Admittedly, it probably wasn’t a good idea.
But here was Jennifer Cathey Arbitter making her way through a wooded area in White County, Georgia to capture some b-roll footage for an upcoming segment. There had been a stabbing in the area, and the local sheriff wasn’t available for an interview at the moment.
No matter. She asked where she could get some shots, and the folks at the police department told her where to look.
The limited resources of her television station — they cobbled together their newscasts with “shoestrings and paper clips” as she recalled some 20 years later — meant here she was, alone with a camera in the woods.
And that’s when the truck stopped by.
The gentleman behind the wheel seemed sincere and non-threatening. Mostly, he just seemed puzzled why there was this young woman lugging around a bulky camera so close to where he lived.
He checked to see if she was OK and what she was doing, to which Arbitter responded she was a reporter, letting him know there had been a stabbing in these very woods, and she was getting some footage for the 6 p.m. broadcast.
“He said ‘do you have to put it on the news?’ and I said ‘I do, I’m sorry … are you connected to this somehow?,’” she said. “He said ‘well, yeah, I’m the guy who stabbed him.’ And I’m alone in the woods! I kept it together, and I said ‘how about this, would you like to tell me your side of the story?’ He said ‘well, I don’t think my lawyer would like that very much, but you just need to know that guy had it coming.’”
This currently non-threatening — though evidently at one point earlier in the day, definitely a very threatening individual — once again declined to have his say on camera, politely told Arbitter goodbye and drove off.
She stood there for a moment, finished up her shoot and headed back to the sheriff’s office.
“I said you guys could have mentioned that the defendant made bail and lives next door to the crime scene,” she said with a laugh. “You could have told me that rather than let me go out there by myself in the woods!”
Still, Arbitter did her job, honored the man’s request to remain off the record, packaged the story up and shared it from the studio desk for the 6 p.m. broadcast of WNEG NewsChannel 32’s nightly local news program.
For nearly 30 years, including 13 as a small CBS affiliate operating out of Toccoa, Georgia, WNEG-TV put the focus on 16 predominantly rural counties that spanned from Rabun County to Oglethorpe County. These were places where television news rarely reached, with reporters heading over from Atlanta or Greenville only if something bad had happened.
For this moment, this brief window of time, the people of Northeast Georgia had their own television station with their own reporters covering their own news, good and bad. It was revelatory for the small communities that dotted the expansive region, proving to them and those beyond that what they did there mattered.
“It was fun and a challenge because there was that sense that it had not been done before, at least in our immediate area,” said Joy Purcell, one of the original employees and later news director at WNEG-TV in the late 1990s. “So we were given the opportunity to lay the groundwork for how it could be done and should be done. That was very invigorating, professionally and personally, and to be doing it in the community where we were raised and had deep roots meant a lot.”
The small town visionary with a dream
In today’s jaded world, small-town life can sometimes be dismissed as backward or stuck in time. From the outside looking in, it might be tempting to suggest that someone who comes from those roots and continues to live in those places might lack vision.
But that’s a simplistic view because what appears to be the same day-in and day-out to those peering in isn’t always so.
Visionaries, you see, come in different forms and from different backgrounds. They don’t have to be building electric cars or sending people to space or developing the next app. Being a visionary can depend on place because that place, those roots, ultimately ground the visionary in who they are and what they dream.
In Toccoa, that visionary was Roy Gaines.
Born in Hartwell, Georgia in 1926, he grew up on a farm caked with hardscrabble red clay in Franklin County during the lean years fomented by the Great Depression. Upon graduation from high school, he served in the U.S. Navy, manning the 14-inch guns on the USS New York in World War II’s Pacific theater and hammering away at enemy installations in Okinawa.
He returned to Northeast Georgia following the war, working for WRLC radio in Toccoa for 10 years before teaming with his brother, Chuck, to start WNEG radio in 1956. The station remains a mainstay in Northeast Georgia, offering insights on local news and sports.
His business acumen and appreciation for his community elevated his status, earning him three terms as mayor of Toccoa in the 1970s and a lifetime achievement honor from the community’s local chamber of commerce. Ultimately, though, what endeared him to the people was his foresight and vision, and nowhere was that on greater display than with his desire to bring a television station to the region.
In 1984, under the umbrella of Stephens Broadcasting Group, WNEG-TV began as an independent station that cobbled together a hearty mixture of local programming and old movies and television shows. The same community-focused, family-friendly news and entertainment Gaines delivered on the radio, he replicated for television. It was revolutionary for the region, bringing many of the voices people had heard for so long directly into their homes.
One of Purcell’s first jobs following her graduation from the University of Georgia was with WNEG-TV during those independent days. She was struck by the passion and purpose of Gaines in making this enterprise work.
“This was more than just a business venture for him,” said Purcell. “This was a personal investment in his community.”
For all of Gaines’s vision, however, the challenges were great.
Acquiring programming was costly, and getting the station listed on various cable providers was a bear. The over-the-air signal, while weak, ensured that some residents with antennas could receive the station, but the steady growth of cable in the 1980s — and the subsequent shut-out of WNEG-TV with many of those cable providers — threatened its vitality.
If no one could watch, no one would advertise. If you couldn’t get anyone to advertise, you couldn’t invest in new programming. If you couldn’t invest in new programming, you couldn’t get anyone to watch.
This circular loop of loss loomed over the station. Something had to be done.
Searching for opportunity
According to filings with the FCC, WNEG-TV had been steadily losing money since 1988, and by the early 1990s the network had been replaced on two of the largest cable systems in Northeast Georgia to make room for Turner Broadcasting’s newest venture, TNT, which gutted revenue by an additional $100,000 annually.
Gaines had tried everything, including laying off staff, cutting back on local shows and entering into barter agreements where advertising revenues are shared for syndicated programming. By 1990, he realized it was time to sell the station.
It turns out that a station with little programming, substantial financial losses and no platform to distribute its content doesn’t attract many buyers. During a period of five years, WNEG-TV retained various media brokerage firms who hoped to identify a buyer for the station, though there was never any serious interest.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
There was one interested buyer in Omni Management Associates which entered into a letter of intent with Stephens Broadcasting in March 1994. Gaines told the FCC in 1997 he held several meetings with Omni’s leadership, including quite a few in their offices in Atlanta as they negotiated a possible deal.
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The problem was Omni wasn’t really real.
According to an FCC memo, when Gaines tried to call its CEO to sign the agreement, he found out the company’s phones were disconnected, it had been kicked out of its building for not paying rent, and the CEO he was trying to reach had been unavailable because he was in jail. The financial information Omni had shared with Gaines was entirely false, including a forged letter from a prominent Atlanta bank.
Once again, WNEG-TV was back on the market, hoping to find a buyer willing to take a risk on a station located in a community of 9,000 and stuck in what felt like a geographic no man’s land.
Toccoa was hamstrung by a situation that, according to Ann Hollifield, the former head of the department of telecommunications at the University of Georgia, was not entirely unique, but definitely a bit unusual.
Technically, the small Georgia town is not sandwiched between major media markets. Relying on the metrics used by Nielsen, Toccoa is a part of the Asheville-Greenville-Spartanburg market spanning the Carolinas that, at the time, was considered to be the 34th largest in the country.
While it might meet the criteria of a traditional media market, the fact that its population centers were spread across three different states presented a challenge.
“Each one is basically serving its own city alone and no advertiser in their right mind who is trying to reach the Greenville, South Carolina audience or the Asheville, North Carolina audience would buy advertising from the Toccoa station,” Hollifield said. “You wind up having three tiny markets trying to survive on their own, and it’s a really difficult media economics situation.”
To address this, Spartan Communications, which owned WSPA-TV in Spartanburg, proposed to the FCC that it acquire WNEG-TV and establish it as a Georgia bureau for its news operations. Additionally, the media landscape of Georgia had changed dramatically as WAGA-TV, which had been a longtime affiliate of CBS, opted to transition to upstart FOX, largely because of the latter’s landmark deal with the NFL.
The Atlanta CBS affiliation, then, went to WGCL-TV, a station which was able to effectively blanket the immediate metro area with its signal, but lacked the power to reach the foothills and mountains of North Georgia. Given that WSPA also was a CBS affiliate that lacked the signal strength to reach the region, approval was given for both the sale and the assignment of the affiliation.
Having CBS as the primary source of its programming provided WNEG revenue, incentives for advertisers and assurances of being placed on every cable provider from Athens to Lavonia.
Gaines’s passion and purpose was still alive, and he now had secured a lifeline with the potential to reshape the media landscape in the region.
Doing real news in Toccoa
In the mid-1990s and under the ownership of Spartan Communications, work began on building out a local news team that could serve the region.
Rebranded as NewsChannel 32, the staff was small, but hungry. Initially, the newsroom was made up of just four people — a news director, an anchor, a news reporter and a sports anchor with weather updates coming from WSPA. The local newscast went live every day at 6 p.m. with an updated, taped version coming on at 11 p.m., primarily to accommodate sports highlights or significant breaking news.
There clearly was a sense of pride in the various small towns across the region, even if they were a bit confused at what was going on in the beginning.
“I remember I started calling all the local sheriff’s offices and chambers of commerce, and they couldn’t quite grasp that I was at a TV station and not a newspaper or radio station,” Arbitter said. “It was really an adventure to be at the beginning of something.”
Arbitter was hired as the station’s first news anchor, joining NewsChannel 32 as a young anchor and reporter from Columbia, South Carolina. A native of Rabun County, she brought a mixture of real-world television experience and home-grown perspective to bear.
Purcell was another local find, having previously worked with Gaines during WNEG’s independent days, and she became the news director for this new iteration.
“(NewsChannel 32) was long awaited and much embraced,” Purcell said. “People were excited to see not only their towns and communities in the news, regardless of what the story might have been. It’s ‘oh I know that place’ or ‘oh that’s where I live.’ And it wasn’t only that, but also (seeing) the people they knew and loved and the stories that directly impacted their lives. That is something they had not had before.”
A key addition to the cast came later in the 1990s when Chuck Moore, a longtime media personality in Atlanta, agreed to join the NewsChannel 32 as a co-anchor with Arbitter. He had decided to enter a semi-retirement of sorts, moving from Atlanta to live at Lake Hartwell.
He wasn’t ready to completely step back from journalism, however, and the station’s then-general manager, Ben Daniels, had worked with Moore at WXIA and coaxed him into joining this upstart, rag-tag group of reporters.
For many, it was like having a legend join their team.
“I specifically can tell you that I used to get dressed for school in our hall bathroom, and there was a little three-inch TV screen in there, black and white, and I would watch Chuck Moore on that screen every single morning,” said John Hart, who served as sports anchor in the late 1990s.
Moore also wasn’t afraid to work. While many figured he might simply show up around 5 p.m., read the news and then head home, he worked hard. He got there early and worked the phones. He wrote his own segments. He went out on shoots as needed.
Most importantly, he provided a stabilizing, mentoring presence throughout the newsroom. Naturally introverted, Moore was the opposite of what some thought he might have been.
“He was actually a very shy person which was unusual for the television news business because we’re usually outgoing people who want to be the center of attention, and Chuck wasn’t,” Arbitter said. “He wasn’t in your face trying to tell you how to do your job, but if you understood the goldmine that was sitting right across from you in the newsroom and you asked him advice, he was more than happy to give it.”
With Arbitter and Moore holding down the news desk, the affiliation with CBS — with strong lead-in shows like 48 Hours, Nash Bridges and Judging Amy that resonated with the region’s key demographic — helped to buoy ratings for the 11 p.m. newscast.
It also brought with it some tough choices.
Finding spots for local icons
A station that just a few months earlier had been scrambling, bartering and pleading for shows to air was now flush with 24 hours of popular programming, meaning some of those local shows might not fit into its future plans.
Consider The Billy Dilworth Show.
Dilworth was something of an icon in these rural communities. He had a long-standing column that ran in various weekly newspapers, as well as an established radio presence that he had parlayed into the old WNEG-TV’s most popular show. It made perfect sense to invite him to join the lineup of local shows NewsChannel 32 would be offering.
The only problem was Dilworth’s existing television show was three hours long, which simply was not feasible given the new schedule constraints.
“He could have an hour, but not three because we have sports and CBS stuff to show,” Arbitter said. “Well, he did not like that, so we couldn’t come to terms with him. Originally that was the big controversy. A lot of places I went before I could interview someone they’d say ‘why did you get rid of Billy Dilworth?’”
After a few years, the show returned as Dilworth settled on an hour-long format. It immediately positioned itself as a cult hit, restoring its long-time viewer base among older residents in the region who had grown up with Dilworth and attracting the curious interest of younger fans who were puzzled and entranced by this throwback show that seemed to follow every SEC football game.
The set was, admittedly, a bit outdated, and the format was rather simple. Dilworth sat behind a desk, shared some community updates, played some old country music videos and would have guests on to answer questions from viewers who called in to the show.
“It was like if you listen to a small town, AM radio station where you get someone reading the obituaries and the farmer’s forecast, and this was a throwback to that time,” Arbitter said. “It was a reminder that we are in a small town, and everybody does know everybody. If you want to know about your vertigo or your gout, call this doctor I’ve got as a guest and he’ll talk to you live on TV.”
Sure, it felt hokey, but that’s because it was a bit hokey. Dilworth’s fans didn’t mind because he was one of them, and new viewers were drawn to his charming drawl, folksy format and genuine honesty. You were just as likely to find your 82-year-old grandmother in Elberton pulling up a chair to watch Dilworth as you were a collection of 22-year-olds getting ready to head out for a night in downtown Athens.
“Not only did this community know him, but he knew this community,” Purcell said. “I think that really was what WNEG was all about. It was about community and being a reflection of that community because it allowed people to see themselves and the people they loved on TV.”
In Part Two, we’ll take a closer look at the growth of the NewsChannel 32 sports staff, its focus on and appreciation of local sports and how that fueled the station’s surge in popularity across Northeast Georgia.