Where It All Began: The Founding of WRAL-TV

Throwback Thursday: CBC History

December 15, 1956 WRAL-TV began broadcasting to viewers in eastern North Carolina. In order to better understand why this station is so driven, one needs to have insight into its founder and the first leadership team.

No one can tell the story better than Tom Campbell, host of the program “NC Spin”. He has worked in the broadcasting industry for many years and at one time served as President and General Manager of WRAZ-TV. Tom wrote and presented this bit of history to a local club and shared it with Capcom many years ago. We have dusted it off and present it to you today.

David Beats Goliath Again:  How Capitol Broadcasting Company Won the License to WRAL-TV

By Tom Campbell

A.J. Fletcher

A, J. Fletcher on air Dec. 15, 1956, at WRAL-TV’s sign-on.

Alfred Johnston Fletcher was no ordinary man.  Born the seventh child of a Baptist minister, Fred, as he was called in his younger years, knew what it was like not to have enough food, clothing, or adequate shelter.  At various times in his young life he had jobs as a stable boy, a bank clerk, a bellhop, a delivery boy for a grocery store, and an attendant for a fruit stand.  At age 19, his older brother convinced him that he could be admitted to Wake Forest College located, at that time, in Wake Forest.  When his meager resources ran out at the end of his sophomore year he took a job running a small weekly newspaper in Apex; a job that required that he be the news reporter, editor, ad solicitor, and publisher.  Though the paper struggled, the position gave Fletcher a standing in the community.  It also allowed him to get to know W.F. Utley, a successful businessman and civil war veteran.  Fletcher met Utley’s daughter, Elizabeth, at a party where she played the piano and she was impressed with Fletcher’s singing.  Elizabeth encouraged his attention and the couple married in January of 1910.  After one year at the paper and the birth of a son, Fred, the couple moved to Wake Forest and Fletcher returned to college with the $900 he had saved.  A.J. never graduated from college but learned enough to be admitted to the bar.  Shortly after son Frank had arrived, the Fletchers moved to Fuquay Springs and A.J. hung out his shingle.  After the birth of a third son, Floyd, Fletcher founded the Fuquay Springs Golf Leaf, a weekly newspaper.

A.J. Fletcher’s law practice continued to grow and, being a frugal man, he invested in land and stocks whenever there were spare funds.  One of his early investments that intrigued him was in a new company called Radio Corporation of America.  Radio had effectively reduced the boundaries of the world.  By March of 1919, Fletcher had established himself as a capable lawyer and a businessman and decided to move to Raleigh, the capitol city.

By the late 1930’s, son Fred had married and pursued a graduate degree from UNC.  Floyd had enrolled at Wake Forest and son Frank had graduated from Wake Forest law school.  Frank needed a job and went to Washington, D.C.  It just happened that he was among the first group of lawyers hired at the initiation of Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies, the Federal Communications Commission.  Young Frank was assigned to codifying the regulations governing the burgeoning broadcast industry, reviewing the applications for new stations, and tracking the success of stations across the country.

Raleigh had a highly successful station, WPTF, owned by Durham Life Insurance Company.  The call letters represented the motto of the company: “We Protect The Family.”  The station started in 1927 through experiments at NC State College. This 50,000-watt facility broadcast from their elegant studios in the insurance company’s 20-story building, with announcers in tuxedos introducing programs in rich baritone voices.  As the powerhouse radio station for the eastern third of the state, WPTF was an affiliate of the NBC network and carried programs like Burns and Allen, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, and the big band sounds of Dorsey, Goodman, and Miller.  WPTF was an established institution in the life of citizens, a modern-day Goliath in the broadcast business.

Fletcher’s interests in business and music, combined with the reports from son Frank about the lucrative opportunities in radio, sparked him to apply for a license for a station of his own in Raleigh.  On July 28, 1938, the FCC granted a license to Capitol Broadcasting Company to operate station WRAL on 1240 kilohertz with a power of 250 watts.  On March 29, 1939, the station signed on the air with Governor Clyde Hooey and Raleigh Mayor George Isley issuing welcoming addresses.  The Reverend Sydnor Stealey pastor of The First Baptist Church invoked the Lord’s blessings.  “So much for the people who said we didn’t have a prayer,” Fred Fletcher later joked.  A.J. Fletcher was 52 years old.

In 1939, before WRAL had even started broadcasting, A.J. attended the World’s Fair with his son Fred.  They stopped at the RCA demonstration booth and saw television for the first time.  World War Two restricted the growth of the new medium but with the dawning of the 1950’s it became obvious that TV was going to be a big factor in American life.  In 1948, for example, there were only 170,000 households in the U.S. with a TV set, mostly in the northeastern part of the country.  By 1952, more than fifteen million sets had been sold.  A.J. Fletcher saw the future and was determined not to be left behind in this new medium.

Hundreds of applications flooded the FCC for television broadcast licenses, so many that the agency had to put a freeze on the granting of any new television stations.  Before the freeze, Raleigh had a TV station, WNAO, a UHF station affiliate with CBS on channel 28, owned by the News and Observer.  Few could view the station because of its inferior UHF frequency coupled with a short broadcast tower. Finally the FCC lifted the freeze on application, assigned channels 5, 22, and 28 to Raleigh, and opened a window for applications.

WPTF believed that a television license was their birthright.  Company employees went about the application process with a certain arrogance and total confidence that they would dominate television as they had radio.  Durham Life was a little annoyed, but unworried to learn that upstart Capitol Broadcasting also intended to apply for a license to broadcast on channel 5.

At age 65, A.J. Fletcher had entered the hardest competition of his life; the outcome of which wouldn’t be decided for almost three years.  In a letter written later Fletcher said, “The long, hard fight to get a grant of Channel 5 was the hardest and most nerve-destroying in which I was ever engaged.  To begin with, public sentiment was decidedly against us.  No one thought, apparently, that Capitol Broadcasting Company could possibly be successful in obtaining a grant or in building a worthwhile station if it got it.  We had everything and most everybody to fight.  They thought our application could have but one effect, and that was to delay the coming of television to Raleigh—that WPTF already had it ‘sewed up’ and we were meddling in something that we had no business.”

Durham Life had hired nationally regarded consultants to help in the preparation of their application.  They retained one of the most prestigious and experienced law firms in the nation to advise and represent them before the FCC; Loucks, Zias, Young, and Jansky.  Capitol Broadcasting was represented by A.J.’s son Frank, who by this time had left the FCC, along with Vincent Welsh of Welsh, Mott, and Morgan.  Because both applicants had filed for channel 5 and only one could be awarded the license, a competitive hearing would be necessary and an Administrative Law Judge was assigned to hear the case and decide the ultimate winner of the license.

Capitol had already invested thousands of hours and dollars in preparing their application, which consisted of 14 large volumes.  The application had to show the history of Capitol Broadcasting, proposed programming for the station, equipment to be purchased and installed, location of the transmitter and studios, experience and ownership of the principal owners and managers, as well as the financial qualifications of the applicant, among other things.  Aided by Frank Fletcher’s first-hand experience in working for the FCC, Capitol took great care to follow agency rules and procedures.

A.J. formed a Program Advisory Committee consisting of Colonel John Harrelson, Chancellor Emeritus of NC State; Dr. Sydnor Stealey, President of Southeastern Theological Seminary; Dr. Harold Meyer, Professor of Sociology at UNC in Chapel Hill; Miss Ruth Current, director of Home Demonstration for the Extension Division of NC State; Dr. Benjamin Swalin, Director of the North Carolina Symphony; Dr. Harold Trigg, President of St. Augustine College; and Justice Emery Denny of the North Carolina Supreme Court.  In addition, Capitol conducted almost 500 interviews with people in the proposed viewing area to get their opinions about what should be telecast and brought these suggestions back to the Program Advisory Committee for advice and suggestions.

Careful review of the two competing applications found them both acceptable and relatively comparable.  Both had enviable records of service.

One area in which the two station’s previous records differed involved what in those days was called service to the “Negro” community.  WRAL boasted an attitude of “fairness, honesty, and respect.”  The station regularly accepted and encouraged news reported by Negro reporters.  In fact, WRAL had the only black announcer in the region, J.D. Lewis, and showcased him daily on the station.  The application further stated that WRAL accepted ads from “Negro businesses without the designation of ‘Negro.’”

In the days before the competitive hearing was to begin, WPTF brought in retired General Kenneth Royall to lead their legal team.  Clearly Durham Life realized it was in a serious contest and was willing to put all their substantial resources to work.

Royall, a native of Wayne County, had been the nation’s last Secretary of War and first Secretary of the Army.  He was an intimate of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower and widely respected in Washington.  He was a giant in stature, both physically and professionally.  But while Royall was highly prominent, he wasn’t skilled in FCC rules and procedures.  In fact, Royall became part of the Capitol strategy after the first day of hearings.  In examining WPTF’s first witness, General Manager Richard Mason, Royall attempted to introduce evidence that had already been stipulated in the original application and discovery.  When Capitol’s attorney Vincent Welch objected, Royal responded, “Your honor, I’m not going to let you or anyone else tell me how to conduct my case.”  His overbearing pompous, and highly contentious approach, coupled with his lack of knowledge about administrative law played right into the hands of Capitol Broadcasting, especially after Frank Fletcher learned that the examiner had been a lowly lieutenant in the service and might be resentful of Generals.  From that point forward all references to Royall addressed him as “General.”  The bickering between lawyers became so animated that at one point the hearing examiner declared that they were acting like a bunch of kids instead of lawyers.  Whereas there had been some initial concern about Royall’s presence, the Capitol team concluded the General hurt Durham Life’s case far more than he helped them.

Every Sunday, A.J., Fred, and Scottie Stephenson, corporate secretary, would board the train to Washington and every Friday they returned home during the grueling nine-week hearing.  While the Durham Life delegation stayed at the prestigious Willard Hotel in downtown Washington, the always frugal A.J. Fletcher booked himself and Fred at the Hunter Lodge Motel, about 13 miles south of Washington.  In fact, A.J. and Fred shared a room and both complained about the other’s snoring.  Scottie stayed with a friend in the city.  The hearings lasted all day and at night they planned strategy for the next day.  Costs soared and A.J. borrowed huge sums of money to fund the process.

Over eight weeks Royall presented the Durham Life case.  It rested on WPTF’s considerable experience and record of service, the high level of professionalism the company demonstrated, and a combination of what Royall termed as “lapses” in the operation of WRAL and a concentration of ownership and control if Capitol was awarded the license.  Examples of WRAL’s “lapses” included Fred Fletcher’s broadcasting speed trap announcements on the radio, acceptance of beer advertising (which WPTF refused to air), and the broadcasting results from the state sanctioned greyhound racing track at Morehead City.  The concentration of ownership issue focused on the fact that son Floyd had a minority interest in WTVD, the Durham television station.  Royall claimed that granting the Raleigh license to the Fletchers would concentrate too much on ownership within one family.

A.J. had loaned son Floyd the money to construct and own a radio station in Durham.  The loan was repaid and Floyd became the sole owner of WTIK radio.  Floyd had a reputation as a good businessman and broadcaster, so he and a group of people (including the owners of the Durham newspaper) applied for the license for VHF television channel 11.  Floyd became President and a 25 percent owner in the venture and Kenneth Royall tried to use his ownership and family relationship against Capitol in their fight for channel 5, but the tactic may have boomeranged.

Capitol’s case was based on past service, conviction that they truly had a superior application, diversification of ownership, and integration of ownership and management.  Capitol readily admitted that WPTF was the dominant radio broadcast voice in the region.  They also pointed to the fact that The News and Observer (which also owned WNAO radio and TV) and was also a dominant media outlet.  Capitol argued persuasively that if the FCC granted the license to Durham Life there would only be two dominant media players in Raleigh, limiting real competition.  By giving Capitol the license, they told the hearing examiner, there would be more competition in the market, not less.  This argument resonated well with the FCC, a fact Frank Fletcher and the experienced communication attorneys for Capitol understood far better than did Durham Life.  In essence, they turned WPTF’s concentration of ownership argument against Durham Life.

Perhaps the most pivotal point of the hearing turned on integration of ownership and management, another factor the FCC strongly advocated.  The ownership and proposed management positions in Capitol Broadcasting Company were as follows:

Name                                               Ownership            Proposed Title/job
A.J. Fletcher                                          90.27%            President, Treasurer, Music Director
Fred Fletcher                                           5.41%            V. President and General Manager
Louise “Scottie” Stephenson                    .054%            Secretary and full time employee
David Witherspoon                                  .054%            Program Manager
Louise H. Bryan                                       .054%
Ray Reeve                                              2.70%            Sports Director

With the exception of Louise Bryan, a longtime and loyal employee who had left the company, all the owners of the company were to be employed full time (except A.J. and Louise) in the operation of the business.  Their position was that the people who owned the stations and worked in it would be the ones running it and making the decisions.

Durham Life, on the other hand, was owned by many shareholders and WPTF was a subsidiary owned almost totally by the insurance company.  Of the 1010 shares of stock outstanding in WPTF, Durham Life Insurance Company owned 1004 and they were voted at board meetings by a minor level manager of the insurance company whose only instructions were to vote as he saw fit.  Capitol stated that only four of the seven directors in WPTF were active in the business and that only one had ownership.  Further, the WPTF directors owned little stock in Durham Life and had no control over that corporation.  Clearly, the people who ran the station would not own it and vice-versa.  This argument was critical in the final decision to award the license.

Nine months after the hearings began, the hearing examiner awarded the license to Capitol Broadcasting Company.  The elation felt by A.J., Fred, Scottie, and the others who had worked so hard to achieve this goal was offset by disgust from WPTF.  All was not over.  All the FCC Commissioners must affirm the decision before it became final.  WPTF was not willing to concede.  Mysteriously, a member of the Raleigh City Council who was supportive of WPTF passed an ordinance prohibiting transmission towers as tall as Capitol had proposed within the city limits.  WRAL had planned to operate out of studios at Cameron Village and this setback meant they had to quickly find another location.  A.J. Fletcher went to work and located another piece of property on Western Boulevard where studios could be built.  The tower would be sited just outside the city limits.  The application was quickly amended to reflect the new studio location just weeks before the full FCC met and affirmed the hearing examiner’s decision.  Even then WPTF appealed for a rehearing of the decision.

The fall rain didn’t dampen spirits in October 1956, as a crowd of friends and station employees gathered under a funeral home tent and watched singer Dorothy Collins form the popular program, Your Hit Parade, break ground on the new studio and office building on Western Boulevard near NC State.  Approximately two months later, December 15, 1956, A.J. Fletcher stepped to the podium at the transmitter site in Auburn, NC (just southeast of Raleigh) and threw the switch which officially signed WRAL-TV on the air.  The 1,100 foot tower was the tallest east of the Mississippi River.  In his remarks prior to the inauguration of the programming, a proud A.J. Fletcher promised to use all the power at its command to offer “a voice that will give all sides of these questions which affect the economic, spiritual, educational, and political life of our people.  There will be no slanting of the news, no editorials in the headlines.  Information to which the public is entitled will be given without bias or favor.  Only in this way can our people make an intelligent choice on these issues affecting our welfare.  And now, to the almost two million North Carolinians within reach of our signal, we say, happy viewing and listening to all of you on channel 5.”  The first program was Miracle on 34th Street, very appropriate given the miracle that had occurred in David once again beating the mighty Goliath.

Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story & these photos. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.

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