AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – This Thanksgiving, WJBF NewsChannel 6 will celebrate 70 years on the air.
A lot has changed since our humble beginnings, from the technology we use to bring you the news, to the many talented people who have worked here.
For 7 decades, we’ve brought you the most accurate news and weather and quality local programming.
In November’s Hometown History, and the last of a 4 part series, Kim Vickers explored more about our overall history and learned about our founder, Mr. J.B. Fuqua.
“Television grew much more rapidly than most of us thought it would and that has been the big surprise,” Mr. Fuqua told Warren Heights during our 10th anniversary special in 1963.
WJBF NewsChannel 6 was founded on Thanksgiving Day in 1953 in an old house on Georgia Avenue in North Augusta, primarily as an NBC affiliate.
Mr. Fuqua loved television and entertainment. He was surprised by how big broadcast news got.
“In the early days, I had thought that television would never become a news medium. It would always be an entertainment medium. And since I was new at it, I was considered an authority on television,” Mr. Fuqua told then anchor, Bob Young, in our 40th anniversary special.
Nelson Danish worked at WJBF for 30 years in several capacities. He thinks Mr. Fuqua would be shocked at how television news has grown in the last 20 years.
“If he were around today, he would not believe the 26 hour a day news thing. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing the news every hour of the day.”
John Brooks Elam Junior, or J.B., was born in Virginia on June 26, 1918. His mother died two months later and he was adopted by his maternal grandparents, who changed his last name to Fuqua, and raised him on a tobacco farm. He grew up without a lot of kids to play with, so he spent a lot of time reading.
He graduated from Prospect High School, but never went to college because he couldn’t afford it. As a teenager he expanded his own education by borrowing books from Duke University Library, having them mailed to him.
In 1945, Mr. Fuqua married Dorothy Chapman, known as Dottie.
They had two sons together – J. Rex and Alan. Alan died in a tragic plane crash in February of 1970 at just 18-years-old. J. Rex serves as president of the J.B. Fuqua Foundation.
Danish spent a lot of time with the Fuqua family over the years. He said family was the most important thing to Mr. Fuqua. He had to take the family’s Christmas photo each year which, he said, was a huge task.
“It was like herding cats, because the two sons were going in their own directions. And Mr. Fuqua is involved in this and Mrs. Fuqua involved in that. But we finally got it together and got a Christmas card picture,” Danish laughed.
Years later, Danish talked to J. Rex about those days.
“And I reminded him of that Christmas card picture. And he said ‘I hated doing that,'” Danish recalled.
“Did he say why?” Kim asked.
“No. He just didn’t like it I guess. Maybe he was one of these people not comfortable in front of a camera,” replied Danish.
Mr. Fuqua was known to be a fairly serious man, but Danish said he had a wicked sense of humor.
“He kept going to all these meetings with all these executives and they’d say ‘Oh, let me show you pictures of my pride and joy, meaning of course, family. Grandchildren. Whatever. So he asked me to do something. And I did. Take a picture of Pride furniture polish and Joy dish detergent. And he says ‘Let me show you MY pride and joy.'”
Mr. Fuqua’s interest in media began in radio.
“I had my first job at a radio station when I was just 18 years old,” Mr. Fuqua told Bob Young.
At 14 he was listening to the radio when he heard an advertisement for a book called “How to Become an Amateur Radio Operator.” He bought the book and used the information to build a ham radio.
At 19, he joined a station in Charleston.
“And at one time I think he was considered the youngest engineer, radio engineer, in the entire country,” Danish said.
Eventually he moved to Augusta and started WGAC radio, then later WJBF Radio, which he named after himself.
“I have heard people tell me that J.B. Fuqua says, “If you’re proud of something, put your name on it,” Bob Young said to Mr. Fuqua in 1993.
“Well, I’ve been accused of that,” Mr. Fuqua quipped.
In 1950, Mr. Fuqua began working on obtaining a license to operate a TV station in Augusta. It took a while to get it because he ran into a major obstacle along the way.
“But he tried to get the station on the air before 1953, but there was something called the Korean Conflict or the Korean War. So licensing was delayed,” Danish explained.
He finally got the proper permits and WJBF sent out its first broadcast signal at 11 a.m. on November 26, 1953.
Over the years, even after Mr. Fuqua sold the station, he would come to visit. People said he would stop to talk to everyone and seemed to know everyone’s name, even if they didn’t know he did.
“And I see Mr. Fuqua walking towards me in the hall. And I stopped and said ‘Mr. Fuqua, I want to introduce myself.’ And he said ‘I know who you are.’ And kept walking,” laughed Danish.
Anchor Dee Griffin told Kim that when he stopped by people snapped to attention.
“But we knew when he was there. You cleaned your area and you made sure that everything was flowing correctly and looked presentable, because Mr. Fuqua was there,” she said.
Mr. Fuqua had a “rags to riches” story. He started out with nothing. Then, he began buying and selling land, earning a fortune before he was 30. Soon, he started doing the same thing with radio and television stations.
Mr. Fuqua also had various other profitable business ventures in his lifetime, adding to his fortune.
In 1957 he started a political career that lasted nearly 10 years.
He was the leader of the Georgia Democratic Party and worked to help get Governor Carl Sanders and President Jimmy Carter elected.
Former WJBF Reporter and News Director, Pete Michenfelder, thinks he was a wise man with great advice for both politicians and business leaders.
“He said ‘If you’re going to sell cars, sell Cadillacs.’ And what he meant by that was, different type of clientele. Sell the better product. You’ll have less customers that you have to deal with, but a higher caliber of customer,” Michenfelder recalled.
Mr. Fuqua was also extremely generous, to his employees and to many foundations. He gave Duke University a $10 million endowment because he credited them with some of his success by allowing him to borrow books when he was a kid.
Over our 7 decades on the air we have operated out of three different buildings.
Our first building was an old house on Georgia Avenue in North Augusta.
But in 1957, just 3 years after the station started broadcasting, there was a fire.
“Anyway, the station burned. Fortunately it didn’t burn completely. And it was possible to get the station back on the air. Most people would have thought it would have taken months. We got it back on the air in less than three days,” Mr. Fuqua told Bob.
We continued to operate in North Augusta for a few more months while our new building on Reynolds Street was being built. The iconic yellow building remained WJBF’s home for more than 50 years.
“That yellow building was an institution. It was a monument in itself and I was just so surprised when they wanted to leave it.,” said Dee.
The need for more space forced WJBF to move into the former Barnes & Noble building in the Augusta West Shopping Center.
“I think it was needed and it was…there was a desire for growth and bigger is better,” Dee added.
The fire at the first location wasn’t the only fire WJBF had to deal with. On May 7th 1972 our transmitter building in Beech Island was destroyed by a fire.”
The transmitter, which allows us to broadcast video, was completely destroyed and we were off the air for about a week. We immediately got to work, ordering a new transmitter and rebuilding the building.
Danish said many employees helped out, because there wasn’t a newscast until we could get back on the air.
“We all pitched in. I was one of the people too. I don’t remember exactly what we were doing, but we somehow managed to survive that too,” said Danish.
In a week, WJBF did a job that would normally take about 3 months to do and we were back on the air.
WJBF was able to work out a deal with ABC that allowed them to rebroadcast the NBA playoff game as well as episodes of the soap opera, “General Hospital,” that our viewers missed while we were off the air.
We can’t talk about the history of WJBF without talking about our weather department. The first televised weather report was done in New York in 1941 by a cartoon named “Wooly Lamb.”
Until the 70’s, weather was considered more entertainment than serious news.
Chief Meteorologist, Tim Miller said when he was growing up, weather reports were always fun to watch, but eventually most of the entertainment aspect had to go away.
“We started to realize that weather is very serious. And we can have fun with the weather at times, but when weather gets severe, you need to lose the comic aspect of it and really focus on the personal aspect,” Tim explained.
Good Morning Augusta meteorologist, John Lynn has been at WJBF for 25 years. He said that in the 50’s and 60’s, weather forecasters at WJBF would not predict the local weather themselves.
“You would rip and read the AP copy that would send out a forecast from Atlanta and or Columbia at that time,” John explained.
Back then, there were no computers or live radar so the weather was presented in a very primitive fashion.
“And then they had little magnets that you could stick on the weather map, or then even draw it. We would have to draw them,” John said.
Over the years and with advances in technology, forecasters became a part of the news team and were able to start predicting local weather.
“And then we had the advent of ‘The Weather Channel’ and that really pretty much changed everything. That’s when the education of weather for the general public really became something special,” Tim said.
Soon satellites and radars were installed and weather became a prime focus of every newscast.
“No matter where you go, whether it’s Augusta, Chicago, New York, Peoria…it doesn’t matter. The number one driver for local news is weather,” explained Tim.
John said that, as technology advanced so did forecasters’ access to huge amounts of weather data. The problem was- how did they get that information across on the air?
“We had introduced the CSRA to the very first live radar. Of course, the radar site out at Bush Field, once that left, the CSRA was left with no live radar,” John remembered. “So we took it upon our hands, with the folks at SRS and we got a brand new live radar here in the CSRA. It’s the only one that’s ever been furbished here. So that changed the game pretty quickly.”
WJBF has always been known for our accurate and up to the minute weather forecasts. We have been the most trusted station in the CSRA for those forecasts. Part of that trust comes from the faces our viewers have seen in their homes, calmly explaining what is happening during severe weather.
None has been more beloved than our former Chief Meteorologist, George Myers.
“And George Myers is a legend, not only here, but also in the broadcast industry and the weather industry,” Tim said.
George inspired generations of kids to learn more about weather and even someday become a meteorologist themselves- including John Lynn.
“And I turned on the local TV and there’s George Myers and he was just normal. He was just a normal person. Just hearing the way he did it and went about his day and went about his broadcast. I said that’s what I really want to do,” John smiled.
For John, working with George was amazing and he says he taught him a lot.
“George taught me humility. He taught me how to be a professional. He taught me how to listen. I was a young, loudmouth kid who thought he knew everything.”
Tim replaced George when he retired nearly four years ago after more than 35 years at WJBF.
He was an icon himself in Columbia and he knew it would be hard, but he looked forward to the challenge.
“I figured, what an opportunity that is, to be chief and to be able to mold and guide a weather team and to be able to train young meteorologists,” Tim said.
Tim has also changed how we do weather at WJBF. He implemented Vipir 6 Alert Days. On days where there is a possibility of any type of severe weather, the weather team goes on high alert, tracking whatever is going on, whether it be extreme temperatures, ice, floods or severe storms.
WJBF prides itself on up to the minute coverage of severe weather. Many times we have been able to report tornados as they are touching down, potentially saving lives.
John remembers the first time he went out to cover a tornado in Lincoln County. He thought he was just covering damage from the storm, but it got scary fast.
“When we got there, after about 15 minutes, we were under a tornado warning for the area that we were in. So the photographer and I had to jump in a ditch as a tornado moved, probably about a mile down to the east of us,” John told Kim.
“Were you petrified or were you thrilled?” Kim asked.
“Petrified. Now, after it was over and I was fine, I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” laughed John.
In our 70 years on the air, we have told a lot of important stories that really had an impact, both on us and on the community.
Stories like the downtown riots in the 70’s, the attacks on September 11th, the Graniteville train accident in the early 2000’s and major flooding downtown.
We have had celebrities stop by like the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, opera star Jessye Norman, ABC World News Tonight anchor, Peter Jennings and most recently, actor Quinton Aaron.
Nelson Danish remembers a time Jonathan Frid who played Barnabus on the soap opera “Dark Shadows” came to town.
He said there was complete chaos at the station that day.
“They went mobbing the front door at 1001 Reynolds Street to the point one time in all that, there was a knock on the door. The door was locked. It was Mr. Fuqua. he couldn’t get into his own TV station,” Danish laughed.
A big part of the reason WJBF is the number one station in our market is our community outreach programs. “Giving Your Best,” “Your Hometown,” “Golden Apple,” and “Women to Watch” are just a few of those programs.
Pete Michenfelder believes it’s important to take notice of people doing great things in our community.
“Take a look at ‘Scholar Athlete Award.’ Here was an opportunity to promote and highlight exceptional high school students in our coverage area,” he said.
Dee Griffin does “Women to Watch.” She thinks these programs are one reason why people love WJBF so much.
“WJBF has always been steeped in the community. That was the expectation and no one had to force you to do it, because you came on board and you saw it,” said Dee. “I was here when we started the “Your Hometown” tours and we would get on a big bus and go to different cities. And we were a part of the community and we would be with people all day and do our newscasts.”
Another part of what has made WJBF great over the decades is our leadership.
Under General Managers like Jim Davis, John Radeck, Terry Sams and Bill Stewart the station has thrived and continued to grow. Bill Stewart retired from the station in June after decades as our GM and is in the Georgia Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
And now, Carter Murphy has taken the helm to lead us into the future.
“I always enjoyed the fact that Carter grew up in Thomson. Local guy. Worked his way up through the ranks at this TV station. Nothing better in my mind, than having a General Manager who is from this area,” said Michenfelder.
WJBF has had many great news directors too. They supervise all aspects of the newsroom and work hard to keep us on top.
While Scott Elledge didn’t hold the title of news director, he led the newsroom for many years, up until about a year ago. Now former anchor John Hart holds that position.
“John Hart always impressed me as a wonderful work ethic. Great ideas. Sports background. So my point with that is, John Hart, like many sports people, were hard workers. Both from a quantity and a quality standpoint,” Michenfelder said.
Michenfelder was news director here for a few years and he said one of the best things he ever did was hire Mary Morrison.
“And look at her longevity. You know, a hard worker. Good worker. Pleasant to be around. We’ve always had fun together. Great hire. One of my better hires.”
So, after 70 years, what is our legacy? Dee said it all comes down to one word.
“Community. Being the place to come for information in the community. Keeping the community informed. Unbiased with compassion, with knowledge, with experience and with a family sort of atmosphere,” she said.
With 70 years now under our belt, all of us here at WJBF look forward to 70 more.
That’s just PART of your Hometown History.
Photojournalist: Will Baker.