I was invited to WBIR’s celebration earlier this week of the 30th anniversary of its iconic slogan, “Straight from the Heart.” Most of the so-called “Dream Team” from the anchor desk 30 years ago came for the occasion. So did former general manager, Jim Hart, and former news director, Margie Nichols. It was a festive day, celebrated with cake and war stories.
But what surprised me most was hearing from Steve Dean, the widely acknowledged genius promotions director, about the origins of the brand that has truly personified the station for the past three decades. It was the brainchild of a Los Angeles advertising agency, if you can believe it. I have to admit I was a little disappointed to be reminded of that. You just want to think it was somehow organic. That someone from around here — like maybe Dean himself — came up with it.
To hear Dean tell it, the station interviewed a number of ad agencies before deciding on the one from Los Angeles. He said they took a guy from the agency into a conference room at the station and literally covered him up with books and articles about the history and culture of Knoxville and East Tennessee. The fellow took all the materials back to Los Angeles with him and a short time later returned and presented the station with the slogan that has become its brand.
The brand would not have stuck, however, if WBIR had not truly lived it. While other TV stations across the country adopted packaged slogans such as “Eyewitness News” and embraced philosophies of “If it bleeds, it leads,” WBIR chose a different direction. It developed homespun positive segments such as “The Heartland Series,” about the people of East Tennessee and Appalachia, and “Monday’s Child,” during which anchor Bill Williams helped an orphan be adopted every week.
Don’t get me wrong. WBIR still did hard news. I was at the time a reporter and editor at the old Knoxville Journal (which interestingly was owned by Gannett, the company that today owns WBIR), and WBIR gave us the most competition of any TV station as far as hard news was concerned. But the station and its super-popular personalities had a softer compassionate side, as well.
“It worked because we really cared about our audience,” Dean said in an interview that aired on WBIR this week. He said the station would certainly cover hard and even negative news when necessary. But, on the other hand, he said, “When something good happens, we’re not going to run away from it — we’re going to cover it.”
It is a formula that has worked. I, personally, think our community is better for having the leading news station display its “heart.” And I’m glad it has worked out for WBIR, as well.
On Monday, Edye Ellis and Bill Williams anchored the 6 o’clock news once again in what was billed as a “retro” newscast. They looked as good as ever. They were joined by Bob Kesling on the sports desk, a former radio guy who joined the anchor team when he was 26 with zero television experience, and today is the “Voice of the Vols” — the play-by-play announcer on The Vol Network at UT. Moira Kaye handled the weather duties on Monday, using an old-timey weather map as she used to do 30 years ago when she handled weekend weather back in the day. A former Miss Tennessee, Kaye still is with WBIR and Fox 43, a station for which WBIR provides news and talk content.
The only down part of Monday’s reunion was the absence of veteran weather caster Margie Ison. She did phone in a short message, explaining that she could not be there in person because she is battling thyroid cancer. The station’s Facebook account was immediately flooded with well-wishers.
Here are a few behind the scenes glimpses of Channel 10 going “Straight from the Heart” this week — after 30 years.