By Don Rhodes
WRDW-TV may be moving from North Augusta, but 66 years of memories are staying behind
From high on Summerville hill, where they lived on Heard Avenue near the Partridge Inn childhood friends Bob Smith and Dan Miller could see the new steel towers of the WJBF and WRDW television stations across the Savannah River in North Augusta.
“Bob and I used to ride our bicycles to the top of Georgia Avenue and watch them build the towers behind Channel 12,” Miller recalled in 1989, when millions of nationwide viewers were watching him on Pat Sajak’s late-night talk show on CBS.
Miller at that time was Sajak’s sidekick (something like Johnny Carson’s Ed McMahon) in pre-Wheel of Fortune days. The two had known each other from working together at WSM-TV in Nashville, Tenn.
Miller and future concert pianist John Tesh were co-anchors of news programs; Sajak was WSM’s weatherman; and Oprah Winfrey was the 19-year-old anchor at a competing Nashville station.
Both Smith and Miller grew up to have close ties with WRDW.
Smith would become its chief meteorologist for three decades, working with many newscasters who became familiar faces to Augusta viewers.
And Miller, a great-nephew of Augusta’s Miller Theater builder Frank J. Miller, would cut his broadcasting teeth on Channel 12 before becoming one of the most beloved broadcasting personalities on WSM and The Nashville Network cable television company.
“Working at Channel 12 was wonderful,” Miller told me in that 1989 conversation. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was the blossoming ground for everything I came to know about television.”
Ironically, both broadcasting careers of the lifelong friends ended 20 years after Miller made that observation.
In January 2009, WRDW announced that Smith would be retiring later that year after 32 years of working at the station.
“He’s leaving big shoes to fill,” said then- WRDW General Manager John Ray.
Smith said he loved getting to represent WRDW as a speaker at many area businesses, organizations, religious places and schools.
“I’ve probably given a couple thousand talks over the past 30-plus years,” Smith noted. “It’s not unusual for grown adults to tell me I spoke to their class when they were young.”
Then in April 2009, after spending a wonderful day at Augusta National Golf Club enjoying the Masters Tournament, Miller had a fatal heart attack while walking near the Partridge Inn in his childhood neighborhood. He was 67.
Smith and Miller are just two of the scores of WRDW-related personalities and behind-the-scenes employees being remembered for working in the only home that WRDW has known since going on the air on Valentine’s Day of 1954.
GETTING READY TO MOVE
Then-next-door station WJBF (which burned in a fire in August 1956 and moved to downtown Augusta) had just gone on the air itself as the area’s first television station on Thanksgiving Day of 1953.
Now WRDW, the CBS network affiliate, and its sister station, WAGT, the NBC network affiliate, are moving from high on the hill in North Augusta.
Both are part of the Gray Television corporation, based in Atlanta, which also “owns and/or operates television stations and leading digital properties in 93 television markets,” as the corporate website gray.tv notes.
In addition to CBS and NBC, WRDW/WAGT also offers programming from the CW, MyNetworkTV and AntennaTV networks, and the new Circle network, which is broadcasting reruns of Hee Haw and live Saturday night shows of the Grand Ole Opry.
Gray Television Chairman and CEO Hilton H. Howell Jr. was among the dignitaries present in July 2018 when ground was broken at Interstate 20 and River Watch Parkway for WRDW/WAGT’s new 30,000-square-foot home.
Completion and sign-on in the new location was anticipated for August of 2020, but after various unexpected developments, it looks like October is more realistic.
At the event in 2018, Howell told attendees, “We are local news. That’s what we do. And now, what WRDW and WAGT can do will be second to no one. No one from New York to LA in the country. And we’re very proud of that.”
He said viewers can expect some distinctly Augusta touches, like a putting green and digital billboards on the building that can broadcast everything from Amber Alerts to Masters’ coverage.
“It’s very modern. It’s very cutting edge,” Howell added. “We will have the top technology of anything in the country.”
WRDW/WAGT Vice President and General Manager Mike Oates also observed, “When complete, this will be hands-down the finest television facility in the country.
“There are technologies now being tested in our Gray Television labs that are not available to stations anywhere else,” Oates said. “We will be delivering news using broadcasting technology that has never been seen in the industry. WRDW/WAGT will continue being the leading source of news in the CSRA. This facility illustrates Gray Television’s commitment to the area and the broadcasting industry.”
LIVE ON VALENTINE’S DAY
Readers of The Augusta Chronicle on Saturday, Feb. 13, 1954, might have seen the four-paragraph story on page eight in the left side column headlined:
WRDW to initiate TV operations tomorrow night
How could they have missed it? It was just above the short story that was headlined:
Hog offerings short of demand at Wilkes barn
The account of Augusta’s second television station going on the air less than three months after WJBF went on the air in November 1953 read:
WRDW-TV will begin limited operations tomorrow night with four scheduled shows, according to Roger La Reau, station manager.
The CBS network programs are “Private Secretary” starring Ann Sothern at 7:30, Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” at 8, “Youth On The March” at 9 and “Flying With Godfrey” at 9:30.
The station will operate on approximately the same schedule throughout the coming week with shows beginning at 7:30 p.m. and continuing until 10:30 p.m. on Channel 12.
Full-scale operations are to be initiated Sunday, February 24, La Reau said yesterday.
WRDW’s programming from the very beginning always has been a combination of live and filmed shows with local “on air” talent and network shows featuring internationally known celebrities of all kinds, ranging from politicians and preachers to music and sports superstars.
Brenda Lee, one of the greatest entertainers in the world, actually began her career on WRDW, appearing on the station’s live broadcast music program Peach Blossom Special.
She would later travel the world entertaining such dignitaries as Queen Elizabeth II; sell more than 100 million records; and be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Association’s Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Dot Huff Baker, who played piano on WJBF-TV’s rival show Today in Dixie, which featured popular vocalists Flo Carter and “Jimmy” Nabors (later TV legend “Gomer Pyle”) revealed that Lee planned to audition for WJBF, located next door on Georgia Avenue.
“We set a time and day to meet at Channel 6, but the afternoon of the appointment was raining cats and dogs,” Baker related.
“I got as far as 13th and Broad streets and had a flat tire. I called my husband, and he told me to catch a cab and go on to the station and he would take care of the car.
“When I got to the station, I was told there was a call for me. It was Sammy Barton, a good friend of mine at WRDW. He said, ‘I hate to tell you, Dot, but I’ve got your little girl, and I’ve already signed her up.’
“The bus driver [friend of Lee’s family] had made a mistake and had taken her to Channel 12 instead of meeting me at Channel 6. That’s how Brenda ended up performing on that station.”
It certainly proved to be a lucky mistake for the talented youngster, because it also was program director Barton who suggested then- 9-year-old Brenda Mae Tarpley change her performing name to Brenda Lee.
Two years later, in February 1956, Grand Ole Opry star Red Foley (Pat Boone’s father-in-law) “discovered” Lee at Augusta’s Bell Auditorium.
That led to her contract with Decca (later MCA) Records and a long, long, long string of hit singles that included Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, Jingle Bell Rock, Fool No. 1, I’m Sorry, Sweet Nothin’s, Break It To Me Gently and Coming On Strong.
In fact, she had more than 45 charted hits in the 1960s, ranking Lee fourth in sales behind Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Ray Charles.
Longtime Augusta television viewers came to identify the late Jim Davis as WJBF-TV’s version of legendary CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.
But Davis actually had been an announcer for the WRDW radio station before becoming program director of the WRDW television station for several years.
And who possibly might remember that Davis was the master of ceremonies for the Teen Time live talent and featured movie program that WRDW-TV and the Augusta Coca-Cola Bottling Co. sponsored on Saturdays for teens 13 to 19 in the Imperial Theatre?
Music also has been in the blood of longtime WRDW news anchor Richard Rogers, a native of Brunswick, Ga., and Georgia Southern graduate who joined WRDW in October 1993.
Rogers plays drums in a praise band at North Augusta’s First Baptist Church and in Breaking News, a popular music band that includes other WRDW staffers.
His love of interviewing music artists led him to conduct what probably were the last interviews with soul superstars James Brown in 2006 at the Imperial Theatre and Sharon Jones in 2016 on a floating dock of the Savannah River near Hammond’s Ferry. Rogers and Brown share the same May 3 birthday.
Many of WRDW’s employees have volunteered to help with Augusta’s religious, civic and artistic groups, with one notable contributor being William (Bill) Tennent, a native of Florence, S.C., who came to WRDW in its infant year.
Before his early death just 10 years later at age 41, Tennent worked at WRDW as cameraman, continuity director, production supervisor and creator of the extremely popular children’s puppet show starring a rabbit called “Hippity Hop,” who was mayor of Happydale, U.S.A.
Tennent’s flair for promotion helped get the Augusta Civic Ballet off the ground, and his involvement with local theater was so great that WRDW began sponsoring The Augusta Players’ annual theater director’s award in his name.
“In the all-too-few years that Augusta was permitted to be his home,” the Chronicle noted in a tribute editorial, “this unusual man with the almost insatiable zest for life contributed to the cultural enlightenment of the area as few men have.”
Another memorable WRDW personality who contributed greatly to Augusta’s social and entertainment life was the late June Stewart, who grew up in Atlanta and moved to Augusta in 1972. She worked at WRDW Channel 12 for a decade.
Stewart hosted the live Midday on 12 program, where she interviewed such notables as Georgia political star Jimmy Carter and budding novelist Pat Conroy.
Like Tennent, she loved puppets and worked them into her “News for Little People” broadcasts, for which she received a Peabody Award.
Stewart and Jackie Christian in 1972 co-founded The Augusta Children’s Theatre, which taught creative dramatics, puppetry and acting to children of all ages.
But maybe her greatest civic contribution was becoming the executive director of Augusta’s yearlong 250th Birthday Celebration in 1986 that involved cultural exchanges with government officials in England.
COVERING THE MASTERS
Due to Augusta National Golf Club’s longtime ties to the CBS network, WRDW from its beginning in 1954 was destined to provide outstanding coverage of the annual Masters Tournament, which had started 20 years earlier.
It was in March 1958 that The Augusta Chronicle announced that CBS on-air personality Jim McKay, “regularly seen covering the court in ‘The Verdict Is Yours’ series” on CBS, was being assigned to cover the upcoming Masters Tournament.
“McKay in the past,” the Chronicle assured its golf-loving readers, “has covered the New York Giants’ football games and has also been stand-by baseball-caster for CBS Television’s ‘Baseball Game of the Week.’”
McKay, who died at 86 in 2008, later would jump ship to ABC, where his Wide World of Sports programs would become must-viewing for all sports fans. He covered 12 Olympic games and earned 13 Emmy Awards. His son, Sean McManus, later became president of CBS News and Sports.
Feeding off that popularity of CBS coverage, WRDW’s own crack team of sports announcers, who included Lee Sheridan and Lou Stratton, likewise became “must viewing” during the tournaments.
Stratton’s Meet The Masters program that April of 1958 included amateur contender Billy Joe Patton as well as international players from Australia, Japan and New Zealand.
They were supplemented by “Julian Roberts of the Augusta National, who will discuss changes in the golf course since last year, along with M.I. Luke, greenskeeper at the Augusta National” and nurseryman Johnny Graves, who “will be on hand to describe the flowering trees and shrubs on the course.”
Stratton, who also was WRDW’s popular weather forecaster, told the Chronicle, “We feel that this program in some measure will provide unfortunates who are unable to attend the tournament at least an idea of what will go on.”
Charles Moody, who had been with WRDW since December 1957, told Chronicle writer Charmain Z. Brackett in 1999 that those early programs were important in getting local fans out to the golf course on Washington Road.
“They were trying to sell tickets,” Moody said, noting that the demand in the 1950s after World War II was not the same as it is for the coveted tickets of today.
In April 2010, Moody received the Masters Major Achievement Award from Augusta National Golf Club for covering the Masters for at least 40 years.
Moody not only was behind one of the few film cameras on the course itself for WRDW, but he also operated a camera in Butler Cabin for CBS during the live green jacket ceremony for the new tournament champion.
“Well, it’s not a green jacket, but this will do,” he joked of the ANGC award. But, on a serious note, he added, “There are no words to express how I feel right now. It’s just a great occasion.”
Probably, those words of television veteran Moody also are the reflections of most WRDW employees as they prepare for the emotional and historic move from North Augusta to River Watch Parkway: It’s just a great occasion.
Photography by Amy J. Owen and photos provided by Lee Sheridan
Appears in the August/September 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.