I came in April of 1954 and the station went on the air in July of 1954. So I came about three months in advance to get things moving and that was an interesting operation as well. They were building the television station….
In this oral history interview with television news pioneer Mark Barker, we learn the history of Central Florida’s first television station: Channel 6. Barker takes us behind the scenes of the broadcasting industry at the advent of television. He shares his experiences from radio broadcasting and television broadcasting to teaching public speaking and media response in our high tech world today. Professional techniques, star interviews, and local lore are shared in this fascinating life of broadcasting history. We spoke with Mr. Barker at the Orlando Public Library on April 11, 2013.
LISTEN Part I (14:54)
I left high school and joined the Navy for WWII and came back after the war and finished up my high school thing and then went to University of South Carolina Chapel Hill where I got a broadcast degree which was one of the first broadcast degrees given in the country….
…I got a job with the Durham Morning Herald as their photographer…and then I worked in radio in Durham on the weekends during the last two years of school.
It was just a little hole in the wall. We had a window out on the street so people coming buy could stop and look at the thing. But there were an awful lot of bands coming through, musical groups you know coming through, Big Bands. It was the Big Band Era and they would give a presentation in the auditorium and then they would play for a dance that night and I wound up doing radio shows with them from the auditorium. And it was very interesting to meet all these people, get to know them reasonably well because they would come by the little fish bowl, that’s what we called it: The Fish Bowl; do an interview for an hour and a half, two hours, then I would do a show with them from the auditorium….
Well, it was interesting to be studying broadcasting at the same time I was doing it because they were totally different. In school you were learning the theory of broadcasting. Everything you did was big time stuff. It was scripted and all that kind of thing. Whereas sitting there in that little fish bowl I was on my own. I had to talk. So you learned to ad lib. And that was, it was a great thing to learn, to learn how to do that….
When I graduated from Chapel Hill I took a job with Greensboro Recreational Department to produce a kid’s show at the local theater on Saturday morning and to take that show from there into Channel 2 which was a new television station in Greensboro, NC and put that show on television. But that was a short lived job and it wasn’t what I really wanted so I wound up with a job as program manager for WJBS in Deland, FL which was owned by Stetson. And that was an interesting experience because the manager of the station was the former production head of national broadcasting company…. His name was Clarence Minser… he knew production up one side and down the other and I learned an awful lot from him when working with him in Deland….
…So I had come to Orlando to see a guy by the name of Gene Reiser who was the equitable insurance guy here…and we got into a conversation about this stuff and he said, “Why don’t you work in Orlando?” I said, “I’d love to work in Orlando. I’ve heard so many good things about WDBO.” Well, he picked up the phone and called WDBO and said, “Why don’t you hire this guy?” Well, they didn’t have any jobs open so I went back to Greensboro, NC and got into the television station that I had been doing the little show with and that is where I truly learned the business. Because in that particular station you didn’t have a job – you did everything. So I was in front of the camera for 16 hours a week. But you did every other job so you learned the whole thing. And when Channel 2 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa was planning to go on the air they needed somebody like that and I was the person who went to Cedar Rapids and found out what snow was all about….
We got the station on the air and everything and it was about I guess I was there around a year, close to a year, and I got a call from the guy who owned WDBO in Orlando. And I never figured out how but, Gene Reiser, the insurance guy, must have kept in touch with me. I never figured out how. When Channel 6 here decided to go on the air he said, “Why don’t you hire Barker.” Well, I got a call, there was 36 inches of snow on the ground at the time, I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” And that’s how I got to Orlando….
I came in April of 1954 and the station went on the air in July of 1954. So I came about three months in advance to get things moving and that was an interesting operation as well. They were building the television station. The radio station was downtown on Lake Ivanhoe and they were building a station out on Texas Avenue out west of town… and it had a swamp on it which was ideal for television at that time because to build the antenna in the middle of the swamp the water surrounding it enhanced the signal so it got out further than it would normally….
The station was being built by, it was all locally owned at the time, Harold Danforth owned most of the stock in the station. Chief engineer Jim Yarborough owned another share, and then several of the engineers in the station owned pieces of it…
Walt Sickles who was with the local radio station was named the program manager. Most of the local staff, most of the staff was local because you didn’t have network affiliations. But we didn’t have coax cable so any of the shows we got we got them by film called a kinescope. In other words they would set up a camera on a TV set, film it, and that would be the kinescope that you would get to put on your air here. So you did local shows and quite a number of local shows. I don’t recall how many, but you did an awful lot of them back to back….
LISTEN Part II (14:44)
We Were Pioneers
It was also fun for the people to watch the station. They grew up with us. We were pioneers. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were experimenting all the way. But the audience, you know, they were with us, I’m sure they laughed at the things that we were laughing about….
This was the only station [Channel 6] you could get here… so everybody tuned into Channel 6. It was the only thing here. And it was interesting to know that most of the people were probably watching. They may not have had television sets, but most of the stores that sold television sets back in those days put television sets in a show window so there would be a huge crowd sitting outside a store watching television in a storefront….
Television in those days was a surprise to the people who owned it. They had no idea if it was going to be successful or not, but it cost a fortune for them. Comparably they ran radio stations, well, they’d been running radio stations forever so there was no cost, no real cost involved… But when television came along, you know several people went out and applied for the license. And, you know, there were all these studies. Just the cost of doing a study was a million bucks or so, easily, maybe more than that and you had no idea if you were going to win the station license or not….
Now you look at Channel 9, which I later got involved in, there were originally 8 or 10 groups who were vying for that channel license. And each one of them was spending gobs of money putting all these things together to apply for the license. In the end there were five of us, groups at Channel 9, who were in the final run of trying to get the license. And we all decided that we should put things together, just operate the station as a group which we did and operated the station for a number of years and then we sold it.
Rip and Read
Doug Edwards at CBS, for example, was the only one who would do the news on television and it was a rip and read sort of a situation. They didn’t have any big news department doing films and whatnot. You know you went to the AP machine or the UP machine and ripped it off and read it. All the audience saw was you reading something. But they were afraid to make that move. When we were hiring people for the station here you know there’s nobody with any experience. I was trying to find people who had at least some theater experience or something of that nature, some creative sort of a thing and some I found.
I had a guy named Jim Nelson who came from Hollywood and he was a singer for actors. Many of the actors couldn’t sing so they would dub his voice in for them. People like that I was able to find….
I did appreciate having the video squadron available because those guys they knew, they were creative. They were all creative. They were doing movies for the Air Force and they were very good. I’ll never forget we had a Jerry Birdwell, whose still on my list, was one of the people from the Air Force…. The guy was so good. You know he was so attentive to everything. He was highly detailed which was so unusual to get somebody like that.
La Belle Furs
Morris LaBelle who had LaBelle Furs here, you probably know that name, he had a program, one of the first programs we ever had on the air. And you think, this is pretty stupid, here we are in the center of Florida and he’s going to sell furs on television? It sounds strange. But he would come to the station and Jerry Birdwell was working as a floor manager in the studio and Jerry would help him. He would be sure his hair was combed, you know, that his appearance was perfect as it should be and Morris made so much money off of television it was staggering. The first time he went on the air I think the program cost him $250.00 or something like that. He sold over $50,000.00 worth of fur from the first program. So he loved the program….
LISTEN Part III (14:59)
Uncle Walt’s Adventures and Frank, T.G. Lee Deliveryman
….Uncle Walt did the kid show and the people would bring the food that would be served to the kids and put it in the refrigerator, put it in the kitchen set. And Frank was the T.G. Lee deliveryman and he came the first day I went on the air with that show. Frank showed up. It was like 10 o’clock in the morning, 10:30. Frank showed up. And he just walked into the studio and walked into the kitchen set where I was sitting and we were doing the show. And I said, “Hello, Frank, how are you doing?” He said, “Well, all right,” opened the refrigerator put the milk in and all the other stuff. “How are you doing, Frank? Everything okay?” “Oh, yeah.” I never said a word to him that he was on the air. He never said a word about it. And it happened with great frequency that he would show up at that time as I went on the air and he was a perfect straight man….
Working with The Cape
…We did an awful lot of work with the Cape [Cape Canaveral], that was the beginning of things [space program] at the Cape. And in those days though we were a CBS affiliate we also carried programs for NBC and Dumont. So I would get calls from NBC or CBS and whatnot. They would have a guy working the Cape who would want to do something and feed it to New York. So he would come to work at the station and feed it to New York. Special programs occurred like we would have Wernher von Braun come and do the show from the station….so we had a lot of that gong on and that was interesting to work on in these shows….
Hunting & Fishing Show
I took all the movies for the hunting and fishing show which was one of the first shows we did. And Dan McCallister did the show with Tom Denmark and Walter Hudson who owned the Denmark Sporting Goods. And so we went all over the place doing the filming. The station didn’t own a camera, but I decided I would buy one myself and rent it out to the station. So I bought a Bullex and did the stuff and the first time we went out was on Indian River and these guys are fishing so we parked the boat on a little island in Indian River and they got out and waded out in the water up to about their waist and were fishing. Well, if I’m going to shoot pictures of them and they’re out from the island, I got to go out further so I’m in the water up to about my neck….
LISTEN Part IV (14:59)
They were catching fish and put them on a little stringer. It was Tom, I don’t know, from Denmark, he pulled up the string and said, “My God, all my fish are gone, I think a shark must have taken my fish.” At which point I walked on water back to the island….
Miss Nancy of Romper Room
Romper Room was owned by a company up in Philadelphia and they had selected a woman who was the romper room teacher and she was doing fine, but her husband was transferred so she was going to leave the show….
Well, when I was doing that Marking Time program, I had said in one of them, “If you really want to do something, if you really, really, really, want to do something hard, write it out on a little piece of paper: I want to do this ____. And you take it with you every where you go and you keep reminding yourself this is what I want to do. In all probability you’ll wind up doing it.
Well, I’m interviewing people and Nancy Stillwell comes in to be interviewed and we’re chatting away. She reaches into her pocketbook and pulls out this ratty little piece of paper and it says, “I want to be the Romper Room teacher.” She was one of my people that I selected and she was the one that won the final thing and became Miss Nancy for Romper Room. And she was so perfect for that part. She was great! She’s a wonderful woman….
Tell Us What You Think the Public Needs to Know
There is a chap out at, a professor at UCF, he stared a company about 30 years ago to teach public speaking and media response. And there were four of us originally, and now there are only two of us with this professor. And I still do that. We do it for the Florida Association of Realtors. We teach all the local chapters of the realtors, they all have little chapters in every city. They come in and we teach them how to deal with the media and do public speaking….
…The country has gone so far away from morals and I have taken all of that in my head and I’ve come up with one word to describe it – taste. There’s no taste left in the world today and it is ruining us. You can see unholy things on television today. You can hear unholy things on radio. You can hear it in music. You can hear it in movies, in everything. It just, destroyed morals in this country. How you ever gain it back, I don’t know. I think television has been the worst offender…
We were taught in news you tell us what you think the public needs to know and they don’t.
LISTEN Part IV (9:54)
The Time of My Life
Carl Langford, Carl and several of us got together and decided to have a missile bowl committee and we were going to bring the service bowl teams into Orlando for a final game of the year and decide who was the biggest football player and whatnot… We did that for a number of years and we finally wound up with two Marine teams playing for the championship. We had all the big honcho Marines in the world here. Some Marine team is going to win. So we had a big banquet after the game.
Carl Langford was our emcee… Carl stood up at the banquet and he said, “Well, I want to tell you gentlemen that I wanted to be a Marine, but they found out my mother and father were married and I had to join the Army.” …we caused so much hell with Marines all over the world. But that was our mayor. He was a fun guy….
I interviewed the man who sent the news to the world that the Wright Brothers had flown. My God, my life, look what’s happen since then, we’re going to the moon. His name was Mr. Drinkwater [Alpheus W. Drinkwater] and he sent the word by key, telegraph key to the world that the Wright Brothers had flown. He was a very quiet person.
I interviewed Billy Graham. Fascinating. Fascinating. The man’s eyes are something else to look at. I’ve never gotten over that. You feel like he’s seeing inside of you. That was in the 50s….
In Greensboro, NC I did a lot of television work with Ernie Edwards who was the golf pro there. Ernie came to Orlando and became the golf pro at Rio Pinar and was responsible for starting what is known as the Arnold Palmer Golf Tournament… It was the Citrus Open back in those days….
Mark Virgil Barker, Jr., was born on August 7, 1926 in Rock Hill, York County, South Carolina. He passed away on May 3, 2015 in Durham, North Carolina.
Read this article about his life published in the Orlando Sentinel on May 7, 2015.
Read his obituary at FindAGrave.com