Throwback Thursday: Television Arrives in Reno

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Reno in the early 50's was a different place.

There were barely 40 thousand people in the whole valley. No reliable signal reached the Truckee Meadows. In fact, we might have been too small for our own station,

But some thought otherwise. Among them an Arkansas based newspaperman Donald Reynolds.

He was already making plans to build a TV station in Reno. But he had sort of chicken and egg problem. To be successful he needed an audience, but how to build one in a town with no TV signal and no sets?

The year before, a special closed circuit, broadcast of the 1952 World Series had stirred interest. And with word a television station was in the works the buzz was growing.

The two newspapers were trying hard to ignore all this, but their back pages were filling with TV ads. Everyone, even drug stores and automotive companies, were selling them. One music store even offered to take trade-ins on unused instruments.

Still, financing was a problem.

But Reynolds had a very cagey pitch.

"He went to the banks and said 'how many televisions do you have out there on credit?' remembers veteran Reno ad man, a former employee.
"And the bank thought 'Oh.'

"And he said 'If we go out of business because you don't give me this money, all those television sets are going to sit there and you're going to have to pick up the money on them.'

"Mr. Reynolds was a very smart man."

Reynolds was helping to sell those sets with some marketing of his own. It was called Telerama. He invited all those stores selling TV sets to the Riverside and opened it to the public.

"We set up a camera on a raised platform and it was hooked up to all these TV's," says Tom Hughes, Reynold's assistant engineer. "And people could see themselves on TV. And as long as we had the camera running it was packed."

Like Hughes, most of the staff was brought in from Arkansas. One exception was Dick Colon, hired locally as the station's first sales manager, and given the job of selling an unproven product that no one in town had ever seen, television advertising.

"It was challenging," he says. "I think some people just bought time from his to give us a hand."

Meanwhile the building to house the new station with the call letters KZTV was being built on Fifth Street, its tower rose next door.

Wanting to increase the visibility of his station, General Manager Harry Hughey wanted a red light on top.

"He was very disappointed," says Colon. "The FAA told him he didn't need a tower, It wasn't high enough."

Another station was being built in Las Vegas, but for a time it looked like Reno would be first in the state. Then a carpenter's strike brought everything to a halt.

The Vegas station signed on in July.

"We were all very disappointed when Las Vegas beat us," says Hughes.

As work neared completion anticipation around town grew.

One day before hoisting the antenna on the tower, Hughes and the other engineers connected it to a piece of test equipment.

"And as soon as we turned it on we started getting calls, people saying 'hey we're starting to get a picture.'"

Even a test pattern caused some excitement.

Tension was running high on the eve of the launch, then during a final run through, lights in the studio began swaying.

"The natives who worked in the studio started heading for the back door," says Hughes. "So that's good enough for us."

Welcome to Nevada. It's earthquake country.

The next day, Sunday afternoon September 27th, 1953, KZTV Channel 8 signed on the air. The town was tuned in.

"I think all the street lights in Reno went dim," remembers local columnist Karl Breckenridge, a young boy at the time. "Because every house that had it, every set that existed and had rabbit ears on it was plugged in, was on and here comes that flag and KZTV was on the air."

It was a new world. The station and its community were learning television together and in the years that followed they would find creative ways to bond and fill those broadcast days..

They called it "Crazy TV".

We'll share some of those memories next week.