Early years saw homegrown programming and larger-than-life personalities.
By Thomas Macias
Texas helped lead the nation in the early development of radio and television, an author writing a history of broadcast media in the state said to the Society of Professional Journalists Region 8 conference March 3 in Loftin Student Center.
John Williams, author of “The Untold Story of the Lower Colorado River Authority,” is researching radio and TV for a book to be published in 2022.
This year will coincide with the centennial anniversary of many Texas radio stations, Williams said.
Shortly after the introduction of radio as a medium in the 1920s, Williams said early Texas radio stations such as WOAI in San Antonio became trendsetters and obtained a global audience.
Because of the range characteristics of AM radio and its 50,000-watt transmitter, WOAI could reach into South America and New Zealand and received fan mail from as far as Sicily.
Its “monster signal and great coverage” notwithstanding, Williams said, “There had to be something in the way of (quality) programming to attract audiences.
“WOAI was one of the first in Texas, if not the United States to organize its own news department. WOAI had a great reputation for news,” Williams said.
Williams said in this era news broadcasting was not highly regarded fare for typical radio stations as they devoted only 15 minutes to such programming.
In addition to news, William said great radio attractions were local shows featuring country or “hillbilly” music as it was called then.
Williams spoke of the origins of television in Texas and described an era when typical network programming consisted of three to four hours of daily content.
Despite their affiliation to national networks, Williams said as broadcasting hours expanded, Texas media had to develop their own homegrown content to fill broadcasting voids.
Williams said television networks found viewer and advertising success by focusing on children’s programming.
Television stations hired actors, dressed them in costumes and designed shows around the broadcasting of cartoons, Williams said.
Many of these acts are now considered iconic by older viewers who recall characters such as “Cadet Don,” “Cowboy Gus,” “Mr. Peppermint,” and “Kitirick,” (the pronunciation of the station call letters KTRK), who was the actress Bunny Orsak dressed as a cat.
Williams said professional wrestling was also a big draw.
On Wednesday nights as mid-week churchgoers were exiting services, television vendors tuned every TV in their showrooms to wrestling broadcasts and people brought chairs to view the broadcast from outside stores, he said.
Viewing wrestling became a “big social event,” Williams said.
In an interview, Williams said he is writing a book called “Keep Tuned Right Here.”
Williams said the title refers to a radio station slogan that sounded like a great fit.
“Basically, we’re going to take it from the very first days of when radio was a novelty and people were mesmerized by the thought that you could put these sparks in the air and they would cover ground, and somebody on the other end would pick them up and was listening to them,” Williams said.
Williams said one of the very early Texas radio broadcasts involved University of Texas physics students broadcasting in Morse code.
The event was a football game between the University of Texas and Texas A&M University.
“People were excited because they didn’t have to wait until the next day to read about the results,” Williams said.
Williams said early Texas radio and television personalities formed connections with their viewers and listeners.
Early Texas radio disc jockeys came to know their audiences so well before analytics identified user information on the internet by having a more human touch, he said.
“They had a phone in the studio. People would call in with requests,” Williams said.
In the short time available per caller, typically 20-30 seconds, radio DJs actively listened, engaged in conversation and obtained the listener’s music and other interests, Williams said.
DJs such as Ricci Ware hosted pep rallies and served as the master of ceremony for local music shows, sock hops and dances.
In between performing acts, DJs met with fans and interacted with them to learn their preferences.
“The very good ones (DJs) knew how to develop a relationship,” Williams said, “They were great conversationalists.”
When queried on how a younger audience could relate to a retelling of events almost a century in the past, Williams said the book can serve to connect Texans to their cultural history and identity.
Williams said the early Texas broadcasters could instruct on the value of integrity in media.
Early Texas broadcasters came from an era when there was no market for “fake news.”
“You have to be very careful and to perhaps not just to accept at face value everything that is being fed to you,” he said.
“Broadcasting channels such as WOAI were highly regarded as truth tellers. It was basically just the facts. There was very little, if any, of what passes for news these days, especially on the cable news stations that they put on to fill the time.
“It was important to make sure you had a product that people trusted. Otherwise you lost your audience,” Williams said.