A Family Company: The Dedication of Generations
CBC has a rich history that stretches to the late days of the 1930’s when an enterprising lawyer decided to foray into a new arena called broadcasting. A.J. Fletcher (1887-1979) embarked on a long line of firsts when he established WRAL-AM in a small floor of offices on Salisbury Street in downtown Raleigh. That small 250-watt station expanded to include the region’s first VHF television station. CBC, now under the direction of Fletcher’s grandson, continues its tradition of breaking new broadcasting ground with the first experimental high-definition (HD) license to the first to develop the technology to broadcast data with an HD signal to upgrading Durham’s historic minor league baseball team to Triple-A.
Over the years CBC has taken on the flavor of its generational family leader – from A.J.’s passion for opera to Fred Fletcher ‘s on-air fairy tale antics to Jim Goodmon ‘s fascination with engineering and technology – but three important things have remained the same: commitment to excellence, pursuit of new technology and an intense sense of responsibility to the community. A.J. Fletcher (each of them actually) had a variety of interests, all of which he used to enrich his broadcasting empire.
In his history as a broadcaster, A.J. Fletcher never once tried something that had been done before. His son and grandson also followed in that tradition of forging new territory. The three family men never followed a path, they made paths. Goodmon and his sons, Jimmy & Michael, are proving no different now.
The Early Years: A New Thing Called Radio
In 1939, commercial broadcasting as a means of advertising was barely 17 years old – the first of many unproven quantities that Capitol Broadcasting explored, tried and made a great success. With encouragement from his son Frank, an attorney for the fledging Federal Communications Commission (FCC), A.J. Fletcher applied for a license to run a 250-watt AM radio station. The FCC granted that license on July 28, 1938, and WRAL-AM went on the air as Raleigh’s second radio station on March 29, 1939 . That launch began a life-long relationship between the Fletchers and broadcasting.
A little under a decade later, CBC began seeking ways to expand their listening audience; their number one competitor WPTF was a 50,000-watt station. CBC explored getting a greater frequency with which to broadcast. At the time almost no one had an FM receiver; most home radios were AM only and car radios, when cars actually had them, were AM. “It could be a case of having a 100,000-watt signal to nobody,” said A.J. Fletcher’s eldest son, Fred, who worked as General Manager at WRAL-AM.
“In 1946, it was like the story of the chicken and the egg,” he explained. “Nobody wanted to buy an FM receiver because there were few FM stations in the country, only one in North Carolina , and none in the Raleigh market.”
After receiving the license for WCOY-FM on September 6, 1946 , CBC changed the call letters to WRAL (RAL for Raleigh ) and increased the power to 250,000 watts. Then the Fletchers led staffers in stumping in the community to build a market for FM receivers. At first WRAL-FM carried a lot of the AM station’s material but then began to lure listeners with the state’s Class C baseball playoffs in 1946 and eight local high school football games that fall and began a daily legislative report among others.
During these years CBC also began several radio networks which expanded and changed over the years. The Tobacco Radio Network originated with WRAL-AM, continued with WRAL-FM, and included stations in Durham, Fayetteville, Goldsboro , Kinston , Rocky Mount and New Bern as well as about 25 other stations for special programs. Farm news and coverage of special events, mostly agricultural in nature, comprised the bulk of the network programming. WRAL expanded the idea to create the Tobacco Sports Network, originating sports broadcasts of local interest and feeding them to the station over the telephone.
Throughout the years, WRAL-FM helped to develop many different networks to serve the public’s needs. In addition to the TRN, WRAL-FM started a weather network in 1954 with Hurricane Hazel, tracking hurricanes and other storms as they moved across the state.
The Picture Box: How CBC Won A Television License
A.J. and Fred Fletcher had first seen a demonstration of television in the RCA booth at the World’s Fair in 1939, but by 1948 only 170,000 households in the U.S. had a television set. However, the trend starting catching on and by 1952 more than 15 million sets had been sold. True to form, the Fletchers and Capitol Broadcasting Company decided to pursue the new medium.
By the early 1950’s Raleigh only had one UHF station, WNAO. The News & Observer , Raleigh ‘s major newspaper, owned the CBS affiliate, but few viewers could receive the station because of the low-power UHF frequency and short broadcast tower. When the FCC opened the more powerful VHF licenses for channels 5, 22 and 28, CBC jumped.
The ensuing application process and battle in Washington, DC, took almost three years. CBC went head to head with Durham Life Insurance Company’s WPTF, which stood for their motto “We Protect The Family.”
“The long, hard fight to get a grant of Channel 5 was the hardest and most nerve-destroying in which I was ever engaged,” said A.J. Fletcher. “To begin with, public sentiment was decidedly against us. No one thought, apparently, that Capitol Broadcasting Company could possibly be successful in obtaining a grant or in building a worthwhile station if it got it.
“We had everything and most everybody to fight. They thought our application could have but one effect, and that was to delay the coming of television to Raleigh—that WPTF already had it ‘sewed up’ and we were meddling in something that we had no business.”
With a prestigious and nationally renowned law firm at their disposal, WPTF looked to be the stronger party when lined up against CBC’s pair of attorneys, Frank Fletcher and one of his partners. This Fletcher son had left the FCC for a DC firm by this time.
CBC’s 3,000-page application filled 14 large volumes. Instrumental in preparing the document were five members of the CBC “family,” A.J. & Fred Fletcher, secretary Scottie Stephenson, chief engineer Virgil Duncan and program manager George Hall. The two Fletchers and Stephenson traveled to Washington, DC every week during the nine-month hearing, returning to Raleigh on the weekends. Stephenson bunked with a friend in DC, while the Fletchers stayed in a hovel of a hotel on the outskirts of town. The WPTF team dined and slept in splendor at the Willard Hotel downtown.
However, the David and Goliath scenario worked in CBC’s favor. The two main arguments on which they focused, and won, their case dealt with competition and ownership.
WPTF was the prevailing radio broadcast voice in the region, and The News & Observer owned WNAO radio & TV and the region’s dominant newspaper, both examples of media control in the hands of a few. Having CBC own the license for channel 5 would provide more competition in the market.
Also, in CBC’s case, those who owned the station would be employed full-time by the station, active in the daily operation of the business. In other words, the owners would be running the station and making the decisions. Few of WPTF’s many shareholders and directors would have anything at all to do with the station should they win the license.
The little guy prevailed and CBC won the license for channel 5, soon to be known as WRAL-TV. But WPTF refused to go away without another fight. A Raleigh City Council member supportive of WPTF passed an ordinance prohibiting transmission towers as tall as CBC had proposed within the city limits. WRAL had planned to operate out of studios at Cameron Village , but never shaken, A.J. Fletcher quickly found a new location on Western Boulevard and put the tower up a mere few feet from the city limits.
On a rainy day in October 1956, Fletcher and his team stood under a funeral home tent on the property and broke ground on the WRAL studio and office building. A few months later on December 15, 1956, he flipped the switch at the transmitter site in Auburn , NC, southeast of Raleigh, putting WRAL-TV on the air.
He said, “And now, to the almost two million North Carolinians within reach of our signal, we say happy viewing and listening to all of you on Channel 5.” With Fletcher’s welcome and the broadcasting of Miracle on 34th Street, WRAL-TV entered viewers’ homes, beginning a long and loyal relationship.