Seeing the Holiday Inn reduced to rubble surely brings back memories for many people. For many years it was our only downtown hotel, and its restaurant and bar came in handy when there weren’t many other places to drink wine and dine. It also hosted a steady stream of civic club luncheons and meetings. No doubt many people also have memories of the old hotel business which they remember with guilty pleasure and keep to themselves.
My own memories go back to a period of the beginnings of Athens Observer when we added television to our weekly newspaper. I must point out here that a serious lack of space prohibits quoting all the wonderful journalists and television reporters who participated in these efforts. While it might seem from this story that Chuck Searcy and I did it all, we were just figureheads compared to all the brilliant, creative, hard-working people who made the newspaper and the TV station work. .
Foundation Observer his partner Chuck had left for a stint in the Carter administration in Washington, D.C. When he returned, due to the defeat of his leader by Ronald Reagan, Chuck was full of enthusiasm for what was called television “to low power”, but it caught our attention that there was also a requirement that local cable systems make a channel available for local broadcasts. No need to build a tower and outfit it with broadcast equipment. Just get some cable streaming equipment and plug it in.
The local system at the time was Liberty Cable. A meeting was organized at the bar of the Holiday Inn. Enter Mr. M. Victory, a Birmingman, AL, resident who was the owner of Liberty Cable. When MM came to town on Liberty Cable business, he worked the Holiday Inn bar for long hours, lubricating his work with a steady stream of booze. Chuck could match MM drink for drink. I generally fell by the wayside before the end of the evening’s negotiations.
It turned out that Liberty needed us as much as we needed them. They wanted a local station; we needed a local cable. We admitted to MM that we had no television experience, although we knew the local news business. We were buoyed by his response, “We won’t let you fail. Of course we still had to borrow a lot of money and buy a lot of studio equipment – lights, cameras, mics, amps, monitors – the bill quickly escalated beyond the bank’s willingness to add our debt TV to our newspaper debt, so we had to seek private financing, which proved very difficult to repay.
It’s possible that the planning we pursued at the Holiday Inn bar was skewed by MM’s elixirs, as the basic premise of our business seemed sound. We already had the hardest part: an information-gathering organization. But, come to find out, these news gatherers were already overworked and underpaid. Also, our production team – layout artists, typesetters, proofreaders, illustrators – couldn’t just finish the job on paper and then turn on the cameras. This meant we had to hire cameramen, lighting and sound people on top of the payroll that we were already struggling to raise. Not to mention that our advertising team, already struggling to sell enough ads to keep the paper afloat, had no idea how to sell TV advertising.
At the Holiday Inn sessions, Chuck, soothed by MM’s hospitality, was able to speak confidently of our progress, but back at Observer TV, we were struggling. We contracted with United Press International to run what was essentially a news wire, a continuous exploration of the latest happenings – no sound. For sound, we convinced the nearest NPR radio station at the time – WABE in Atlanta – to let us play their show. For programming, we had Athens City Council meetings, as we were close enough to run a wire across the street. For sports, we had UGA women’s basketball and Clarke Central football games. For the icing on the sports cake, we had a weekly talk show by none other than Larry By God Munson, who drove up from Atlanta, sat down in front of the camera and started answering questions. He was excellent at it and he was a real gentleman.
We were just beginning to figure out how to sell TV ads when Millard Grimes, who died last month, came along and bought the Observer and Observer TV and paid our debts. The TV station ultimately turned out to be a small gold mine, but Charter Communications then bought Liberty Cable and had no interest in letting a funky local station use one of its channels – a serious lack of vision business caused no doubt by a lack of business conduct outside the Holiday Inn bar.
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