Highlights of WAVE's history

For The Louisville Encyclopedia

By James M. Caldwell

WAVE-TV and WAVE Radio.

WAVE-TV went on the air November 24, 1948—Kentucky's first television station, and nation's 41st.  Its founder and owner was George W. Norton Jr., a lawyer and financier who had put WAVE Radio on the air in 1933.  Nathan Lord was vice president and general manager.  WAVE-TV's original power was 24,100 watts on Channel 5, with studios, transmitter and tower at Preston and Broadway.

WAVE-TV has been an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) ever since its inaugural program.  The next May WAVE-TV locally originated the first telecast of a Kentucky Derby.

The national coaxial cable reached Louisville in 1950.  Prior to that, NBC programs were shown on film, as was national and foreign news.  Local news was done live with Livingston Gilbert; he anchored WAVE-TV and radio news for 39 years.

In 1953 WAVE-TV switched to its present Channel 3, at 100,000 watts, with a new transmitter and 600-foot tower atop a 925-foot (above sea level) knob above New Albany, Indiana.  This increased WAVE-TV's coverage by 66%.  NBC color came in 1954.  WAVE-TV was the first Kentucky station to transmit local color, starting in 1962.

In 1956 the Norton's bought WFIE-TV, an NBC affiliate in Evansville, Indiana.  In 1958 Norton established the WAVE Foundation, which donates to the Louisville educational, medical, charitable, and cultural groups.  In 1981 it became the Norton Foundation.

During 1958-59 WAVE-TV produced, in its studios, educational programs for Jefferson County schools—the forerunner of WFPK-TV, Channel 15.  From 1954 to 1962 WAVE-TV also produced, in its studio, "Tomorrow's Champions", a police-sponsored program for young amateur boxers.  Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) got his start there.

In July 1959 WAVE-TV and Radio moved into a new specially designed building on Floyd Street between Broadway and Jacob.  It was dedicated with a commissioned opera, "Beatrice", by Lee Hoiby.  George Norton's wife, Jane Morton Norton, an accomplished artist herself, also commissioned original paintings for the building and statues for the WAVE Garden.  The Garden, facing on Broadway, is a small park with water and greenery, now dedicated to the late George Norton.

In 1961 the Norton stations acquired WFRV-TV, Green Bay, Wisconsin, an NBC affiliate.

For the Norton group, 1964 was a pivotal year.  In February Norton died following an auto crash on the island of Jamaica, and that May his only son, George Norton IV, was killed in a car wreck in Jefferson County.  Jane Norton became group chairman and brought in her nephew, T. Ballard Morton, as president.  Ralph Jackson was made executive vice president of WAVE-TV and president of the other stations.  The Norton's daughter, Mary Shands, headed the foundation, and was later board chairman.  Nathan Lord retired due to poor health, and died in 1967.  Lee Browning came from WFRV-TV to be general manager of WAVE-TV, and James Caldwell was named general manager of WAVE Radio; in 1979 they became corporate vice presidents.

In 1968 the Norton group acquired WMT-TV-AM-FM, CBS affiliates, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  The group name was changed to Orion Broadcasting "after a prominent and brilliant constellation".  The next year WJMN (Mrs. Norton's initials) was put on the air in Escanaba, Michigan.

Orion then greatly expanded its news, weather, editorials, agricultural programs, and documentaries.  News bureaus were set up in Frankfort, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C.  As a result, WAVE-TV-AM won a number of national awards, including a Peabody.

In 1980, due to the long range inheritance situation, negotiations were begun to sell the Orion stations for $110,000,000 to Cosmos Broadcasting, a subsidiary of the Greenville, South Carolina-based Liberty Corporation.  The turnover was made in early 1982, and WAVE-TV and WAVE Radio were split.

In 1990 WAVE-TV completed a new 1,712-foot tower in Oldham County, Kentucky, further increasing its coverage.  James Keelor, who had become manager of WAVE-TV in 1979, later was made president of Cosmos, and Guy Hempel president and general manager of WAVE-TV.  News was further expanded, with anchor Jackie Hays and meteorologists Tom Wills and John Belski.

WAVE, Louisville's second radio station (after WHAS) went on the air December 30, 1933 at 940 kHz (AM) with 1,000 watts power.  The studios were on the fifteenth floor of the Brown Hotel, with a 239-foot tower on the roof.  The inaugural program was aired nationwide on NBC, of which WAVE was a continuous affiliate until 1982.

WAVE's early programming, in addition to NBC, had many local originations: the bands of Clayton "Pappy" McMitchen (sic) (McMichen) and Pee Wee King, pianist Cliff Shaw, Foster Brooks, sportscaster Don Hill, and "Man on the Street", with George Patterson and Burt Blackwell.

WAVE played a major role in the 1937 Great Flood. When electricity failed, the staff got a 100-watt generator and worked round the clock for ten days.

In 1940 WAVE moved to its own building at Preston and Broadway.  The frequency was changed to the present 970 kHz, the power to 5,000 watts, and a new transmitter and tower were built near Jeffersonville, Indiana.

World War II saw the upsurge of radio news, on both NBC and WAVE.  George Norton went overseas as an Army Air Corps intelligence officer, and Jane Norton joined Nate Lord to run the stations, along with the first female announcers.

Postwar programming featured WAVE's "Fabulous Five" announcers—Livingston Gilbert, Bob Kay, Bill Gladden, Ryan Halloran, and Ed Kallay—on both radio and TV.

From 1947 to 1952 WAVE also operated WRXW-FM, at 95.1 MHz, programming mostly classical music.  Ahead of its time, it was donated in 1952 to the Louisville Free Public Library, where it has since operated as WFPK.

By the 1960's NBC programming had shrunk to hourly newscasts and the weekend MONITOR, so WAVE went to a format of local news and sports, adult music, and personalities, including Pat Murphy and Joe Fletcher.  It put up Louisville's first traffic helicopter, which, in April 1974 tracked the metro Louisville tornado.

In the 1982 sale of Orion to Cosmos, WAVE's call letters were changed to WAVG, and it was sold to Henson Broadcasting of Louisville.  In a988 Henson sold it to Radio One, owned by Tony Brooks, and in 1991 WAVG was bought by Jeffersonville, Indiana's Charles Jenkins, who also operates WXVW.

In 1997 Jenkins sold WAVG for $1.8 million to Pulitzer Broadcasting of St. Louis.  The announced plan was to rename it WLKY, an all-news station operating jointly with Pulitzer's WLKY-TV in Louisville.

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