WDSU and the first TV broadcast in New Orleans history
When archdiocesan chancellor Monsignor Charles J. Plauche stepped onto the stage of the Municipal Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Dec. 18, 1948, he wasn’t just delivering an invocation. He was launching a new era in the Crescent City. In addition to the 5,000 people assembled in the auditorium, Plauche was standing before WDSU-TV cameras, which were beaming the very first citywide television broadcast into the living rooms of New Orleans. After Plauche’s words, a string of short films played, followed by a variety of local entertainers who took turns on the stage for a two-and-a-half-hour live broadcast. (Among them: singers, comics and an old vaudevillian named Joe Borello who presented “his Italian dialect and magic acts.”) New Orleans was on the air.
For nine years, WDSU — New Orleans’ NBC affiliate — was the only local station on the local airwaves. Then, in 1953, WJMR (now WVUE) signed on, followed in 1957 by both WYES and WWL. In 1967, WWOM — “the Wonderful World of Movies” — began broadcasting, later changing its call letters to WGNO. The way people watch TV has changed since those grainy early years — whether it is via over-the-air broadcasts, cable or satellite providers, or online streaming services — but, as in the rest of America, television is still a part of everyday life in New Orleans.
- WDSU was started by local businessman and philanthropist Edgar Bloom Stern Sr. for his son Edgar Stern Jr., who had developed an interest in broadcast technology while serving as a U.S. Army Signal Corps radar engineer in the Pacific theater of World War II.
- The story behind WDSU’s call letters are rooted in the purchase by the station’s owners of the already existing WDSU AM-1280 radio station as a shortcut around the FCC application process. The “W” signified the station is east of the Mississippi. (Stations west of the river got a “K.”) The “DS” stood for the De Soto Hotel, where the radio station was based for a time. And the “U” came from the last name of the radio station’s owner, J.H. Uhalt.
- Stern bought WDSU radio, which was established in 1923, for $675,000. Another $300,000 was spent on equipment to carry television broadcasts.
- With the first TV station came the first crop of local TV personalities, which for WDSU included the likes of soon-to-be household names Terry Flettrich, known to children as daytime host “Miss Muffin” and to their parents as cohost of the “Midday” show; “Mr. Television” Mel Leavitt; weather forecasting pioneer Nash Roberts; newsman Alec Gifford; multi-hyphenated entertainer Wayne Mack, best known as children’s host “The Great McNutt”; and, for a brief time in 1955, a Hollywood-bound fellow named Dick Van Dyke.
- The WDSU antenna — 424 feet tall and 30,800 watts strong — was installed atop the tallest building in town: the Hibernia Bank building downtown. The station’s first studios and offices were also in the Hibernia building.
- When it signed on, WDSU became the sixth station in the South — after stations in Fort Worth, Texas; Atlanta; Memphis, Tenn.; Dallas; and Richmond, Va. — and the 48th in the United States.
- Most of the WDSU staff at the time came from radio, so they were essentially making things up as they went along, inventing formats for new shows to put on the air and generally pushing the envelope of what TV could do. Among other “firsts,” WDSU carried the first live broadcast of a congressional hearing, introduced TV cameras to the floor of the state Legislature, and opened of a full-time Washington bureau to cover the Louisiana delegation in Congress.
- The pioneers at WDSU were influential, to say the least. NBC’s popular “Today” show follows a format suspiciously similar to WDSU’s old “Midday” show. Bill Monroe, the station’s first news director, went on to become NBC’s Washington bureau chief and, from 1975 to 1984, the moderator of “Meet the Press,” the longest-running show in TV history.
- The station’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. On July 22, 1966, Time magazine wrote, “All too often, across the U.S., television’s local news coverage veers from dull to deplorable. Bumptious reporters shove microphones into faces and ask inane questions, and cameras are trained interminably on fires and auto accidents. Few are the electronic journalists who make the most of their medium’s exciting possibilities. Those that do, though, point the way not only for their local colleagues, but also for their big-time rivals on the networks. Perhaps no station has done more journalistic pioneering than New Orleans’ WDSU-TV.”
- The first full-length feature film to be broadcast on local airwaves came on the second day of WDSU’s existence, with the 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” D.H. Holmes was the commercial sponsor for the broadcast.
- While the 1948 program at the Municipal Auditorium marked the first citywide TV broadcast, it wasn’t WDSU’s first time on the air, technically speaking. For several weeks before the big day, it was producing short programs from studios set up in the D.H. Holmes department store and at Werlein’s, with the signal piped into TV sets installed on-site in the hope of encouraging shoppers to buy them.
- In a 1998 interview, Edgar Stern Jr. said there were probably no more than 100 TV sets in the city capable of receiving that inaugural 1948 broadcast. (“And most of them were in stores,” he said.) That wouldn’t last for long. By the end of 1949, an estimated 15,000 New Orleanians owned TV’s. One year later, that number had more than doubled to 40,000.
Among those on-hand for New Orleans’ inaugural television broadcast was Mayor Chep Morrison, who went before cameras to welcome TV to the Crescent City. “I am proud that our city has joined the list of the progressive cities who now have television,” he told the cameras. “I feel that television will do the same thing for the city that the automobile did in 1910.” He was right to the extent that it brought about revolutionary changes, but while the automobile allowed people to explore the outside world, TV would bring people together, helping to shape, celebrate and define the local community. In short order it became a sort of electronic town square. It entertained us. It informed us. It got us talking. New Orleans was tuned in, and in a whole new way.