Interview Date: August 19, 1990
Interview Location: University Park, PA USA
Interviewer: E. Stratford Smith
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
SMITH: This is Tape One, Side A of an oral history interview with Mr. Thomas C. Dowden. This interview is one of a series in the oral histories program of the National Cable Television Center and Museum at Penn State University. Mr. Dowden is an early pioneer in the cable television industry and has endowed the Dowden Center for Telecommunications Studies at the University of Georgia. The interviewer is E. Stratford Smith of the School of Communications at Penn State, and the Director of the Oral History program of the Center.
DOWDEN: My name is Thomas C. Dowden. You asked where I was born, Strat, I was born in a town near Nashville, Tennessee with the unlikely name of Ridgetop. You’ve heard of Rocky Top. Well, I was born in Ridgetop, Tennessee. It’s a little town of 350 people, now it’s a suburb of Nashville. When I was growing up it was a little resort town in the middle of Tennessee and a very beautiful town. I was born there in 1935, one of seven children ‑ five brothers and one sister. We lived there until I was a late teenager and we moved to nearby Nashville. At that point I went to college for one year in Nashville at Peabody College and then I went into the military.
SMITH: Tell us about your parents, Tom. The nationality of them, their ethnic background. Any interesting items about their lives and careers.
DOWDEN: My mother was from Tennessee and my father was from Kentucky. The Dowden clan settled in Kentucky. In fact, we just recently had our 200th anniversary of the DOWDEN: family in Brandenburg, Kentucky, which is a community near Owensboro, Kentucky. It was the 200th anniversary of a fellow named Thomas Dowden settling in that area in 1789. We have a historian, as I imagine most families do–people in the family who trace such things. I thought it was interesting that on the 200th anniversary they named me Chairman of the family reunion. This Thomas Dowden had a lot of fun at that. But we were from the Kentucky and Tennessee area.
SMITH: Was that early Thomas Dowden, was he a Thomas C. Dowden?
DOWDEN: There was an early C. Dowden, but his name was Clementhius Dowden, which I thought was a very interesting name. He was either the father or the grandfather of these early settlers in Kentucky.
SMITH: Of course, that’s back on your father’s side. What nationality is this?
DOWDEN: Well, we are English-Scotch heritage as were most of the people who settled in that part of Kentucky ‑ Tennessee. These people came over the mountains from Virginia. We traced our family back to Virginia. Then, when the movement west took place, after the nation was settled and began to expand, they moved to Kentucky. It is very difficult to trace accurately because in 1812, as you know, the British burned most of our courthouses and burned most of the records of families. It’s very difficult to go back prior to 1812 and find out where the original families came from, but we think and we have pretty good evidence that we were Scotch and English. So that’s our heritage. In our family we have a scholar, the former head of the English Department at Rice University for many years, Dr. Wilfred Dowden, who has done some research in this area. He reported at our last reunion that that is what he has discovered. I would have to say I’m Anglo-Saxon in some ways because of my complexion and so on.
SMITH: Was your father born in Kentucky or did he move there?
DOWDEN: He was born in Sebree, Kentucky and is buried there. Both my parents are deceased, both having died in the early 1970s. My father worked for the L & N Railroad for about 40 years. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad. He was a railroad man. In fact, he was the station master of a little town about three miles away from the town where we grew up in Tennessee. So that’s what I remember about my early childhood.
SMITH: Did you spend a lot of time down watching the trains?
DOWDEN: Well, we did. In fact, this little town of Ridgetop, which is a historic little town in itself in middle Tennessee, has an actual train tunnel, which runs the entire length of the community, underground. I have very vivid memories of hearing the trains roaring through, not only coming up the steep grade, coming through this little community, but actually hearing it rumble underneath the town, coming out the other end. It was a railroad town in every sense of the word. But it was a resort town too. As evidenced by its name, it was set in higher in the hills of central Tennessee. It was five, six, seven degrees cooler than down in the valley where Nashville was located, so a lot of the people had summer homes in this little town. We were part of the natives, or the “locals” I guess they called them. All these other people would come in the summer time. It was a unique little town.
SMITH: Was your mother a native born Kentuckian?
DOWDEN: No, my mother was actually from Tennessee. We’ve traced less about her family background. She was a Hunter. Her name was Anna Mary Hunter. She was from the town of Columbia, Tennessee. How she and my father met, I’m not quite certain. We just haven’t traced the Hunter family back as much. She passed away in 1970, and it was some time after that that this interest arose over on the DOWDEN: name side to do some tracing of the family names.
SMITH: Somebody got the genealogical bug.
DOWDEN: Absolutely. It’s interesting. Some people do this every year, every two years–get together with the family. It’s been fun. It was in this small town that I grew up. During the war I remember vividly my older brothers going off to the war. World War II. One to the Marine Corps and one to the Navy. In fact, all six of us served in the military.
SMITH: You had six brothers. Any sisters?
DOWDEN: I had five brothers and one sister. So there were six boys and one girl all spread about two or three years apart. There was a large family spread out over many years. Again, by the time I was coming along, having been born in 1935, the older ones were already 18, 19, 20 years old, ready to go into the military and with the war coming on. So I barely remember the older ones as a child. Just their coming home on furlough.
SMITH: Do you mind mentioning their names for the record and perhaps what some of them are doing today?
DOWDEN: Well, yes I’ll mention that my sister, who I always thought ironically, is named Jo or Josephine and then there were six boys. Josephine is deceased. She would have been in her early 70s. My oldest brother was named Robert, or Bob. He was a World War II Navy veteran and was an attorney in Nashville for many years having graduated from Vanderbilt University. He’s deceased. Unfortunately, he had a stroke two or three years ago and died. My other brother was a businessman in the Nashville area in the electrical supply business. Unfortunately, he’s deceased. In fact, Strat, I’ve had four siblings die in four years. None of us has a very good record on longevity; I hope to break that record.
My next brother, unfortunately, died at a fairly young age, and I’m coming down in order. He was next oldest to me. He was a career Navy man, chief petty officer. Unfortunately he contracted lung cancer, having been a smoker all his life. He died at a relatively young age. Then there is myself. And, of course, I live in Atlanta. And a younger brother, the last of the six boys lives in Memphis, Tennessee and he’s an attorney. So he and I really are the… Well, I’m leaving out one. I have a brother named Charles who fits in there somewhere between the two or three older brothers. He is a teacher having spent many years in Texas teaching Spanish children along the border with Mexico. He now is an English teacher in Guatemala. We don’t see very much of him. He was a free spirit back in the ’50s and ’60s before that was very commonplace in this country. We communicate by letter occasionally. So of the seven there are only three of us left. My younger brother and I are quite close–his living in Memphis and I in Atlanta. So that’s it.
SMITH: What do you recall in particular about your boyhood? The schools you went to ‑ your sports, hobbies, and whatnot.
DOWDEN: Well, growing up in a small town in Tennessee, you have to grow up liking basketball and football and in my case, hunting. Being in a small rural area like that. I remember that it was an idyllic setting growing up in the middle of Tennessee. I remember grammar school being in a small schoolhouse in a little town. I remember the nearby high school was … (Interruption to greet a visitor)
SMITH: When we interrupted to greet Ben Conroy, you were talking about the pleasures of growing up in a small town in Tennessee.
DOWDEN: Well, I remember all of the childhood things of playing in sports, and playing sandlot baseball, and later I must say, in high school, I played some organized baseball. American Legion baseball, they called it. I never was heavy enough to play football. Also, when I was 11 years old, I had an unusual thing happen. I developed a ruptured appendix, which had it not been for penicillin, which had just come out at that time, I guess I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about any history beyond 1946.
SMITH: Probably not.
DOWDEN: When that happened fortunately for me, penicillin had come out. It was developed, of course, during World War II. Prior to that there was nothing we had to fight that kind of infection. There was the peritonitis that developed as a result of this ruptured appendix. All we had up to that day was sulfa drugs, which would not have taken care of this. Up until 1946, a lot of people died of that very disease, of ruptured appendix. I had that when I was 11 years old, and that pretty well took out most of my summer of my eleventh year. I remember being in bed most of that summer recovering. It was after that that I had no stomach, no pun intended, to play football or any hard contact sport like that. I did like baseball and again, as I said, I like hunting and swimming and things like that.
We had our local lake. In a small town like that there was no country club, or golf course. It wasn’t until later that I took up an interest in golf. I had to go into the Army to do that. So I had an interesting childhood. One thing that I remember, particularly about high school, tenth, eleventh, twelfth grade was I had a great English literature teacher, Mrs. Byron Johnson who influenced me a great deal in terms of future direction that I was going to take in the journalism/broadcast/communications field. She inspired me a great deal. She also taught me a love of poetry and English literature, which I enjoy to this day ‑ reading and so on. Even in a small town where my graduating class of 1953, I think there were like 13 or 14 students in my graduating senior class, so you can see how small we’re talking here.
SMITH: Is that right? You’re not going to tell me it was a one-room schoolhouse.
DOWDEN: Well, my grammar school exactly was a one-room schoolhouse. My grammar school up until the seventh grade when I went to the nearby town to go into junior high and then high school was literally a one-room schoolhouse. I can’t prove it today. They’ve taken it down and there is a city park there.
SMITH: Well, we’ll accept your word for it.
DOWDEN: The old timers in my hometown will verify that we did have the proverbial one room schoolhouse. So that was it for my high school. It wasn’t easy. My father was not a well off man–working for the railroad. My mother was real strong and worked hard. She was a housewife but we didn’t have a lot of extra money. We lived in a modest house. During my early years, there was the Great Depression of the thirties and, of course, it hit places like the Tennessee Valley and a lot of the small southern towns probably harder than it hit anywhere else. Then the war came on. Of course that was traumatic, I’m sure, for my parents because two of their children went off to war and were in it from 1941 to the end of it in 1945. They were away in the Marine Corps and the Navy. No one really could expect to get much financial help from the family, in that type of situation. We were inspired particularly by our mother to get an education. To go on, and again from some influence from certain teachers like this one English teacher, to go ahead and finish your education and it was pretty rough to do. I saw my older brothers come out of World War II and use their G.I. Bills to finish their college. I knew that probably was what was in store for me, either working, the G.I. Bill or whatever. And, in fact, that is what happened. I went in the military in time to get what was later known as the Korean War G.I. Bill, and that helped me in later years to complete my college.
SMITH: Your military service was in the Army?
DOWDEN: I was in the Army. In 1953 when I graduated from high school, I first registered to go to college and this is where my communications career started. I got a job right out of high school in Nashville with WSM Television, which was an NBC affiliate owned by National Life and Accident Insurance Company. One of the early television stations that was put on the air in the south, if not the country, was owned by this large insurance company. Its companion station was WSM, which owned the Grand Ole Opry, the musical show in Nashville. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.
SMITH: I certainly have heard of it.
DOWDEN: It was one of the early 50,000 watt, clear channel stations. Of course it was made known and made prominent by the Grand Ole Opry stars of the ’40s and ’50s and on and on. It’s still going strong today, of course.
SMITH: I don’t think I can remember when I hadn’t heard of the Grand Ole Opry.
DOWDEN: That’s right. So when I finished high school I had a lucky break in that my sister-in-law was the secretary for the general manager of the WSM property ‑ radio and television properties. I let her know that I wanted to go into this field. I had sort of gotten the bug either through high school, or either through hearing about television coming on, in 1952, 1953. That is about when the FCC freeze ended, as you remember. There was a lot of publicity as I recall about new television stations going on the air. Of course, one of them was WSM television in Nashville. There was another one, WLAC television, which was a CBS station. There was a lot of publicity about the excitement of having television in the early ’50s. I think I must have gotten caught up in that. It was natural, I think, that I gravitated that way. I was rewarded by getting a full-time job as a courier running errands and running the materials, films, etc, between the radio station which was in downtown Nashville, and the new television station which was out in the western part of the city. I was the courier pigeon for those stations starting out. Then I worked my way right into the television studio and became a boom operator, audio boom operator, a cameraman, a floor director, and prop man. I did all of those early chores at WSM television in the early ’50s.
SMITH: You literally started on the ground floor.
DOWDEN: I certainly did. Television was brand new. It was very exciting. One of the people I remember, Strat, that I met in those days, was a young man named Pat Boone who won a talent show in Nashville. He had worked his way up and was about to win a trip to the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”. He would come out and do these programs at WSM television during the summer of 1953. I was a young 18 year old and I was quite impressed with this fellow. Of course, he went on to a very fine musical career, a singing career …
SMITH: Still is.
DOWDEN: He’s still around, but I got to know Pat that summer, I got to know him pretty well. So that was the summer of ’53 and I was looking ahead at what was I to do about this education. So in the fall, because I was working and I was making some money, I thought I probably could afford to register for college right there in Nashville. I registered as a freshman in Peabody College. Peabody College, in Nashville, is now part of Vanderbilt University but in those days it was a separate teacher’s college. I couldn’t afford the big university across the street ‑ Vanderbilt ‑ but I did go to Peabody and I did it for a couple of reasons. One ‑ it was within range where I could register and take several courses and still work at WSM television at night, which I did. I could walk to the studio because it was very near the college campus. When I think back, it was probably a mile or so. But, of course, I didn’t have transportation or anything. I walked to work, after my classes.
I would walk to WSM television and work the night shift, whether it was camera operator or prop man, put up sets for local news, weather and sports, whatever. I didn’t do on-air work or anything of that sort, but I was getting experience. I was building up this and I was totally enamored with the work. It was great fun, knowing the announcers and getting to know some of the celebrities that came through. So this whole television thing really got into my blood. I worked there for one year and finished one year of college. And at the end of that one year, I knew that in those days you almost had to get your military service behind you. You could either wait to be drafted for two years or you could join for three and try to get some assignment or station that you wanted or schooling, or whatever.
In January I remember it was either the end of 1954, or right at the beginning of 1955, there was an announcement that the G.I. Bill was going to be discontinued. Of course, I had always thought that the only way I was going to be able to finish college was to have that type of help, so my older brother, who had finished his college with the World War II G.I. Bill, was a practicing attorney in Nashville in those times. He encouraged me in no uncertain terms that I should take advantage of that G.I. Bill so I would have it looking ahead to complete my education. And so after some resistance on my part, I finally saw the wisdom of doing this and so in January, I think it was January, 1955 I chose to step forward and join the military. That left me with just one year of college and I was on my way to getting my military out of the way and then looking forward to coming back and finishing my college at a later date.
SMITH: Describe your military career briefly.
DOWDEN: Well, it was really quite fascinating. I went through basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky and wasn’t quite sure what I was qualified for. I did not choose, nor did I think about going to Officer’s Training School at that time. It was later. I had joined the Army so I had a three year commitment. I went through basic training and upon completion of the basic training I was assigned to go to Korea. This was in September of 1955, so the first part of the year I had finished my basic training. Now I found myself ready to go to Korea for sixteen months, which was a great experience. It not only broadened me as far as my coming from a small town in Tennessee, a boy from the country going out and really seeing the world, but it was also a time that I was brought into contact with people from other parts of the United States. I made some good friends, some of whom I still maintain today as friends that I met during that career, my stint in Korea. I was based in Inchon. I went over as an enlisted man. I think I was a corporal when I got there. I was assigned to a “Triple A” artillery battalion in Inchon.
SMITH: What does Triple A mean?
DOWDEN: Triple A means “Antiaircraft Artillery.” I was assigned to a headquarters company as a clerk typist working in the administrative area. From there I took on other responsibilities, I remember at one point in Korea really more to break the boredom than anything else, I was the battalion mail clerk which got me a jeep to go up to Seoul when I wanted to. I was a hobby shop operator. I had a lot of little “businesses” like that going. I had a lot of fun in 16 months. But it passed very slowly. Broken only by the occasional trips to Tokyo for R&R which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I was also the editor of the battalion newspaper. One reason I took that job on in addition to these others that I mentioned is that it provided a trip, temporary duty to Tokyo every month or six weeks to edit the battalion newspaper. We had to go to Tokyo to have it published. They had no publishing facilities in South Korea. So that was a great deal of fun to do that. Because I was going to have a year or a year and half of military left when I got back to the United States, I applied for and was accepted to the Counter Intelligence Corps School at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland. I thought that would be pretty good duty and it wasn’t that terribly far from my home in Tennessee. As I learned later, they did background checks and I had to be cleared for Top Secret. They frightened my mother and a lot of my neighbors by asking a lot of questions. Anyway, I was assigned then to rotate back to the United States and report after a 30-day furlough at home to Fort Holabird. I think this is a facility that the military has closed, but was the facility later on in the ’70s and ’80s where the Watergate, all the people who were involved in Watergate were sent to serve their sentence.
SMITH: That’s where they took their enforced vacations.
DOWDEN: Right. Anyway, I transferred back to the United States. Went to Fort Holabird. It was there that I resumed my television career in the television industry. I approached the program manager at WMAR television, the CBS station in Baltimore, Mr. Ed Mick, told him I had some experience at WSM in Nashville, that I was a soldier at Fort Holabird, that I wanted to work part-time at night and on weekends to further my experience in television. He gave me a job in the production department at WMAR. This is a station that was owned by the Baltimore Sun papers.
SMITH: Yes, I’m familiar with it.
DOWDEN: So I picked up my broadcasting career at WMAR in late 1956. I had about another year, or a year and a half to go before I was discharged. I thought this would give me some good experience plus some spending money. So I started a year or more of delightful time in Baltimore which I thoroughly enjoyed and also got some good front line experience in television.
SMITH: Specifically what?
DOWDEN: I was now an actual technical director and producer of local news and weather shows and I signed the station off at night, I remember. I kept the logs. In those days, that would be called a director or producer. I had alternate days with other directors and producers, but I worked only at night. I would either work in the news department, where I wrote some news and prepared news for the people on air, or I directed shows. In one case, this is ironic I guess in light of my involvement with the University of Georgia and the Peabody Board which I serve on now. I wrote, produced and directed a documentary in 1962 that became an entry in the Peabody Awards.
SMITH: What was the subject matter?
DOWDEN: The title of the program was “Soldier, Why Are You In Berlin?”. It was a story about the Berlin Wall and it was a story that was inspired because of the Berlin Wall going up in 1961, ’62 and the crisis that John Kennedy faced in his dealings with Premier Khrushchev. It was a documentary to help describe the four-power agreement on the Berlin settlement and it was an attempt to show what the U.S. presence was there, what their mission was in Berlin. It was a 30-minute documentary. As I remember, it had some music, had some good action scenes and all of that. I would be afraid to look at it now, at how amateurish it would be.
SMITH: Do you have it?
DOWDEN: Well, it’s in the Peabody archives somewhere. I don’t have the nerve to go ask them to let me see it. I don’t know if I want to claim authorship of it or not. I do remember that I was enthusiastic about doing it then. They were good enough to run it on the air two or three different times. They must have been desperate for programming in those days.
SMITH: You’re too modest.
DOWDEN: At any rate, I remember it was unique in one sense, in that I wrote it, produced it and directed it. It was sort of a cradle to grave thing.
SMITH: That was at WMAR.
DOWDEN: That was at WMAR. Again that was a little bit ahead of my … To make a long story short, I finished up my military career in 1958. I left Baltimore. It was at that time that I learned that because of being a military man, with the G.I. Bill, I could pretty much pick any university or college that I wanted to attend, assuming I could be accepted. There was a special requirement that I remember that discharged veterans did not have to pay out-of-state tuition. Now I may have that confused. At least that was the case in Georgia. One of the schools that I looked at and was interested in was the University of Georgia, because of its reputation in radio, television and journalism.
I looked at Northwestern; I looked at North Carolina; I forget the others. I did a little research while I was still in the military. When I got out in 1958 or during that period before I got out, I applied and was accepted at the University of Georgia. So that’s how I ended up going to that University. But, back to my career at WMAR, I had a great time there. I was producing sports remotes from Memorial Stadium when the Orioles played the Yankees. I would assist when WPIX or CBS would come down for the Saturday game, or when WPIX would come down and broadcast the Yankee games. This was when Mel Allen was the announcer. It was a big thrill. I’d work in the booth with Mel Allen, or Phil Rizzuto when the other crew would come down. Being with the CBS station, they would use our personnel to do a lot of the in-booth work up there. I would get to work with them and I really thought I was pretty important. I’d hobnob with the likes of Mel Allen and so on.
I remember those days and then, of course, those were the great years of the Baltimore Colts with Johnny Unitas and Alan Ameche, and all those people in the late ’50s. So I was in Baltimore during that period so I became a big Colt fan, and an Oriole fan, and actually got to meet Brookes Robinson, the great third baseman for the Orioles. So it was that type of thing. I was enjoying what I was doing. I finished up my military. I was looking forward to going to college. I was getting some experience in television and having a great time. And also gaining some really good experience. Then, of course, that ended and I left Baltimore to go back to Athens where I picked up my college career.
SMITH: All along here you hadn’t mentioned marriage or a wife. I know you have a family, is this an appropriate place to tell us about your family or does this come in later?
DOWDEN: Well, we’re getting mighty close because it was at the University of Georgia where I met my wife who was a student there at the same time that I was. I met Wendy, my wife, in 1960. I guess I was a sophomore at the University.
SMITH: Let’s get a little on the record about her then at this point.
DOWDEN: Well, absolutely. Wendy is from Miami, Florida. She came to the University of Georgia because her parents didn’t think she should go the University of Florida, that was such a party school. So they wouldn’t let her go to the University of Florida. Her mother having been there and her father having attended the University of Florida ‑ “Well, we want you to go to some other school.” Little did they know that Georgia had a worse reputation as a party school than Florida. Anyway, she was not that much of a party gal, frankly. I did meet her in the second year I was there. She was a Kappa Alpha Theta. While I wasn’t in a fraternity, per se, I met her at some sorority function or some fraternity function. We started dating in 1960. I guess that was our sophomore year. Our junior year we came back. During the summer stints I would go back to WMAR in Baltimore and work. So I had the summer job situation that I had worked out with the television station. Every summer she would go back home I guess to Miami, or on trips or whatever she did. I’d go back to work.
By the third year, our junior year, I guess we became pretty serious about this thing. We got married in 1962 in our senior year. I went to the University in ’58. In our senior year, we had about a quarter or two left of college and I was going on to graduate school, so we decided that if we were going to be in Athens, we should go ahead and get married. We did that in January of 1962. Finished our schooling. I went on to graduate school, put her to work to help out and so we finished up our graduate year and we’ve been married ever since. That’s 28 years.
We have three delightful children. Our first child was born in July of 1963 and she was born in Athens while we were still in graduate school. Her name is Anna, named for my mother. She lives in Atlanta now and is married. Just married in the past year. She graduated and went to school at Sewanee University, University of the South, after having attended prep school at Choate in Connecticut. Quite a smart gal. She’s teaching in a private school, Westminster School, in Atlanta. My second daughter was born in 1965. Her name is Constance Hardie, named for her grandmother. She has just finished her college in Mount Vernon, Washington and is attending the Portfolio School in Atlanta to round out her professional training. She lives in Atlanta. Our third child is a son named John who is a sophomore, second year, at the college of Charleston, South Carolina. So those are our three children ‑ Anna, Hardie, and John.
SMITH: This is a good place to turn the tape over. The red light is flashing.
DOWDEN: Ok, we’ll stop right there and pick it up. Right. Thanks.
End of Tape 1, Side A
SMITH: Tom, I think you had just finished identifying your children when I stopped to turn over the tape. You had indicated that you and your wife, Wendy, were married during your senior year at the University of Georgia. Would you review your education at Georgia, the courses you took. I understand that the University of Georgia is highly regarded in the field of education and broadcasting and telecommunications.
DOWDEN: As I mentioned, Strat, when I was in the military I was looking around for an outstanding radio/television/journalism school. The University of Georgia kept popping up as one of the top. The Henry W. Grady School of Journalism has over the last thirty, forty, fifty years been ranked right up at the top with Northwestern, Columbia, the University of Missouri and some of the top journalism schools in the country. It had that reputation mainly in the newspaper era back in the ’20s, ’30s, newspaper area. As radio and television came along it developed an early curriculum in those two new services and so it was gaining a reputation in the electronic journalism area as well. That really impressed me because that’s what I wanted to pursue. I wanted to finish my college career and get some practical broadcast and communications training in at the same time to round off some of the practical training I had had, at WSM and at WMAR.
Another thing that had attracted me to Georgia was the reputation of the dean of the school who was named John E. Drewry. Dean Drewry was a great man in his own right. He had a tremendous reputation among, particularly, the newspaper fraternity in the United States of the ’20s and ’30s and also in the magazine field. Many of the new magazines that were created in the ’20s and ’30s–The New Yorker, the American Mercury, and Harper’s–all of these magazines had some writers or editors who were graduates of the University of Georgia. This was a credit to Dean Drewry.
In addition to this great reputation, Dean Drewry was quite a character himself. He also was there when they established the Peabody Awards. The University of Georgia and the Journalism School began in 1940 administering these awards. I’ve always felt–although I never read this and it isn’t documented–that this was because of his tremendous reputation in the journalistic and broadcast community of the United States that they chose the University of Georgia and the Journalism School as the repository for these awards.
SMITH: I was going to ask you, Tom–pardon my interruption–if the Peabody Awards had any relationship to Peabody College that you mentioned earlier.
DOWDEN: I don’t think so. I’m not sure for whom Peabody College was named. I don’t think it was George Foster Peabody who is the man for whom the awards are named. He was an industrialist, an early entrepreneur. He was from Georgia. He was a great benefactor of the University of Georgia. Although it sounds like a very northeast Yankee name, this George Foster Peabody was actually from Columbus, Georgia and apparently left quite a bit of money to the University. One of the areas that he was interested in was this whole area of radio/television programming excellence. He got his name attached to that. So I don’t believe there was any connection. I’m not sure who the Peabody in Nashville was named for. Could have been the Coal people. Peabody Coal or something like that.
At any rate, I heard about the University of Georgia and I went there and visited, and I liked the college. I liked Athens where it’s located ‑ 60 miles northeast of Atlanta. I just liked the atmosphere. I was there, I must say, at a very historic time. It was during the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the integration problem was hitting the South. Of course, you would remember being an attorney and being a businessman and so on in that era that there was a lot of publicity the way the University of Alabama handled it. The way George Wallace handled it. It was a very traumatic era for the South. That was, of course, during the time of the freedom marches and a lot of the integration and segregation policies were breaking down during that period, the late ’50s and early ’60s. The University of Georgia–I was there when it was “integrated”–and the University handled, and the State of Georgia handled it–probably better than any other state or institution in the South. We were there during that period, so that added a lot of interesting history and sidelight to my college career, needless to say.
With respect to the University itself, and the class work, they emphasize a general liberal education and the last two years you would specialize in the area in the journalism field that you had chosen. They had different sequences ‑ radio/television, advertising, public relations, newspaper and editorial. They had the four basic disciplines within the journalism school. Of course I singled out radio/television to be my sequence; so I finished that part of my education in 1962. Again, as I said, I was working in the summers back at WMAR TV so I was building up good experience in that regard while getting my undergraduate degree.
SMITH: What would they have been teaching you in the radio/television field that you hadn’t already accumulated by experience?
DOWDEN: Well, in terms of the mechanical training, i.e. directing, actual camera work, actual producing/ directing of shows, I was pretty far along versus my other classmates because I had had some experience at WMAR, particularly. I think it was more in the area of the well-rounded education that you were getting. In other words the broader picture of getting some business courses behind you, getting some production philosophy and production techniques behind you, news writing– the professional way to approach news writing. Research. All of those when you started concentrating on your major in the last two years certainly went a great deal farther than I had been able to do just out working on my own. When I combined those two I felt I was really quite well prepared when I finished my undergraduate work. I wasn’t ready to stop there. I wanted to go ahead and get my masters degree which I applied for in the School of Political Science and History and was accepted there as a teaching fellow.
SMITH: Why political science?
DOWDEN: I just felt I was interested in mainly the news editorial side of radio and television more than the mechanical, more than the actual production side.
SMITH: It was not a diversion from your interest in radio and television?
DOWDEN: Not at all. I felt it was going to enhance it. I was really quite interested in political broadcasting and some areas like that. I felt, in fact I wrote my thesis on the subject of Congress and the control of political broadcasting ‑ specifically on Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934. At that time in my senior year, going into my graduate work, I was beginning to concentrate on more defined areas. I wasn’t quite sure how that was all going to come together in terms of my career. I felt I needed that type of background to move into management or to move into news editorial position, editor ‑ whatever the areas that were beginning to fascinate me. I thought I needed that. So when they offered me this teaching fellowship which meant that I would teach a course in political science at the same time working toward my graduate degree, that was very appealing to me. My wife had graduated and she was now working and so we went on for one more year. Essentially that is what happened.
Before that, I must say, in the summer of 1962, another thing happened that really sort of changed my career direction. That was that I had been accepted as the first recipient of the Corinthian Summer Scholarship given by Corinthian Broadcasting. They were administering it through the University and through the National Association of Broadcasters. A man named Dr. Harold Niven chose the University of Georgia as the first recipient of this summer scholarship. You remember the firm, Corinthian Broadcasting.
SMITH: I do. And Wrede Petersmeyer? Did you know Wrede?
DOWDEN: I did know Wrede, quite well. Chuck Tower.
SMITH: Wrede was a cable pioneer too.
DOWDEN: He really was in West Virginia.
SMITH: Right back in the early days.
DOWDEN: He got out early. They sold the systems I remember he was telling me that story. Chuck Tower was another person that was with … you remember him.
SMITH: Yes, I do.
DOWDEN: He was on several national boards. Anyway, I was given this scholarship in the summer of 1962. I had a new bride and this scholarship. They sent me to Houston, Texas to their station there. The CBS affiliate in Houston. We went out to Houston and thoroughly enjoyed it. Knowing that I was coming back in my graduate year to have this teaching fellowship and then I had this Corinthian stipend. It wasn’t very much as I remember, $400 or $500–that was a lot of money to help me finish my graduate degree.
I really rounded out a lot of my academic training and learning and so on and so forth with this summer of interning in news and production. I sat in with Jim Richdale who was the general manager who reported to Wrede Petersmeyer. So I spent the time with Richdale in the news area and the remote area and so on. I made some nice contacts at Corinthian. Then I went back to the University in the fall of ’62 to finish my last year in my master’s thesis which as I said was going to be on the subject of political broadcasting. So I found the fall to be quite interesting. That was the time of the Cuban crisis. The blockade of Cuba and here I found myself teaching a basic political science course to 50 or 60 young students and we’re talking about the Monroe Doctrine and we’re talking about this and that and here down in Cuba we’re under a war alert. It was quite an interesting fall. I do remember that. I thoroughly enjoyed the teaching aspect for the three quarters. While I was teaching it gave me enough time to do my research in this area of Section 315. I researched the early federal radio laws and the history of the 1934 Act and so on. I had a lot of time to do that and also to teach and finish up my academic career. That’s what I was doing in the fall of ’62 to ’63.
DOWDEN: I had finished my undergraduate work and I had finished my graduate degree. I had written my thesis. It had been approved. I got my masters, my M.A. in Political Science.
SMITH: Now you were ready to take your bride and get started.
DOWDEN: Get started. That’s right.
SMITH: Where did you go?
DOWDEN: Well, we went back to Houston.
SMITH: Back to Houston?
DOWDEN: Yes. I asked the people at Corinthian if they liked me well enough the year before to give me a scholarship to go down there, did they like me well enough to give me a permanent job? The answer came back yes. So they offered me a position in their advertising and local sales which was what I wanted to do to round out my career. So in June of 1963 we went to Houston and that started almost a two year career with Corinthian. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Gave me an aspect of the business I hadn’t seen before, i.e., calling on advertising agencies. Working with advertising accounts. Learning that aspect of the television business. Gave me a great appreciation for the business side of things. Worked with some really fine people in advertising. Still had friends there from the year before.
In fact, one person I had gotten to know through the program director and had liked was a man named Dan Rather. He’s of course, now the CBS anchor. He came from KHOU in Houston. Dan’s career was very interesting as a little sidelight. He was a newsman at KHOU when we went out there for our summer scholarship. He was still there but he was working as a stringer for CBS or as the southwest correspondent, I can’t remember which. He had made his mark earlier that year in a story that unfolded down on the Gulf Coast. That was Hurricane Carla which was this gigantic hurricane that came ashore at Galveston in 1962, I’m going to say, Strat. It could have been late ’61, but in that time frame ‑ ’61, ’62. Dan did such a superb job of covering that storm, in fact made his way down to Galveston, was holed up in the Weather Bureau, five story Weather Bureau office building down there, which was about the only structure that was left standing, as I remember. Literally kept broadcasting for like 36 hours or something on the air. The only feed, reports, coming out of this storm ravaged area where there were hundreds and hundreds of deaths, was from Dan.
The people in New York at CBS caught sight of him because of the job he did, and so he was given a promotion or was hired by CBS to be their regional correspondent. Occasionally I’ll see Dan, like I saw him last year at the Democratic Convention in Atlanta and we reminisced about some of those early things. His career, of course, has been meteoric and he’s done such a good job, I think. At any rate, he was one person whom I met at that time and worked with during that time frame. When I went back in a full time capacity it was mainly in the area of advertising and local sales, as I said. We were there from 1963.
I must tell you a little sideline. John Kennedy on his trip to Texas came through Houston the night before. He was in Houston on a Thursday night. He was at the Houston Civic Center the night before. Our station, of course, covered it and so on. He went from there to San Antonio that evening and spent the night in San Antonio and then on the next day which was a Friday, November 22nd, 1963, he left San Antonio and went to Fort Worth and rode the motorcade. Just to paint the next episode of Dan Rather ‑ Dan was the only CBS reporter in the press entourage that was covering his trip to Texas. He again was “Johnny on the spot” and provided all of the local live coverage from the assassination scene in Dallas.
SMITH: That part of Rather’s career I did not know.
DOWDEN: He was a CBS southwest correspondent and was on the scene in the bus just behind the motorcade. He was the person who Walter Cronkite talked to on the scene. That was his second big “break.” He handled it well and was promoted then when Lyndon Johnson went in, being a Texan, he was promoted to the White House.
SMITH: That’s sort of a case of being in the wrong place at the right time, wasn’t it?
DOWDEN: That’s right. Both places ‑ the hurricane and the assassination. Talk about remembering. I was at the television station that Friday when the news came in, when Walter Cronkite broke in. Of course, we were the CBS station. I think what people remember about the Kennedy assassination was the emotional description that Walter Cronkite gave that day. We were then the CBS affiliate. I remember something interesting about that and this is probably not important in terms of oral history, but it always intrigued me or puzzled me why it happened. I remember that day at the television station on that Friday when Cronkite broke into, if I remember, the show was a soap opera called “As the World Turns.” It was about Houston time, Texas time, 12 or 12:15, something like that. The show was just getting underway and Cronkite came in from New York and said there’s been a bulletin that the President has been shot. I remember the switchboard lighting up and these women, mainly women, who were watching these soap operas were screaming at the switchboard operator, “Where’s our soap opera,” “We don’t care about that.” In fact, it was so bizarre that the switchboard operator just broke down.
I never will forget the program manager named Cal Jones. He still lives in Houston. He’s a great man. He got on the switchboard and for the next twenty minutes when anybody called they got an earful. Nothing was ever said. He ran the switchboard because this woman couldn’t stand it. She was just emotionally distraught. That was a little something that I remember on that. I remember going home that evening. That was the strangest, eeriest thing I have ever been through. It was a beautiful Friday evening ‑ a big cold front had moved through. It was fall, of course, but it was like a beautiful sunset and this front had moved through. Going to my apartment, I’ll never forget ‑ everybody was driving about 10 miles or 15 miles an hour, very slowly moving along these big expressways in Houston. There was just this pall over the city. It was the eeriest thing.
The next day I remember we had a trip scheduled to go down to San Antonio to visit a young friend of ours who was in the military there who was from Atlanta whose name was Jim Reinsch ‑ the son of Leonard Reinsch. We had been friends at the University. We had gone down to visit Jim in San Antonio. It was the next day that we were getting ready to go to lunch and we were in his room getting ready to go downstairs when the next episode happened. Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. It was unreal. It was just the whole weekend. I remember it so vividly. It was very unreal. I imagine you had your own thoughts about that period too.
SMITH: It was unreal all over the country.
DOWDEN: It was like Barry Sherman was saying today about the real time. A&E showed that three days of the Kennedy assassination that was on television. But being in Texas and his being in Houston the day before had a little more immediacy to it or something. Then I guess the behavior of a lot of the people. He wasn’t generally liked in Texas and so we sort of fought that. I liked him. I voted for him and he was quite an inspirational person for someone being in their mid-’20s as we were and coming along. Then that really was a change. That started the ’60s and the ’70s.
SMITH: Yes, it did. It’s important when there’s an opportunity for somebody who experienced that firsthand to speak. I think it’s good to have it on the record. You were there at Corinthian in Houston for two years you said.
DOWDEN: Right. I was there and after about a year I figured I learned about all I could learn about local sales and there didn’t seem to be an opening forthcoming in terms of local sales manager or national sales or national sales manager. I must say I was getting a little restless. We weren’t that keen on being in Houston. We really wanted to get back to the southeast quite frankly. Our friends from college ‑ a lot of them were in Atlanta. My wife was from Florida. I was from Tennessee. We were a little bit out of pocket then in Texas. We really had a desire to get back to Atlanta. Let me tell you how that came about.
In the fall of 1964, I’m going to say it was about October, I had a trip scheduled back to Atlanta and on over to Athens to either attend some sort of seminar or to see one of my professors or to I forgot the purpose of it, quite frankly, Strat. I was going back to Athens where the University was that particular fall weekend. I never will forget–I learned that there was a football game in Atlanta between Tennessee and Georgia Tech that was of some interest to me. I took the liberty of calling J. Leonard Reinsch whom I had met and who I had known through friendship with his son. I had taken the liberty of calling him to see if he could possibly help me with a couple of football tickets. So his secretary, Anna Mae Busky, who later when I went to Cox, she always befriended me and was a really fine lady. She told me that they indeed had two tickets and she told me how to go about coming by the White Columns on Peachtree where WSB Radio and Television/Cox Broadcasting is located to pick them up. I went to Atlanta and I believe it was a Friday afternoon that I went by White Columns just to pick up the tickets. When I got there Leonard was there. He proceeded to bring me in his office and we talked for a long time. He began to tell me about this new activity that the company had gotten into called cable television.
SMITH: Was that your first exposure?
DOWDEN: First exposure.
DOWDEN: Right there in his office that Friday. Well the long and short of it is that I didn’t go to Athens. He asked me to come to his home for dinner that night and talk more about this. “In fact, if you’re interested, we’re looking to hire some people and we’re going to expand our staff. You don’t need to be in Texas, you ought to be back here.” He was saying all the right things. He said, “If you are interested, then what I’ll do tonight,” and if you remember Leonard, he was a very aggressive and very firm in what he wanted done. “You come on, I’ll call Mark Bartlett tomorrow morning (which was a Saturday) to talk to you and we could just wrap this thing up and you can go back and give him notice.” Hell, this is moving pretty fast.
So that evening I did go to Leonard’s home and we visited. Their son was still in San Antonio. We talked about that and we talked about the Kennedy situation because Leonard had come out to Houston right after the assassination. After the funeral in Washington ‑ Leonard had come to Houston to visit with his son and to have Thanksgiving dinner. My wife and I were involved in their dinner plans. He described his role in the whole “production” or the whole three days of television coverage. Of course, he was John Kennedy’s communications advisor. He was handling all of the coordination, liaison, between the networks and the family and the White House. It was very fascinating to hear Leonard’s firsthand account of what happened. Some of the things that he said to me I still remember. They would be kind of an oral history unto themselves if you could have Leonard describe those three days in Washington from his perspective.
SMITH: I’m very sad that it appears we’re not going to be able to get one. I started to try to make contacts with him several months ago and he did return one telephone call at a time I wasn’t available. I’ve never been able to put it back together again, but you tell me he’s quite ill.
DOWDEN: He’s infirm. I won’t say he’s ill. He is on some medicine. He’s had some heart problems, but I think more importantly, the last time I understood his wife was seriously ill. We honored him in April or May ‑ I’ve forgotten when the NAB convention was in Atlanta (it was early April), we gave Leonard an individual Peabody Award for individual achievement. He was not able to accept it even though he was right there in Atlanta. His doctor had advised him not to go to a function of that sort. It would be too strenuous and the excitement and this and that.
I know his heart function is such that he can’t do a lot of travel or things that require a lot of energy. I had talked to him on the phone a couple of times in the last couple of months since this happened because I was somewhat the sponsor of this award in my capacity on the Peabody board. He knew this was in the works. I’ve talked to him on a couple of occasions. Whether he would be amenable to sitting down and doing something like this, possibly in his home, I don’t know. He might be. Whether he would be able to travel, I don’t think he would be, I would guess.
SMITH: If he’d feel up to it, obviously, I would be down there in a minute because he is a very, very important man in the history of not only cable but broadcasting. You mentioned his being advisor to John F. Kennedy, and he was to Lyndon Johnson too.
DOWDEN: That’s right. And he goes back to Truman. He was advisor to President Truman.
SMITH: I didn’t realize he went back that far.
DOWDEN: Yes. Old Governor Cox of Ohio got Leonard that position back in the ’40s. He worked in the administration of Truman in ’48. To me he is one of the great pioneers of both. He’s been given the National Broadcaster’s Association award, distinguished service award, and I don’t know what else he has received. He’s received all that. I always thought he was a great man because of the way he had this vision for cable television. He was so certain about its future that he persuaded the Cox family and the Cox organization to get into that business, as well as maintaining the broadcasting side. He didn’t see anything incompatible about that whereas a lot of people did, like Wrede Petersmeyer later. They were the champions of the AMST approach.
SMITH: Oh yes.
DOWDEN: Taft and all of these status quo type broadcasters. Leonard was never that way.
SMITH: Wrede was in cable before he was in broadcasting. When he made the switch he made it all the way.
DOWDEN: They were really the lead horse so to speak in the AMST group.
SMITH: Well, I’ve got you all the way to Cox which is the beginning of cable and the red light is flashing. I’ll have to change another tape.
End of Tape 1, Side B
SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side A of the oral history interview with Thomas C. DOWDEN:. It’s taking place in the Oral History Room of The National Cable Television Center and Museum at Penn State. Tom, we had digressed a little bit in our discussion to talk about J. Leonard Reinsch, a very early pioneer in the industry. Now let’s get back to your own career. We had reached the point where you had met Mr. Reinsch and he invited you to dinner where he practically hired you without your getting a chance to say yes or no. Would you like to go on from there?
DOWDEN: Well, I recall that had been a very interesting evening. One of those type things that you will always remember because it changed your whole career and your whole destiny. Leonard really gave me a sales pitch that night, needless to say, in October 1964, about the need to come into this new field of cable television. He allowed as how Corinthian Broadcasting was a privately held company and they didn’t seem to be going anywhere and that Cox had just gone public, had public stockholders. We’ve got to show growth and we need new young people coming along and this and that. So it sounded very exciting. Of course, my wife and I had already talked about our interest in coming back to the southeast and to Atlanta, particularly. So this was tailor-made for me. Of course, when I called her she was quite excited. I didn’t have the job yet. This was just talk and Leonard was handling it as he usually handled things as you know ‑ well, we’ll worry about the details later. He said this is what we’re going to do. He said I do want you to go in and talk to Mark Bartlett whom I had never met. I had known his name and all. I knew he was one of the senior executives at Cox Broadcasting. In fact, Mark was the person who Leonard had put in charge of the cablevision effort ‑ Cox Cablevision was what it was called in 1964. It consisted of I’m going to say, approximately 20,000 cable subscribers centered nearby here at State College. They were in Tyrone, Lewistown and Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. The other complex that Cox Cablevision had was in Astoria, Oregon and The Dalles and some of the small remote areas of Oregon and Washington.
SMITH: Where Lou Davenport was.
DOWDEN: Exactly right. That’s where Lou was the manager. Lou was the manager in the Pacific northwest of Cox Cablevision systems and Bill Vogel was the manager in Pennsylvania. If I recall, Bill was a graduate of Penn State and was very closely involved with this University. That was the extent of the cable holdings with the possible exception of a 50% interest that Cox held in the Findlay, Ohio cable franchise or cable system along with a new and upcoming company called Continental Cablevision and a young man named Bud Hostetter. I remember meeting him very early in my career. Anyway, Mark was in charge of Cox’s effort and his assignment was to get the company involved in more ownership of cable of the classical type at that time. You know the type cable system where communities required cable to get reception and of course, Lewistown and Lock Haven and Tyrone, pretty much those kind of communities where without cable they hardly had any television.
SMITH: They were classic community antenna systems.
DOWDEN: At any rate, back to the story, Leonard called Mark at home and asked if he would mind meeting with me, Saturday morning and he gave Mark a little bit of my background ‑ where I had worked, that I had been with Corinthian and I wanted to get back to Atlanta, that I showed some interest in cable television and that he thought he should talk to me. So the next morning I went to White Columns on Peachtree, the home office of Cox Broadcasting and met this senior executive and before the end of the interview he had offered me a job, a position to come with Cox Cablevision on January 1, which was like a month later or six weeks later or whatever the time was. I forgot the exact timing, but it was at the end of the year ‑ January 1, 1965 and I accepted because I had talked to my wife the night before and told her what was happening and she said well if that’s what you want to do, we’ll go back because we’ve talked about it. So that was it. One thing I remember is that I took about a $5000 cut in salary to go into the cable TV business.
SMITH: Is that right?
DOWDEN: Because I was an account executive and I was working on a salary plus commission and I had been doing pretty well at KHOU in Houston and so, of course, there was no commission involved in the Cox offers. I came to work January 1. First I had to go back to Houston and give my notice and explain what I was doing and why I wanted to head off into this new career. I must admit I knew very little about cable other than what I had read in “Broadcasting.” I had no exposure to a cable system, per se. I don’t even think Athens was wired for cable when I was there in the late ’50s and early ’60s. So I didn’t know very much about it. Of course, there was no cable in Houston and so I was really going into a real unknown situation pretty much on the strength of what Leonard was telling me. Also on the strength of wanting to get with a good solid moving company like Cox Broadcasting and Cox Cable.
So January 1, 1965, we showed up in Atlanta, actually we showed up before that, found ourselves an apartment. By this time we had about a one year, one and a half year old daughter, so we arrived in Atlanta with a new job, with new prospects and really excited about this whole thing.
My title was quite interesting. I didn’t have a title per se. I was going to come in as a special representative which meant essentially that I was a franchise scrounger. So we couldn’t figure out exactly what my title was going to be other than I was going to be working under Mark’s direction. A person who was the general manager, as they called them in those days, of Cox Cablevision was a man named John Campbell. John Campbell was the person I would report to in this new position. It was pretty much understood that I would be working to look for new franchise opportunities; to set up new liaisons and partnerships with people that the company decided they would go into business with. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. We had an agreement with on applying for franchises in the Cleveland area ‑ particularly Lakewood where we ended up building a cable system. The Toledo Blade where we also had an understanding. Sacramento Bee. We had an understanding with the McClatchey newspaper chain there. With the Perry people in Florida. We had discussions. If we didn’t have a formal agreement at least we agreed to agree going for franchises in Daytona Beach in that area. We even had discussions with the Baltimore Sun, I remember, in terms of Baltimore.
So the whole thrust, and this was again, Leonard, the whole thrust of the company was to go into business with the established media company, mainly newspapers. We would bring the expertise from the standpoint of the cable business and they would bring the local clout, if you will, and involvement, and so on, to help us get the franchise. Our main thrust even in 1965 was the franchise route. At the same time looking for acquisitions. It was soon after that, I was there in 1965, if I’m not mistaken that Cox bought into the San Diego system. They bought 16% of the San Diego cable system from Lee Druckman and Hank Goldstein who were the principals and Dick Laventhol, I believe was the other principal in that San Diego operation.
SMITH: I remember Lee and Hank.
DOWDEN: The other one I think is Dick Laventhol, was the third one.
SMITH: I don’t think I knew him.
DOWDEN: I didn’t know him as well as Hank and Lee. Soon after I was there and I didn’t work on that particular project because all that was was a purchase for Cox stock. If I remember, there was no cash involved. It was a transfer for 150,000 shares of Cox stock if I remember for this position and I believe it was 16‑17% ownership of the cable system. Of course, later they bought the cable system. They bought 100% of the system but that was a couple of years later, I believe.
I was traveling from Florida to Ohio to various places. I worked on the Ocala, Florida acquisition that we made. And so that was kind of the thrust of what my work was until the 1970s, we weren’t gaining a lot. They were gaining more through acquisitions than we were through franchising because frankly the franchising game was still pretty well a hit and miss thing in the mid-’60s because of the uncertainty. A lot of the thrust in those days, Strat, as you remember as well as anyone, was the political situation. What’s the FCC going to do to lift these restrictions on cable. So there was a lot of time spent on trying to analyze new reports and orders or their legal impact on the industry. I was brand new and of course, you had been fighting the battles out on the front line with all of these early problems … trying to free the industry up. I was just coming into the fray at that time and really didn’t have that much grasp or grounding in what was going on, but I learned quickly. I know by 1968 when they froze our industry, it sure had a specific impact.
SMITH: By “they” you mean the FCC?
DOWDEN: Yes, when the FCC froze the cable industry and were trying to decide on a set of rules. This is when things really came to very much a screeching halt. I would think most cable companies, but I know it sure did at Cox Cablevision in terms of activity other than for the people who were out in the field ‑ the Lou Davenports and so on who were out running the systems–corporate and staff activity was very much diminished.
DOWDEN: It affected activity, nationwide. So it became a practical sort of thing … they had built up a small staff by this time ‑ Henry Harris who later was to become my boss at Cox Cable was now in and he was vice president of finance. They had hired Doug Talbot who was the chief engineer. Dick Hickman who was under Doug as an engineer. I was in the franchising area. By this time, John Campbell, by 1968, John Campbell was gone and Doug Talbot was the general manager of Cox Cablevision. That was prior to the company going public. I think once it went public, Doug was the general manager, Henry was still the business manager. Then after a couple of years and after the freeze was over and we got the Sixth Report and Order? Was that in 1971, ’72?
SMITH: That would be the Second Report and Order. The Sixth Report and Order was the television allocation proceeding.
DOWDEN: That’s right. That was on the television allocation. Ours was the Second Report and Order in 1971 or ’72 if I remember. Then things started opening up again. But it was during that period I even questioned whether I wanted to stay in the business or not. And in fact, Mark Bartlett, who was our big boss at Cox came to each of us individually and said, “Here’s an opportunity now. Things are not happening very much here in the cable side. If you’d like to consider other areas of activity within the company we’d be happy to set up interviews or let you go to these various divisions or TV stations or whatever for interviews.”
In fact, Henry and I both had interviews along those lines. I went to New York to interview with the publications division of Cox. RAI, I think it was called, well they had several publications, I can’t remember all of them. One was called Retirement Advisor’s Inc. (RAI) which was a publication for retired people and it was more in the print area than the publication area. They also had some technical journals and publications as I remember based out on Long Island. I went to New York and interviewed some of the principals of their printing division with the thought of maybe seeing what was available there. That’s how desperate it was in the cable side. Henry Harris, I remember, went to Pittsburgh and interviewed with Cox’s television station in Pittsburgh, WIIC. Can’t remember what the others did, but I know it was a very, very quiet time, sort of depressing time, frankly, to be in the business.
I always thought that Cox handled that very well with its employees, by making these other opportunities available, but by not closing the division down entirely. By continuing at least a skeletal home office staff. What I did really, I must say during that period to occupy my time which was a real problem having enough substantial things to do, to keep one’s moral up and to keep one’s interest, was that I got into the speech writing business. I wrote a lot of speeches during that period for both Mark and for Leonard. In fact, I would say during 1968 to ’71, all the major speeches that Leonard gave that pertained to technology or to cable television I had some hand in during that period. I have all the copies.
SMITH: That was going to be my next question. Any chance of our getting hold of copies of those.
DOWDEN: Well, yeah. I’ve written a couple or three and I’m really quite proud of it when I think back on some of the things that we were predicting and some of the things that I was saying for Leonard and Leonard of course was the one who was saying them. A lot of the research and all that went into them. I remember he gave a speech at Georgia Tech on advancing technologies. This was about 1969, 1970. We hit on this very thing that we were talking about earlier about what the future looked like. Of course, Leonard had been touting this for ten or fifteen years.
By that time there was a lot of blue sky going on. A lot of speculation as to what cable can do and this whole business of wired nation and this whole business of a closed circuit transfer of information of data and so on and two way communication. There was a lot of talk about that in the early ’70s. A lot of it was generated by the cable industry and by the NCTA and so on to kind of justify what cable has the capability of doing. Trying to get somebody to listen to what kind of medium they were holding down.
SMITH: A lot of it generated by those two men whose pictures are on the wall.
DOWDEN: That’s exactly right. Particularly the one on the left.
SMITH: Irving Kahn and Bill Daniels.
DOWDEN: That’s exactly right. I was in the speech writing business and they stuck with us and then, of course, during this period I will say that the other thing that happened was that I was literally on loan to the NCTA That was the other area of activity that I worked on. There were three or four others. This is one of the things, Strat, that I guess I’m most proud of in my cable career, is that I spent a bulk of 1969 in Washington ‑ week after week after week. In fact, it was the year my son was born. I wasn’t home very much when my wife was pregnant with him and later after he was born, because I was in Washington lobbying, working with the NCTA There were three or four of us “on loan” ‑ I think ATC had one person who came in from Missouri and there was one person from Illinois that I think TelePrompTer or one of the other big companies had. I was from Cox. There seem to have been four of us but we used to work with Bruce Lovett and the staff there and the coordination of lobbying efforts on the Hill before Torby McDonald’s house sub‑committee on communications. It was in that ’68, ’69 period that the House Committee on Telecommunications was preparing to hold hearings on the cable matter.
SMITH: Bruce Lovett, for the record, was general counsel for the NCTA at the time. Tom, when you remember the names of the other men who were working with you, in that group, we’d like to get them on the record.
DOWDEN: I will remember at the time I get the written record. I think one of them was Tom (from Missouri). I will remember it and we’ll insert that. We were literally on loan and so while the companies were paying our salaries, we were literally working week after week on lobbying activity. In fact, I guess a little bit now, I’m going to get into a little bragging on this. I guess I was one of the three founders of the Cable Television Political Action Committee. Marty Malarkey, Chuck Walsh, and I had the original meetings and discussed this. I’m sure we were getting advice or we were getting encouragement from either the NCTA or other companies. We were doing the leg work. We had been working most of that year, lobbying the National Education Association; lobbying different groups, working with Congressmen, getting to know the members of the sub‑committee on communications, extolling the virtues of cable, free us up, free us up. Let the marketplace be the judge. We really had our lobbying shoes on and we really were pretty good at it, if I remember.
One of the things we did though, we knew we needed a little more political clout. We had good grass roots clout in that we could turn people out to come to Washington to lobby or to appear before the hearings or to meet with the National Education Association people who were very anti‑cable.
SMITH: Yes, they were. I remember.
DOWDEN: I remember that well. We worked on them hard. I remember in June of 1969 one of the things we did with this new political action committee was hold a reception at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. It was the first function of the Cable PAC. You may have been there, Strat.
SMITH: I think I was.
DOWDEN: We had Toby McDonald and we had several Congressmen come there. I was out there about a week ahead of the convention, helping to organize that. Was there during the whole thing. I remember that was one of the first things that we did in a political action way. It was during 1969 that we worked on the Hill and worked with these various congressmen. I got to know quite a few of the congressmen I worked with, at the direction of the board and the legislative committee of the NCTA to interview lobbyists. I remember I was in a party of three or four people that went to New York to interview former Congressman Eugene Kehoe who was the congressman from Brooklyn and who was a lobbyist after he retired as a congressman. I remember we retained him to work with us because of his association with some of the members of the House Communications sub‑committee. That’s how lobbying obviously operates. I remember we got pretty good at that. The result was that they held the hearings. We had a lot of favorable testimony for cable. We even brought the NEA back around to where they said, “You should free cable, but give us 20% of the channels.” You remember that?
DOWDEN: Ok. At least they said yes it should be free but by the way, if you free it, give us 20% of the channels. At any rate, we had that whole lobbying campaign again. I wasn’t at the decision making level but I was at the worker-bee level seeing a lot of that work that took place in Washington, during 1969.
SMITH: Do you remember the designations of the Senate bills and House bills that you were working on at the time?
DOWDEN: I could remember the one under the House sub‑committee on communication at Toby McDonald. I don’t remember it offhand, but I’ve got material in my files that I can get.
SMITH: We can get it for the record sooner or later.
DOWDEN: Because that was the cornerstone bill that led to the eventual 1972 Act that we received from the FCC. Well, I’m not sure if there was a bill passed in conjunction with the Second Report and Order, do you remember that?
SMITH: No, there was not.
DOWDEN: Ok. Then it was probably the hearing or the testimony that led eventually to the law that we got. Those were the first hearings, formal hearings as I remember that were held on the issue of freeing cable television. Freeing CATV.
SMITH: This was after, during the period that the FCC had the industry frozen.
DOWDEN: That’s right.
SMITH: There were hearings earlier on television in small communities, CATV and translators, and boosters. That was back in the 1960s. I only interrupt to put this on the record so that we will distinguish it from the legislation that you were battling, Tom.
DOWDEN: Frankly, I’d have to look at my files to see what the outcome was. I don’t remember what the outcome was. I do remember, vividly, sitting in on the hearings and I remember a congressman from Rhode Island, Bob ‑ Do you remember his name?
SMITH: I was thinking of the Senator from Rhode Island, Pastore. That was in connection with S.2653.
DOWDEN: That was over on the Senate Commerce Committee side. Well, I can’t recall his name, but he was a champion of cable and he stood up for our industry. I never will forget that there was no particular reason for him to do it. Nobody had promised him any particular campaign contribution and there was no one particularly in his state that was strong in terms of cable. Bob Tiernan, remember that name?
SMITH: Yes, I remember that name. Yes, I do.
DOWDEN: Bob Tiernan was an early champion of cable television in the late ’60s, early ’70s during the freeze period of freeing up cable. Let’s see what it can do was his position. Who’s afraid of competition? I remember he really blasted the president of NEA who came into the hearings at the time and said, “Oh yes, free it up and make sure we get 20%.” Tiernan just jumped all over him. The Congressional Record, if you go back and read that testimony and you would verify that because that stood out in my mind. He was pretty courageous I always thought.
SMITH: Did you present any testimony yourself, Tom?
DOWDEN: No, the whole purpose of it was in addition to the, if I remember the NCTA had a position, the whole thrust was to bring in mayors and people from the grass root levels. We brought in a mayor from New Mexico who talked about what great benefits it would be for the community if they had cable. The jobs it would create and all this. We were just struggling to get somebody to say hey this is a legitimate business. No one was testifying too much on what cable had done or anything. They’re just saying this is what it can do. It can free up some of the spectrum space. It can provide jobs in the community. It brings revenue to the community through the franchising fee. They were the simple basic arguments to get cable rolling. Most of the testimony was by people who we brought in and sort of orchestrated through the NCTA to appear before the sub‑committee. Again, Toby McDonald, I remember was the chairman and Lionel Van Deerlin was on the committee and I believe later became the chairman. Toby McDonald either died or became ill.
SMITH: I think Van Deerlin did take the committee over.
DOWDEN: That was during that era. That was late ’60s, right at the dawning of the ’70s, which of course, when everything started turning favorable toward cable. Back to Cox Cable. We had taken the company public and I never have understood this and I should ask Cliff Courtland or someone one day– Cliff is a friend of mine–he was the chief financial officer at the time of Cox Broadcasting. In 1968 the decision was made to take 20% of the cable company public. In 1968, 20% of the stock was made available to the public. Cox Broadcasting owned 80%. We had a publicly traded stock in 1968. I was the first secretary of the company. Henry was a vice president and Doug Talbot, I believe, was the general manager of the company. He was the first vice president and general manager. Henry was a business manager. I was the secretary. Hank Goldstein was the vice president also. That was the first officer corps f Cox Cable Communications. That was the first time we used that name. Leonard named it. It was no longer Cox Cablevision. Cox Cable Communications.
SMITH: And Goldstein came over from the San Diego operation.
DOWDEN: He literally stayed in San Diego but he was an officer of the company. So the lineup was Henry, Hank, Doug Talbot, myself, and later I believe we brought in John Gwin. I believe John Gwin. Then even much later was Lou Davenport. He came into the home office as well as Bill Pitney. That was kind of a cadre group. When I edit this, I’ll get my dates right. It was 1968 when we took that company public. I think it was 1968 because I’ve often wondered why, given the freeze and given the lack of growth that was evident by the freeze, why it was a prudent thing to do.
SMITH: It really doesn’t sound like a good time to go public.
DOWDEN: At any rate, I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had abandoned cable at that point because of this down turn in the fortunes of the industry. Because of it going into the deep freeze. I didn’t and it was mainly because the senior executives at Cox were anxious to see that those people who had been there working to build this company stayed with them. I always thought that was a pretty good trait on their part. It turned out, of course, we were there when the great growth took place in the early ’70s and on after the mid-’70s. So it came back many times over for them.
SMITH: Let’s go back for a minute or for a few minutes to the period when you were an active franchiser. Do you recall any particular experiences that were interesting, appearing before local bodies competitively for franchises?
DOWDEN: Oh absolutely. Well, let me just tell you first some of those that I worked on during my career, late ’60s and early ’70s. During that period I was the front line representative of the company on franchises that were awarded in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk–the tidewater area, we called it, Roanoke, Virginia; Spokane, Washington; Davenport, Iowa; Moline, Illinois; Saginaw, Michigan; the Providence area, Rhode Island where we had to appear before the Public Utilities Commission.
SMITH: I was in that one too.
DOWDEN: Archie SMITH: was the chairman.
SMITH: The company was with, Ben Conroy, CPI, was an applicant in Providence and I was their attorney ‑ Ben and I did that one.
DOWDEN: Is that for Providence itself?
SMITH: Yes, and they broke it up as you know.
DOWDEN: We ended up applicant for Cranston and East Johnston, I think which they eventually got. I guess all of the projects were different and were very interesting, like in the tidewater area of Virginia, I literally had 73 local partners. I had like 20 partners in Norfolk and about the same number in Virginia Beach and at any one time, of course, I didn’t deal with all of them day by day, but that’s how many formed the local companies to go with Cox to secure the franchise.
SMITH: Would you organize those local groups?
DOWDEN: I would organize them. Sometimes I would generate the contact. Sometimes it would come from up above. Leonard or Mark or Cliff or somebody would say there’s somebody here who wants you to call. They’ve contacted us. They want somebody to look into what’s involved in getting the cable franchise in Davenport or whatever. Sometime in the case of Spokane, Washington I generated that myself through one friendship I had in the industry. I had a close friend in the industry at the time, unfortunately the man is now dead, but you may remember Sam Haddock.
SMITH: Oh, Sam Haddock.
DOWDEN: He was a great fellow. I loved the man. Sam and I were good friends and he was older than me but we always hit it off. I used to see him at the national conventions or Washington.
SMITH: Sam used to go to all of them.
DOWDEN: He would come in and bring his beautiful wife. At any rate, Sam and I had talked about Spokane. That’s going to be a good market one day, he kept telling me. Of course, back when it was just three, one and one, it didn’t look very good. Because they had three local TV stations and you couldn’t bring anything in so far out in the boondocks, in eastern Washington.
SMITH: Microwave really hadn’t gotten there.
DOWDEN: He really believed in it and so I started working with him to put together a local group. We put together the finest group of local people, people who were really pillars of the community and just really fine people along the lines of Sam. Sam lived not too far away in Moscow, Idaho. That’s where he owned a cable system. He owned the Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington systems.
SMITH: Side by side across the state border.
DOWDEN: He was very sensitive to wanting to do the right thing and wanting this to be a very high type project which it was. Anyway, we went in with them in Spokane and that was one of the fun projects that I remember when working with Cox. We were successful. We had three or four companies in competition by the time it got down to application stage. We had ATC and some of the really heavy, the big guys were in there. We prevailed and I never will forget the thrill of winning that franchise. Now I’m sure it must be one of their finest systems–Spokane, Washington. They still own it. Each project was different. I enjoyed many of them, like Spokane. Each one was different. Davenport, Iowa. That was a different sort of kettle of fish.
SMITH: Different in what sense.
DOWDEN: Well, Iowa plays a key role in building my company and starting that myself later on in the ’70s when I left Cox. Where I first became exposed to Iowa was working on this project in Davenport and Moline, Illinois. We got onto that when some local people called us and said we know you’re active in cable television development, you got a good reputation, you’re a publicly traded company. Cox had a big advantage back in those days because of that. Because of its reputation, because of Leonard, because it ran good broadcast stations and was a publicly traded stock.
SMITH: Not to mention its newspapers.
DOWDEN: Newspapers … had a lot of entrees that came through that. We would get calls like that from people. One of the first calls that I guess it came was on the tidewater, came through a broadcaster that knew Cox and had dealt with them for years, and knew Cliff Kirtland, played golf with him and all. That led to the tidewater thing. I remember the sequence of events perfectly. In the case of Davenport, Iowa ‑ Iowa is the only state at that time that had a statewide requirement for a referendum to approve a grant of a cable franchise. A lot of communities there’s local option. Wichita Falls, Texas had to go to a referendum. Springfield, Missouri had to go to a referendum. Iowa is the only state that had a statewide requirement that every franchise be granted through a referendum process. That was interesting in the sense that Davenport and Bettendorf if I remember, the councils granted it but I think later had to go back and run the referendum. Across the river in East Moline it was just a council vote.
There were some interesting nuances there, but back to my point, that was my first exposure to Iowa. That idea of learning about the referendum requirement planted a seed in my mind because then in ’73, ’74 we were looking for other franchises. We had gotten a lot of large ones, but one of the ones we tried to get and I did this when I was at Cox was in Fort Dodge, Iowa. We applied and got on the ballot and I went in and organized it like a political campaign. I had a person who was doing direct mail and we had radio spots and we did speeches before the Rotary Club ‑ on and on and on. You know, we only lost that election by six to one.
SMITH: That’s a happy note to turn the tape over on.
DOWDEN: I want you to remember that because when I get into Dowden Communications, I want to tell you about Fort Dodge.
SMITH: We will. I noticed that it is about 4:30 and we agreed that that might be a good time to terminate for today.
DOWDEN: That would be perfect and we could pick it up at a later time.
End of Tape 2, Side A