Turning 50 at Channel 12

Friday, October 1, 2004

For Cape Girardeau, the beginning of local television was a slide show. In 1954, broadcast entrepreneur Oscar Hirsch -- who operated the only commercial radio station in town for 27 years -- gave viewers in the area their first televised images of local life, which included slides accompanied by voice-overs showing his station's new transmission tower going up a few miles northwest of the city just off of U.S. 61. The tower is still visible from the highway today.

"We didn't even have a camera," said retired KFVS12 weatherman Don McNeely, recalling Channel 12's beginnings in an earlier interview.

But Hirsch could see beyond the slides.

He founded KFVS12, Cape Girardeau's first television station. The station -- nurtured in the black-and-white technology of the 1950s before computer graphics and video tape -- will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sunday.

Hirsch, who died in August 1992 at the age of 96, considered the station his biggest achievement.

"It's the biggest thing that ever happened to me," Hirsch said in July 1975, 50 years after he started the first radio station in Cape Girardeau. "Television is a mirror of American life."

Broadcast beginning

Hirsch started with a radio broadcast from the living room of his Frederick Street home one evening in July 1925, accompanied by a local orchestra and residents who were curious about this new form of entertainment.

His first radio broadcast -- sent out over a radio transmitter he built -- lasted less than two hours.

For 27 years, KFVS Radio was the only commercial radio station in Cape Girardeau.

From such beginnings, Hirsch founded radio stations in other parts of Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois before turning his attention to television.

His Cape Girardeau television station began broadcasting on Oct. 3, 1954. The station operated from a two-story brick building in the 300 block of Broadway.

Much of the early entertainment was both live and lively. Neighborhood nights showcased area bands, quartets and fiddler contests.

The station first televised programs mostly in the afternoons and evenings. Programming went off the air before midnight.

While primarily a CBS affiliate, it also presented programs from three other networks including ABC and NBC.

Its early logo featured the number 12 -- representing the channel -- with a cartoon body of a boy holding a television camera.

Weatherman McNeely said Hirsch saw the potential for television early on.

"He was planning television long before anyone else ever thought of it around this area," McNeely said.

James Hirsch of Cape Girardeau said that before his father could establish the station, he had to get approval from the Federal Communications Commission, which initially had planned to allocate Channel 12 to what is now Park Hills, Mo.

James Hirsch said his father and mother both worked hard to get the necessary federal approval.

"They had to convince the FCC that there was an area between St. Louis and Memphis that needed television," he said.

Before KFVS went on the air, area residents had to have tall antennas to receive signals from TV stations in St. Louis and Memphis. Even so, reception was poor.

James Hirsch said his father always gave credit to radio which paved the way for television.

"He always said radio was the backbone of the whole thing," James Hirsch said.

Primitive broadcasting

By today's standards, operations in the early days of television seem primitive.

A year or two after the station started, two television cameras were purchased at auction.

"The newscast was me just sitting and reading the news. There were hardly any visuals," McNeely said.

The station early on shot its news stories on 16-millimeter film. But the film had to be sent to Memphis to be developed. The whole process took several days.

"By the time it made it on the air, the news was a little stale," said McNeely, who worked for Hirsch first at KFVS Radio and then moved over to the then new television station when it went on the air.

The station began broadcasting "The Breakfast Show," featuring local personalities, in the late 1950s when morning television programming was rare. Over the years, local choirs, orchestras and dance troupes performed on the news and entertainment show.

"I bet every choir in the area was on the show at one time or another," James Hirsch said.

Longtime television anchor and reporter Mike Shain and senior weather forecaster Bob Reeves have both worked for the station for more than 30 years.

They remember when the station's news department had a four-person staff and a single anchor delivered newscasts, reporting on everything from the news to sports and weather. Today, the news department has about 40 employees including on-air staff.

Reeves said the station's weather reports were low-tech affairs at one time.

"We would draw fronts on a map," Reeves said.

McNeely remembers a simple weather map with a Gristo Feeds logo. It was a map with a piece of glass over it. A grease pencil was used to draw weather fronts and show temperatures in the area.

Reeves and Shain both remember slapping stick-on letters on a weather map during newscasts to signify low-pressure and high-pressure systems. Sometimes the stick-on letters fell off the map during the television broadcasts.

"Now and then you would lose a high-pressure system," Shain recalled.

Today, the station uses sophisticated computer technology to display weather information.

TV newscasts used fewer video-taped reports years ago. "We will use as much video in one newscast now as we would have in an entire month," Reeves said.

In 1960, the old KFVS television tower was replaced with a new, larger one north of the city. At 1,676 feet, it was the tallest structure in the world when it was built, KFVS12 says.

In December 1967, a topping-out ceremony was held for a new 13-story building to house the television station. Known as Hirsch Tower, it has been the home of KFVS12 for more than three decades.

James Hirsch said there was a reason why his dad wanted such a tall building.

"It needed to be that high for the microwave link that sends the signal to the transmitter eight miles north of Cape Girardeau," he said.

A lot has changed at the station over the years, and not just in technology. Shain said when he started in 1972 there were few women in television news.

"The news industry was considered a man's business," he said.

Racial and gender integration has made for a more diverse staff and one that reflects the region as a whole, Shain said.

In 1979, Hirsch sold the television station to the AFLAC Broadcast Division of American Family Corp. of Columbus, Ga.

In 1997, the Georgia company sold its broadcast group of seven stations including KFVS12 to Raycom Media Inc. of Montgomery, Ala. The company owns more than 30 broadcast stations.

KFVS12 has been promoting its 50th anniversary on the air for several weeks with congratulatory messages from former KFVS12 anchors, CBS stars and CBS news personalities.

Paul Keener, the station's marketing director, said the on-air anniversary celebration will continue for several weeks.

In November, the station plans to air an hour-long special celebrating the station's half century of broadcasting.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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