Sunday, January 7, 2018

Memories of Broadcast Remotes

Some folks consider Facebook a waste of time, but I see some good things in social media. One of those is the ability for social media to bring long lost memories back to life. I really enjoy the group page “You may be from Columbia, SC if you remember when...” That one always evokes memories from the past.

Last week, my friend Ginny Gayle Boltin posted a link on her personal page to “These 12 Photos of South Carolina In The 1970s Are Mesmerizing” from As I browsed the photos I was reminded of some of the most memorable times I had as a broadcaster.

The first was the Broadcast of the James F. Byrnes funeral on WIS-TV in ‘72. It was only a short time before that we recorded an hour long interview with Mr. Byrnes about his long career as SC Governor, a US Congressman and in the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations. For the funeral we rented a remote truck from Jefferson Productions in Charlotte to provide us with the cameras and other gear that we needed to produce the show. The legendary Sidney J. Palmer produced and directed the show. What I remember most was that at on the morning of the broadcast the decision was made that cameras would not be allowed in the sanctuary of the church. As the remote engineer, I began to break down and storing some of the equipment thinking the broadcast was going to be scrubbed when Sidney came by and said to hold on for a minute. He had an idea, and as it turns out, a brilliant one. We used every camera cable extension we had to place the cameras that were planning in using inside the church back out on the grounds of the statehouse located across the street from the church. We carried the audio from the funeral over live pictures of the state house grounds during the part of the service that was inside the church.

We had a visit from President Gerald Ford in 76. That one was a three location remote for WIS Radio. I was directly involved in two of them; the arrival of Air Force One at the airport and a party at the Governor's Mansion. The third was already “wired in” because we already had remote telephone lines to the football stadium as the Flagship station for USC Gamecock Football. We broadcast the USC / Notre Dame football game including the events around the President’s visit at half time to the entire network that day. During the game, I had a few hours to break down the 25 foot steel tower that I had erected for the Marti unit we used to cover the events at the airport, strap it to the luggage rack of my Karmann Ghia, transport everything and set it all up again at the Governor’s Mansion downtown to cover the reception for the president. During the broadcast my car was towed from behind the Governor's mansion by the Secret Service. Hey - I was there before they were. After the president’s departure I remember asking a Secret Service agent where they towed it; his first response was "How do you know I'm with the Secret Service?" I said "Because no one else around here has an earpiece and talks into his sleeve." After a short conversation with his sleeve, he told me it was around the corner, a block away.

Left: Ikegami HL-75 MiniCam! In 1975, television remote broadcasts changed drastically with the advent of Electric News Gathering (ENG) equipment. We called it the WIS MiniCam. There were two main parts to ENG, A television camera that could be carried around by a single videographer and a “window ledge” microwave unit that could carry the signal back to the station. WIS TV was in a fierce competition with WFBC, now WYFF television, in Greenville, SC to be the first station to use the new technology live in a newscast. We received shipment of the camera in time to be the winner but the manufacturer of the microwave unit had a last minute delay in shipping. That didn’t slow us down one minute though. We had a portable microwave unit that we pressed into service. I say portable but it was a two piece unit, a dish on a tripod and a control unit each of which weighed 75 pounds. Unlike the window ledge units, this behemoth required a First Class Radiotelephone License from the FCC to operate.

Left, The "dish" half of the RCA Mobile Microwave Transmitter. So my boss asked me to come in early one Monday afternoon to transport, set up and operate the equipment during our prime time “Seven O’clock Report” newscast at the Richland County Sheriff’s Office. At the time the Sheriff and the County Jail were located side by side on Huger Street near Gervais St. A co-worker, Cathy Malone was assigned to help me manage the bulky microwave equipment. She was a good choice because she was a smart, strong lady. First we tried to get a shot from the ground outside the Sheriff’s Office but it was significantly lower than the station downtown and we could not get a signal back to the station. Next we tried the roof of the Sheriff’s Office without any luck at all. Cathy and I took a Coca Cola break to think about our next move. As we sat there I noticed her looking at the top of the jail building that, if my memory serves, was six stories tall. Unfortunately there was no way of reaching the roof without going through the cell blocks, so the county “volunteered” a couple of trusted inmates to help me carry the microwave unit to the roof while she waited on the ground to feed me the audio/video cable from the ground. It worked! And that, my friends is how WIS TV became the first in the state to employ ENG to broadcast a live report in the state. Our reporter was Tom Fowler

We didn’t stop there but went on with five more live reports during the week. The first was a segment in the “The Eleven O’clock Report” that night in which Joe Petty, our news director, interviewed me about being the first in the state to use ENG. Tuesday evening, Tom Fowler covered the State Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Wade Hampton Hotel across the street from the State House. Wednesday it was Joe Pinner, our weatherman from the Weather Service Office at the Columbia Metropolitan airport. Thursday we took the day off and Friday Jim Forrest did his sports segment from Harry Parone Stadium at Spring Valley High School in Northeast Columbia.

As it turned out, that Saturday was the day of the big sports rivalry in the state; The Carolina – Clemson game. We were going to cut in after the game with a live report. I thought I was supposed to meet our news assignment editor at the station at 10 AM to get my press credentials for the game. But when 11 AM rolled by I realized that I must have misunderstood. So I decided to go out to the stadium and see if I could talk my way past security. I arrived at the foot of the elevator in the unmarked utility van we had rented for the week. When I asked the guard if I could unload the MiniCam gear there and use the elevator to get to the press box, he said, “Wow, that’s the MiniCam! Tell you what. Let me open this gate and then you can drive up the circular ramp to the camera deck next to the press box. And you can park right there behind the deck for the game!” There is no way that would happen today!

During the game, after a great meal of fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans laid out for the reporters, I decided to familiarize myself with the workings of the camera. So I began “shooting” the game and sending the live video back to the station over the microwave. About 15 minutes after I started, I get a call on the two way radio from Jim Forrest who wanted me to keep it up. They were recording my feed on the big Ampex recorders in Master Control. Normally we would not have had any film of a 1 PM game on The Seven O’clock Report due to the time it takes to process and edit the film after the game is over. That night we used the video I shot on a lark, and we had video of the afternoon game for the very first time.

As it turns out that was an important game for the University of South Carolina – The Gamecocks' greatest victory over Clemson - Gamecocks 56 - Tigers 20. My friend Drew Stewart produced a sports memorabilia piece a few years ago when he worked at WIS TV that included some of the video I shot that afternoon. It can still be seen on YouTube.

So thanks to Ginny’s post on Facebook, I have spent some time with great memories from my remotes at WIS TV and Radio. Those were good years when the local broadcasters spent a lot of time, energy and creativity to bring the best to the audiences. It’s true that I was involved in many more remotes for local television and the networks over the years. The last television remote that I worked was the last Firing Line Show with William F. Buckley from New York on a chilly night that threatened snow in December 1999. It was a debate in lower Manhattan. If it weren’t for his limo driver, we would not have made it out to LaGuardia in time to catch our flight home. But that is another story. Oh MY!