Good times and community news: Remembering WJWJ-TV

Special to Lowcountry LifeFebruary 20, 2012 

Thanks to Pete Pillow for sharing thoughts about the closing of WJWJ-TV in Beaufort.

Pete is a former editor of The Beaufort Gazette who lived and worked in Beaufort for 24 years. He now is retired and living in Columbia.

"REMEMBERING WJWJ"

By Pete Pillow

There's real irony in the recent closing of WJWJ-TV's office in Beaufort. Today is the heyday of niche television -- hundreds of channels catering to a smorgasbord of viewer tastes -- but the Lowcountry studio that produced and aired local programs since the 1970s has gone dark permanently, a victim of state budget cuts.

It's a far cry from 40 years ago, when South Carolina's educational television system was an acknowledged national leader. WJWJ was one of a series of facilities placed across the state to transmit ETV shows from Columbia, supplemented by grass-roots programming about people, places and things largely ignored by network stations and their "if it bleeds, it leads" news philosophy. Beaufort County earned a spot on the dial courtesy of powerful state Sen. James M. Waddell, whose initials became the station's call letters.

In addition to broadcasting panel discussions, call-in shows, mini-documentaries and public service features, WJWJ had a local newscast for 30 minutes each weekday evening. I served as a producer and anchor on that program from spring 1978 until spring 1983. It was a heady experience for someone who'd cut his journalistic teeth in newspapers instead of electronic media.

There was no high-def television or satellite reception back then. A special antenna was needed to even get WJWJ's signal. One of our initial tasks was teaching viewers how to avoid a snowy picture by manually fine-tuning their sets for Channel 16. A safecracker's dexterity would have helped.

Our studio on the Technical College of the Lowcountry's campus was equipped with stage lights, high-end color cameras, broadcast monitors and videotape editing consoles -- but no teleprompters -- so we half-read and half-memorized story introductions on the spot.

Miniaturization was yet to come. Two-person news crews went out daily: one staffer operating a shoulder-held video camera, the other toting a box-like tape recorder joined to the camera via an electronic umbilical cord. If either of the crew went in an opposite direction, the connection was broken and that team's work undone.

Field reports were videotaped, but the nightly newscast was live -- television at its most daring and mistake-prone. Slips of the tongue could render one (or both) anchors helpless with mirth. Nothing to do but laugh out loud when one of us referred to septuagenarian Strom Thurmond as "South Carolina's senior citizen" rather than -- correctly -- the state's "senior senator" in Washington.

Sometimes the newscast included a live interview segment -- a studio guest discussing a pre-arranged topic. Ideally, our guests would be glib and knowledgeable, but on the other hand, stage fright might render them nearly speechless. Early on, I learned to recognize the "deer in the headlights" look that warned vocal paralysis was imminent. Time to ask lengthy, leading questions -- and really plenty of them -- while we crawled toward a station break.

Appearing on TV -- live or videotaped -- remained a novelty for most residents, even those accustomed to public discourse in their daily business or profession. Lawyers, bankers, doctors and even clergy eschewed the camera, but public office holders were drawn like moths to a light. We also built a stable of "the usual suspects" that could, and would, talk reliably on a wide range of topics. More importantly, these good people accommodated TV time constraints and deadlines. It seemed they were always available.

Beaufort County's population was sophisticated and abundantly talented even then. Our little station was able to use hometown pundits such as Bayard Sawyer, retired publisher of Business Week magazine; John Murphy, once a staff writer for Look bi-weekly; Lt. Gen. George Forsythe, who helped transition the U.S. Army into an all-volunteer force when conscription ended; Army Col. Charles Stockell, a keen observer of the Soviet Union's military and government structure; Emory Campbell, director of historic Penn Center; and Harriet Keyserling, who spent 16 years in the Statehouse and was a founder of the S.C. Women's Legislative Caucus.

Filling a half-hour with local stories each weeknight was a constant challenge, given our small staff and large coverage area. In theory, we were supposed to report on Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper and Allendale counties, despite the extensive travel this would have required. In truth, Beaufort County -- especially north of the Broad River -- was prime journalistic territory we mined daily for news nuggets Savannah and Charleston stations disdained.

No story was too large or small for our newscast. We profiled candidates seeking city, town and county seats. We forecast nonprofit fundraisers. We encouraged pet adoptions from the animal shelter. We beat the drum for downtown revitalization. We celebrated the history of Decoration Day at the Beaufort National Cemetery. We tracked Hurricane David's winds and rains until the storm knocked out our power. We covered the Heritage links and the Family Circle Cup tennis courts.

Sometimes we played Entertainment Tonight, spotlighting filming for "The Great Santini" and "The Big Chill" when Hollywood came to town. I recall taping a man-on-the-street interview with "Santini" director Lewis John Carlino at a street corner in downtown Beaufort. He was casually dressed in white jeans, shirt untucked, small attachè case dangling on a shoulder strap. As we packed up our camera and recorder afterward, an elderly woman crossed the street and asked: "Who was that man you all were talking to?" I replied: "He's one of the movie people out of California." She bobbed her head in self-congratulation: "I knew he wasn't from around here as soon as I saw his purse."

This community interest -- who was that you were talking to? -- came to characterize the worth of our work. I don't know what kind of Nielsen ratings WJWJ's newscast ever earned. I don't recall any laurels bestowed on our crew by the television industry or by South Carolina ETV. In fact, I left the station after five years when budget cutting (even back then!) suspended news operations for a time.

The true measure of our success was calculated by the number of instances when someone I did not know would say -- at the most unexpected time and place -- how much they enjoyed a certain piece we'd aired, or how surprised they'd been to see their neighbor interviewed right there on TV, or how they'd chuckled when our weekday weather forecast called for "morning showers followed by mostly 'sunday' skies in the afternoon."

Against commercial TV odds, we somehow gained a core constituency of everyday people so engaged in what we did that they committed extra time and effort to welcome us into their lives, into their homes, on a regular basis. And were proud to tell us about it. That's a WJWJ legacy that even today's budget-cutters in Columbia can't take away.

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