Bill, it seems like I hardly knew you, but I’m okay with that. For over two decades I welcomed you at the dinner table with me and late at night before I went to bed as well. Former Channel 3 new anchor Bill Markham passed away recently at the age of 76.
It has been ten years since he was anchoring the news along with Cindy Sexton and although I know he came to town in 1983, I was actually surprised he was that old.
I used to hold media personalities in the highest regard until I got in the business; first as an intern at the old WDSI (now Fox 61) and then The Loafer beginning in 1990. Many a night I would stick my little transistor radio under my pillow to listen to music and hear radio personalities like Tommy Jett, The Night Stalker, David Carroll and more. When I wasn’t listening to radio I was watching the news. I used to love Mort Lloyd as a kid when we first moved to town. That love for local new kept growing with names and faces I can’t recall until about 1975 when Channel 9 hit the airwaves with Bob Johnson as news anchor, Don Welch with weather and Daryl Patterson on sports. At one point Don left (he was the weatherman back then), but I could always rely on the smooth voice of Bob Johnson to tell the news. I still remember sitting by the radio listening to Mocs football games when Patterson was the “Voice of the Mocs” at the time. He gave way eventually to Jim Reynolds who has been the voice for longer than I can remember and is still a joy to hear – and prefer listening to the games than even attending them in person because of him.
When I became a Communications major at UTC I wanted to be like Bob Johnson (minus the pipe and jacket with the patches. What really impressed me was how long he at that time was with Channel 9 (WTVC). One of the first things I was taught about the media market in Chattanooga while at UTC was that Chattanooga was a stepping stone market. You came through Chattanooga either on your way up or way down the ladder. It wasn’t considered a destination location. Bob changed that – and he was paid well eventually for his loyalty.
Another thing that stood out in my mind was something Professor Kit Rushing said in one of the many classes I had. Rushing was just a professor then and is now the head of the department. We had a love/hat relationship as he mercilessly picked me at times. And ironically a lot of my work at times was chosen best submission, which I think irked him at times. (We had little competitions at times in class) But one thing that really stuck in my mind besides the visit from New Free Press publisher Roy McDonald who addressed my class about the time he pulled all copies of Parade in the Sunday paper because of a quiz on sec, was when Dr. Rushing talked about the new anchor at Channel 3 (WRCB). “Look at him,” Rushing said. “He looks like he’s hungover with a 5 o’clock shadow. Look at that hair,” the professor said. (He did have a hair helmet – hair like former Cowboy’s coach and Fox Football analyst) He’s not anchor material.” After criticizing Markham’s appearance he said, “He’ll never last in this market.”
To Dr. Rushing’s chagrin, he lasted 26 years in the Chattanooga market – always professional and always a credit to the community. He wasn’t a pretty boy, who at that time was the trend, but he also stayed with one station the rest of his career. Both he and Bob Johnson where here for the long haul. Markam actually helped get Cindy Sexton into the market encouraging her to go for it and they were co-anchors of the evening and late news until his retirement in 2009.
I hate it when heroes fall and that’s what a lot of my early local radio and TV icons did as I became aware of what they did off the air first as an intern and then when I got into the publishing business. I could go on for days with stories I witnessed (some I even photographed) and many the scuttlebutts you hear from other people in media. That reality brought my initial perception and idolization crashing down to earth. Eventually, I became cynical of local media and to this day only know or am friendly acquaintances with a very few. Most I ignore or avoid. Bill wasn’t one of those. I never met him in my life except once after he retired. I had taken my mother grocery shopping at Walmart and he was there shopping as well. My mother pointed him out and asked for confirmation. I said yes. That was the first time I ever saw Bill not in a coat and tie and instead a pair of jeans. He looked casual and happy and we went about our business.
Since being in the media I have run into a lot of personalities at media events or parties and was quickly disillusioned by their behavior after the mic or camera were off. One that I got along with was the late Parker Smith. He never took himself or the media in Chattanooga seriously. The tortured soul that Smith was said one of the most profound and true things to me in 1996. Parker used to write and article for the Scenic City Gazette and then me when he wasn’t on talk radio back in the day. Notorious troublemaker that he was, one of his articles that he wrote for me took shots at various local media personalities with huge egos. He got threats as did I. As we sat in my office at the time talking accessing the damaged and if it really mattered about it he turned to me and said, “What makes them think they are some god? We’re in the 118th ranked media market in the country. (We’re now 88) How great can they really be? These clowns need to keep their ego in check.”
And in all my years of being in the media, I never heard a bad thing ever said about Bill Markham. While I never made many friends in TV as I did in radio, I never heard anyone say anything disparaging about him. He was never in the rumor mill – or the Rumour’s Mill for that matter. And that’s why I’ll miss him more than most other anchors (while I do think Greg Glover who inherited Bill’s old spot is great and a true professional). I actually learned a lot about him I didn’t know reading his obituary, which is saying something as in the past I’ve gotten anonymous calls, emails, and now social media messages and texts “to check this out” or if I could verify a rumor or wanting to know if I heard something.
Maybe I was oblivious, I don’t know. Bill Markham to me seemed like a consummate professional in broadcasting and a good citizen – and those are too far and in between in any era. But thanks to guys like Bill, Bob, Cindy and David Carroll they made Chattanooga a destination location for media – way before the Tennessee Aquarium and whoever decided Chattanooga was now a cool town. There is a lot to be learned from Bill Markham – way beyond even broadcasting. And while I’m sorry I never officially met him, trust me I, like so many of us feel like we knew him and will miss him.
– Dave Weinthal