Earlier this month, radio broadcasting celebrated its 100th anniversary. In Pittsburgh, the radio station KDKA went on the air exactly a century ago and, with that historic first broadcast, fundamentally changed the course of American history. KDKA was for many years a sister station of Indiana's (and Fort Wayne's) most beloved and famous station WOWO.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only man elected four times to the presidency, made radio his own, and his powerful fireside chats, originating from what is now the Map Room at the White House, will go down in American history as the most historic use of radio by any president ever.
In the same manner in which FDR molded radio to his special gifts as a granitic communicator and gifted orator, a generation later another American president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, adopted the still-new medium of television as complementary to his boyish charm and youth, raising the televised news conference to a special forum and brilliant new way to speak not only to his fellow Americans but also to the world in the midst of a frenzied Cold War.
Fort Wayne played a large geographical role in both the FDR and JFK communication strategies because of its unique radio and television infrastructure at the juncture of northeast Indiana, southern and lower Michigan, and northwest Ohio. Radio stations like WOWO and WGL were the conduits for breaking news from World War II in the same manner in which television stations WKJG and WANE became the medium by which Kennedy and other presidents would convey their messaging during not only the Cold War but also during the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and the breathtaking resignation of President Richard Nixon in that molten summer of 1974.
But of the two media, television in Fort Wayne has had the far more consequential impact because of its revolutionary ability to convey sights, sounds and words in a marvelous matrix and tapestry. That story of TV in Fort Wayne adds up to a more than six-decade history that is both fun and fundamentally important to learn and read about.
This has been achieved in a new book titled “Television in Fort Wayne 1953 to 2018,” by former U.S. Rep. Mark Souder and former television journalists and personalities Melissa Long and Heather Herron. They have collaborated on a really sterling read.
As a native of Fort Wayne who spent part of my life in both radio and TV, I found this book a proverbial stroll down memory lane and consonant with a major part of the history of the Summit City.
The arrival of television in Fort Wayne had a demonstrable birthday: On Nov. 21, 1953, Fort Wayne's pioneer television broadcaster Hilliard Gates commenced a new era when he put WKJG-TV officially on the air. Gates was already a highly regarded radio broadcaster, and he found an intriguing way to keep his hand in both TV and radio for many years.
What followed were landmark local TV programs like “Engineer John,” originating from the WKJG studios on West State Boulevard, replete with a live audience of happy children and plenty of cartoons. Live Santa Claus broadcasts came from the former downtown department store Wolf and Dessauer, each afternoon during the Christmas season, where the famed Santa helper Wee Willie Wand would help legacy Santa Phil Steigerwald hear what the kiddos wanted under the tree.
Those were just two of the shows amid the hurly burly of innumerable newscasts, weather shows, cooking shows, in-studio wrestling matches and a personal favorite, the local version of “Meet the Press” titled “Editor's Desk” at noon each day hosted by former WKJG news director Dick Florea.
Souder, Long and Herron have beautifully captured and evoked how TV in Fort Wayne seemed to unify the city and metro area in common memories. They adroitly bathe their chapters in rightful nostalgia and sentiment, yet they never lose sight of how a plethora of sports programming, advertising, locally produced entertainment and Labor Day telethons helped to define this special corner of the world we call home.
My favorite parts of the book were the ones that reintroduced me to the many men and women who formed this tapestry of Fort Wayne TV history. Remember the names Marti Wright, Eric Olson, Liz Schatzlein, Victor Locke, Linda Jackson, Dean Pantazi, Don Chevillet and Bill Foster eating Big Boy hamburgers? They are all there, reappearing like old friends at a high school reunion, and so many more.
In 1986, I took my first job at WKJG-TV after graduating from the School of Journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington. Hilliard Gates hired me and was my first boss. I distinctly remember my job interview, sitting in his red-leather-chaired corner office on West State Boulevard surrounded by sports awards and all kinds of IU, Purdue and Notre Dame memorabilia.
When he offered me the job as news producer, he told me I was “stepping into a great tradition here at WKJG.” I left his office with a special lift in my step, and long years later, looking back, I realize what a privilege and honor those years were.
“Television in Fort Wayne” affirms that if you really want to understand the history of northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, you have to know a little something about its marvelous and varied media history. The Souder-Long-Herron joint enterprise hits the high mark from the first page till the last – a TV tapestry all its own.
Timothy S. Goeglein is a Fort Wayne native living in northern Virginia.
“Television in Fort Wayne 1953 to 2018: A Look Back at 65 Years of Northeast Indiana History Through the Eye of the Television Camera & Stories of the People Who Covered It” by Mark Souder, with Melissa Long and Heather Herron (M.T. Publishing)
296 pages; $37.50 (standard edition); $74.95 (leather edition)
Order online at www.mtpublishing.com; by phone at 1-888-263-4702; or by mail at M.T. Publishing Co., P.O. Box 6802, Evansville, IN, 47719-0802