10 Questions for M.D. Smith IV

by Terry L. Heaton
M.D. Smith IVM.D. Smith IV was one of the last local television owners in the business when he sold WAAY-TV in Huntsville, Alabama, to Grapevine in 1999. In addition to owning the station, he was also the General Manager. I consider working for him one of the high points of my career in broadcasting, because he represented what the business of local television used to be all about. Despite his considerable business acumen, we operated without a budget. Life in the TV world to M.D. was much less about business than it was serving the community. For example, the station not only televised the annual Christmas parade; it also paid for it.

The bottom line TV people of today don't have a clue about any of that, of course. And I suppose they'd call a guy like M.D. "foolish" or "eccentric." But M.D. Smith IV grew up in broadcasting and understood it like few others. It was his life.

Along the way, he was an innovator and visionary — ahead of his time in many ways. He built and operates HiWAAY Information Services, a profitable, creative and reliable Internet Service Provider in North Alabama. He's "sort of" retired these days, and remains one of the nicest people you could ever meet.

As you survey the broadcasting landscape today, what thoughts do you have?
It's changing faster than Radio did in the days of TV coming on the scene. With the many, many choices people have for their free time in front of a TV set or computer screen, the slice of the local broadcaster's share of that audience is going to continue to get smaller and smaller. Hundreds of satellite or cable channels is the main reason for that. The internet also gets a growing slice of that same pie.

You pioneered many things in your years as a broadcaster. Which makes you most proud?
Certainly being the ONLY station with weather radar during the very destructive tornadoes of April 1974 was one of the biggest "highs" to experience. We got hundreds of letters thanking us for saving lives and even Governor George Wallace wrote a personal letter to us for a job well done. (Yes, I still have the letter and a copy is on the Smith Broadcasting History web site).

The other part of the coin is a continued effort to improve the TV station and with the help of (Chief Engineer) Cactus (Gay), we did it on a shoestring, but not so that the audience would notice. We first started transmitting color from the network with Cactus' genius and a few dollars of parts he put in the transmitter.

Many other "firsts" followed including stereo, local live studio color, uses of the SAP channel for IFB and even transmitting weather data for Bob Baron as he built his enterprise. We were first with closed captioning, and that made a lot of deaf people very happy with our station's newscasts. We were the first and only station to have a generator in 1989 when another major tornado wiped out many of the Airport Road businesses and apartments and then over the hill to Jones Valley School and the Tony Drive neighborhood. We were the only station on the air from about 5:25 pm for the rest of the night. The share that night (during November ratings) were through the roof and the other stations made ARB re-print the rating books taking out that night because we did so well.

In the early 90s, you tried to adopt the Video Journalist concept of putting a camera in everybody's hands. How did you structure that?
The thought was as cameras got smaller and cheaper, to have more FRESH news, the more people we could put on the street and in local area bureaus, the more we'd have to fill our newscasts, which were eventually running literally live 24/7 with our LIVE hourly newsbriefs. The quality of the reports suffered and the cheap equipment didn't hold up like we'd hoped it would. The bureaus DID work out and we were the only station to have FIVE fully functional bureaus in the coverage area with the ability to transmit LIVE back to the station. This included one in Fayetteville, TN and we were the only station to ever have one in Tennessee.

I'd still like to see a station have hundreds of "stringers" with small DV cameras in their hands and cars to tape breaking news and send it to the station. The Internet is making it possible to send video via high bandwidth connections directly back for air use.

Why do you think it didn't work?
Who said it didn't work? As outlined above, there were some weaknesses, but to a degree it did work. A single talented VJ (Video Journalist) working by themselves can often do the job of two people. It just takes creativity. Jamie Cooper did it for years with the Country Rover, and sometimes even got people who were standing around, to zoom or pan the camera which was sitting on the tripod. Viewers don't need to see much talking head, so the story that is fully illustrated with B-roll and good video can make a VJ story very interesting.

Do you think this is something that could be done today? The cameras are better and now individual editing is available.
Of Course. That's what I was getting at. A DELL $500 computer with video editing software and a $300 DV little camera with the small DV tape, can do an amazing job. Cost are continuing to be a factor in making a profit in TV these days, and all GM's and News Directors are going to have to think creatively on how to fill their newscasts for less money and still put on a quality product. Talking heads in boring live interview segments are a great example of how NOT to do it. Reporters still need schooling and training on how to do interesting stories. They need daily supervising with critiques of their work and how to make it better and even more interesting.

Your station was also one of the first to venture into the Internet. How did that go? What were the early efforts like?
Yes, I saw a demo of a web page in 1994 that Joe Lowe showed me and I was hooked with what was available. Our traffic department wanted a better way to get email orders and I could see lots of reasons for the news department to be connected to the internet.

We had daily news text posted as it aired, and created a morgue file of all back stories. We had the entire day's worth of video newscasts available on-line and I could literally view one of our newscasts from anywhere in the world. Soon as a new show for 6pm aired, it replaced the current one. Anyone could stay updated of news at home by watching one. Or you could fast scroll on the screen to weather or sport segments of the shows. We never made any money specifically on the web site, but giving big sponsors ads as added inducement for a large commercial order, did help sales close the large orders. We had "behind the scenes" tours of the TV station on line, with shots of all parts of the TV station along with key personnel shown in the photos. We had one of the first almost live radar pages on the internet. We had to delay the image 5 minutes by agreement with Bob Baron who sold the truly live images to customers.

The web site was ahead of its time. It was labor intensive and not only required two technical people to add all the content and pages, but news people learned how to input and post headlines directly to the web pages each day. That meant some of them had to learn how to spell. I was most proud of our efforts and we tried to set the best example we could and almost landed some other big market TV stations for HiWAAY to do their web sites. The reason we didn't was that they wanted a local person (like we had two of) to talk to and be in the same town. But we got some great "wows" from some much bigger markets in the U.S.

How did HiWAAY Information Services get started?
Rather than pay a rather high connection fee to a local company operating in a single 10x10 old office building in a cheap part of town, I talked with Mark Derrick (our computer guru) and he went to Atlanta to an internet conference to find out all about it. He returned and told me what it would cost to get a T1 connection and buy enough equipment to connect about 200 people which would more than pay back our monthly line costs and pay back our investment in less than a year.

So in February 1995 we had a booth at the local IEEE computer show and sold subscriptiions. A local Ham, Josh Kelly, was one of the very first to sign up and he's still a HiWAAY customer. We went "live" the first of March 1995. With publicity from the TV station, we were swamped with orders and people wanting to sign up. We could not get equipment fast enough to handle the crush. I wrote the first billing software for our little internet division, but in less than 6 months, it was taking 24 hours to crunch and get the billing out. We had to find a commercial solution, which we did. I had hoped to have 200 by the end of the first 12 months. Instead, we had 2,000 subscribers. The rest, is history as they say. HiWAAY (a coined term using our WAAY call letters and the twist on "Information Highway" that was being used at the time), celebrates its 10th anniversary this coming month.

What did you see that others didn't about the Internet?
I saw what a lot of people saw. It was technology at its best and I loved it personally. I loved what information it brought to our business that included the news department. Changes were being made at almost the speed of light, and it still is that way today. We had already been through re-engineering the TV station to get people off their dead centers, content with #1 ratings and they kept saying "if it was not broke, don't fix it. " That's always been the Achilles heel of a #1 station in any market. The internet keeps you hopping. Nothing stays status quo for more than a few days. TV stations need to react a bit more like an internet company. No one is complacent, or they get replaced. It's the way it has to be to survive in the internet business and the TV business is getting much like that these days.

You were one of the last local owners in the business. Why did you finally let go?
Several reasons. The TV station was making a smaller and smaller profit. We had to go through one downsizing from 174 employees down to 140. Today, I believe all the local TV stations (in Huntsville) are working with 75-100 employees only. High definition was looming and looked like a disaster if you take expenses vs. returns into account. It still looks similar to AM-Stereo where 4 systems were authorized and none were compatible with each other. 90% of the public is well satisfied with a DVD quality TV signal at their home (via cable or satellite) and don't want to replace every TV set in their house and have all their current VCR's, Camcorders, old tapes, etc. become instantly obsolete. I have 10 sets scattered around my house and they are telling me none will work when everything's digital high definition, unless I buy a rather expensive converter box for each TV set (oh joy!)

HiWAAY was continuing to require large capital to grow and accquire other ISP's as it was clear we needed to do. Then, an amazing offer for the TV station came out of the woodwork from Grapevine in early 1999 and I could not resist cashing in the chips when I believed it was the most I'd ever be able to get for the TV station. I think I was right.

That allowed us to have some residual capital to pay off HiWAAY debts (which were significantly large) and have a cushion that was sorely needed after the "dot-com" bubble burst. Between the economy and other leveraged companies that were desperate to sell connections at any price (even though they eventually went out of business), we have been through some very tough years of losses in the early 90's. If we had not had that capital, HiWAAY might be a branch of Bellsouth or some other big internet conglomerate. We have stayed as only an Alabama company and service to customers is vastly superior to what you get when you are talking to India with other companies.

Do you ever get the itch to get back into the business? What would it take, and what would you do differently than is already being done?
Sure, I get that itch every now and then. I try to do something else until it goes away. The business today is more business and satisfying the bankers than it is real TV. The bottom line of making a large profit to pay back loans and stockholders outweighs the "art" of television. I was in my early 20's when I began at 31TV in 1963. The station had only 17 total employees and we put on a live Romper Room in the mornings for an hour and a live 6 & 10 pm news five days a week. Everyone had multiple jobs. Secretaries ran studio cameras, were talent for commercials and promos, and whatever else they could do. Most salesmen had some kind of airshift. Johnny Evans was full time sales and then did the weather at 6&10 in the very early days, and later an afternoon's live kids show, featuring TEX, the talking dummy. We often tried to decide who was the smarter of that pair.

Perhaps, we will come full circle in the coming years, with 17 people running a TV station and with computerized tools (similar to many radio stations of today) able to still attract an audience, sell commercials and make a profit. But, no, I would not want to be back in it again full time. That's for the young who don't know better or don't care and will make a success of the business anyway.

There are a lot of frightened people in broadcasting these days, both in management and especially at the employee level. What advice do you have for them?
Perhaps being frightened is a good thing. They won't be on dead center and they won't be caught napping when another RIF (reduction in force) is necessary. Some TV stations are actually adding a few people as they climb to the #1 position and want to do even more to be "more things to more people." My advice to the many in stations that are still feeling the crunch is get training in other aspects of the business. Become more multi-talented than you currently are. Work hard and have a good positive attitude so you'd be the last person a manager/GM would think to fire. There's always going to be a solid place for the best employees who speak highly of their company, no matter what is happening. Come to think of it, that's been good advice for the last forty years for people in broadcasting.

HiWAAY Information Services
Channel 31 Alumni Website