History of WSFA-TV

Published: Jan. 24, 2019 at 2:46 PM CST|Updated: Aug. 5, 2022 at 5:39 PM CDT
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WSFA-TV signed on the air on Christmas Day in 1954. A brief sign-on announcement was made by announcer Ralph Williams which then led into the station’s first program, “A Christmas Carol.”

Before television became popular, however, the call letters W-S-F-A were already a landmark in Montgomery. 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, but then was the city’s airport. Persons publicized the station with the slogan, “With the South’s Finest Airport” (WSFA).

Nearly 25 years later when the television studios were built in 1954, the radio station moved into the facility along with the new TV station. In February of 1955, just two months after going on the air, both the radio and television stations were purchased by the Oklahoma Publishing Company. The two stations’ marriage lasted only another year when in 1956 the radio station was sold and its call letters changed to WHHY. The radio station was then moved to a downtown location.

WSFA-TV expanded to two large state-of-the-art studios at its location on East Delano Avenue in west Montgomery, where its broadcasts originated from 1954 until March of 2020, when it moved into a new, state-of-the-art facility downtown. As part of that move, WSFA management provided decades of film and video to the Alabama Department of Archives and History for preservation.

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, who later 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. During the late 1950s WSFA 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 purchased by The Broadcasting Company of the South. The 1960s were exciting times in television. The old black-and-white pictures gave way to color, and videotape changed the way stations operated. In the mid-1970s, WSFA erected its “tall tower.” At the time, it was the third tallest man-made structure in the world!

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 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."

"The Auburn Football Review" was one of the first coach's shows in the nation, going on the air with Coach "Shug" Jordan in 1955.

WSFA has continually built its news department through the years. In the early days, it aired one half-hour newscast per day. Now, WSFA airs nearly 40 hours of local newscasts each week over multiple channels. Those channels include:

  • WSFA’s primary channel on 12.1
  • Bounce TV on digital subchannel 12.2
  • Circle on digital subchannel 12.3
  • GRIT on digital subchannel 12.4
  • Dabl on digital subchannel 12.5

In addition to 24/7 broadcasts on television, WSFA 12 News produces news around-the-clock on WSFA.com, WSFA mobile apps, and on its streaming apps.

WSFA was the first television station in Alabama to upgrade to digital, non-linear video news gathering equipment in August 2006, and the first television station in Montgomery to begin broadcasting in High-Definition in August 2008.

The WSFA television signal reaches more than half of the 67 counties in Alabama and reaches from near the geographic center of the state in Chilton County to areas near the Georgia, Mississippi and Florida state lines. Its newscasts are among the most highly rated in the nation.

Hyper-local news coverage with cutting-edge technology are mainstays at WSFA 12 News. The station is equally committed to community support projects throughout the year.

Gray Television acquired WSFA 12 News’ parent company, Raycom Media, in January 2019. Gray is a leading media company that owns and operates high-quality stations in 113 television markets that collectively reach 36 percent of US television households.

Copyright 2012 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.