Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Clowning Around

Police reporter Tom Jennings left the Press Register in the 1990s to become the public relations spokesman for the police department. This photo taken as a joke is from 1982.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Press Register Enters TV Broadcasting in 1958

The need to fight World War II stalled the development of television broadcasting until peacetime. There were just 15 TV stations broadcasting in the United States 1947. Newspapers owned six of them, investing in the new medium just as they had radio. Mobile was not yet among the cities with a station and wouldn’t have one for some time.

Many companies wanted to operate TV stations and hundreds of broadcast license applications flooded into the Federal Communications Commission. In 1948, the FCC put a temporary, six-month freeze on new TV licenses in order to figure out how to allocate channels, avoid interfering signals, and other technical issues. Six months turned into four years in part because of government foot dragging and in part because of the Korean War.

Even before a television station opened in Mobile, Press Register Executive Editor George Cox was the subject of a national TV and radio program broadcast by NBC. Cox appeared in the “Big Story” series in 1949 for an episode titled “Murder by Memory.”

The TV series was based on the popular radio series. Each show featured a different reporter’s true story selected from newspapers across the country. Reporters commented at the opening and closing of the show. In between, a narrator explained the plot to the audience and a featured actor dramatized the reporter’s role.

“Murder by Memory” depicted the case of James Robert Collins of Mobile. Collins made the youthful mistake of becoming involved in a Citronelle, Alabama, bank robbery in 1928 that left the bank president dead, killed by one of the bandits. Collins was imprisoned for his part, but escaped in 1937 and was living in Pennsylvania in 1949. Cox waged a newspaper campaign to prevent Collins’ extradition to Alabama after the Press Register established that he had gone straight in the years since his escape.

As the date neared for when the FCC would begin issuing TV licenses again in 1952, the Mobile Television Corporation, a subsidiary of the Press Register, was among the applicants standing in line for approval. But it was not the only one, or the first.

On March 22, 1951, Pape Broadcasting Company, owners of WALA AM radio, the former WODX started by the Register, filed an application for a TV station. The Press Register filed its application a few days later, as did Giddens and Rester, a firm that already operated radio stations WKRGAM and WKRGFM in Mobile as well as a chain of movie theaters in Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi.

In July 1952, a fourth company filed for a license, the Pursley Broadcasting Service, which owned radio station WKAB AM. WKAB-TV became the first TV station in Mobile to begin broadcasting on December 29 from a studio in community of Toulminville.

In an ad in Broadcasting Magazine, the station claimed that 15,000 TV sets had been sold in Mobile even before the station announced its first broadcast day. The station aired programs from CBS and DuMont, a network at one time rivaling CBS, as well as local public affairs programs, amateur acts, and country music programs. On August 1, 1954, WKAB went off the air supposedly to install new equipment, but never resumed its signal. The real problem was that WKAB operated on UHF at a time when few people had UHF tuners in their TV sets and those receivers that existed were of poor quality compared to VHF. The station probably couldn’t attract enough viewers or advertisers to be profitable.

WALA TV began broadcasting January 14, 1953, from a Government Street building two blocks away from the Press Register. A July 1954 storm destroyed the station’s tower and took it off the air for six months. WKRG TV didn’t begin broadcasting until September 5, 1955. The Press Register never started its own station. Instead, on April 5, 1958, the Press Register became half-owner of WKRG TV Inc. As part of the $1.05 million deal, the newspaper agreed to sell WABB radio.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Radio Trends Seen in Press Register's Broadcasting Efforts

 During World War II, people turned to their radios for war news and entertainment. Radio stations supported scrap metal drives and encouraged Americans to share rides and buy war bonds. Radio programs enlisted Dick Tracy, Superman, The Green Hornet, and other fictional heroes to fight spies and saboteurs.

But after the war, audiences dropped off. Soldiers returned home to stale programs that had been on the air since before they put on their uniforms. By 1948, most big radio stars had moved their shows to TV and a year later the NBC radio network lost $7 million in revenue as advertisers dropped off. Of the more than 46 million homes that had radios, fewer than a million of them tuned in. Broadcasting networks began investing in TV instead of radio.

In the early 1950s, radio owners did what they would have to do many times again in the years ahead: they remade themselves. Aided by the invention of the portable transistor radio, popular local deejays turned themselves into national celebrities. They spread swing, jazz, Country and Western, Rock n Roll, soul, and all kinds of other music across the country. Rock n Roll and Top 40 format stations dominated the radio dial. Country music was another major format.

These trends can be seen in the Press Register’s own efforts in broadcasting after the war. In February 1948, the newspaper erected four radio broadcasting towers on former farmland in the Eight Mile community. The tallest tower stood more than 30 stories high. From the towers, the newspaper planned to broadcast the programs of a 1480 AM station and a 107.9 FM station, both using the call letters WABB.

As an indication of how the newspaper’s owners may have been thinking, the 314-foot tower was constructed to carry the additional weight of a television antenna. But in 1948, the Federal Communications Commission put a four-year freeze on issuing TV broadcast licenses.

WABB theater for live performances
On the ground floor of its Government Street building, the newspaper prepared studios for the radio stations, which it called Radio Center. The center included a theater studio that could seat an audience of more than 80 who could participate in broadcasts such as “Try and Get It,” “The Sunshine Club,” and “Barrel O’ Fun.” Radio Center had another studio to air local musical talent, interviews, and newscasts over the stations.

WABB had a hand in announcing the May 4, 1948, primary election results, even before it started local broadcasting. The Press Register’s 50 reporters and other staffers called in vote tallies from Mobile County precincts to the newspaper’s offices. From the radio studio in the Press Register lobby, staffers sent the results to other radio stations around Alabama.

WABB AM and FM began regular broadcasting on June 19, 1948. The stations carried programs of the Mutual Broadcasting System network programs, the world’s largest radio network at the time. The FM station also broadcast the Mobile Bears baseball game for its initial program. Regular programs included a local announcer reading comics from the Press Register, “Queen for a Day,” “The Adventures of Superman,” and sports.

Most people had AM radios, so the Press Register promoted the benefits of FM. “Have you ever tried to enjoy a fine musical program, only to have lightning static crash in your speaker so continually that you could hardly hear the music,” the paper asked in an advertisement for the station. “When you have this trouble, FM, Frequency Modulation . . . is your answer. In FM the full range of tone is brought to you... and nothing else! No interference or static!”

The financial woes radio stations faced after the war can be seen in the closure of WMOB AM and FM stations in June 1949. J. Lindsay Nunn, one of the owners of the Nunn Broadcasting Corp., said it closed WMOB after 10 years of operation because of continued operating losses, spiraling production costs, and union demands for higher wages.

WABB took over broadcasting ABC network programs from the closed station. Those programs seemed reflect pre-war tastes more than those after the war. The programs included Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, “Stop The Music” quiz show, commentators Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, The Original Amateur Hour, the Milton Berle Show, and many others. At some point, WABB AM switched to a music format playing Country and Western tunes, which fit within the trends of the time.

But a few years later, WABB FM seemed to be having its own financial problems. When the FM transmitter burned in 1956, the Press Register never put the station back on the air. That’s not something you would do with a money-making operation and the decision probably reflected an uncertainty about the future of FM radio.

On September 14, 1959, the newspaper sold the radio station to Julian Dittman and his son Bernard “Bernie” Dittman. A year later, Bernie Dittman switched WABB to the Top 40 format, which proved highly successful throughout the 1960s.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Register Established Early Radio In Mobile

In radio’s early years, the broadcasting of news grew rapidly, but it was the growth of advertising on the new medium that alarmed newspapers publishers nationwide. 

A large part of radio’s increase in advertising during the Great Depression came at the expense of newspapers, which suffered a decline in ads. After 1933, both newspaper and radio advertising fell off.

Publishers responded to the changes created by the new medium by buying and starting radio stations themselves. 

During the height of his fight with Mobile Press publisher Ralph B. Chandler, Mobile Register publisher Frederick I. Thompson launched WODX, 1410 AM, with the first broadcast at 8 p.m. on Feb. 7, 1930, from the Register building.

Not surprisingly, the initial broadcast featured Thompson’s City Hall protégé Mayor Harry T. Hartwell as the principal speaker. Other program guests included state Senator John Craft, city commissioners Cecil Bates and Leon Schwarz, Mobile Board of Revenue President Arthur D. Davis, J. C. Prine, Estes D. Baker, M. A. Boykin, H. E. Booth, and Thompson himself. After these speakers were done, the station played a musical program that included “On Mobile Bay” until 2 a.m.

After the merger with the Press, the new owners sold the station to Thompson’s co-owners, Hunter Watkins and William Pape, and it broadcast under the call letters WALA.

Photos from the Erik Overbey collection in the McCall Library at the University of South Alabama.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Press Register once owned WABB radio station

This photo was taken by Press Register photographer William Lavendar.
It is from the McCall Library collection at the University of South Alabama.

If you worked in the Government Street building of the Press Register, you probably recognize this stairwell, but the lobby may not look familiar.

In the late 1940s, the Press Register owned radio station WABB and its studio was in the lobby of the newspaper. You can see the radio station's call letters in the window that is nearly under the stairs.

The station began broadcasting at 1480 kHz on June 19, 1948, and had a country music format.

Spectators crowd Government Street outside
the Mobile Press Register for a 1949 parade.
Note the sign on the upper left for the studio of  WABB
Dial 1480 radio station. 

Photo is from the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Lee and Pearson among celebrated Mobile reporters

Since 1950, the Green Eyeshade Awards have recognized the very best journalism in the Southeastern United States. Two veterans returned from World War II, Ed Lee and Ted Pearson, proved to be two of the Mobile Press Register's most celebrated reporters who won the awards.

Both men came from the small community of Crichton, then on the western outskirts of Mobile at the bottom of Spring Hill. Lee was two years older than Pearson, having been born in 1924.

Both attended Murphy High School and both joined the Press Register as office clerks after graduation. With the onset of World War II, Lee entered the U.S. Army in December 1942 and Pearson joined the U.S. Navy in May 1944. After the war, both men rejoined the staff of the newspaper.

In November and December 1958, Lee and Pearson collaborated on a series of 40 stories that pointed out mismanagement and political influence in the operation of the Alabama State Docks during the latter part of the administration of Governor James E. Folsom.

The articles won for the two men the Green Eyeshade Award of the Atlanta Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi in 1959.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Directory illustrates the dramatic decline in the newspaper's staff over the last 25 years

In 1991, the Mobile Press Register phone directory listed more than 60 editors, reporters, photographers, and other staffers connected with news gathering.

In 2016, about a dozen people in Mobile carry on news operations. 

The Press Register is now fully integrated with other Newhouse-owned newspapers in Alabama and Louisiana: the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. What that means is that the newspapers are edited and designed at central locations. Support functions such as human resources for the newspapers have also been combined, reduced, and centralized.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that employment in the newspaper industry overall has declined by 60 percent over the past 25 years, from 458,000 in 1990 to 183,000 in March 2016.

The Newhouse newspapers, which are leading the charge into the digital age, seem to have reduced jobs much deeper than other papers in the nation.