WSFA-TV signed on the air Christmas Day 1954. A brief sign-on announcement by announcer Ralph Williams led into the first program, “A Christmas Carol.” The telecast was sponsored by Montgomery Fair (now Dillard’s).
The call letters WSFA were already a landmark in Montgomery. Gordon Persons (later to become Governor of Alabama) opened Alabama’s fourth radio station in 1930. The station was located in what is now the Gunter Annex, but then was the city’s airport. He publicized the station with the slogan, “With the South’s Finest Airport” (WSFA). When the television studios were built in 1954, the radio station moved into the facility along with the new TV station.
In February 1955, just two months after going on the air, the radio and television stations were purchased by the Oklahoma Publishing Company. At that time, the stations were operated by a staff of 35. In 1956, the radio station was sold, changed its call letters to WHHY, and moved to a downtown location. Several expansions of the Delano Avenue facility now provide over 35,000 sq feet of room for a staff of more than 100 including two large studios.
From the beginning, WSFA has had a serious commitment to news coverage. Former WSFA News Director and Anchor Charles Caton said, “the Oklahoma Broadcasting people had a newspaper background and news was big with them, unlike a lot of stations at the time. Many stations had no local news programming at first. WSFA, however, had the ingredients for an outstanding news operation: the commitment of ownership, the most advanced equipment available, talented leadership in the person of first News Director Frank McGee, and perhaps most importantly, a riveting story to tell.” The story was the Montgomery Bus Boycott which launched Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to national prominence. It also was a proving ground for McGee, who later anchored NBC’s “Today” show and all the early space shots.
WSFA was one of the first stations outside the top ten markets to own film processing equipment. During the late 50’s, WSFA fed many stories to the networks each week and processed more film than any station south of the nation’s Capitol. During the early years of the Civil Rights movement, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company used the WSFA facilities to transmit stories.
The Broadcasting Company of the South purchased WSFA in 1959. That company did not have a strong background in news in those early days. When the ownership realized that news was such a strong part of WSFA’s focus, they went on to develop strong news stations in other markets, too.
The 60’s were exciting times in television. The old black-and-white pictures gave way to color, and videotape changed the way stations operated. Then, in the mid-70’s, WSFA erected its “tall tower.” At the time, it was the third tallest man-made structure in the world.
In addition to outstanding news coverage, WSFA presented many live programs still remembered fondly in Central and South Alabama. Children’s programming included “Fun for the Young” and “Young World” with Marge Payne, “Cartoon Carl,” “Popeye Theater,” “Adventure,” and “Junior Auction.” Betsy Plummer, the first lady of Montgomery television, was host of “How Do You Do It?” Catherine Wright interviewed many nationally-known guests on the “Guest Room,” and her teen-aged daughter Toni Tennille played the piano and sang on many of the local programs. She later became world famous as part of “Captain and Tennille.”
WSFA’s “Auburn Football Review” was one of the first coach’s shows in the nation, going on the air with Coach “Shug” Jordan in 1955.
WSFA has continually built its news department. In the early days, it was one half-hour newscast a day. Now, WSFA airs more than 40 hours of local newscasts each week. Some of the more popular additions to WSFA news were a series of tower-cameras giving viewers aerial views of weather and traffic, and more recently WSFA Stormtracker 12, the areas only mobile weather lab.
WSFA was also the first television station in the state to upgrade to digital, non-linear video news gathering equipment and began producing all newscasts in High Def in 2008 with new, innovative equipment being added all the time.
Digital news content at WSFA began with the creation of wsfa.com in 1999, and the station has stayed up to date on both technology and viewer consumption habits ever since. WSFA’s web site, news and weather apps, and social media sites continue to lead the market among news gathering operations.
News coverage and the technology that accompanies it are mainstays at WSFA, however the station is equally grounded in community support projects throughout the year.