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The real story behind WTVR, Virginia's first television station

Posted at 12:11 PM, Apr 21, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. — A comprehensive telling of Richmond television station WTVR’s history requires going back even further than its April 1948 sign-on.

The station's history begins with the story of one man, Wilbur M. Havens, and his history-making encounter with the law of unintended consequences.

In 1927, Havens and his business partner, a man named Martin, operated a small automotive battery, ignition, and parts store near Laurel and Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia.

An empty second floor stuck in the craw of the efficiency-minded Havens, and he became determined to find something useful to do with the unfilled space.

This is when timing and luck began to show themselves as a couple of Havens’ hidden assets.

Radio, as a commercial entity, was just beginning to flex its muscles in the United States, and Wilbur was of a mind to join in the romance of broadcasting.

Much of the equipment was scratch-built, a theme we will see repeated in a couple of decades, and with an investment of $500,

Havens and Martin were granted a license to begin broadcasting as a ten-watt radio station.

Law of Unintended Consequences

Here’s where that law of unintended consequences comes in.

The partners were so convinced their future lay in car parts, they chose WMBG as their call letters.

WMBG stood for Motors, Batteries, and Generators.

Almost from day one, things began to take off for WMBG.

Power was upped on a frequent basis as radio became mass media, and WMBG rode the wave.

Eventually, they secured franchise rights to the NBC radio network, and Havens and Martin became Richmond media moguls.

Bye, Bye Automobiles

By 1939, Havens realized that the tail had been wagging the dog for some time and decided to abandon the automotive business along with the Laurel and Broad location.

A new site was chosen on the site of an old bus garage at 3301 W. Broad, and WMBG studios had a new home and the total focus of its owners.

A new transmitter and tower were also built on Staples Mill Road near the intersection with West Broad Street near the Henrico County-City of Richmond line.

Staples Mill and Broad 1965.jpg
The intersection of Staples Mill Road and West Broad Street circa 1965

In 1942, Havens bought Martin out and became the sole owner of the operation.

He decided to keep the company name as “Havens and Martin,” but Wilbur was the man in the corner office.

No sooner had he taken complete control than he began focusing on what only an enlightened few in the country thought might be the next big thing, television.

The Birth of TV in Richmond

Television was also on the radar of other broadcasting outlets in Richmond, notably WRVA owned by the Larus Tobacco company and WRNL owned by Richmond Newspapers (W-Richmond News Leader), but neither competitor had the spark of passion or vision Havens had for the new medium.

They seemed in no hurry to jump in the pool.

For Havens, things seemed to come to a head in 1944.

First, he took out a series of full-page ads in the local newspapers telling readers that once the war was won, he planned to introduce a wonderful new entertainment medium to Richmond called television.

The ads featured artists' concepts of what he envisioned the broadcast tower would look like, and true to the brave new world emotion of the ads, the tower structure resembled nothing less than a rocket ship.

Havens took steps to make good his promise.

On March 11, 1944, Havens & Martin Inc. filed an application with the FCC for a television station in Richmond.

Then the real work began.

With the world at war, very few electronic parts were available for nonmilitary use. The military had been using television for some time but the equipment they used was in no way up to FCC broadcast standards. Still, even used military television equipment was better for Havens than slowing down his determination to be the man to bring TV to town.

August 6, 1945, was the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Also on the day, Havens was in Aberdeen, Maryland at an auction of used US Army television parts.

He bought a truckload of synch generators, projectors, and switchers and brought them to his workshop in Richmond where his engineers began the laborious process of rebuilding each part and bringing it up to broadcast standards.

This was not an overnight process. It literally took years to accomplish.

In the midst of all this television focus, Havens had another trick up his sleeve that would have long-term historic impact on broadcasting in Central Virginia that continues to impact us to this day.

In February 1947, he started Virginia’s first FM radio station, WCOD 96.3.

It was, at the time, one of the few FM stations in the U.S.

By the end of 1947, Havens was beginning to see a light at the end of the television tunnel.

Havens then ordered a little bit of research which ultimately hinted that the light just might be an oncoming train.

For Every Problem, There is a Solution

After investing his hard-earned fortune in this leap of faith, he got the devastating news that as of January 1, 1948, there were no television sets under personal ownership in Richmond.

This kind of setback might have destroyed someone else, but Havens saw this as just one more impossible task to overcome.

He quickly contacted all of the major television manufacturers and scheduled a series of meetings in the WTVR studios.

RCA, General Electric, Westinghouse, and a few others were able to display all of their products and Havens invited every store that sold radios in the Richmond area to attend and get the pitch.

It must have been a whale of a sales job, because, by the time WTVR signed on in April, over 1,000 television sets had been purchased and were in local homes. While that immediate crisis was averted, fate wasn’t through with WTVR.

What is a TV station without television shows?

Because of the years of affiliation with NBC radio, it was arranged for WTVR to be an NBC television affiliate as well. That is where Havens naturally assumed the bulk of his programming would originate.

In those days, before satellite signals, stations received their network programs transmitted via coaxial cable.

Imagine the silence at the end of the line when Havens received a call, only days before signing on, telling him that there just wasn’t enough cable to reach Richmond and wouldn’t be for several months.

What is a TV station without television shows?

As he had with the last crises, Havens got busy.

The call went out all across Central Virginia for people who wanted to be on TV (even though many didn’t know what TV was), and for more than three months, WTVR programming was local, local, local.

Crisis averted.

A thousand televisions were far less than desired for a station debut, so WTVR advertised far and wide that on April 22, 1948, it would begin broadcasting and the public was invited to visit the studios and watch the festivities. To accomplish this, dozens of television sets were brought into the station and lined the walls for the visitors to watch.

Things were set to begin at 7 p.m. and the Broad Street building had a full house of locals eager to see this great new thing.

Virginia Governor William Tuck was set to give the opening address, the televisions were all on and the signal was given to switch on the transmitter.

That’s when the lights went out, literally.

What the engineers hadn’t taken into consideration was that the TV sets of that era had a power supply nearly as big as a car battery, each one requiring a huge amount of power.

All of those sets, in addition to the power required of a television transmitter, were just too much for the building’s circuits to handle and fuses started popping. It took several minutes for station engineers to fix the circuit overloads, but fix it they did, and after a brief delay, WTVR was again ready to begin its inaugural broadcast.

Crisis averted.

Then the floor director signaled “Cue the Governor,” but nothing happened.

Again, “Cue the Governor” and again, silence.

It seems when the lights went out, someone lost the Governor of the Commonwealth.

In those days the building directly beside the studios was Tony’s Bar and Grill. Fortunately, some quick-thinking soul had the inspiration to take a look in the bar and, sure enough, there was the Chief Executive of Virginia holding court with his constituents.

Governor Tuck was hurried back next door (no record of who picked up the tab), and he gave the opening address.

Crisis averted.

Tuck spoke about “inalienable rights,” and finished by warning that television must “strive to see that the pure stream of public information will not be polluted.”

The Mayor had a few words, and the Pastor of Grove Avenue Baptist Church gave an invocation, and then the evening’s entertainment began.

Along with the governor, mayor, and pastor, the evening featured the Green Mountain Hillbillies, a play called "Sing for Sweetie," and a Minstrel show.

“Sportlight” featured Jack Lewis, the first TV sportscaster in the South and wound up with “Tele-News” which saw the first newscast of the man who became synonymous with television in Richmond, John Shand.

WTVR became the eighth licensed television station in the country.

Richmond as a one-station town

A guy who had been dodging as many bullets as Wilbur Havens deserved a little luck, and that’s when the lady decided to smile on WTVR.

Big time.

No sooner was the WTVR license approved than the FCC, flooded with station applications from all across the 48 states, took action.

They instituted an immediate hiatus on new station licenses in any market, like Richmond, that already had a station.

The hiatus was to be in effect until every market in the nation had a station if wanted. Only then could markets be granted additional television stations.

Richmond remained a one-station town until 1956.

With this great advantage came great responsibility. Havens was determined to be an innovator, in some cases developing programming that eventually became ubiquitous parts of the television landscape nationwide.

One of the most impactful of Havens’ innovations was in faith-based programming.

In 1951, Havens was approached by the President of NBC to air a live broadcast of a church from New York City, a first of its kind in the nation. He loved the idea of a church broadcast but was convinced he could do it better right here in Richmond.

Equipment in those days was too large to move around, so he needed to find some way to get the church in the studio.

This was before WTVR’s landmark tower was built and Havens considered constructing a miniature chapel on the empty lot and hiring a minister to come in weekly to air a sermon.

He quickly realized this idea was second tier, that if he was going to do this thing, he was going to do it right.

WMBG radio had been working with Grove Avenue Baptist Church, which was known for its outstanding 75-person choir, and Havens was determined to find a way to put them on television.

Time was running out.

Havens knew NBC was planning to initiate its New York broadcast in a few weeks and that a solution was needed at once for WTVR to beat them to it.

The crew at WTVR worked tirelessly to build a replica of the chapel at Grove, including the choir loft, and on January 10, 1952, Grove Avenue was asked to perform the following Sunday.

It involved no small amount of labor on the part of the church members to say nothing of the staff at WTVR who were required to assemble and disassemble the set before and after each service.

That Sunday in 1952 saw the first live church service in the U.S. broadcast and it was broadcast on WTVR.

The WTVR Tower - a Richmond landmark

For the first five years on air, WTVR made do with the original tower at Staples Mill and Broad Street.

At 642 feet above sea level, the structure was barely adequate to serve the station's purposes, especially considering the exclusivity in Central Virginia.

Havens wanted anyone in the viewing area to have as clear a picture as possible. It was plain to see a new tower was needed.

The tower was budgeted to cost $100,000.

Tower construction began in 1952 on that lot behind the station that didn’t become a chapel and by the time it was activated in 1953 was the tallest free-standing radio TV tower in the world.

Building the WTVR tower

At 1049 feet above sea level the WTVR tower was, in the words of the engineers, “a real flame thrower."

It served the people of Central Virginia through lightning, ice storms, and earthquakes until June 12, 2009.

That is the day when WTVR, along with the rest of the television stations in the U.S. converted to the digital format. WTVR switched to a new tower located in South Chesterfield.

Today the old tower serves as the receiving platform for our digital signal sent from Southside and hosts numerous receivers for other businesses needing such a high reach.

In the summer of 2022, firefighters and rescue specialists from all over North America spent a couple of weeks climbing up, down, and all around the tower polishing and perfecting their high-area rescue skills. So, in those ways. the old landmark continues to serve.

Television Boom

Havens needn’t have worried about the scarcity of televisions in Richmond in January 1948. By January 1949 there were 5,696 TV sets around the area. A year later, the number had increased to 18,549. At that point, there was no doubt about the wisdom of Havens’ original $500 investment. Today, with over a half-million homes in the viewing area and every home boasting multiple sets, the numbers would have stunned even the far-sighted Havens.

Another distinction WTVR shares with only a handful of stations across the country is the fact that it has served as the licensed network affiliate for all three major broadcast networks during its tenure in Central Virginia.

In 1948, NBC was the only network offering serious program service.

On September 3 1948, Havens & Martin signed the first NBC-connected affiliated contract in the country, making it the first station in the soon-to-be seven-station NBC television network.

The Peacock only had a few feathers.

Due to the fact that Richmond was then a one-station market, WTVR was allowed to air programming from CBS, ABC, and the Dumont networks, regardless of the fact that it was a licensed NBC affiliate.

It continued carrying programming from all networks until 1955.

That was the year WXEX (now WRIC) signed on from Petersburg (that was how they got past the one-station-in-the-market rule).

A year later WRVA (now WWBT) signed on and took the CBS affiliation.

WTVR served as the ABC affiliate until 1960.

That year CBS offered the affiliation to WTVR. That relationship with the Tiffany Network remains to this day.

In the early 2000s, WTVR was the first non-owned and operated CBS affiliate to brand itself with the CBS letters and CBS 6 was christened.

WTVR made improvements to its transmission equipment in July 1954 that allowed broadcasting in color.

Even with that, color television had a decade to go before it began gaining traction with consumers.

The problem wasn’t with the signal but with the televisions themselves. It wasn’t until the Sylvania company developed picture tubes featuring rare earth phosphors that people could buy televisions with acceptable performance.

Local, local, local

Since television stations were able to make more money selling advertising for local programming than they could selling network, locally-produced programs were a strong part of every station’s offering in the early days.

Children’s programming was especially important.

At WTVR, the first major kid’s host was Dal Burnette.

A part of the station’s production staff, when the time for his show came, cowboy boots and Western clothes were donned and he became “Cheyenne Dal,” owner of the “Half Circle D” ranch and syndicated cowboy shows and cartoons aired.

A generation of local Scouts got their first taste of live TV by appearing on his early evening “Trader Bill” show. Scout troops would compete against each other for prizes.

In 1956, a young man named Don Beagle began a more than 12-year run as one of Richmond’s most influential children’s TV hosts.

Beagle was a Navy vet who premiered his “Dandy Doodle” show that year.

Eventually, it became “Dandy Beagle and Sooper Dog.”

Bill Adams was the voice of his foil, Sooper Dog.

At the show’s height, it was broadcast twice daily and had the highest rating of any daytime show on the air.

The list of young Central Virginians who were fans is amazing and many of those fans stay connected to this day via social media.

Don Beagle and Bill Adams were inducted into the Richmond Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1999.

Youth-oriented programming continues to be an important part of WTVR’s programming.

For years its “For Kids’ Sake” initiative sponsored numerous events for young viewers.

WTVR has hosted the award-winning Battle of the Brains since 2003.

The show features Virginia high school scholastic teams competing in a contest spanning many areas of academics.

Since 2005, WTVR has sponsored the Central Virginia Wind Symphony, made up of the finest high school musicians from over 30 local High Schools.

A Walk in the Park

By the mid-1960s Havens had been doing double and triple time as a broadcasting executive for quite a while.

With 40 years on the clock, it is understandable that Mr. Havens was ready to step away.

On November 15, 1965, he sold WTVR to Roy H Park Broadcasting.

Park had been in broadcasting since 1961. By 1985 Park owned 28 daily newspapers, 22 weekly newspapers, 16 radio stations, and seven television stations from his headquarters in Ithaca, New York.

The $5 million plus price tag represented a handy return on that initial $500 investment in 1927.

Interestingly, one of the stipulations in the sale of the station to Park was that he agree to keep the iconic Conestoga Wagon logo that had identified WTVR to its viewers for years.

WTVR CBS 6 celebrates 75 years of broadcasting excellence.
WTVR CBS 6 celebrates 75 years of broadcasting excellence.

Mergers and More Sales

When Park later merged his company with Richmond-based Media General in May 1997, bells began ringing at the FCC almost immediately.

Because of its ownership of the Richmond Times Dispatch, it was decided that ownership of the television station would not be allowed.

Media General was forced to trade WTVR with two stations owned by Raycom Media within two months of the Media General acquisition.

Raycom helmed WTVR for the next 10 years and saw some groundbreaking changes to television operations.

The change of centuries also saw the birth of WTVR’s digital platforms.

Today, more people access news and information from WTVR’s digital platforms than the broadcast signal.

In 2006 WTVR.com initiated one of the nation's first newscasts made exclusively for the internet, the “High-Speed News”, designed to allow people at work to quickly check up on local news developments.

In 2009, Raycom announced the exchange of WTVR with a Birmingham station and WTVR had a new owner, Local TV.

Local TV took WTVR through the groundbreaking change to digital format. They made important investments in the technical infrastructure of the station to ensure it could maintain cutting-edge performance in an era of almost constant change and upgrades in equipment.

WTVR remained under the Local TV banner until December 2013 when the Tribune Media organization took over.

When Tribune made the decision to step away from the locally-owned television business, a series of negotiations began that ultimately saw WTVR acquired by the E. W. Scripps Company in September 2019.

From beginning with a few hours each day in 1948 to its current schedule 24-7-365, through the 75 years of its existence, WTVR has faithfully served the people of Central Virginia.

With a staff of 150, less than a third of which are on air, the station is a perfect example of a team of skilled professionals working towards a common goal, to create a better-informed Central Virginia, to do well by doing good, and by engaging and empowering those we serve.