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WLBT`s cameras still rolling half-century later

JACKSON — In December 1953, a new NBC-affiliated television station, using the call letters WJDT, went on the air. Though it was only the third television station in Mississippi to begin broadcasting (the other two also began airing in 1953), there is little documentation of the historical event and details are scanty. Even the exact date of that first broadcast is uncertain.

But in 2003, that station, now known by nearly 900,000 viewers as WLBT-TV, is still on-air, and for many in Central, West and Southwest Mississippi has become engrained in their life experience, a kind of touchstone. For while WLBT bears little resemblance to the WJDT of a half-century before, the station has recruited and retained some of the most familiar on-screen personalities the state has ever produced, supported by off-camera staff whose tenure with WLBT is just as impressive.

“You just don`t find the kind of employee retention in this industry like we have here at WLBT,” said Dan Modisett, a Jackson native who first came to WLBT in 1984 and was named president and general manager in 1990. “We’re a middle market — 90th out of 220. So, some people use us as a springboard to the larger markets. But we look for those people who are from the area and have a passion for the community, and many come to stay. There`s no doubt that one of the factors in our success has been the incredible tenure we have here. Bert Case, Marsha Thompson, Woody Assaf, Maggie Wade-Dixon, Frank Melton, Howard Ballou — they’re as familiar as family to a lot of our viewers.”

Metro Jackson native Wilson Stribling knows what Modisett means. Hired as freelance talent in 1998, Stribling stayed on and is now morning and “Midday” anchor and reporter. “I walked in that first time and there was Bert and Woody and Marsha,” he remembered. “I started shaking. It was intimidating. These were people I had grown up watching. It was like I had walked inside my television set.”

WLBT`s history is a captivating story. Television was in its infancy, so the original owner — the insurance company Lamar Life — turned to experienced radio men to build the first station. Incredibly, after a crash course at an NBC affiliate in Memphis, the engineers returned and built the station in a scant two weeks. (The original station was located in Pearl east of Jackson, but was moved to its current site on Jefferson Street in downtown Jackson within a couple of years.)

There was no local programming and no on-camera personalities. In-house talent was restricted to voice-overs for local advertising spots, which were nothing more than simple slides. With few television sets in the state, WLBT (which stands for “Lamar Broadcasting Television,” call letters adopted to prevent confusion with another Jackson television station) started out as a relative unknown and faceless.

But more and more television dials were being set to Channel 3. And those viewers by and large found the same faces. Assaf was an original and was the longest-serving weatherman at one station in the history of television when his career wrapped up a couple of years ago. Anchor Thompson left WLBT just this year after more than 20 years. Case has been with WLBT since 1974. As far as current off-camera personnel goes, chief photographer Jim Duncan has everyone beat — he`s been at the station since 1964.

Of the 100 employees at WLBT, almost one-quarter have 20 years of tenure or better, and almost half have been there at least 10 years.

As can be expected with any company that has been around a half-century, WLBT has seen its share of challenges. In 1971, the Federal Communications Commission yanked WLBT`s license due to racial discrimination. The station had preempted coverage of racial unrest during the Civil Rights movement, and it would be nearly a decade before the station received a permanent license.

While the FCC`s action sent shock waves throughout the television industry, it rocked WLBT`s very foundation. And the station has gone to the nth degree to ensure diversity of thought and balance ever since. Melton was one of the first African Americans to be named general manager of a television station. WLBT is also one of the few stations that have two African American co-anchors — Ballou and Wade-Dixon. And Modisett said WLBT attempts to keep the mix as close to 50-50 as possible between white and African American workers.

The station has also proven that it no longer ducks issues or is not community minded. From Melton`s shoot-from-the-hip “Bottom Line” editorials to Wade-Dixon`s child adoption advocacy program “Wednesday`s Child,” both award winners, WLBT is seen by many as a leader in investigative reporting and community activism.

Today, WLBT`s designated market area covers 24 counties, representing approximately 300,000 households. Yet, the station sees plenty of room for growth. Modisett said digital television will totally change the landscape, offering the opportunity to provide “sister” news and weather channels or coverage of local sporting events.

“These are exciting times,” Modisett said.

In the mean time, the folks at WLBT are reveling in memories and celebrating a long and colorful history. On Dec. 7, the station will air a one-hour special look back at a station that neither time nor its viewers have forgotten.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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