Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
If you’re going from College Station to Dallas, as we were toward the end of September 2019, it’s nearly a straight shot due north, either up to Corsicana and I-45 or over to Waco and up I-35.
But we didn’t go that way. Instead, we detoured a full day out of the way, for one very specific reason: for a few years running at the NAB Show out in Las Vegas, we enjoyed seeing exhibits that had come from Chuck Conrad’s Texas Museum of Broadcasting and Communications in Kilgore, Texas, and we were not leaving Texas this time without paying a visit.
Unless you’re going from Dallas to Texarkana, Kilgore’s not really on the way to much of anywhere. It’s the heart of East Texas’ historic oil country (the replica derricks right in the middle of town are a good clue), a few miles south of I-20 and just under two hours east of Dallas, if traffic’s not too bad.
A few blocks off the main drag, you’ll find the museum, occupying a big building that was built as a car dealership. And what a building!
The showroom space in front gives us just a taste of what’s waiting inside – a big room filled with TV cameras, tape recorders, microphones, and TVs. There’s an impossibly rare DuMont Electronicam, that bizarre hybrid designed to provide a live TV image and a simultaneous film capture for later rebroadcast.
Over there on the side is one of the GE field cameras that was part of the equipment roster at KRLD-TV in Dallas in November 1963 – and while it may not have been this exact camera that captured the transfer of Lee Harvey Oswald and his assassination by Jack Ruby, it was at least one of its twins. (This camera’s been loaned to the Sixth Floor Museum at the School Book Depository and the Newseum in Washington for exhibits.)
From Dallas competitor WFAA-TV came an early RCA TK-41 color camera, just one of many treasures here. What’s that along the back wall? A majestic collection of Philco Predicta TVs, some still in working condition. (And among the other TVs on display here, much to our surprise, we find an exact match for the little 5″ black-and-white portable set, vintage 1987, that once graced the dorm room of my college girlfriend, now spouse of many years!)
Another part of the former showroom just behind the front room is packed to the gills with radios and phonographs, sales displays from long-defunct retailers, and many more treasures.
And then behind that – well, we’ll get there in a moment. First, though, we check out a couple of the side rooms off the entrance gallery. There’s a small space that’s been fitted out as a fully-functional radio studio, complete with exotic things like “turntables” and “cart machines” that routinely impress (or perhaps flummox) visiting school groups of the early 21st century.
There’s a TV control room, with pieces and parts that came out of various area TV stations as they remodeled and moved over the years. (A neat exhibit here traces the short history of KLMG, channel 51 in nearby Longview, owned in the early 1980s by Clara McLaughlin, the first Black woman to own a TV station in the U.S.; plans to build out a four-station East Texas network fell apart, and eventually channel 51 went bankrupt, was sold, became a Fox affiliate, moved to Tyler, and we’ll catch up with that in next week’s installment.)
Did we mention there’s a huge back room, the old service bays for the dealership? This space is – well, was, and eventually once again will be – rented out for events, including the Texas Radio Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies. Several corners of the big room hold Texas-sized displays: there’s the set for the movie shows from channel 51’s early Fox affiliate days, and a castoff set from the area’s NBC affiliate, KETK (Channel 56). (It’s set up with live cameras and a prompter so schoolkids can play news anchor there, too.)
There are several displays of entire studios from area radio stations, including KCUL in nearby Marshall; as further proof your editor’s early radio days were many decades ago, the first digital audio editing workstation I ever used, circa 1993, is on display as an exhibit here. (20 whole minutes of storage on the biggest hard drives of the day!!)
Which brings us around to the big open part of the back room – and two of the most impressive exhibits Chuck has on display. There were five mobile trucks commissioned for ESPN’s launch in 1979, and of those, the last survivor, truck 327, is on display here, preserved and open for visitors to look around inside.
There are more recent historic TV cameras here (that one from WPIX in New York, which was used on Yankees remotes in the 1980s, was on display at NAB in Vegas not long ago), and lots of VTRs going back to the quad era, and… well, feast your eyes on the finest DuMont Telecruiser Model B in existence. This Flxible bus was converted into a TV control room on wheels way back in 1949, when it belonged to the first TV station in Dallas, KBTV channel 8, founded by Kilgore oilman Tom Potter.
KBTV soon became WFAA-TV (you’ll hear much more about that in a couple of weeks), the cruiser was repainted, and it stayed in use into the early 1970s. Among other things, it originated the network pool feed for the funeral of J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.
And then it was obsolete, sold off and left to rot in a field – at least until Chuck found it more than a decade ago and set about what turned out to be a lengthy labor of love. Restored chrome, restored paint, a rebuilt interior with period-appropriate electronics – it’s a gorgeous piece of history and enough reason all by itself to make the trek to Kilgore.
So if you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading the history we chronicle in these pages, put Kilgore and Chuck’s museum on your list of eventual travel destinations. It’s well worth the detour!
And while you’re in town, listen to Chuck’s own radio stations, too – in a building right next door to the museum are the offices of Chalk Hill Communications, operator of classic hits KDOK (1240, plus four East Texas translators) and KZQX (100.3, plus a translator on 97.9 in Tyler), which plays a fun mix of standards and older soft AC tunes as “QX-FM.”
Thanks to Chuck Conrad for the tour!
STILL HAVEN’T BOUGHT THE CALENDAR?
NOW IS YOUR CHANCE!
We’re one third into the year, so it’s time to put the Tower Site Calendar on sale.
Though the months are over the pictures remain, and they remain beautiful. Especially at half price.
This is the 20th year we have been publishing our calendar. In addition to the cover shot of WEJL, we have photos from New Jersey, Nebraska, Texas, and much more!
You can get the regular calendar, or you can order a storage bag for it if you keep them, or you can get it signed by Scott (and get a complimentary bag).
And when you’re purchasing your calendar, don’t forget to take a look at the other great products in our store.
And don’t miss a big batch of East Texas IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Tyler and East Texas