Remembering John Powell

 

On this Christmas Eve, comes word from Missouri that John Powell has died.

Powell was a radio and television pioneer whom many of you saw on WREG Channel 3 and heard on WREC radio from the 1950s through the 1990s.

Those decades took in a lot of change in the broadcasting industry not to mention the city itself.

At a time when “talk shows” were the Tonight Show on television and the Sunday morning public affairs programs, Powell teamed with Fred Cook for a talk show much different than the newstalk format of the last 30 or so years.

Powell was also the news director of what is now News Channel 3 and like Cook anchored newscasts at a time when the anchor did sports and weather too.

Powell retired in the mid 1990s and moved to the Ozarks.

“The Zero Hour” radio program was the result of a 1962 fire at The Peabody Hotel where the radio and television station were located at the time. WREG and WREC now have different owners.

But in 1962, they were owned by Hoyt Wooten, a vivid figure in the history of local broadcasting who started the radio station in the early 1920s with a player piano in his family’s home in Coldwater, Miss.

Wooten had some lifelong tenets about broadcasting which included rarely if ever going off the air. Decades later, one of the radio station’s engineers told the story of WREC going off the air and Wooten calling to ask why it had. The engineer told him they took the station down to ensure the safety of someone working on the transmitter. Wooten said he understood but added that if someone working on the transmitter got a shock to simply hit them with a two by four to detach them from the current.

That is how he felt about the radio station going off the air for any reason.

So in 1962 when there was a fire at The Peabody and the hotel was evacuated, WREC stayed on the air. Powell was teamed with Cook and a local broadcasting institution was born that later came to be called The Zero Hour.

Cook and Powell had chemistry and timing and the show was a great success in a style that probably wouldn’t be considered a format today. It was innately Memphis.

They talked and if they felt like they had run out of things to say, they played a record by Frank Sinatra or the Ray Coniff Singers or something in a similar musical vein which was just as much a part of the station’s identity. And a news organization that did its own original reporting was part of the mix along with CBS radio news.

They had a few ground rules. They didn’t talk about political beliefs or religion and they didn’t take themselves too seriously on any other topic.

Talk and music were not separated. They worked together and the glue was the talent of the broadcasters.

On air, Powell was the more easy going of the two. Cook was the more curmudgeonly of the two. But the boundaries weren’t etched into a formula. Off air they tended to swap the roles mainly because Powell’s off air duties included production work – the ads that are a vital part of making a radio station profitable.

I worked at WREC for eight years in the 1990s with John and Fred and Allan Tynes and Leonard Blakely and Jim Hutchinson, all of whom were part of the station when it was the radio station most adults had on in their cars and in their homes. It was the “grown-ups” radio station to a lot of us who were children during those years. And I have to tell you that being a part of that staff years later is something I remain very proud of. It could also be pretty intimidating at times to look through the glass and see them on the other side taking in what I was doing.

We never had a staff meeting. We never had sit downs where we listened to my air checks. I learned so much just by watching them work. Some of it I could do. Much of it I could not, including creating the perfect mood with just a few words and just the right tune. It is hard to explain, but what they were able to create was more than the sum of the parts.

It was as much the timing and pauses in their delivery as it was the delivery itself. And they never forgot that their audience was one person at a time.

 

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