The East Tennessee area has one especially persistent man to thank for the ability to flip on the switch of their television and catch premium local programming.
That man is 89-year-old Hanes Lancaster Jr., of Johnson City. Today at noon, at WJHL, he will be honored by Johnson City for his efforts in bringing television programming to the region.
Lancaster and his father, Hanes Sr., will be featured in WJHL’s one-hour documentary to celebrate the station’s 60th anniversary. The documentary, titled, “WJHL Celebrates: 60 Years In Your Corner,” will run on the local TV station tonight at 7, and is set to honor the deep history and interesting story that brought WJHL to the level its at today.
News anchor Josh Smith, whose been at the station since 1999, has helped put together the documentary and shared some of the highlights of the station’s past. He said the goal of the piece is to serve as not so much of a self-congratulatory documentary. Smith notes the drive of Lancaster Jr. in not taking no for an answer, regardless if it came from the government, forces of nature, advertisers or anyone else.
It was Lancaster who put the pressure on his father, a radio man, but first and foremost a businessman, to start a TV station in the 1940s. His father, who would serve as financier, took convincing, as did potential advertisers and viewers who would have to make the jump to purchasing a television. They also battled to earn their TV license.
Smith said just as soon as things were about to kick off for the station in the late 1940s, the Federal Communications Commission instituted a “big freeze” on TV stations, in an attempt to reign in all the chaos that resulted from new technologies related to the TV. There were overlapping stations and signals, and difficulties with air traffic controllers that needed the government’s attention.
It was about four and a half years until the ice was broken and the station finally went on the air at 7 p.m., Oct. 26, 1953, just after the station’s 550-foot tower had broken, crashing through the roof of the station, which was located on Tannery Knob. The accident delayed WJHL’s chance to be the region’s first station to go on the air, giving WROL-TV in Knoxville a chance to beat WJHL. Smith said that when it finally went on the air, it’s said that 6,000 homes with TVs in them were watching.
60 years down the road, and WJHL has been able to roll with the punches much like Lancaster did when trying to get the station off the ground in its earliest days. The station has changed ownership a handful of times after the Lancasters sold the company, and have had to progress with ever-changing technologies.
This, Smith said, has been one of the biggest and most commendable things the station has been able to do over the years. He’s from the area, and said he grew up watching WJHL, and to work for the company has been interesting.
“I’ve seen it through both sides of the camera,” Smith said.
With the emergence of citizen journalists, Smith said WJHL’s goals haven’t changed. They still strive to stay accurate and reliable to their viewers. He said he’s seen the station move from solely a TV station to a multimedia hub for information content through all forms of journalism.
Smith said things have changed significantly since 1953, when journalism basically belonged to a few, and that that power has decentralized, giving anyone the chance to make something go viral. He said that puts pressure on journalists to do their jobs the right way.
It’s Lancaster’s vision that brought the station to where it is now, he said.
“Mr. Lancaster is a living example of someone who had a dream and wouldn’t give up,” Smith said.
The Lancasters’ efforts in establishing Johnson City’s first TV station wasn’t only a boost to the available information in the area, it also injected some cash.
“It was huge coming in at a time when TV was in its infancy,” WJHL general manager Dan Cates said. “WJHL convinced people that TV was here to stay, and even provided a boost to the local economy.”