A Conversation with
Crawford Rice was with Gaylord Broadcasting for 31 years. During his tenure, Crawford was News Director and later General Manager of WTVT. By telephone from Bellevue, Washington, Crawford spoke with me about his life in broadcasting, and what it meant to be part of the WTVT legacy.
Would you describe getting that first job in radio?
"I thought I had fallen into the most wonderful thing in the world. Here I was, a sophomore in high school, and an announcer on the radio station. That made me a very big man on campus. My parents were proud as they could be. This was just a few years after the depression, and my family didn't have much. I had to work, it was not an option, it was a necessity. I was making a grown person's salary. I fell in love with it."
Following a hitch in the Navy, Crawford majored in Radio Arts at the University of Alabama and graduated in 1951. From there, he joined WAPX radio in Montgomery.
What did Gaylord do after they purchased WSFA?
"They sent about 10 people down from WKY. In addition to Hoyt Andres, there were Bob Doty, Gene Jacobsen, and Frank McGee. Frank became News Director in Montgomery and made his name covering the racial situation there for NBC. The News Director was also the main anchor, so Frank did the 6pm newscast and I did the 10pm. When Frank was offered a job with NBC and left, I got his job and started doing the 6pm news."
In July of 1956, Gaylord purchased WTVT from Walter Tison's Tampa Television Company. Gaylord culled people from WKY-TV to staff the newly acquired Channel 13. P.A. 'Buddy' Sugg became General Manager, John Haberlan the Sales Manager, Bob Olson the Operations Manager, Ken Smith a production supervisor, Norm Bagwell the Business Manager, and Dick John became News Director. Rice remained in Montgomery but heard about the efforts being made in Tampa.
Was there a lot of work to be done at WTVT?
"When the WKY people went in, there was very little in terms of equipment. They bought the first news station wagons, put in the radios and film camerasand brought the Houston Fearless film processor from WKY. The newscast took a more professional look because Dick John had the experience at WKY. Another year goes by and P.A. Sugg is offered a job running the NBC O and O's, so he left and was replaced by my General Manager at WSFA, Gene Dodson."
And how did you get the call to 'come on down' to Tampa?
"Dick John got an opportunity to go to New York in 1958, to do news on WNBC-TV (morning cut-ins on 'The Today Show'). Gene Dodson needed a news director, thought well of what I'd done in Montgomery, so he called and offered me the job. The reason I was brought down was not to start something new, but because they had a vacancy. It was my very good fortune."
Did you have a chance to observe the operation before jumping right in?
"Dick gave them a month's notice, and I went right down there. I didn't move the family the first day, but stayed in a motel for two or three weeks. I overlapped with Dick for about two weeks and observed what they were doing and participated in it. I did the noon news for the first two weeks while Dick was still there, and then took over the six o'clock news."
Could you tell me about the staff you inherited from Dick John?
"When I left Montgomery, they had five full time people in the news department. When I got to Tampa, there were 11 full time people. I suddenly had a staff that was twice the size of what I'd been used to, so I thought I was in clover. We expanded slowly as needs came up and Gene (Dodson) was extremely cooperative from a budget standpoint. I hired Joe Loughlin, Ed Herbert, Tom Wright, George Prentice, and Earl Wells. Marvin Scott, who was already there, was an outstanding photographer who got things on the gofires, murders, whatever. He did it on the fly and did a marvelous job."
"Wayne Fariss was anchoring the 11 o'clock news. Paul Reynolds or Don Harris might have been doing the noon news at the time. Dick was doing the 6pm, and there was not a third anchor person. One of the first things I did was to get a full-time newsman for mornings and the noon news.
The first two years I was there, my title was News Director, and I was responsible for the news only. Charlie Stump and Roy Leep reported to Bob Olson, as did "Salty Sol" and Guy Bagli."
Would you 'walk' through a typical day at WTVT?
"Cy Smith, the assignment editor, was usually there at 8 and I got there about 8:30. We would get together and go over the laundry list that Cy had created. Anything I had in my mind, or something we needed to follow up on, we would add to the list and then start getting in touch with reporters and photographers and send them out.
In 1958, we had a half hour news block from six to six thirty. The newscast at six was a stand-alone twenty minute program. There was then five minutes of weather and five minutes of sports. They were like separate programs. There was no anchor desk or camaraderiethe talking back and forth. The news program would open with a slide. It was called "Newsroom," and the booth announcer would say "And now, Newsroom with Crawford Rice!" When I was finished, I'd sign off and there was a slide, then on to a commercial and then the WTVT weather, as a separate five minute program."
Can you tell me about expanding the block to one hour?
"Everyone said they needed more time. There was a fifteen minute program between us and the CBS NewsI think it was Eddie Fisher's program. We decided to go to a 45 minute block and get rid of that entertainment program. CBS News was 15 minutes at that time, so with our 45 minutes it was the first hour-long news block in Florida, and we got a lot of attention for that. Jayne Boyd contributed the program's new name...PULSE.
My title was changed from News Director to Director of News and Public Affairs, and Sol and Roy reported to me. It was then we joined the segments together and I started to have a little conversation with Roy and Sol. No backslapping like they do today, just a segue to sports or weather."
Of course, no one had a 'normal' conversation with "Salty Sol" Fleischman!
"You never knew what Sol was going to do. He was one of the greatest guys in the worldhe'd do anything for you."
Was it was during this era that the Channel 13 editorial was born?
In the 1950's, news programs were usually produced against a flat in the studio. Can you describe the 'Newsroom' set?
"We originally had a drape with a key light highlighting it. The weather map with the revolving drum came down from WKY. When we went to the hour-long format, we moved our set to the actual news room and had a camera shoot through a window from the (small) studio. Of course, most news programs are done in that style today."
How did you coordinate between the newsman and the booth?
"We didn't have the entire news cast scripted. There was no teleprompter and the news man wrote his own copy, and usually in a type of personal shorthand. When we needed the film to roll, we had a foot pedal under the desk that would ring a buzzer in the director's booth and the projectionist's area. We had the film stories all spliced together on a reel one right after anotherwith white leader between each story. The director didn't even have a copy of the scriptall he had was an outline. On a typical day, we'd have six stories on film, and the director would know whether they were silent or sound-on-film, or a mixture of sound and silent. That's all he knew. The newscaster himself set the pace for the show. He could make his sentences longer or shorter, and when he was ready for the film, he would press the pedal about two seconds before he needed the film. Once you touched that pedal, the director would go to the film. It got to be a habitit was easy as pie."
But what about the way a newsman would narrate over silent film, which would lead to a sound bite?
"We did script that part carefully, and timed it out. You'd see a long shot of the subject sitting and his desk, and you'd say, "We're going to talk with Mr. So and So, and if we did it right, the minute I said the last word the fellow being interviewed would start talking. Of course, this type of interview was all shot with one cameraand we didn't have A/B rolls back then either. When I got there, the station only had two 16mm projectors, and one was tied up with commercials."
It would seem to me that even filling twenty minutes of local news could be a challenge.
"We were always on the lookout for 'feature' stories to fill time in those days. We didn't want just talking heads, and many days there wasn't enough hard news to fill the time slot."
What about reports from Tallahassee?
"We put a full-time person up in the state capital. Every day there was a plane from Tallahassee at 3:30 that got to Tampa a little over an hour later. The film was given to a stewardess at the gate in Tallahassee, and we had someone meet the plane at 4:30 and he'd come roaring back to the station to process the film. We had one or two stories out of Tallahassee a day."
Did you check out the competition?
"We thought we were light years ahead of them, and I think we were, but we didn't take them for granted. We had to stay one step out in front. We were looking for ways to make our operation better. We knew about ratings, and we knew we were number one. It was really just us and WFLA and we were always number one, and they were number two."
One of your biggest stories had to do with Fidel Castro's overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba. Why did Channel 13 get involved in his story?
"Tampa had a huge Cuban population. Many worked in the cigar industry. What went on in Cuba was more important to the people in Tampa, than say, in Des Moines, Iowa. When Castro's revolution happened, he was a hero at the time and just as soon as we were given assurance that our charter plane would not be shot down on the way to Havana airport, we sent Earl and Marvin down there. The only communication we had was by telephone. The only way to get anything out of there was by recording a telephone call or we could pay somebody to carry the film out on a flight going to Miami. I think Earl gave a person $100, and made him swear on his life that the film would be dropped off at an air express parcel service in Miami, who would ship it up to us. That's all we had in those days. Earl got the first interview with Castro after the takeover, and CBS used it on their news."
Was the mobile unit much use to the news department?
"They had some really serious flooding out in North Tampa one year. I went to Gene and got his approval to send the mobile unit out there. There was no receiving antenna downtown, so we had to be line of sight to the receiver on the tower. That was the first time the news was done live from a location. I was sitting on a stool in about six inches of water wearing a big old raincoat and rubber boots, and introduced the program and talked to a few people about the flood, and then we switched back to Joe Loughlin at the studio to continue the regular news. We came back later to the flood scene and interviewed six or seven neighbors. It was the first time we ever used the mobile unit for the news, and it caused quite a stir. While it's routine today, we were all real excited about it."
Was the mobile unit useful in other events that you had advance notice of?
"When the Howard Frankland Bridge was opened, the mobile unit was the first vehicle to cross it. Governor Leroy Collins came down to dedicate it. Gov. Collins was in a Cadillac convertible sitting in the back seat with Joe Loughlin. I was in the truck sitting on a bench looking out the back window, and we had a camera on the roof pointing at Joe and the Governor, and getting shots of the bridge and the boat flotilla. Then Joe interviewed the Governor. We taped it in the truck and then took it back to the station where we used some clips for the news, and made a half-hour prime-time program out of it."
Wasn't there a time when the news department covered the Gasparilla Invasion?
"One day I was fat, dumb, and happy in the newsroom and I got call to meet with Gene, John Haberlan, who was the assistant manager, and Bob Olson, the operations supervisor. There were some higher ups there from the Gasparilla celebration, and they all told me they'd come up with this great idea to promote Gasparilla. They thought we should cover the invasion as if it were a real news cast. I said all the proper things about journalistic integrity and that sort of thing. I even mentioned "The War of the Worlds," the radio broadcast that panicked listeners back in the 30's. They said, 'Do you really think there's anybody alive on the west coast of Florida who doesn't know we have Gasparilla every year?' They said nobody would get upset over pirates.
So we filmed a bunch of segments in advance to be played the day of the invasion. We put a super at the bottom of the screen saying "This is a dramatization," I'd insisted on that, and the announcer said 'The following program is a dramatization," and then we cut to the newsroom where I'm reporting on the invasion. We had Gov. Collins on film calling out the National Guard. We had the station's janitor wearing Salty Sol's cap and an old Navy pea coat, and introduced him as 'Capt. Joe van Ravel,' Captain of a Dutch freighter moored in Tampa Bay that had been boarded by pirates. His acting was marvelous, and I wish we had a copy of it.
At that time, MacDill was a SAC base and we had the Colonel in charge saying the base had been put on alert, and when this pirate ship was found they were going to sink it. We had the Police Chief on, we had Mayor Julian Lane being assaulted by pirates in his office. We went from place to place like that. It was just like a live thing being done today.
Well, our switchboard lit up, the police switchboard lit up, and you would not believe the number of people who thought it was real. Even with the disclaimer. It scared us to death. One elderly gentlemen over in St. Petersburg actually had a heart attack, and we kept up with his condition and had our fingers crossed.
It was front page news in the Tampa Tribune and St. Pete Times. It was quite a big thing and set the whole town on its ear."
What happened when the boss found out?
"E. K. Gaylord, who lived to be 102, was the founder and owner of the company. He and Mrs. Gaylord came down every February to stay at the Soreno Hotel, to get away from those horrible Oklahoma winters. He happened to be in St. Petersburg the night we did this. The next morning, when we were all agonizing over all the calls from reporters asking for quotes, Gene Dodson called all the department heads together and said that Mr. Gaylord had come over from St. Petersburg, and was back in the conference room and wanted to meet with us. I knew I was going to get fired right then! That's the end of itgoodbye! I went back there and all he said was 'You gentlemen certainly grabbed everyone's attention.' And that's all he said."
Apparently, the Gasparilla situation blew over quickly and Pulse was soon recognized by TV Radio Mirror Magazine. In March, 1960, the publication named Pulse as "Best Television News Program in the Southern States."
With things going so well, why did you decide to leave the job of News Director and get into management?
"Frank McGee, who had gone to NBC from WSFA, was on the phone all the time saying 'Get your tail up here, these networks are hiring news people all over the country.' I just really didn't want to go to New York or Washington, I don't know why, I didn't have anything against them, particularly, but I didn't want to do that. Then I got to thinking what I should do. WTVT was the biggest station Gaylord had, and I could spent the rest of my days as News Director herebut I wanted to do more than that.
Gene Dodson was always my hero. He gave me more opportunities and I idolized the man. I went to Gene and said "I'm not unhappy in my job at all, but down the road I'd like to get in some other areas of the TV business. Gene said 'Fine, but make sure you've got some good people ready to take over your department. We can't make you something tomorrow, but without being pushy or getting in people's way, show some interest in something else.'
I started working more closely with Bob Olson (Operations Manager) and I got into programming. Bob Doty also felt he was at a dead end, he thought Olson would be there forever and he could never advance any further. Doty went to Gene and wanted to get into sales. Doty moved out of programming and into sales. That's when I was made Program Manager. Apparently, we were the first company where anyone from news had gone over to management. I quit anchoring, and Joe Loughlin became news director and did the 6pm news. I continued doing the editorial as long as I was there, but that was all I did on the air the last two years I was there.
Then, in 1962, Gaylord bought its first independent station. They were looking for people to run this station in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market, and to my amazement, most of the people they talked to in the company didn't want anything to do with it. They didn't think that television was anything but WTVT with CBS and WKY with NBCwho wants to go to an independent station. Finally, they came to Jim Terrell at WKY-TV and to me, and said 'Here's an opportunity, do you want it?' I said 'Absolutely,' and they sent me out there as assistant General Manager. That was my big break. The station was christened KTVT, Channel 11. I went out there in August of '62. Jim Terrell, who started with the news department at WKY and was later in sales, got to Fort Worth a few weeks earlier as General Manager. The station was a dog...it was in bad shape and we spent some money on it and did the right things and made something out of it.
Four years later, we bought a UHF license in Houston market. There was no building or anything. They sent me down there as General Manager, and we built KHTV from the ground up. I was there eight years, and then we bought the VHF station, KSTW, in the Seattle-Tacoma market, and I went up to manage it. It was also a dog, in a building that looked like a haunted mansion, or the 'Bates Motel.' I stayed four years and built a new facility from the ground up, like we had done in Houston."
But you're time at Channel 13 wasn't over just yet...
"In 1977, Gene Dodson turned 65 and retired. I was the lucky guy that got to go back to Tampa as General Manager. To me, WTVT has always been the greatest station in the countrythe jewel in the crown. There's nothing that I would rather have done. When I got back to Tampa, I thought, 'This is where I'm going to stop. I'm going to be right here.'
What was going on in the production area when you returned?
"Production was a necessity for news, weather, and sports, and the commercials and public affairs programs. We were still doing a lot of business with the remote truck, mostly picking up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football games for CBS. Then, the network decided things had to be so much bigger. One year they asked me to come up to New York and gave us requirements for next year. It would mean going to six or eight cameras, three VTRs, two Chyrons, an on-site full time producer , a researcher to get everything together, and so on. They told us what they were willing pay, and we put pencils to it and it didn't make any sense. We would lose money doing it. We reluctantly had to bow out of it."
And then Studio 13 was the next to go.
"A couple of local production houses popped up in Tampa and St. Pete, using the little ENG cameras. These guys would go out to the car lots and tape the commercials on the spot, and they could do it more cheaply than we could and better. There was a feeling that if somebody out there wanted to do this, more power to them. The production area was never a profit center. Maybe it should have been. The only revenue you could tie to production was commercial production and the big remotes. From that standpoint, the production department was always a loss leader. More and more stations got out of the commercial production business altogether, and even went to automated cameras on the news."
Then, after four years, Gaylord asked you to become manager of their entire station group.
"Despite the fact that I was being promoted again, it was a great disappointment giving up Tampa and going to Dallas."
By April, 1981, Gaylord Broadcasting had 7 TV stations -- 2 network affiliates and 5 independents. Crawford accepted the job of Executive Vice President in charge of all broadcast properties (including WKY Radio). The 8 general managers reported Crawford, and he reported directly to Mr. Gaylord. It was a job of coordination, oversight, and acting as something of a buffer between 8 general managers and Mr. Gaylord, whose business empire was growing rapidly in many other, sometimes unrelated fields. Crawford managed the station group for four years and retired in 1986.
What do you think of local news coverage today?
"Because of technology and what's available today, they do a job that nobody could have done 20 years ago. All three of the network stations here (Seattle/Tacoma) have their own channel or two on satellites. They don't bother trying to shoot a microwave at a bank building and then over to the station. They use a satellite. It makes anything possible from anywhere. The job is being done far better, you're getting to the scene of the news, and not just a talking head. I just wish they hadn't gotten so 'cutesy poo' when they're going from news to sports or weather."
And any closing thoughts on WTVT?
"It was a top station in the Gaylord family. It was the one everybody wanted to emulate or be part of if they could. When it came to news, if something happened in the Tampa Bay area, you turned on Channel 13. You can't put a price on that.
It was the crown jewel, and that came about from having good people who used the tools they had at the time. You must have good, creative people who go the extra mile. The greatest privilege I had in this business was not just being part of it, but being in it at the time I was. It was a growing, still maturing business and I'm aware that it is a totally different business today. There'll be something new tomorrow, of course."
My thanks go to Crawford Rice for his insightful memories of his distinguished career and the early days of WTVT.
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Crawford Rice's memory of JFK - Nov. 22, 1963
When Crawford mentioned that he was with KTVT from 1962 to 1966, it made me wonder what he was doing on November 22, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I asked him about it and also how KTVT responded to the tragedy. Here's what Crawford said:
"There was considerable opposition to President Kennedy's being invited to Dallas. However, no one I knew or talked with expected anything serious to happen...probably just some booing and a few critical signs held aloft along the motorcade route. Remember, the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations had not yet happened. We were not yet hardened to the fact that there are individuals in this country who will go to the most extreme measures to make their points.
President Kennedy's Nov. 22, 1963 breakfast talk was humorous, and he received a positive reception from the Ft. Worth attendees, including Crawford Rice of KTVT
JFK's talk at the Fort Worth breakfast meeting was joking, upbeat and charismatic, as usual. He poked some fun at L.B.J., who was seated beside him, asking why people in Texas cheered more loudly for the Vice President than for the President. The speech was not heavy on politics or issues, mostly just how happy he was to be in the great state of Texas and how he hoped the schedule was so tight that Jackie would not have an opportunity to visit Nieman-Marcus. Jackie was dressed in the pillbox hat and pink dress for the motorcade scheduled later than morning in Dallas.
Jim and I returned to the station after the breakfast meeting. I was just preparing to leave the office for lunch when the first bulletin was aired. Kennedy had been shot...perhaps mortally. Along with everyone else, I was in a state of disbelief and shock. But that had to be overcome quickly, as we had the prodigious task of deciding what an independent station with a newsroom staff of 3 persons would do in this unprecedented situation. It soon boiled down to only two choices...somehow get network coverage, or go off the air.
The murder of Oswald by Ruby was shown live on NBC, and the one lone Ampex two-inch VTR in the KTVT truck was rolling, through someone's foresight or good judgment, and that historic piece of history was recorded on video tape.
End of story."
Be sure to visit the section of our BIG 13 web site called "Tampa Remembers John F. Kennedy." It's a unique look at the day Pres. Kennedy visited Tampa in November of 1963...just four days before the fateful trip to Dallas. You'll see first-person accounts of Channel 13 employees who were there that day.
To visit "Tampa Remembers John F. Kennedy," CLICK HERE
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