This is Part Two of our look back at the history of NewsChannel 32, a television station that provided in-depth coverage of local news and sports for Northeast Georgia. In Part One, we took a look at the formation of the station and the work of its news department, and you can read it here.
There really isn’t any other to put it, but if you didn’t live through it, you don’t really get it.
You see, there once was a time where you couldn’t just flip on the TV and watch whatever game you wanted to watch.
This was especially true for the NFL.
Before the days of Sunday Ticket or RedZone — where the NFL finally realized it could make even more money by simply making you pay to watch its weekly games — folks were stuck with whatever it was the local networks gave them. If the Atlanta Falcons were blacked out, hello Dallas vs. Cleveland. If you really wanted to check in on that Miami-Washington contest, just hold your breath and hope they break into coverage to show you a quick snippet.
Yes, this is hard to comprehend in today’s media landscape where nearly every professional league has some sort of on-demand package to watch games, meaning a Seattle Seahawks fan in Memphis, Tennessee can tune in every Sunday to watch Russell Wilson scramble to and fro.
In the 1990s, we all were at the mercy of the prevailing media rules of the market. And that helped make WNEG a prized asset for cable providers beyond the Atlanta market.
“My dad used to set up two or three TVs on the weekend to try and watch all the games at the same time,” said Jennifer Cathey Arbitter, a news director and anchor at NewsChannel 32.
If you lived in Athens, there was a good chance you had two CBS affiliates: WGCL serving Atlanta, and WNEG serving the sprawling Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville DMA. When you combined that with Atlanta’s Fox affiliate WAGA, the odds were good you had greater control over what game you wanted to watch than the standard sports fan living in Atlanta or Charlotte or Savannah.
It helped make WNEG a go-to-station for sports fans for a decade.
“We got that a lot,” recalled Scott Hartman, a sports reporter who worked at the station in the late 1990s. “I think they would take the Carolina Panthers game a lot, and you could get the Falcons game on WGCL out of Atlanta. People loved having the option.”
In good times and in bad, sports have brought people together, and nowhere was that more true than at NewsChannel 32. While the entire news department set out to tell the stories of Northeast Georgia, the sports staff at WNEG put the spotlight on the local sports teams that were the pride of their communities.
Friday nights became Super Bowl Sunday every week, with high school football teams from Elberton to Gainesville taking top billing. The local colleges that populated the foothills of the region suddenly saw their basketball and volleyball teams on television, and the University of Georgia, the dominant collegiate athletics program in the state, was priority number one for an ambitious and hungry team ready to make its mark.
“You’d go to work and you had this sense that people appreciate what we were doing,” said Jason Maderer, a sports anchor at WNEG-TV in the early 2000s. “They appreciate that we are at their games, and that made the job so enjoyable.”
Learning as you go
As a junior at the University of Georgia, Hartman already had garnered some experience working for the student newspaper, The Red & Black. However, his pursuit of a degree in telecommunications and a longtime interest in videography and production spurred him to seek out a possible broadcast journalism internship to broaden his experiences.
He decided to pursue a job opportunity in a smaller market to get a better hands-on experience, responding to a job posting at WNEG. Hartman, the son of longtime Atlanta sports TV anchor Bill Hartman, interviewed with then-sports anchor John Hart, expecting to be able showcase a basic understanding of the craft and impress his potential boss.
“I explained to him that when I was in high school I used to go to Falcons games with my dad, and I’d be a grip or carry extra batteries for the photographers and stuff like that,” Hartman said. “I told him that I’d be happy to do that stuff here, and he said ‘well that’s great, but what I really need you to do is edit footage from the news … can you do that?’”
Of course, he hadn’t, but that didn’t stop him from boldly asking if Hart would show him how to do so. With that, the two headed off down the hallway, locked themselves in the editing bay during this job interview and — in the days before digital editing since, you know, all of this can now be done on someone’s iPhone — Hartman got a crash course in how to edit a video package through an old-school tape machine.
He had the job by the time the day was done.
It parallels Hart’s own experience, where he joined Michael Carvell’s sports team of one with little to no experience as a student from Georgia. Hart showed up for this first day of work expecting to get eased into his role, and he drew an assignment right out of the gate.
“In my brain I’m thinking I’m going to get in a big truck with a bunch of other people like the lighting guy, the sound guy, the field producer, the photographer and so forth,” Hart said. “I got there, and (Carvell) handed me a camera and microphone and said ‘OK go to Rabun County and interview Sonny Smart.’”
There simply was no other way to make it work. In addition to Georgia athletics and the various local colleges in the area, the team was responsible for covering all the high school sports across a 16-county region that stretched from Rabun County down to Oconee County. It was an all-hands-on-deck approach that made learning on the job a feature, not a bug.
Sports differed from the other news segments in that it had to be updated each night for the 11 p.m. newscast. While most of the news segments remained the same from 6 p.m. — meaning those packages could just be re-aired — scores and stories from the nighttime contests would flood in and necessitate updates.
“We covered such a widespread area, not only for football but on a Monday,” said Hart. “As sports director, I’d get off the air at 6:30 p.m., and I might have to drive to North Georgia College in Dahlonega — and that’s an hour there and an hour back — all so I can shoot five minutes of a college basketball game so I can get it on the air at 11.
“On Friday nights, multiply that by trying to get 15 games.”
The team also worked to localize various national stories, and John Hart recalled producing a localized, 30-minute segment in advance of Super Bowl XXXIII between the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos, including filming the studio portions at 5 a.m. after editing the package overnight.
Spending “Friday Night Under The Lights”
Perhaps the top program on WNEG was its “Friday Night Under The Lights” show, aired live every Friday in the fall to capture the excitement and energy of high school football in the region. Since most of these schools fell too far beyond the coverage radius for the metro Atlanta television stations, NewsChannel 32 represented the first time these programs would have the spotlight shined solely on them.
From Habersham Central to Hart County, the arrival of a NewsChannel 32 camera crew meant your school’s game was one to watch this week. Fans created signs, eager to get on camera. Cheerleaders rehearsed cheers or chants in an attempt to make the show. Players readied celebratory moves for after a touchdown or turnover.
Each Friday night was an event, taking the passion that small communities had for their local teams and showcasing it on a professional platform that was broadcast across the region.
That doesn’t mean it was easy. The sheer scope of the coverage area, coupled with the steadfast commitment of the team to include as many schools as possible, made for frantic Friday nights.
“You hoped you would get something in that 20-minute window you’re there,” said Maderer. “You also hope you don’t walk away from a 14-0 Banks County lead, and then you go on air and have to say ‘after we left, Commerce scored 30 unanswered to win 30-14.’”
It also meant having to lean on a host of eager, yet unproven interns for support.
“You were dealing with people who were the greenest of the green,” Hart said. “Sometimes we borrowed people from the local colleges, and these were just students who were in a broadcast class, maybe not even wanting to do it for a living and they just needed a class credit. They were great, but they just didn’t know anything when they showed up.”
With the sports anchor typically staying close to the station, filming a game or two in Stephens County or Hart County, a team of interns and part-time workers fanned out across the sprawling coverage area to get snippets of footage from various locations. It was a daunting challenge, not only because of the distance the team would have to travel, but because of the tight time frame to gather all this footage.
With most games kicking off at 7:30 p.m., and each coverage team typically tasked with collecting footage from one or two games, every moment mattered. The travel time alone from the station to the destinations would easily eat up half of what was available, and that was before any footage was shot or edited.
And since digital editing was not yet a thing, that meant putting together packages of highlights in the field wasn’t possible. So each team had to drive back from Watkinsville or Clarkesville or wherever to Toccoa so the central team could handle the editing.
“There were a lot of things going on Friday night — there were a lot of pressures, and there was a lot of stress,” Maderer said. “But one of the most stressful things was when you took the tape from these student helpers and put it into the machine for the first time, and you just prayed to God that the video wasn’t blue or that it wasn’t so wide you couldn’t see who had the dang ball.”
The whole production was a race against the clock fueled a bit by luck, hoping that those interns Maderer was stressing over could provide usable footage for the show.
Fortunately, WNEG had a secret weapon who could smooth out the bumps in any broadcast.
Mack Poss was a staple of WNEG’s high school sports coverage.
He was well-liked, well-known and well-versed in all things football-related.
The thing is … no one can really remember what Poss did for his day job.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
They remembered bits and pieces of the various things he did. He sold insurance … or was it retirement plans … and they were primarily for teachers. He also was a coach at some point, or so everyone thinks because he definitely spoke like a high school football coach when you talked to him. At one point, he was providing color commentary for the Georgia women’s basketball team.
“Everybody in that community loved Mack Poss, but I can remember being very confused on what Mack’s background was,” Hartman said. “I guess he was a coach? I’m still not 100 percent clear. He knew all the coachisms.”
One thing was certain — Mack Poss knew everybody in the community, and everybody trusted Mack Poss.
And he was a natural on camera.
“He was better than 90 percent of the people who go to school for four years to do it,” Hart said.
Poss served as a less zany, more folksy Lee Corso to WNEG sports anchors steering the live coverage of Friday night football. He had deep roots in Northeast Georgia, achieving an almost larger than life reputation for his honesty and kindness that extended from the football field to the classroom.
That breadth of experience, coupled with his understanding of what made these communities tick, established him as the de facto star of “Friday Night Under The Lights.” Hart recalled his first-ever episode of the show going about as poorly as possible. Videos featuring footage from the games weren’t working, and when they did work they showed the wrong contest.
In frustration, Hart decided to take the show to a commercial break in hopes of resetting everything. Poss turned to his co-host and calmly reassured him on how things were going.
“We come back from break, and I remember Mack saying, ‘well we fumbled the first snap from scrimmage, but we’re going to get it together now,’” Hart said with a laugh. “I was automatically at ease from that moment on.”
Maderer said those off-the-cuff moments played to Poss’s strength.
“That goes back to the fact that this role isn’t supposed to be super polished,” Maderer said. “They aren’t the person in control. They’re just the person who talks, and Mack is really good at talking with people. He’s the kind of guy who has never met a stranger. When you had been in Northeast Georgia for that long, there weren’t many strangers.”
‘No one is going to out-UGA NewsChannel 32’
One place where the sports staff set out to build its deepest relationships was down the road in Athens.
While Toccoa actually is closer to Clemson, and it’s a relatively easy commute down I-85 to get to Georgia Tech, the team made a strategic decision to lean heavily into covering the University of Georgia. In today’s congested media landscape, it might seem like an unusual decision, particularly given the prevalence of digital outlets like The Athletic, 247 Sports and Rivals, but the team’s leadership knew the power the Bulldogs’ brand had across the region and the advantages they could gain by focusing their efforts in one spot.
“On John Hart’s last day, he pulled me aside and said ‘Atlanta is going to cover Georgia Tech better than you ever will, and the South Carolina stations are going to cover Clemson better than you ever will,’” Maderer recalled. “‘But no one will out-UGA Channel 32, and that’s what you need to remember.’”
There also were more lenient media access rules for various student-athletes at that time. Under former football coaches Jim Donnan and Mark Richt, Georgia would host a media availability day where one-on-one interviews with any player you wanted was possible. This gave NewsChannel 32 the ability to load up on exclusive content to populate its nightly coverage throughout the week.
It also offered the opportunity for its team to stretch its creative legs.
For instance, Maderer started a fun Q-and-A segment with Georgia football players, asking them casual and funny questions about the history of an upcoming opponent or ongoing trends in pop culture.
The focus, of course, was not solely on the primary sports of football and men’s basketball. Instead, NewsChannel 32 set out to cover the entire breadth of UGA athletics, from track and field to soccer. The strategy was two-fold — first, it provided relevant, local sports coverage that could fill up two slots during the evening newscasts, and second, it fostered strong, enduring relationships with various members of the athletic department that might help down the road if the staff was looking for a news tip or piece of advice.
There were few bigger fans of NewsChannel 32 than Vince Dooley, the legendary Georgia football coach and longtime athletic director. Hartman recalled his father telling him that the coach loved the nightly coverage the team put together.
And Maderer remembered Dooley holding up a significant press conference for a few moments because he didn’t see a representative from the station in the room.
“Think about that and try to wrap your brain around that for a second,” Hart said. “We were just this tiny little TV station, but we had built these relationships with these leaders and coaches at the University of Georgia where they made sure we were going to have a seat at the table.”
It wasn’t just Dooley who was a fan, but also Donnan. While the former coach is a fixture in the media now, he didn’t have the most media-friendly reputation during his days at the helm of the Bulldogs. However, he developed an affinity for the attention and focus WNEG put on Georgia.
After Hart left WNEG to take a job at WJBF in Augusta in 2000, he recalled that one of his first assignments was to cover the annual Georgia Bulldog Club coaches tour. He was set to interview Donnan live during the 6 p.m. newscast, using his opening question to ask about the status of Georgia’s quarterback situation.
Donnan took the opportunity to let Augusta know what they were getting in Hart.
“Without even answering the question, he goes ‘first I just want to say how fortunate Augusta is to have you,’” Hart laughed. “I mean, this is live on television! He’s like ‘we miss you in Northeast Georgia, and I know you’re going to do great things here.’
“My station was a bit upset because it was my first job for them, and they were, like, really? This new guy thinks he’s going to come in here and run the place?”
The blend of local sports coverage with an intense focus on the happenings at the University of Georgia helped make WNEG one of the most popular stations in its market. But while the sports staff had put its focus on covering Georgia, leaders at the university were crafting their own plans for the station.
In Part Three of our series, we’ll take a look at the acquisition of WNEG by the University of Georgia, the good intentions that fueled the move and, ultimately, why it didn’t work out.