How an Athens TV Station Was Launched From the Holiday Inn Bar

Seeing the Holiday Inn reduced to rubble surely brings back memories to lots of people. For many years it was our only downtown hotel, and its restaurant and bar were handy when there weren’t many other places to wine and dine. It also played host to a steady stream of civic club luncheons and meetings. No doubt many people also have memories of the old hostelry that they recall with a guilty pleasure and keep to themselves.

My own recollections go back to a period in the early life of the Athens Observer when we added television to our weekly newspaper. I must point out here that a severe lack of space  prohibits naming all the wonderful newspaper and television people who were part of these endeavors. While it may appear from this account that Chuck Searcy and I did it all, we were mere figureheads compared to all the bright, creative and hardworking people who made the newspaper and TV station work.

Founding Observer partner Chuck had left for a stint in the Carter administration in Washington, D.C. When he came back, due to his chief’s defeat by Ronald Reagan, Chuck was full of enthusiasm for what was called “low power” television, but it came to 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 fit it with broadcast equipment. Just get cablecast equipment and hook it up.

The local system at that time was Liberty Cable. A meeting was arranged at the Holiday Inn bar. Enter M.M. Victory, a Birmingman, AL, resident who was the owner of Liberty Cable. When M.M. came to town for Liberty Cable business, he worked out of the Holiday Inn bar for long hours, lubricating his labor with a continual flow of alcohol. Chuck could match M.M. drink for drink. I usually fell by the wayside before the evening’s negotiations came to a close.

It turned out that Liberty needed us as much as we needed them. They wanted a local station; we needed local cable. We admitted to M.M. that we had no experience in TV, though we knew the local news business. We were sustained by his answer: “We will not let you fail.” Of course, we still had to borrow a lot of money and buy a lot of studio equipment—lights, cameras, mikes, amps, monitors—the bill quickly climbed beyond the bank’s willingness to add our TV debt to our newspaper debt, so we had to seek private funding, which proved very difficult to repay. 

It’s possible that the planning we pursued at the Holiday Inn bar was skewed by M.M.’s elixirs, because the basic premise of our venture seemed solid. We already had the hard part: a news-gathering organization. But, come to find out, those news gatherers were already overworked and underpaid. Moreover, our production crew—paste-up artists, typesetters, proofreaders, illustrators—couldn’t just finish work on the paper and then turn on the cameras. That meant we had to hire camera, lighting and sound people on top of the payroll we already had trouble meeting. Not to mention the fact that our ad staff, already struggling to sell enough ads to keep the paper afloat, had no idea how to sell television advertising.

In the Holiday Inn sessions, Chuck, soothed by M.M.’s hospitality, was able to talk confidently of our progress, but back at Observer TV, we were scrambling. We contracted with United Press International to run what was basically a newswire, a continual crawl of the latest happenings—no sound. For sound, we convinced the nearest NPR radio station at the time—WABE in Atlanta—to let us carry their broadcast. For programming, we had Athens City Council meetings, because 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 over from Atlanta, sat down in front of the camera and started fielding questions. He was great 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 just last month, came along and bought the Observer and Observer TV and paid off our debts. The TV station finally turned out to be a little gold mine, but then Charter Communications bought Liberty Cable and had no interest in letting a funky local station use one of its channels—a severe lack of corporate vision occasioned no doubt by a failure to conduct business out of the Holiday Inn bar.

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