WAFF is the NBC television affiliate for Huntsville, Alabama. Broadcasting on UHF channel 48, the station serves the northern fifth of Alabama and three counties in southern Middle Tennessee.
Decatur Years, 1954-69
The station first began broadcasting from studios and transmitters in Decatur
(30 miles / 50 km west of Huntsville) on July 4
as WMSL-TV, channel 23. It was owned by Frank Whisenant, a Decatur businessman who also owned WMSL-AM. From inception until 1968, WMSL was affiliated with NBC. Until the early 1960s, Decatur was the largest town in the viewing area and centrally located, thus making it a perfect location for the region's first television station. However, when Huntsville became the region's largest city due to the exponential growth of U.S. Army
installations, Whisenant decided to move WMSL-TV there. However, because the station's original channel assignment, channel 23, was too close in frequency to a nearby transmitter of Alabama Public Television
, WHIQ-TV, on channel 25, the FCC
ordered WMSL-TV to move to channel 48 as a condition upon its permit to relocate its city of license. WMSL-TV began broadcasting on channel 48 on January 7
while simultaneously continuing a simulcast on channel 23 for several days afterward; then channel 23 went dark. Some weeks later, Whisenant closed the Decatur studios when the new Huntsville studios opened. In the meantime, Whisenant sold WMSL radio to Clete Quick, another Decatur businessman; the radio station is now known as WWTM
Early Huntsville Years, 1969-75
Some months before, WMSL-TV lost the NBC affiliation to rival WAAY-TV
, which had built a greater audience in northern Alabama and thus was more attractive to the network. Still, the new channel 48, which got the ABC
affiliation by default, made persistent efforts to serve its greatly expanded viewing area, which now included most of the Shoals region of northwestern Alabama.
Perhaps most notable (and surely most beloved) of WMSL-TV's local programs was the weekday children's show hosted by station general manager Benny Carle, a Birmingham native who honed his talents for many years on WBRC-TV there. The show was typical for its day, featuring about 10 to 15 school-aged children in the studio with the host, who conducted party games, told stories, and engaged in clownish behavior; cartoons were shown during the one-hour (later 30-minute) late-afternoon (later mid-morning) program. He began the show in the mid-1960s, while the station was still in Decatur, and continued it until 1975, when ABC's Good Morning America took over its morning time slot. Carle now owns radio and low-power TV stations WBCF in Florence, Alabama, which he established after leaving channel 48. Another notable program during that period was a Saturday-afternoon teenage dance show, which ran after the similar American Bandstand (although the local show resembled Soul Train more closely), that holds the honor of being the first television program exclusively aimed at northern Alabama's African-American population. The program was hosted by Nat Tate, who until his December 2007 death worked for radio stations in the Decatur area and served as a Baptist minister.
Callsign and Ownership Changes
In 1974, Whisenant sold the station to a Vermont
-based company, which renamed the station WYUR-TV on March 9
. Despite more aggressive attempts to promote its newscast, WYUR-TV's ratings were far behind WAAY and CBS
. Then, in 1978, AFLAC
, then known by its full name of American Family Life Assurance Company, bought the station, re-christening it WAFF-TV. Some months earlier, WAAY decided to return to ABC, as that network had become the nation's most popular, in prime time
programming especially; this left channel 48 with the then-less-desirable NBC
affiliation. AFLAC did not immediately turn the corner with WAFF-TV; the station kept fine-tuning its newscasts and acquiring some nationally popular syndicated
programs, but very little seemed to work. Still, the station pressed forward; around 1980 or 1981 a new tower was constructed on the south end of Monte Sano Mountain, adjacent to the station's studios. The tower measured some 1,476 feet in height and was constructed in an effort to provide better reception to viewers across northern Alabama and southern middle Tennessee. The weather forecaster at the time, Glenn Bracken, held a coloring contest for schoolchildren across the viewing area, whereby they could depict their scenes of the new "tall tower" and incorporate WAFF's marketing message "New Tall Tower Means More Picture Power" and have their drawing and name presented during the nightly weather forecast (which usually took place on a balcony outside the news studio's doors). Also, during this period, WAFF began airing promotional spots showing various scenes of its news personalities interacting with residents of its viewing area, along with its news helicopter, Sky48, to a song entitled "We're Your Kind of People."
1982 Studio Fire and Aftermath
Unfortunately, on the evening of March 24
, the station's building, situated on the side of Monte Sano Mountain overlooking Huntsville proper, caught fire and burned to the ground. Local firefighters could not control the blaze since the fire hydrant at the end of the driveway had not yet been connected to the water main and the water pressure at nearby hydrants was particularly low; this situation would later prompt competitor WHNT to relocate to downtown Huntsville, some years later. It was only a few days, however, before WAFF-TV began broadcasting again through the auspices of local cable
companies, who provided NBC
programming feeds from WSMV-TV
-TV in Birmingham
, both of which were available in their own rights on many northern Alabama cable systems prior to 1990. Eventually, WAFF-TV would rebuild at a new location, occupying a former jewelry store on North Memorial Parkway, some miles away from Monte Sano; microwave links connected the studios to the transmitter and tower, which were not damaged by the fire. The fire would also prompt Huntsville city officials to repair the water pressure situation and build a new fire station atop Monte Sano, which sits directly across from WAAY's studios.
Beginnings of Success, 1980s
The disaster may have proved to be a blessing in disguise, as AFLAC began investing money in developing talent and production facilities, enabling WAFF-TV to start making a serious ratings impact for the first time. Not only did the station benefit from the renewed popularity of NBC in the mid-1980s, but its acquisitions of highly popular syndicated shows like Oprah, Jeopardy!,
and Wheel of Fortune,
made it a hit with viewers in the Tennessee Valley
region. Since that time, the station has experienced continued success.
As with the other two major-network Huntsville stations, weather forecasting became a very high priority for WAFF-TV in the 1990s, especially after the city experienced a devastating tornado in November 1989. The station constructed a doppler radar and began to use highly sophisticated meteorological equipment.
AFLAC sold WAFF-TV, along with its other broadcasting properties, to Raycom Media
of Montgomery, Ala.
in the late 1990s.
Notable news personalities over the years have included Hans Sitarz, Paul Buxton, Robert Lane, Greg McCambell, Tom Kennemer, Missy Ming, Bob Baron, Kelly Cooper, Roy Ackland, Tony Troiano, Jay Prater, Mark Thornhill, Kimberly Essex, Lee Marshall, Liz Hurley, Glenn Bracken, Brad Travis, Will Kennedy, Jason Gaston, Gasia Mikaelian, Ryan Korsgard, Varion Walton and Kristin Tallent.
The station's digital channel:
|| Programming |
| 49.1 / 48.1
|| Main WAFF programming / NBC HD |
| 49.2 / 48.2
|| NBC Weather+ |
|49.3 / 48.3
|| The Tube (former) |
In 2009, WAFF-TV will leave channel 48 and move to channel 49 when the analog to digital conversion is complete.
In 2006, retired news anchor Tom Kennemer ran unsuccessfully as a Republican
candidate for a seat on the Morgan County
Commission. Morgan County sits across the Tennessee River