“The Birth of a Station” is the title to chapter 5 of Fred Fletcher’s book, “Tempus Fugit” written in 1990. Fred, one of the sons of A.J. Fletcher – Founder of Capitol Broadcasting Company, recalls when and where it all began in 1938. Here is chapter 5, “The Birth of a Station.”
The WRAL radio and television facility tucked behind the hedges on Western Boulevard gives little hint of the station’s humble beginnings. In fact, humble beginnings might be an overstatement. WRAL sort of stumbled into being.
For much of the country the year 1938 was not a good year for beginnings. We were in the tag end of the Depression, and we didn’t know that very soon we would be yanked out of the Depression into wartime prosperity. But the fact that the Depression continued wasn’t as obvious in Raleigh as it was in the industrialized cities of the North. If you walked along Fayetteville Street, it was business pretty much as usual.
Carolina Power and Light’s streetcars rumbled down the middle of the street. The state government’s payroll was stable. The colleges – State, Meredith, St. Augustine, Shaw, Peace and St. Mary’s – still attracted students. And the city, while it didn’t go out of its way to attract the tobacco markets that were going to Durham, Wilson and other cities around it, was glad to welcome farmers who came to shop with their tobacco money.
The city had stretched as far east as the ballpark on Tarboro Road, beyond Five Points to the north, to State College to the west and south to the railroad tracks that ran under South Wilmington.
We even had an airport, run by a flier named Truman Miller; that’s where Raleigh’s first commercial flights came in. I arrived in a Curtis Condor that had flown to Raleigh from Elizabethtown, NY.
Back downtown, the people still bought their clothes at Cross and Linehan, and the studios of Raleigh’s single radio station, WPTF, were located in the basement of that building.
Any readers brought up in the days of TV probably won’t appreciate the place that radio had in the homes of the people of Raleigh, Wake County and the rest of the country in 1938. Just imagine TV without pictures. Whole families sat around the radio in the evening listening to news, drama, and music of all kinds: country, pop, swing, and classical. The difference was that you didn’t have to stare at the radio.
Readers who came along before TV will remember Just Plain Bill (Barber of Hartsville), The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, Mr. D.A., Truth or Consequences, the $64 Question, Inner Sanctum, Your Hit Parade, Stop the Music, The Thin Man, Amos and Andy, Ma and Pa Kettle, Archie’s Tavern, Stella Davis, H.V. Kaltenborne, and Buster Brown, as well as Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge, and Miller, Goodman, The Dorseys, Lombardo, Kemp and the NBC Symphony – they were all part of our everyday lives, courtesy of radio.
WPTF, broadcasting with 50,000 watts clear channel and affiliated with one of the two NBC radio networks, provided radio service for miles around Raleigh, and was, as far as it was concerned, the only radio service Raleigh needed.
My brother Frank had other ideas. He had been a lawyer with the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. The FCC, in addition to policing the public’s airways, has authority over the commercial use of them. And Frank thought that Raleigh was ripe for another license, a station to compete with WPTF.
The fact that nobody in my family knew anything about building or operating a radio station didn’t bother Frank. He was convinced – and, as it turned out, rightly so – that a second radio station in Raleigh would be a sound investment. He even came up with the call letters that would claim the city for its own – WRAL, as in RALeigh. In 1938, the competition for broadcast licenses was not as keen as it is today (or was when we applied for a TV license in 1953). Today it requires a battery of lawyers, preliminary hearings, settlement conferences, hearings and appeals. Fortunately for me and the rest of my life, 1938 was a simpler time. WPTF objected to the new license for Raleigh, but not much. A temporary AM license was granted for a 250-watt station on July 28, 1938, and my family was in the radio business. Sort of. A.J. Fletcher, my father, offered me $20 a week and the title of Education Director for the new station. I jumped at it. Not only did radio seem to be an exciting profession to be in, but I was also going to work for my father. I didn’t think being the boss’ son would be all bad.
In Raleigh there was, of course, WPTF, the NBC affiliate with all that power and announcers with deep voices. Over in Durham, there was WDNC, the CBS affiliate, also powerful, and also staffed with announcers with deep voices. I don’t think our position really struck home until one day, while we were building our transmitter and putting together our studios, I went to WPTF to be interviewed by J.B Clark. WPTF, having accepted the fact – probably without a lot of worry – that it was going to have a 250-watt competitor, had done the courteous thing and invited me, as a representative of the new kid on the block, over to tell its vast audience about it. I was more than a little nervous. I don’t remember much about the interview except one question near the end of it. I remember being acutely aware that J.B. Clark had a deep announcer voice, and that my voice, though a baritone, sounded strangely high and thin. Then he asked very kindly, “Mr. Fletcher, how much experience do you have?” I think I said, “I don’t have any experience, but I’m going to get some.”
As soon as I could, I got out of the studio and into my car. I had to pick up my wife, Marjie, and as I waited in the parking lot for her, I cried. I don’t have any experience, and I wondered whatever made me think I should try to get some.
Fortunately, putting a radio station together doesn’t leave a lot of time for reflections. I was soon too busy to worry about it. We were involved in turning our temporary license to broadcast into a real radio station. A.J. bought the building at 130 Salisbury Street for WRAL’s studios. Kenny Fogg’s State House Restaurant was downstairs, and we were upstairs. WRAL’s first home consisted of a couple of studios, a reception area, offices for the manager and the sales people, and the record library. The ambiance was usually supplemented by the aroma of whatever the State House was serving that day. By today’s standards (or even by 1939’s standards) the studios were pretty Spartan, functional but not luxurious. We did, however, have all new equipment – simply because there was little used radio equipment to be had. We put our transmitter out in east Raleigh on the East Davie Street extension behind what was then called the Union Cemetery. (So called because it first held the remains of Union soldiers. Now it’s Raleigh National Cemetery.) We also hired – and none too soon – somebody with real radio experience. A.J. lured George T. Case from WDNC in Durham to be the station’s first general manager. His wife, Mary Lou, came to work with him.
On March 20, 1939 we threw the switch on our 250-watt transmitter. Governor Clyde Hoey and Mayor George A. Iseley were on hand for our first broadcast, and The News and Observer reported that “promptly at seven o’clock last night, Raleigh and vicinity heard a new voice on the air.” The Reverend Sydnor L. Stealey, pastor of First Baptist Church, offered up a prayer for the new enterprise.
So much for the people who said we didn’t have a prayer!
Thanks to Corp’s Pam Allen for this capcom story. Pam Parris Allen is a former WRAL newscast producer/director who now works as a researcher and producer on the CBC History Project.