Traveling north or south on I-75/85 between 10th and 14th Streets, across from the sprawling Turner Studio complex, there is a massive broadcast tower that is being dismantled piece by piece.
For most Atlantans the history of the tower is unknown, or maybe forgotten. Under that tower is 1018 W. Peachtree St., a vacant building painted a dull gray.
The tower that stood nearly 1,000 feet tall beamed the signal of Channel 17 to Atlanta viewers in the early ’70s.
In 1970 a young businessman by the name of Ted Turner sunk his money into WJRJ-TV, a money-losing operation. He changed the call letters to WTCG.
Years later it was said that WTCG stood for “watch this channel grow.”
To be honest, I only heard that tale in the late 1990s. True or not, from a public relations stand point, it makes a great story.
I first saw that tower in the spring of 1974, making my first trip to Atlanta during a break from the radio station I was working for in Pittsburgh. A young lady I was dating told me Atlanta was a really swinging town and being a 25-year-old radio DJ I wanted to check it out.
Being a student of broadcasting, the sight of that tower in what seemed to be downtown Atlanta was quite a sight. I actually noticed that before the skyline.
One day I followed the tower and found the TV station underneath. With a reel-to-reel demo tape in hand I walked in and asked if they needed any announcers. You can’t do that these days. In fact you can’t even get near the front door anymore, anywhere.
Yes! They did need an announcer, and I got the job. This kind of stuff you don’t make up.
Needless to say, I severed all ties with radio Pittsburgh. Now I was in television and parking my car underneath the tower.
I hadn’t met Ted Turner. He didn’t hire me. Our meeting came a few weeks later. Soon after that I learned what a character he was.
One of the first tower stories I learned was of the night Ted and WTCG’s production director R.T. Williams closed up a neighborhood bar and upon returning to the station to get one of their cars Ted dared Williams to climb the tower. As he started to climb, Ted got bored and left. Williams kept at it and, so they say, he made it to the top. The booze was now beginning to wear off and the sun was coming up. It took hours for him to climb down.
He told Ted later that morning that he did it. Ted never believed him. Did it really happen? If you knew what went on at that place in those days the story doesn’t seem all that crazy.
It was in the mid-’70s Ted decided Channel 17 should stay on the air 24 hours. Up until that time all TV went off around 1 a.m. The extra hours required no extra work for the tower but it did create more jobs and put extra pressure on all the equipment. Why did we go on 24 hours a day? As Ted put it “Somebody’s watchin’.”
He was right, as usual. Imagine not having TV 24 hours a day. Did that time ever exist?
It was in the middle of the night when we buried our newscast. It became quite popular. Mainly because it was more of a comedy show than news. That’s another story.
Many a night when we would leave the station there would be kids trying to climb the tower. Mostly Georgia Tech students fueled by a few beers. None of them, to my knowledge, ever made it far.
These days, security would put a stop to it. Of course we had no security; in fact the back door was always propped open with a videotape box.
There was certain amount of danger working at WTCG, especially in the winter when ice would form at the tower’s higher elevations and then fall off. All of us would have to make a mad dash into the building before getting hit. The convertible top of my 1972 Fiat was torn in half by ice. What if I had been in the car when it happened? I can hear it now, “Well, ah ... Get somebody else to read the news.”
In 1976, WTCG became the first television station to beam the signal to a satellite. It was the dawn of a new era. The tower was beginning to lose its power. WTCG was becoming a superstation.
WTCG became WTBS and then TBS. The tower is now a relic. Even too high for the birds to land on. I’m sure today when someone first drives on I-75/85 between 10th and 14th they notice the buildings of the Turner Broadcasting System and don’t even glance at the old guy across the way.
Through it all, the tower stood guard over the old and the new. Now that its days get shorter and shorter, so to speak, I can tell you this: It was great to be on the ground floor, and I guess if you worked under the tower, that’s where you really were.
Bill Tush lives in Atlanta.
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