MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - It was Dec. 25, 1954, and with the push of a button, a man named Hy Brown made Montgomery’s second television channel crackle to life.
Area residents had been treated to more than two months of test patterns and recorded music leading up to that official Christmas Day sign-on. And then, the wait was over.
Forty-five seconds after the clock ticked to 6:25 p.m., Ralph Williams’s voice found its way into living rooms in Montgomery and south Alabama for the first time.
As Williams’s welcome faded, the station rolled film on its first broadcast, Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” As the night of programming continued, WSFA joined the NBC network for the first time. The schedule of shows included “The Imogene Coca Show”, “The Life of Riley”, and “Your Hit Parade.”
That was 23,741 days ago - as of Dec. 25, 2019 - a span that marks 65 years in broadcasting for WSFA. The station has remained an NBC affiliate since its very beginning and continues to be one of the highest-rated affiliates in the nation. It also remains the dominant station in Montgomery.
It took more than two years of meticulous planning and construction by the Montgomery Broadcast Company to reach the moment when Williams spoke into the microphone that first broadcast. But the call letters W-S-F-A had already been a household name for decades, just not on television. It was already a leader on the radio dial.
Gordon Persons, who later became the 43rd governor of Alabama, opened Alabama’s fourth radio station in 1930, locating it in what is now the Gunter Annex. Back in those days, however, it served as Montgomery’s airport. Persons publicized the station with the slogan, “With the South’s Finest Airport,” and that’s how WSFA got its call letters.
WSFA radio gave a Butler County man named Hank Williams his start. In fact, his song “I saw the light” was inspired by the beacon from WSFA radio’s broadcast tower. He went on to become a country music legend, and the rest is history.
Nearly 25 years later, the call letters made the transition to 10 East Delano Avenue in west Montgomery and, for about a year, the TV and radio stations operated under the same roof. The beginning of the end of that marriage came just two months after the TV sign-on when Oklahoma Publishing Company bought both. The AM radio station was sold off and the landmark call letters left the airwaves with a change to WHHY. Today it is WLWI News Radio 1440 on the AM dial.
From the beginning, WSFA made a serious commitment to news coverage.
“The Oklahoma Broadcasting people had a newspaper background and news was big with them, unlike a lot of stations at the time,” explained former WSFA News Director and Anchor Charles Caton. “Many stations had no local news programming at first. WSFA, however, had the ingredients for an outstanding news operation: the commitment of ownership, the most advanced equipment available, talented leadership in the person of first News Director Frank McGee, and perhaps most importantly, a riveting story to tell.”
The story was the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which launched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to national prominence. It also was a proving ground for McGee. His coverage of the boycott caught the attention of NBC network executives, who invited him to New York for an audition.
After borrowing $100 from Ralph Williams, he took the trip, got the job, and quickly became one of the network’s most prominent news personalities. He anchored NBC’s “Today” show and all the early space shots.
WSFA was one of the first stations outside the nation’s top ten largest markets to own film processing equipment and during the late 1950s the station fed many stories to the networks each week and processed more film than any station south of the nation’s Capitol.
During the early years of the Civil Rights movement, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company each used the WSFA facilities to transmit stories to their viewers.
In 1959, WSFA-TV was sold to The Broadcasting Company of the South. Though the company would change its name twice over the decades, first to Cosmos in 1965 and then to Liberty in 2002. WSFA remained under that company’s ownership for the next 45 years!
The sixties saw many changes in television, with the starkest example being a transition from the old black-and-white pictures to color broadcasts.
On Friday, July 15, 1966, WSFA began airing programming “In Living Color" when then-Montgomery Mayor Earl James and then-WSFA General Manager Bob Villar pushed a button on the station’s new color film chain machine. You can see a picture of the two during that historic event below.
Sports has always been a priority for WSFA. Within months of going on the air, the station began airing “The Auburn Football Review,” one of the first coach’s shows in the nation, with then-Auburn head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.
Of course, being a TV station located between two very successful SEC football programs, has always been a balancing act! WSFA 12 News dedicates resources to covering sporting events from Auburn, Alabama, Troy, ASU, and a host of other very talented regional teams during their regular seasons and bowl games.
In addition to college sports, WSFA also covers numerous high schools during their season with Friday Night Fever!
In WSFA’s 65 years, there have only been six sports directors.
Alabama’s weather can change in an instant, and for the past 65 years, we’ve been there to alert our viewers to the latest severe weather, as well as helping you plan your day and weekend. It started with a basic chalkboard, then light up signs, and now advanced graphics that take you inside the storm.
Our team of dedicated meteorologists has been working to save lives for decades, and with remarkable stability. Like our sports directors, only six people have ever held the position of WSFA chief meteorologist.
In addition to outstanding news coverage, WSFA presented many live programs still remembered fondly in Central and South Alabama. Children's programming included "Fun for the Young" and "Young World" with Marge Payne, "Cartoon Carl," "Popeye Theater," "Adventure," and "Junior Auction."
Betsy Plummer, the first lady of Montgomery television, was the host of “How Do You Do It?” Catherine Wright interviewed many nationally-known guests on the “Guest Room,” and her teenage daughter, Toni Tennille, played the piano and sang on many of the local programs. She later became world-famous as part of “Captain and Tennille.”
Construction on WSFA’s original broadcasting tower started in mid-1954 when a spot at Mount Carmel, located about 25 miles south of Montgomery, was found to be an ideal location. The tower rose 700 feet and took advantage of high terrain to allow WSFA’s signal to cover south Alabama and Montgomery.
That tower would carry WSFA’s signal for more than 20 years before the creation of “The Tall Tower," a structure that held the title of the world’s third tallest man-made object when it was completed in 1977.
In September of that year, WSFA’s chief engineer, Dick Payne, switched the station over from the old transmitter to the new, nearly 2,000-foot tall tower just to its east in Ramer/Grady. Instantly, thousands of new viewers in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida were welcomed to “12 Country.”
In 2006, WSFA’s parent company, Liberty, merged with Montgomery-based Raycom Media. Because WSFA was in the home market of its parent company, it became the company’s flagship station in a group that grew to more than 60 television stations across the country.
Raycom, whose primary lender was the Retirement Systems of Alabama, built a powerhouse network of stations across the nation, including “The Raycom News Network” in Alabama, made up of WSFA in Montgomery, WBRC in Birmingham, WAFF in Huntsville, and WTVM in Columbus/Auburn.
WSFA was the first television station in Alabama to upgrade to digital, non-linear video newsgathering equipment in August 2006, and the first television station in Montgomery to begin broadcasting in High-Definition in August 2008.
WSFA has continually built its news department over the years. In the early days, just a half-hour newscast aired per day. Now, WSFA airs nearly 40 hours of local newscasts each week on our main channel, as well as several subchannels including Bounce TV (WSFA 12.2), GRIT (WSFA12.3), and soon a new channel called Circle.
The WSFA television signal now reaches more than half of Alabama’s 67 counties and reaches from near the geographic center of the state in Chilton County to areas near the Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida state lines.
In 2018, Raycom Media announced that it was to be sold. In early 2019, Gray Television completed its purchase of WSFA 12 News’ parent company. The new company, which took the Gray name, now has nearly 150 affiliates of the CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX networks, serving 91 markets from Alaska and Hawaii to Maine and Florida.
In Alabama, WSFA gained a new sister station, WTVY in Dothan, as part of the merger.
Since its sign-on, WSFA has maintained its original studios on West Delano Avenue. Over the years, the building was expanded to two large studios. In the late 1980s, a large addition was added to the back of the facility that became the station’s newsroom.
In the 1990s, 10 East Delano Avenue was renumbered to 12 East Delano Avenue.
But the days of broadcasting in the original studios will soon come to an end. In early 2020, WSFA 12 News will move to a new, state-of-the-art facility in downtown Montgomery.
The studios will be located on the seventh floor of the RSA Dexter Avenue Building, located across the street from the historic Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church and within walking distance of the Alabama Capitol.
So what happens to the original station building? We’ll announce that soon!
It’s been 65 years, but none of it would have been possible without the untold number of people who have worked here. Some have names that are instantly familiar. Others have quietly spent decades behind the scenes, their names not widely known.
And there’s you. Without you, there would be no WSFA. We thank you and hope you’ll be there with us as the journey continues.