Making Chesapeake Airwaves

By Siobhan Hagan

MarMIA recently published a post about the local news collection held by the University of Baltimore’s Langsdale Library Special Collections. In that post there is included a brief history of the local television stations in Baltimore. It is important to research the history of television in Baltimore in much greater depth: to understand what has been kept, what has been lost, and where we should start preservation activities. However, conducting research into this topic is not as easy as it might seem: this is a recent history, happening only within the last 75 years. It should be easy to find information, but it is not. Today’s blog entry is more about where this information could potentially be found.

Each of the current television stations have a Wikipedia page that offers a decent amount of information about the station’s history. They all have a short synopsis of the station’s history, the most important shows and people associated with the station. My favorite part of Wikipedia though is the “External Links” and “References” sections. That can lead you to really valuable and reputable sources. For example, looking at WJZ’s Wikipedia page, I find that I definitely want to read the following article: “WAAM’s big day; new TV outlet was on air 23 hours Nov. 2-3” in Broadcasting – Telecasting from November 15, 1948. It even gives me the page number!

The video sharing website Youtube has a wealth of information. Just entering “WJZ” in the search box brings up 11,500 video results. Scrolling down the first page of results, each hit seems relevant. Mostly there are promos, news opens and closes from various decades. On the second page is one of my favorite videos, Behind the Scenes at Eyewitness News, showing the minutes leading up to the evening WJZ-TV Eyewitness News live broadcast in 1992.

But these are all news-related and the oldest seems to be from the 1970s. Local television stations produced many other types of programs that aired throughout the day. Some off the top of my head from WJZ were The Buddy Deane Show and It’s Academic. They only seem to pop up when you search for them directly on Youtube.

Other sources to consider for research could be found at various Maryland libraries and archives. The Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street in Baltimore has various existing and now-defunct papers on microfilm, such as The Baltimore American, The Baltimore Sun and The Evening Sun, and The Afro-American. These can be searched for international, national, and local important historical events of the time period, and list the show titles, dates, and times broadcast. The Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland has the Tom O’Connor Collection: an extensive collection of primary source materials compiled by a radio and television professional from Baltimore who had intended to write a history of Baltimore television.

I went to visit the WJZ-TV Station for a tour and to interview employees in 2010. I was working on my Master’s thesis, and my objective was to learn more about the details regarding the switch from film to video in the 1970s. The highlight was definitely meeting Don Scott and Marty Bass (and his dog Dixie)—two men I grew up watching every morning before school; from kindergarten through high school (and still when I go home and get up early enough). The station should have paperwork, right? There is a hallway I went through with an extensive exhibit of the history of the television station including photos and some ephemera. Who put all of this together, where did they get the information? My guide was not able to help me in figuring out these questions. My dream would be to conduct in depth oral histories of retired station employees to find some of these answers…and probably come up with more questions that need answering.

Another aspect that is related to the history of television in Baltimore is that of the history of television in Washington, DC. There were several local DC television stations also received by television sets in Baltimore, approximately 40 miles away. WDCA/Channel 20 also appeared on cable systems all along the east coast, including almost every system in Maryland. This would mean that a viewer in Baltimore County would be just as likely to remember their Baltimore television experiences as including many WDCA shows. For example, the locally famous character of Count Gore De Vol hosted a late night horror movie show called “Creature Feature” on WDCA, a local DC-area station, which was also broadcast in Baltimore and throughout Maryland. Another station like this was WJLA-TV from DC.

And this only scratches the surface: this post has been focusing on Baltimore area network affiliate stations, but what about Maryland Public Television and all those amazing public access cable TV stations across the entire state of Maryland? Maybe some day some one will take up Tom O’Connor’s work and write the quintessential history of television in Maryland: it’ll be a doozy!

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