until that time the thousands of residents in western Nebraska did not have direct over-the-air television, and being primarily an isolated agricultural area there was a real need and business opportunity for a news, weather, and entertainment service.

At the time, I was the junior member of the staff for Avery-Knodel television’s Chicago office. When the invitation arrived some one month in advance my boss, Big Bill, immediately announced that in view of his colitis condition he would not be available to attend. All the other senior members of the staff quickly had very important matters to tend to, so I was selected to represent our company.

Off I went to Lincoln, Nebraska where the invited guests arrived the night before the big event. I quickly recognized why my associates avoided the invitation, because we were all ushered to a Dance Club gathering in the ornate ballroom of the Cornhusker Hotel. All the ladies had dance cards, and I was urged to make sure I danced with the General Manager’s wife. I stumbled through the dance only stepping on her feet a couple of times, but I found an excuse to scurry to my hotel room at an early hour.

Early the next day we all assembled for an organizational meeting to discuss the activities of the day, and learned that we would be joining an automobile caravan at 11:30AM to head west some 110 miles to the location of the new television station’s tower location. Remember, this was 1961, so the journey was slow going on two-lane highways lasting nearly three hours.

October 1, 1961 was one of the hottest, most humid days that year, and the cars were not air-conditioned, but here we all were in our white shirts, ties and dark suits heading westward to one of the finest agricultural areas in the country. Throughout the journey the many drivers were constantly communicating via newly installed CB radios to assure that everyone was kept on a tight schedule established by the station’s General Manager.

As we were driving west, the GM was constantly talking on the CB radio to his Chief Engineer at the tower site, because the installation of the antenna was delayed by thunder storms and high winds during the previous several days. He was concerned that the installation would be completed so the switch could be thrown at the appointed time of 2:30PM, especially with all the dignitaries already enroute. As we pulled up to the tower site, I noted that the rigging crew was still climbing down the tower, so apparently they finished in just the nick of time.

Arriving in a cloud of dust out in the middle of vast acres of corn there were literally several thousand farm families adorned in bib overalls, John Deere hats or straw hats, with the ladies in house dresses and aprons. God, we were all in our dark suits and looked like we had arrived from another planet. This was a really big deal for these fine folks who were responsible for growing the necessary food products that fed our vast nation, because on this day they were finally coming into the age of television.

I remember as I got out of the car a wonderful little lad came over to me and asked, “Mister, are you important…are you a Big Shot?” I thanked the boy for his question and assured him I was not someone important, but a member of the station’s sales staff from Chicago. Oh my, did we all look out of place, but these wonderful people were all very impressed with the event and the gathered “Big Shots from back East.”

Assembled were representatives from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from Washington, Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison, representatives from the station’s owner, Fetzer Broadcasting, CBS-TV, and area mayors, Congressmen and staff personnel from the mother station, KOLN-TV in Lincoln. We all sat up on a platform in the boiling sun as several long-winded speeches were given and finally the owner, John Fetzer, threw the switch which brought KGIN-TV to life as the assembled crown cheered wildly.

As the throng continued to cheer, the Chief Engineer suddenly came over to the GM with a wild look in his eyes and announced in a hushed tone, “We better get everyone off the podium immediately, because I think we have just sterilized each of them with 316,000 watts of power. Apparently the signal is going straight up and down, so everyone better move away damn fast.” With that we were all urged to move into the transmitter building where the thousands of guests were lining up outside for free lemonade and cookies and a look at all kinds of transmission equipment. Most did not understand what it did, but it was very impressive to one and all.

Once inside the building there was a promptly called meeting with the people who understood what the devil was going on and it was determined that the riggers, in their haste, had placed the antenna on top of the 1,066 foot tower incorrectly. Apparently, the antenna would have to be disconnected, raised and turned 180 degrees. Immediately the riggers started climbing back up the tower, but nothing was said to the assembled crowd, because they could see a bright clear picture on the television monitors in the building, and thus the public did not know of the seriousness of the problem.

The honored guests were quickly assembled and told of the problem in hushed tones, and we were urged to make a discreet exit back to our waiting cars for our return drive to Lincoln. By the time we all got started back we were all soaking wet from the heat, but the trip seemed to last much longer with no one wanting to discuss the seriousness of the engineering problem confronting the station and assembled guests.

A moment of further explanation is appropriate at this point. The owner of the station, John Fetzer, headquartered at his flag-ship station WKZO-TV in Kalamazoo, MI, owned a group of television stations which included Lincoln, Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids, Sioux City, IA, and Cadillac, MI, and radio stations in several cities. He also owned the Detroit Tigers and was a wonderful, dignified, soft spoken gentleman. John was a recognized leader in the broadcast industry, and highly respected by his peers. I personally always admired him for his ability to listen to a situation and then in a few succinct words define and render a decision to resolve the problem.

As the automobile caravan journeyed back to Lincoln, the GM was back on the CB radio checking with the other cars and urging them to keep exactly to the clip-board time schedule. Returning to the Cornhusker Hotel we got out of the cars and assembled in a group to be addressed by the GM about the evening’s events. We were told that we had exactly 15 minutes to gather back in the Ballroom of the Hotel for the cocktail party prior to a gala dinner serving Nebraska’s famous prime steaks, etc.

With that said John Fetzer stepped forward and said, “Those who know me will understand that it is against my nature to exercise my ownership prerogative, but we have just driven over 250 miles in a hot dusty caravan, we sat in the hot sun for over one hour at the tower, we have apparently been subjected to a possible sterilization, and now you tell us that we have to be in the ballroom in 15 minutes? You have done a wonderful job keeping us on a tight schedule Jim, but I am going to tell you that I am not going to be in the ballroom in 15 minutes. I am going to my hotel room, have a relaxed bowel movement, and then a cool shower. You can tell the Governor and your assembled guests that I will be there in good order. Thank you.” The GM stood there stunned and everyone else stood there biting their tongues trying not to laugh hysterically.

Actually no one was in the ballroom in 15 minutes, but we did eventually gather and had a wonderful evening. The tower rigging crew corrected the problem and KGIN-TV went on to a very successful and very profitable period of service.

One of the very unique features at the time was that KOLN-TV/KGIN-TV always started their newscasts with a seven or eight minute weathercast, which was due to the importance of weather in the agricultural based economy, followed by extensive coverage of Nebraska Big Red football, and finally the news. This format was something that other stations would never consider, but it represented the priorities across Nebraska.

Fortunately no one was sterilized, but the tales of that station’s dedication continued for many years. Despite the significant added engineering expense John Fetzer was most proud of his award-winning Nebraska facilities.

I look back on this event now some forty-nine years later with both amusement and respect for another time when television was a vitally important addition to the quality of life for thousands of individuals residing in this Midwestern part of America. Today we take television for granted, and many do not even remember a time when there was no television or even vital weather information that impacted our day to day livelihood. It was, however, a kinder, gentler more civil time that I suspect will never return.

COMMANDER GRANGER

2 comments:

Ensign EP said...

Another fantastic story Commander! Love the photo too. I can just imagine that day. You are right that we all take television for granted. Our family recently endured the unthinkable...almost an entire day without cable, internet or phones due to storm damage.

Texas Lieutenant said...

Commander, the kid was right! You are a big shot! Thanks for the great story.