A HISTORY OF WLEX-TV
A work in progress
by Dave Powell, Chief Engineer
With the death of Harry Barfield in October, 1991, no one at WLEX remains who has lived the history of the station, although Jack Atchison (the last Chairman of the Board of WLEX-TV Inc., and who died June 9, 2002) had been a board member from the start. This history has been an interest of mine since I started at WLEX in 1971, and I have collected a variety of stories that might otherwise be lost in the years to come. Any company has employees who leave under less than pleasant circumstances, but although there are interesting anecdotes in these departures, they must be left out as a matter of course. There remains a collection of many years already, and I hope that others will add to my collection of tales, and correct the inevitable errors. The real history of any company is a history of its people, so this is most of what is herein.
Jacob Douglas Gay, Jr. died of complications of Parkinson's disease March 10, 1988. He was a principal stockholder and treasurer of Gay-Bell Corporation, originally a manufacturer of tobacco hogsheads and other products (including ferrite core memories for IBM computers) in Paris, Kentucky. He was a director of First Security National Bank, a major stockholder in International Spike (Jobe's Tree Food Spikes), a trustee of Transylvania University, and operated Brookview Farm on the Fayette-Clark County line. He was once a partner with H. Guthrie Bell in Bell and Gay, a real estate company in Paris. His father had made money in investments and by traveling around the country as a sharpshooter for a rifle manufacturer. A few years before Doug's death, he had been honored when Vice President George Bush came to dedicate the "J.D. Gay Library" at Transylvania. When I told him how proud I was of that, Mr. Gay almost blushed and said the best thing he had ever done for Transy was to get W.T. Young interested. Mr. Gay was a modest, quiet man who got up early to work the farm, and might come to the station in overalls. When his garden produced a crop, he always brought bags of vegetables to his friends at the station. He always took an active interest in the station. Mr. Gay had given me three antique radios for my collection, radios that he had owned as a child in the twenties. I talked to his mother about this once, and she said "Doug had to have the best radio, and when television started, he just had to have the first station." It was a delight to know a family who were so down to earth while being blessed with such wealth. His mother was about 100 and in the hospital a few days when her house, three stories and built just after the turn of the 20th century, burned to the ground. Despite her age, Mr. Gay had a new ranch-style house built on the same spot for her. The house was deceptive in that it had the original full-height basement beneath it. Lucy Graddy Gay died a month short of her 103rd birthday.
H. Guthrie Bell died of cancer June 11, 1969. In addition to his partnerships with Mr. Gay, he was a director of National Bank of Paris, owner of Bell Farm in Bourbon County, and president of Grapette Bottling Company in Paris. His wife Jean, active in charities including the Florence Crittenton Home, continued on the Board of Directors of WLEX-TV Inc. until the sale to Evening Post Publishing in 1999. Two of his sons, Tom (also a board member before the sale) and Bill, worked for WLEX Engineering at various times over the years.
LEXINGTON TELEVISION BEGINS
(From 1927 until 1931 there had been a WLEX radio in Lexington, Massachusetts. Engineers there put together experimental television station W1XAY using the Nipkow Spinning Disk mechanical scanning system.)
In 1934 newspaper publisher J. Lindsay Nunn and his son Gilmore brought WLAP (radio) from Louisville to a studio on Esplanade in Lexington. It had no local competition until 1946, with the startup of Fayette Broadcasting's WKLX in the Phoenix Hotel. WKLX ran 1000 watts from a site on Greendale Road, directional only at night.
In November 1946, WLEX Radio began operating out of a Quonset hut off Russell Cave Road on 1340 KHz at 250 watts, using the ill-fated 375-foot self-supporting tower that would fall in 1959. (The Quonset hut and the small house by the Lexmark road were demolished during the 1998 building construction.) In 1947, Happy Chandler started WVLK on 590 KHz in the Lafayette Hotel (with other facilities in Versailles, his home town, thus the call letters "Versailles-Lexington Kentucky”). WLEX bought out WKLX in 1952 and with great fanfare shut down the 250 watt, 1340 KHz transmitter in the Quonset hut, moving to the higher power on 1300 KHz. The vacated (1340 KHz) self-supporting 375-foot tower, standing on the current WLEX property, was sold to the state for its highway department radios. More about that tower later.
(At WLEX Radio Cawood Ledford, hired September 1953, called UK Basketball games. Later, Cawood was the first sports announcer for WLEX-TV.)
WLEX Radio was sold in March 1958 to generate funds to maintain WLEX-TV. The station was sold to Roy B. White Jr. on a seven-year down payment, changing the call letters to WBLG (BLueGrass). The Greendale Road site is still in use on 1300 KHz by Lynn Martin today, after several ownership and call letter changes.
A group of Lexington businessmen led by Ken Hart tried to start a television station in the Phoenix Hotel in 1952, but the FCC maintained a policy of granting television licenses only to existing radio stations. In March 1952, J.D. Gay announced his intention to enter television. In 1953, Gilmore Nunn (WLAP) was assigned channel 27, but he was determined to acquire a VHF channel. When the FCC refused, he abandoned his television plans. Nunn had even built a new brick building for the television station on the north side of Christian Road, a stone’s throw from the original Channel 27 tower (now Clear Channel) near Sam’s Club. There followed a battle for channel 18 between WLEX and Garvice Kincaid's WVLK, won by WLEX. The construction permit was issued in November, 1954.
THE TOWER FALLS
The following describes a disaster that killed a receptionist in 1959 when the tower fell. When I started at WLEX in 1971, I remembered reading about the collapse, having grown up in Danville, 35 miles away. I was surprised that no one spoke of the incident, then realized that this was so traumatic that people who were here avoided the topic completely. As time passed, the people who remembered left WLEX, and the newer people had not been told about it. In my opinion, this is the most significant occurrence in WLEX history, and after tracking down several people who were at the station that day, I will pass along what I learned so everyone will know what happened. For the benefit of anyone who might fear a recurrence, I'll mention several points before I start.
First, the shorter tower that caused this is gone. Nothing of any significant size remains that could fall into the guy wires. The suggestion of a plane hitting them is little more likely than a plane hitting a particular building since we are in the city proper, not in some open field.
Second, the current tower legs are three-inch solid steel, so not even water can weaken them without detection (the older tower legs were tubular). The tower is inspected annually by climbers trained to find rusty or weakened areas, and it is repainted when the orange paint fades. Guy wires are treated periodically with a corrosion resistant coating.
Third, the end of the old building nearest the tower now has a double roof, with steel beams supporting the upper steel roof; even in 1959 no wall was collapsed from the impact (one studio wall was broken about a foot). One additional note is that until Jim Robertson's death in 1973, his wife May still came to the station as a place of safety when storms threatened. The 1999 building has a high steel roof, and is farther from the tower.
The WLEX-TV tower in 1955 was the largest in Kentucky and one of the tallest in the world at 654 feet to the tip of the antenna, and was rated to withstand a 125 MPH wind. After the WLEX Radio transmitting facility was moved to the three-tower array on Greendale Road, the old 375-foot self-supporting tower near the driveway that had been used for the AM station (the concrete bases remained until the new building was begun) was sold to the State of Kentucky. The tower was used for highway department radios. (Engineer Joe Polsgrove saw the now-missing plans for the smaller tower, which specified its wind survival at only 80 MPH, coincidentally the wind speed reported by the weather service.) Pictures taken at the time of erection of the TV tower in December 1954 show whole sections of paint missing from the shorter tower, and the apparent lack of maintenance by the state allegedly contributed to the structure's demise. When it blew over January 21, 1959 at 2:50pm in the high wind, the smaller tower ripped two guy wires from the TV tower, which buckled and dropped within a few seconds. Harry Barfield always insisted a tornado was responsible, but no structure was found to be twisted to support that idea, and witnesses report no sightings.
Engineering Director Jim Robertson had been working on the transmitter with RCA engineer Claude Parker the night before the collapse, and remembered taking a break and leaning against the block wall. He told me he could feel the wall move with the strength of the wind outside. Jim's wife May, living in the WLEX cottage by the Quonset hut, was terrified of storms and saw the station as a safe place, and on that windy afternoon Jim had intended to bring her to the station for safety. Fortunately, he did not.
Receptionist Suzanne Kimberly Grasley was twenty-two years old, married five months, and four months pregnant. She was outgoing, always pleasant, and was liked by everyone. Announcer Wayne Bell was waiting to go to lunch with Harry Barfield, talking in the bookkeeping office to Suzy Grasley about her husband's job offer in Florida. She feared a move to such a hurricane-prone area because she was deathly afraid of high wind. In just over an hour, a wind would take her life.
There were windows the length of the lobby wall, and from the receptionist's desk in front of the studio door the falling self-supporting tower was clearly visible. In the high wind, most of that 375-foot tower blew over, parallel to the building, north toward the IBM (now Lexmark) road. Program Director Alex Macauley was in his tiny office near the receptionist's desk, where part of the women's restroom was later located. Suzy Grasley yelled "Alex, the tower's falling" and started toward his door. "I leaned toward my door to look," Macauley said. "As I did, something fell and hit her on the head." Macauley was able to leap over and through the debris, then he ran through the technical area and out the back door.
Grasley officially died of "severe multiple crushing injuries and a severed right leg" although electrocution was also a possibility. There were burns visible on her neck since the guy wires had fallen across power wires, so care had to be exercised in reaching the body. Although there was little blood, her hair and some brain matter were found on and near the heavy eggcrate fluorescent fixture (still attached to the ceiling joists) that crushed her head. Jim Robertson testified twice in court against the state in behalf of her husband Michael, a graduate student at UK, who was awarded only about $5000 for the loss of his wife and unborn child. (Michael went on to become CEO of Shell Oil's Shell Chemical Company. Suzy is buried in Zanesville, OH, her home town.)
When engineer Joe Polsgrove (who died when his small plane crashed in February 2003) saw on the news teletype that a tower had come down in Elizabethtown, he went to the engineering office then at the corner of the building nearest the tower. As if on cue, when he looked out the window he saw the self-supported tower fall over and tear off the bottom two guy wires from the TV tower. He heard the two guy wires slamming into the building, and then a sound like a continuous roar of thunder. Although not so loud, the sound went on for at least ten seconds. Part of the steel fell against that corner of the building, but Joe had already run to dive under the filterplexer, near the transmitter in the center of the building (later the tape room). The filterplexer was supported by four six-inch timbers, and looked like a safe haven. When the noise stopped, Joe shut off the transmitter's main breaker next to the back door.
Chief Engineer Jim Robertson sent Polsgrove to find a phone to call for help. The phone line was out in the WLEX cottage (where Jim lived), so Joe ran to the Armory to call. In the studio, Jim saw the destroyed roof and the pouring rain falling on the troublesome GPL camera, which was otherwise untouched. Later he looked in again, and to his disappointment, "Some S.O.B. had covered it with a tarp!" (It turned out that co-owner Guthrie Bell had covered it, and pushed it under the remaining roof.) Seeing this later, Peter Adanack uncovered it again and pushed it back into the rain. Later that evening, Polsgrove opened the side covers to help the rain get into the wiring (Insurance money rebuilt their cursed GPL camera, so it graced the studio years longer.)
Director Peter Adanack had a new baby, and had called his wife while waiting for the next break of "Pioneer Playhouse." When the phone went dead as the tower fell, he looked to the studio glass and saw a bent tower section only twenty feet away in the studio. The control room was untouched, and even the glass into the studio was unbroken. Interestingly, in relating the story to me, neither Robertson nor Adanack ever mentioned the sound.
At least eleven people were in the building. Anita Wash, 38, and Larry Armstrong, 22, were treated at St. Joseph's Hospital for scalp cuts. Wash also sustained a broken arm. General Manager Earl Boyles was in his office about twenty feet away from the receptionist's desk (in what was later a Conference Room), and said the noise was "tremendous." Bea van Horn, a writer, described "a loud groaning and crackling" followed by Mrs. Wash's screams. There was reportedly a job applicant in the building at the time, who doubtless sought a different line of work elsewhere. There is another unconfirmed story that a woman was standing at the water fountain next to Grasley's desk when the tower fell and was unharmed.
Fayette County Police Patrolman Jack Cobb, who was driving along the IBM access road, glanced up at the TV tower and saw it swaying in the wind. It "weaved a little and started falling" then "it just folded up like a carpenter's rule." A section of the tower fell near his cruiser, blocking the road to the station. Cobb's radio report was the first official word on the collapse, then he went to aid the injured.
Blue Grass Rescue and Recovery was a volunteer group of SCUBA divers who helped with emergency services the day of the fall. In appreciation, WLEX later presented them with a high pressure compressor for their tanks.
Wayne Bell was returning from lunch in his 1954 Buick Roadmaster and stopped at the Imperial service station at Loudon and Broadway. As the attendant filled the tank he said "Look, Wayne!" and pointed at the tower. Wayne looked up to see it fall.
City police quickly arrived but watched from the road. They would not enter the property since this was County jurisdiction (before the merged Metro government). Within two hours, looters discovered the damaged facility and carried away several pieces of equipment. Two kids removed and stole the motor from the receptionist's typewriter; a repairman later said it would have taken him half a day to remove that motor. In a spirit of cooperation, IBM sent guards to help the Fayette County Police patrol the premises, and a National Guard floodlight unit was set up for the night.
Basing on Patrolman Cobb's report, the state claimed that the TV tower fell first, and that its guy wires took down the self-supported tower. As the state and its insurance ultimately paid for most of the rebuilding of WLEX-TV, Cobb's eyewitness report had not been taken as accurate by the court. For some reason the state also tried to avoid establishing the time of the crash, so Polsgrove brought a stopped clock to court. Polsgrove's eyewitness account of the collapse, that the shorter tower fell first, was accepted partially because the TV tower's steel was on top of the self-supported tower. My interpretation of Cobb's report is that the sound of the shorter tower striking the ground caused him to look up to the tall tower, which with the loss of two guy wires would have moved as he described. A guyed tower will typically fall in a radius of 20% of its height, almost never straight over.
At about 50 feet up the self-supported tower, the steel had given way and bent northward, parallel to the building and driveway, yielding to the wind. The TV tower fell across the southwest corner of the building, past what was the PCB control room, then bent back toward the lobby, over the front part of the studio, across the outside wall at what was later Creative Services, toward the IBM road, bending again to run parallel to that road, then across the WLEX driveway, blocking any exit from the parking lot until a section was removed with a cutting torch. The 51-foot TV antenna was hardly bent.
General Manager Earl Boyles estimated the damage at $300,000 to $400,000. Meetings of the station management were held at Robertson's house and the decision was made within 18 hours of the collapse to rebuild. As profitability had never been approached (the first profit would be Fiscal Year 1960-1961) this was not an obvious decision, but the new tower and antenna were ordered immediately. Within a week, the first structural steel was delivered, and a temporary antenna went on the 600-foot tower February 24, 1959; WLEX-TV went back on the air at extremely low power at 5:45pm, one kilowatt into a 2” diameter dipole, only a foot long. (The notification to the FCC from our Washington attorneys said the outage had been because of a hurricane.) With the month's outage and the low power, several WLEX employees were laid off (the remainder were kept busy building new sets for the studio), and many advertisers abandoned the station.
The new RCA antenna, with a larger, six-inch transmission line, went on the air April 20, 1959. This antenna, still in use, was the first "pylon" antenna ever built (of which many were sold in following years), and several RCA engineers came to Lexington to see it work. The licensed Effective Radiated Power was 229,000 watts, but after engineering adjustments, the FCC allowed an increase to 300,000 watts on June 5, 1959. The total height was and remains 670 feet.
The original tower had tubular legs approximately 4" in diameter, a perfectly acceptable construction still used today, but its replacement, our current tower, has solid steel legs 3" in diameter. The new guy wires are prestressed to hold adjustment; there were to be no chances of a repeated disaster. The old tower's guy wires went to three anchor points, where the new wires go to six. This tower was built by Dresser Ideco, and cost $27,600 in 1959. The antenna cost $34,724.70, the transmission line $11,948, and erection totaled $12,000. (During construction, a bolt was dropped that went through the roof of director Ron Boyles's car as he was returning from lunch.) When the building was rebuilt, the studio was enlarged and newly equipped, the office area was restyled, and the building was redecorated inside and outside.
Life Goes On
Wayne Bell, whose daughter Marcia was the 1978 Miss Kentucky, had joined WLEX-TV in 1958. Along with selling spots, Wayne was sports director, weatherman, and engineer, shutting off the transmitter at 1:00am. Once, when he received a call from the morning announcer asking him to fill in the next day, he wasn't anxious to do it but reluctantly agreed as a favor. Although he never saw the man again, Wayne did get a call from him in Mexico, where he had gone after abandoning his wife and daughter.
As host of the Adolph Rupp Show for eight years, Wayne set up a signal for the talkative coach; a kick on his leg would signal the next position. Before leaving in 1966 to go to KET Engineering, Wayne had worked news with Bob Dunn, Mark Halleck, Todd Hunter, and Peter Stoner. Wayne returned part time in the early seventies, required by Harry Barfield to wear his old reddish brown toupee despite his gray hair.
Like a slice in time, a set of exhibits for the FCC pertaining to a construction permit by WHAS gives many specifics for the WLEX-TV of November, 1964. The ownership of WLEX-TV was:
J. D. Gay, President and Director, 36.77%
H. Guthrie Bell, Secretary-Treasurer and Director, 32.79%
Earl L. Boyles, Executive V.P., Director, and General
William Gess, V.P. and Director, 4.92%
Thomas Satterwhite, Director, 3.06%
John G. Atchison, Assistant Secretary and Director, .03%
Gay-Bell Corporation, 8.59%
Julian and Margaret Rogers, .92%
Charles and Betsy Smith, 1.53%
Keath and Mildred Summerhayes, .27% each.
The staff consisted of:
Vice President and General Manager, Earl L. Boyles
Station Manager, Harry Clark Barfield
Program Department: Director Robert Jones, also Kenneth
Andrews, Ron Boyles, Dave Fleischer, Kent Gaitskill,
Howard Hoctor, Wayne Bell, Allen Everhart, Peter
Stoner, Jane Southwood; part-time: Joseph Burgess,
Michael Frogge, Wally Pagan, James Reed, John Ryan,
Ed Vincent, Gay Miller, Hayden Timmons, Bea (van Horn)
Rose, Jane White DeBoor.
Sales Department: Manager James M. Pennock, also Lou
Chiles, Ed Davis, Roy Maner.
Technical Department: Director James W. Robertson, also
Gilbert Goens, Lewis Gordon, Reid Hucaby, Thomas
Sullivan; part-time: Bob Ball, Bob Boyle, Jim
Office Department: Manager Anita Wash, also Elizabeth
Williams, Helen McQuinn.
(In 1996, primary ownership was as follows: Bank One as trustee for Monnie Gay Long, Elizabeth Gay Van Nagell, and Julie Gay Lisle, 50.27%; Jean Bell, 16.26%; others less than 10% each.)
In 1965 Roy White (who had bought WLEX Radio) formed an equal partnership with Reeves Broadcasting Corporation and filed an application for channel 62. Garvice Kincaid, a well-known Lexington financier and owner of WVLK radio since 1952, fought White for the channel. In 1967, Kincaid had given up the fight for channel 62 and bought WKYT, soon getting the CBS affiliation back and moving to the new facility on Winchester Road. The building alone cost five million dollars, plus several million for equipment. White's WBLG-TV went on the air June 2, 1968 on Channel 62 from Bryant Road (now Man O War), with the ABC affiliation. Low power, a poor antenna, and the high channel allocation limited their viewing audience until their receiving the "drop-in" (not in the FCC allocation plan) channel 36 in 1980.
In March 1966, WLEX introduced local color news film when "Rupp's Runts" returned from losing in the NCAA finals. Billy Thompson was hired as News Director that summer.
Billy had countless contacts from his nearly 20 years at the Lexington Herald. He presided over the last several years of the Rupp show (through the year after Rupp's retirement from coaching in 1972), and the two became good friends. At this time, WLEX News had sound-on-film cameras, two photographers, and a newsman. Billy's on-air style was very down-home Kentucky, but local viewers loved it. In the early seventies each newscast opened with an audio cart intro by WLEX President Harry Barfield, and Billy's first on-camera words were always "Thank you, Harry." Billy lost to cancer May 3, 1977, his funeral in Georgetown attended by Adolph Rupp and former Governor Happy Chandler.
About 1967, under the Gay-Bell Corporation, Guthrie Bell bought a twin-engine jet airplane for corporate use, and put two pilots on the payroll. Near the time of his death two years later, the plane was sold to Royal Crown Bottlers. Soon thereafter both pilots were killed when the plane crashed. Royal Crown was majority owned by Corrine (Mrs. Douglas) Gay and Art Linkletter, who often came to Lexington to visit the Gays.
In April 1968, Sue Wylie (then Sue Hackett) became Lexington's first female newscaster with the beginning of "Noon Today." She started "Your Government" in 1974, which over the years included such notable figures as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush, plus all sitting governors except Wallace Wilkinson and Martha Layne Collins. In August 1968, WLEX-TV became the first station in Lexington to present a full hour early evening newscast.
Tom Hammond started at WLEX in December 1969, and did play-by-play on the last UK basketball games WLEX aired until WKYT bought the rights in 1970. For his "ordinary" days, Tom had to shoot his film then return to the station in time to process the film, write the script, put magnetic ballgame scores on a metal drum for air, and prepare the weather for the 11pm newscast. Tom has become one of the most successful broadcasters from the Lexington market, now covering his specialty (horses), basketball, skating, and anything else NBC finds for him. In 1997, TIME magazine printed Tom's picture as a winner in their "Winners and Losers" as a possible replacement for the fired Marv Albert at NBC.
WLEX-FM at 98.1 MHz went on the air in July 1969, a top-40 format run by automation in the WLEX-TV Tape Room. These were the early days of stereo, and the very-publicized opening ceremonies were to be broadcast in stereo from the Campbell House. The phone lines had been tested and all was ready. When the program began, one channel was gone, and so it continued, in mono. Later it was found that someone at GTE saw that WLEX had two audio lines instead of the usual one, so he removed what was to him an unused line obviously installed in error.
Constant problems with the automation helped put the station on the block. Village Communications of North Carolina came to Lexington in 1974 and bought WLEX-FM for approximately $250,000, enough to buy one spotplayer (the Ampex ACR-25). Village also bought WBLG-AM, 1300 KHz, which had years before been WLEX Radio. Village moved their new 98.1 FM, as WKQQ, to the building on New Circle Road near Winchester Road, originally occupied by channel 27.
WCOV in Montgomery, Alabama, was owned by Gay-Bell from November 1964, until December 2, 1985. This was a CBS affiliate on channel 20. In the early 80's, a channel 12 CBS affiliate in nearby Selma built a tall tower, putting a strong signal into Montgomery. A protracted court challenge by WCOV failed to keep CBS from dropping their affiliation, greatly reducing the sale price of the station and its license.
The first WLEX "live truck" was a 1946 Flexibus. This was a full-sized city bus that had been acquired from WCOV for $14,595, and custodian Carl Ross had the task of bringing it to Lexington. The drive took several days because the engine had to be replaced, and later the clutch. The rear-mounted engine sometimes ran well, but as the clutch was something near a city block behind the clutch pedal, linkage was a problem. It could be adjusted either to release fully, or to engage. About the time the bus quit at the Russell Cave railroad crossing we started reserving a big wrecker on remote days. For several remotes, usually Transy basketball, the bus was never started, and OK Wrecker Service took us and brought us home. I had suggested we could save money by getting a "Historic Vehicle" plate, but that was not well received. As a matter of principle, Harry Barfield wouldn't give it away, and finally we found a buyer actually willing to give us a couple of hundred dollars for it.
WTVQ had converted to ENG (Electronic News Gathering) in the mid seventies, but this was with AKAI 1/2" tape, about the quality of poor VHS. This set back ENG in the Lexington market for years. In 1978, only KET had used any 3/4" tape when WLEX decided to go ENG. To retain our competitive edge, only a handful of people knew when we ordered three RCA TK-76 cameras, two SONY BVU-200 edit recorders, one BVU-100 and three BVU-50 field recorders. Because the cameras were sixty- to ninety-day delivery and the SONY equipment (except the BVU-50's) was off-the-shelf, the tape equipment was to be shipped later. All equipment was to be delivered to the Gay-Bell machine shop then in Paris. One day about a month after the order, I noticed some boxes under the time clock. Much to my shock, they were the cameras! I found engineers Tony Michalski and Jim Brady (later WTVQ Director of Engineering) in the tape room, and told them to come immediately. We rushed the boxes to the transmitter room, and only then were they allowed to see the contents. SONY was contacted to rush the tape equipment, and all was tested in the Quonset hut until the day the news staff was gathered and the equipment was brought into the newsroom.
Doug Gay would often come in straight from the farm (Brookview, on the Fayette-Clark line), wearing overalls. One day he was standing in my office doorway talking with me about cars or inventions (he held 26 patents on farm equipment). Cindy Martin was a font operator who had worked at WLEX only a few months, and there was some problem she absolutely HAD to tell me about. She almost pushed him aside stepping in front to talk to me. I later asked her if she knew who it was, and of course she didn't. With a terrified look on her face, Cindy asked if she still had a job. Had she known Mr. Gay, she would have had no such concern. He rarely asked anything of us, and when in the building, he would come back to visit his friends at WLEX-TV, and we all fit that category.
John Harvey was the Chief Photographer in the film days. He had been a director when the station went on the air. John retired in the middle 1980's, then died a few years later. John had once gone with Mr. Gay to the farm (Brookview) to take some pictures. As they walked back toward the car, he heard Mr. Gay order "Harvey, Get In The Car!!" John did. Mr. Gay was a truly gentle and considerate man and this seemed totally out of character, but he was the boss. It was some time later that John learned that Mr. Gay's dog was named “Harvey” and he, too, had done as told.
In the days before video tape, when most commercials were live, Wayne Bell did a Dixie Bell Dairy spot several times a day, during which he would pour and drink a glass of milk. One time the dairy had not brought new milk for several days, and when he poured the milk, a white glob fell into the glass. Wayne dutifully drank it on air and said how good it tasted.
Jim Stephens had read the news several years when I started in 1971 (there were no "anchors," and his title was "announcer"). After the Richmond Hill switcher was installed in 1972, we chroma keyed the talent over the news film, and one night Jim was reading a story about a car wreck. We were amazed that the photog had actually shot film of the wreck happening, cars flying through the air, great stuff! Then the tire on the film broke through a Shell sign... it was a commercial for performance tires. The director had rolled the projector with the commercial work reel instead of the news film. Jim didn't regain his cool for several long minutes.
In the middle eighties, a Madison county landowner was trying to get zoning to keep wild animals for movies filmed in the state. He brought in a tiger claimed to be 575 pounds and nobody questioned that figure. Sue Wylie began the interview in the studio, when the tiger saw another tiger (himself) in the studio monitors. He became agitated, then stood up and put his paws on the trainer's shoulders, knocking off his glasses. (The trainer's, that is. The tiger could see quite well, thank you.) Sue fled to the control room, leaving cameraman Lynn Todd the only other meal, er, person, in the studio (I was safely at the prop room door). The trainer shoved the chain to Lynn, who suddenly wondered why he was in this business. Once the lights were down and the switcher was on black, the tiger calmed down, and was led out past me. The tiger's expression toward me was something like I would have shown to a prime rib. Thus began the policy of not allowing wild animals in the building.
For years the only men's restroom was the one near the lobby, which had long shown its age. Ronald Reagan came to WLEX when he was running for president, and someone was concerning about a future president's having to use it. For the day the signs were switched between the men's and women's rooms to give him the nicer accommodation. Reagan had no comment about the sanitary napkin dispenser.
In 1979 a radio shop owner who rented space on our tower came to me with a problem. His young climber was 210 feet up the tower and felt sick and dizzy. Although this didn't seem like much of an emergency, the only thing to do was to call the Fire Department and explain the situation. In a few minutes, firetrucks converged on the station, including a ladder truck. It was soon obvious that the ladder truck's three-story capability (about 35 feet) was of little use. When the three firemen went up with a small oxygen bottle, they were watched by the crowd of reporters from various radio stations, WKYT, and WTVQ (it was a slow news day, and everyone had scanners). Unfortunately, all four of the WLEX cameras were elsewhere. News Director David Cromwell found an old silent 16 mm camera and saved the day. After the climber was safely returned to the ground (he had strep throat) and one of our reporters returned with a camera, the youngest fireman was picked for an interview by WLEX reporter Jane Goodin. He revealed that he had never before climbed higher than three stories.
There are no guns allowed at WLEX except for security and policemen. Gilbert Goens was the signon engineer for many years, and in the sixties this meant entering a dark and presumably empty building. It was just before his retirement that he told me a deep, dark secret. Gilbert would carry a .22 pistol into the building until he could get the lights on, then return it to his car. One day, a bathroom stop was urgent, so he made the side trip to the men's room, which then had swinging "saloon" doors. As he entered, the door caught his arm, throwing the gun from his hand. Gilbert practically had his head in the commode when the gun fired. After counting his extremities, he found a two-inch crater in the block wall, an inch above the floor across from the sink. All day he waited for someone to see the hole, which looked like two feet high to him, expecting to be fired. No one noticed, and months later people didn't understand his elation when a baseboard was installed, covering the hole.
Phil Miller (now public relations with the National Guard) had been a WLEX reporter only about six months when he covered a very disturbing and bloody accident. About ten o'clock that evening after the package was edited for air, on a whim he dialed the paging number and held a toy ray gun to the receiver. Between the electronic sounds he added "abandon ship!!" In a few minutes he looked up to see Harry Barfield. Harry asked anchor Mike MacNamara what that sound was. "I was in the wire room." He asked photog Charles Figgs. "I was busy editing tapes." Then he asked Phil, who told the truth. As Phil soon learned, Harry had been in the Navy (although never on a ship), and a false distress signal was something he would not tolerate!!! A little later, Phil decided it best to go and apologize. Since he didn't know where Harry's office was, he stopped at the control room and asked audio operator Gibbs McGuire, who kindly offered to show him. When the pair came to Harry's closed door, Phil was of course very nervous. Gibbs slugged the door with his fist and ran! Leaving the office after getting another chewing, Phil remembers passing John Duvall, who was looking down and shaking his head. Yes, Phil did continue to work at WLEX.
Bob Hale was a WLEX anchor in the late eighties. In the middle sixties, he had been the overnight DJ on WLS Radio in Chicago, but resigned from WLS along with Dick Bionde, who was nationally known at the time, in a protest over too many commercials. Earlier in his career, he had worked at a small radio station in Iowa and like many DJs made extra money emceeing rock concerts. February 2, 1959, Bob emceed a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, at the Surf Ballroom. A ticket cost $1.25 to see Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. After the concert, the musicians started taking notes on when they could come to visit him during their summer tour. There were not enough seats on the plane, so Richie Valens and their manager were going to flip a coin to decide who would fly. Neither had a coin, so Bob provided the coin that in a way contributed to the death of Valens early February 3, "The Day the Music Died". Don McLean's memorable song about that plane crash was titled “American Pie” for the name of the plane. Bob still makes paid appearances at the anniversary gatherings celebrating that last concert.
On July 19, 1989, Sales VP Joe Oliver and Local Sales Manager Paul Fast were returning from an NBC affiliates' meeting in Denver on United flight 232. The tail engine on the DC-10 exploded, disrupting all hydraulic controls. When the plane disintegrated on landing in Sioux City, Iowa, 112 people died and 186 survived, including Joe and Paul. In the ensuing publicity, Paul was interviewed by Deborah Norvell on the Today show, and ABC aired a TV-movie about the crash.
We've had other people with unusual pasts, including a male reporter who had acted in pornographic movies in San Francisco (he left WLEX to work for WJMM, a religious radio station). Also, I will note for the record but without further elaboration that 1978 a director's body was found in trees beneath the Clay's Ferry Bridge after he had evidently jumped two weeks earlier. In 1984 another long-time director, presumably schizophrenic, was shot and killed by Missouri police after killing his father and wounding his mother.
First station in Lexington (January 19, 1955)
First tower over 600 feet in Kentucky (December, 1954)
First Kentucky commercial station to regularly schedule an
educational program (Zemanski and White Physics, 1959; Anthropology I,
First regularly scheduled church service telecast in Kentucky,
First television broadcast of University of Kentucky basketball
(DePaul, from Chicago, February 18, 1956. UK lost 81-79.)
First full-color in Kentucky and first full-color UHF in
the United States and likely the world (November 15, 1962)
First Lexington female newscaster, Sue Hackett/Wylie (April, 1968)
First computer-generated logs in Kentucky (July, 1968)
First Lexington hour newscast (August, 1968)
First broadcast-quality Electronic News Gathering at a Lexington
commercial station (October, 1978)
First Saturday morning newscast (July 4, 1992)
First hour-long morning newscast (July 6, 1992)
First Lexington TV station web site (March, 1995)
In 1968, WLEX upgraded to a new 60 KW RCA transmitter. An addition to the southwest corner of the building was constructed, now used for leasing for tower space. According to Henry Kenion (and borne out by the design of the room), the intention was to build a tall tower at Minorsville in Scott County, then move the transmitter to that site overnight, to be on the air the next day. The transmitter room would then become a studio.
The last newsroom in the old building was planned in 1975 as a single-story addition, but the contractor suggested that a basement could be put beneath it for little more money. A concrete dam around the building would protect against the occasional flooding by the creek. We pondered this possibility for weeks, as each of us visualized storage space we always needed. The specter of water filling the basement killed the idea, but by then we had decided we couldn't do without the additional space. From this beginning grew the second floor. In case we needed a future freight elevator, the shaft was put into the plans, but when the concrete was poured, there was no recess left in the floor. Our bill was reduced by a negotiated amount in consideration of the cost of removing that concrete should we ever install the elevator.
In 1987-1988, plans were made for a new studio and technical facility across the driveway from the building, where the new building stands now. Although a cooperative effort of many people resulted in a very workable plan including control rooms, offices, and two studios, the project died from its million-dollar cost and the threat of recession.
The current WLEX-TV building was built 150 feet east of the old one, after demolition of the Quonset hut and the cottage on station property. The primary contractor was Gray Construction, Amteck did electrical, and Frantz installed the HVAC. The HVAC system includes 36 heat pumps on a hydronic loop. In seasons when some areas require cooling and others heating, the heat is effectively moved as needed.
Original building, 1954.
Prop Room (30' x 30'), 1956.
Offices on the bookkeeping hall, 1958.
Reconstruction after tower fall, 1959.
Prop room addition (50' x 20') w/darkroom, 1962.
First Executive Office Wing to the fire door, 1965
Transmitter Room, 1968
Second Office Wing, Data Processing, Newsroom, 1975
Master Control, 1990
New building, 8/27/98—6/14/99
NOTABLE EQUIPMENT PURCHASES
1 KW Transmitter, Continental, 1955 ($36,500)
Effective Radiated Power: 17,500 watts.
12 KW Transmitter, RCA TTU-12 (an amplifier, driven by the 1 Kw
transmitter above), 1957 ($96,242)
Effective Radiated Power: 170,000 watts.
ERP with RCA Pylon antenna (1959): 300,000 watts.
1 KW Transmitter, RCA TTU-1B (replacing the Continental),
(In December, 1965, aural power was reduced from 146 KW to
60 KW Transmitter, RCA TTU-60A1, October, 1968 ($347,925)
Effective Radiated Power: 1,000 KW. (A later license shows power as 1,100 KW.)
Harris Exciter (transmitter), 2/85 ($62,809)
ITS Exciter (transmitter), 1/85 ($21,350)
Stereo: with the Harris and ITS Exciters, 1985
60 KW Transmitter, Harris HD3080 P2, April 1, 2000 ($660,000)
Intercity Microwave, RCA, 1959 ($105,000)
Intercity Microwave (2nd channel), RCA, 1965 ($25,483)
Intercity Microwave, Lenkurt, 1972
Portable Microwave, Raytheon, 1965 ($15,059)
NBC Satellite system (Ku Band), 1985 ($500,000, NBC)
"Portable" Uplink (PUP), 1987 (NBC)
C-Band Satellite System, 2/83 ($23,125)
CNN Satellite System, 12/92 ($3917.52)
Spotplayer, Ampex ACR-25, December, 1975 ($205,000)
Spotplayer, Ampex ACR-25 (used), November, 1985 ($32,500)
Spotplayer, Sony Betacart, 1989 ($165,000)
Spotplayers, 2 – Grass Valley PDR-100, October 1998 ($30,062 each)
Spotplayer, Grass Valley XP1044, 6/00 ($138,783)
Studio Camera (Monochrome), GPL, 1955 ($21,840)
Studio Camera, RCA TK-41B, 1962 ($38,482)
Studio Camera, RCA TK-41C, 1965 ($55,890)
Studio Cameras, (2) IVC 500, 2/1972 ($34,760 each)
Studio Cameras, (2) Harris TC-50A, 7/1976 ($45,000 each)
Studio Cameras, (3) Ikegami HK-322, 1986 ($301,461 total)
Studio Cameras, (3) SONY BVP-500, 3/98 ($288,000 total)
ENG Cameras, (3) TK-76 Cameras, 10/78 ($35,000 each)
ENG Cameras, (5) Sony Beta, 1986 ($8000 -- $25,000 each)
ENG Camcorders, AJ-D610WA, 6/02 ($18,552 each w/lens, viewfinder)
Video Tape, RCA TRT-2, 7/1963 ($56,926.01)
Video Tape, RCA TR-4, 1965 ($66,160)
Video Tape, (2) TR-70, 1968 ($101,350 each)
Video Tape, (4) VPR-6, 1986 ($251,418 total)
Video Tape, VPR-5, 1986 ($41,163)
Video Tape, DVCPro, (26) AJ-D455 ($6,179 each)
Video Tape, DVCPro, (7) AJ-D850A ($12,924 each)
Video Tape, DVCPro, (3) AJ-LT85 Laptop ($23,760 each)
Video Tape, DVCPro, (4) AJ-D230H ($3230 each)
Film Processor, RCA, 1965 ($9,785)
Film Chain (Monochrome), GPL, 1955 ($5900)
Film Chain (Monochrome), RCA TK-21 ($750 used)
Film Chain, RCA TK-26, 1962 ($39,332)
Film Chain Multiplexer and Pedestal, RCA, 1962, ($5318)
Film Chain, RCA TK-27, 2/68 ($92,255)
Film Chain, RCA TK-29, 1987 ($51,500)
Switcher, RCA VS-121A, 1965 ($1,650)
Switcher, Dynair, 1/66 ($1,665)
Switcher, Richmond Hill (production and master), 1972 ($63,645)
Switcher, Grass Valley 300 - 3A, 1986 ($240,242)
Switcher, Grass Valley 300 - 2A, 8/94 ($18,000 used)
Switcher, Grass Valley 400 – 3, 4/97 ($244,020)
Switcher, Grass Valley 2200, 4/97 ($90,300)
Master Control Switcher, Grass Valley Master 21, 1990 ($40,000)
Master Control Switcher, Grass Valley M 2100, 1999 ($50,750)
Routing Switcher, Grass Valley Horizon, 1986 ($140,981)
Routing Switcher, Grass Valley 7000, 4/97 ($198,235)
Editor, Grass Valley 41, 1986 ($48,657)
Editor, AMPEX ACE, 1987 ($16,512)
Editor, Grass Valley 141, 1993 ($12,000 + the GVG 41)
Editor, Grass Valley 241, 8/94 ($9,000)
Still Store, Harris Iris C, 1986 ($120,866)
DVE, Abekas, 1986 ($29,907)
DVE, Grass Valley Kaleidoscope DPM-1, 1987 ($166,499)
DVE (2), Grass Valley DPM-700, 8/94 ($40,000 each)
DVE, Grass Valley DPM-700 Component Digital, 4/97 ($38,584)
DVE, Grass Valley Krystal, 4/97 ($128,000)
Character generator, Chiron III, 1975 (later "Chyron", $29,214)
Character generator, Vidifont Graphics V, 1984 ($120,000)
Character generator, GVG Halo, 1995 (3 at about $70,000)
Audio Console, Robins, 1979 ($4400)
Audio Console, Wheatstone, 1996 ($55,000)
Weather Radar Data Receiver, TSC, 1981 ($37,725)
Weather Graphics, Kavouras Triton, 1986 ($75,600)
Weather Graphics, Kavouras Triton upgrade, 1992 ($50,000)
Weather Graphics, Kavouras/Collins I-7 w/Doppler, 1992 ($125,000)
Weather Graphics, Weather Central, 1999
Doppler Computers and Radar, Baron Systems, April 2003 ($600,000)
NewStar News computer, 1999 ($79,872)
Intercom system, Clear-Com, 1986, ($67,406)
Remote Unit, used 1946 Flexibus, 8/67 ($14,595)
Live Truck (Ford), 1979
Lightweight Live Truck (Unit 5), 1985
Live Truck (Ford, Wolf Coach), 1991 ($120,000)
Live Truck (GMC, Wolf Coach), 8/94 ($75,000)
Satellite Truck (Harris), 2/96 ($250,000)
Remote Truck (Winnebago), 4/98 ($50,000) ($250,000 with equipment)
Edit 5, 1/84
Frankfort ENG repeater site, 1980
Betacam equipment first group, 1989
Betacam equipment second group, 1990
DVCPro equipment, 6/02 ($610,000 total)
New building, much new equipment, June 14, 1999
1. Various WLEX employees with whom I've talked since 1971.
2. A typewritten history of Lexington television by Kevin Fitzmaurice (D.G.'s son), forwarded to WLEX by Ralph Gabbard of WKYT.
3. WLEX archives.
4. The Lexington Herald (January 1959).
5. Stu Talbert of KET.
6. Al McGilvray, (WLEX in Lexington, Mass).
**Reprinted here with permission from Dave Powell, CE, Retired.