WHNT’s Steve Johnson Reflects On Changes In News

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(WHNT) – I began working at WHNT News 19 on May 2nd, 1977. The day I started at the station as Sports Director, there were no cell phones, no lap tops, no iPads, no DVDs, not even home VCRs.  It was a different time for sure. A time when 16-mm film ruled the industry. That meant when you shot film, you had to process it before you could edit it.  It only became “electronic” when all the stories were put in order and recorded in the control room for playback during the newscast.  Back then, WHNT News 19 would still use a slide projector during a news broadcast. It was way more primitive, but the news product was still a matter of doing the job and telling the story.

Steve Johnson, on the WHNT 19 anchor desk in the 80s. (Photo: WHNT Archive)

Steve Johnson, on the WHNT 19 anchor desk in the 80s. (Photo: WHNT Archive)

In 1977, and for about a decade after that, WHNT News 19 was located on Monte Sano, right next to our tower.  When I first started at the station, the newsroom was a very small room in the main building.  There was a small grocery store across the road from the station where we’d go to get drinks and snacks.  That closed a couple of years after I started, and that building became our newsroom.  What that meant, you had to run across a street and a parking lot to get to the studio.  As you can imagine, going outside and running across a parking lot, and over curbs was not the same as going down the hall.  I know of at least one person who broke their collar bone, and a couple of others who sprained ankles trying to get from the newsroom to the studio.

In 1977, and for quite a while after that, most people who worked in news also smoked.  I don’t mean they went outside and smoked, I mean they smoked while they worked.  There was so much smoke in the building it looked like something was burning. As a non-smoker, I wasn’t really happy about it, but I still had to deal with smelling like smoke when I got home at night.

For the first decade I was at the station we were located on Monte Sano, and that meant driving up and down the mountain multiple times a day. Being news folks, we were always in a hurry, and that meant we were generally in passing gear all the way up the mountain. That wasn’t a big deal when we drove big eight cylinder Chevy’s, but as we moved first to six, and then four cylinder cars our repair bills zoomed.

As I mentioned there were no cell phones for the first several years I was at the station. It meant you either made your calls before you left the station, you called back on the two-way radio and asked someone else to call, or you just showed up and hoped for the best.  I actually don’t understand how we got the job done without all the communication tools we have today, but we did. Then again, the person back at the station who had to make the calls for reporters on the road was never very happy.

Two years after I started at the station we moved to what was called ENG, electronic news gathering. We were in the modern video tape age and film was out. In fact, the companies that made the 16-mm film only lasted a few years after TV stations quit using their product.  Video tape made doing stories a lot easier, but I still think learning to edit film was an advantage.  With film (which wasn’t cheap) you had to do some editing in the camera, and that caused you to really think about what you were shooting.

Cell phones (not smart phones) eventually came, and that really did make the work easier. Like I said, it’s hard to imagine a reporter not having a cell phone.

Technology behind the scenes also changed over the years.  When I first got to the station, the teleprompter for the anchors consisted of sheets of script being taped together with scotch tape, and then put on a conveyor belt.  Someone would control that belt, and the sheets would move under a camera which put the image on a two way mirror in front of the studio camera lens. It’s all electronic now, but that primitive system worked just fine.

When I started at the station everyone used a typewriter. At first they were manual, then electric.  With both kinds you had to type on script paper that was several pages thick.  To this day I hit my keyboard  too hard, because I got used to having to really slam away at those manual keys to make sure the copy was written on every sheet.