Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

JOHN M. OUTLER, JR.

A Television Trailblazer

The day was September 29, 1948.  At 8:00 p.m., history was made in the South.  As the National Anthem played, John Cone proclaimed, "WSB-TV is on the air!"  It was the first time that a television signal was broadcast from the Deep South.  And, at the helm of this history making venture  was John M. Outler, Jr., who once, albeit briefly, called Dublin, Georgia his home.

John Morgan Outler, Jr., the oldest son of the Rev. John Morgan Outler, Sr. and his wife, Gertrude Dewberry, was born on August 19, 1892 in the Thomas County community of Metcalf.  His father had just began his duties as a Methodist minister.  Over the next sixteen years, Outler traveled with his parents as new assignments came in places like Thomasville, Cairo, Jeffersonville, Wadley, Sandersville, and eventually in Dublin in 1909. 

Young John was a grandson of Rufus Alexander Outlaw and Jane Chipley of the Boiling Springs Community of Laurens County.  His great grandparents, Alexander Outlaw and Olive Musselwhite, were among the first settlers of the northeastern part of Laurens County. 

The junior Outler attended Young Harris College before entering Emory College, Georgia's premier Methodist University.  Following his graduation from Emory, Outler accepted a position as a reporter for the Augusta Chronicle.  After a couple of years, the young reporter realized that he was more suited as an advertising agent for the Atlanta Journal.  

As the United States entered World War I, a call was sent out the highly educated to enlist in the Army "over there."  Outler joined the 319th Field Artillery, serving first at Fort McPherson and Camp Georgia closer to home before traveling to New York. Outler went overseas for year beginning in May 1918.  Outler's unit participated in the attack on St. Miehel, France and the Meuse Argonne offensive, which led to the ultimate surrender of German forces.

After the war, Outler returned to Georgia and his position at the Journal. Eventually he was promoted to business manager of the paper.  In 1931, the up and coming executive switched positions with the paper's radio station, WSB, regarded as the top radio station in the South.  

In the days of the Great Depression, it has been said that for many years Outler was the station's only advertising salesman.  One fellow ad salesman once commented, "He was always great company.  One minute Outler was a warm philosopher, the next a great spinner of yarns with a southern drawl as wide as Peachtree Street, and the next moment he was  deadly earnest; one thing he never was   a stuffed shirt." 

During the height of World War II, "Johnny" Outler, as he was known to his colleagues and listeners, was promoted to General Manager of WSB. 

After the end of the war, a new, more exciting form of mass media began to emerge.  Although it had been around for more than a decade, the new medium of television began to emerge, primarily in the Northeast.  The South's first television station, WTVR, went on the air in Richmond, Virginia in April 1948.  

Later in the summer, Outler and his colleagues assembled at Grant Field in Atlanta, for the Georgia High School All Star football game.  WSB's crew filmed the event, sending the pictures out through a closed circuit network.  

Then, on the evening of September 29, 1948, it all began for real.  

After the formalities with remarks by James Cox, the president of the company, and NBC president, Niles Trammell, Georgia Governor Melvin Thompson and Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield made politically serving comments.   

In the audience that night would be one of Outler's first hires, a young radio comedian from Missouri, Dick Van Dyke, who would make his television debut on WSB with his daily program, "The Merry Mutes." 

Among his colleagues, Outler was considered a pioneer, both in radio and television.  In 1954, he led the way with the first color television broadcast in the South. The short in stature, but tall in admiration Outler worked to construct the second tallest television antenna in the country, a fete which allowed the lower frequency signal to be clearly received as far as 250 miles away.  Outler worked with Rich's Department Store to produce one of the first television shows in the country which allowed shoppers to view the store's merchandise from the comfort of their own living rooms. 

He was a founder of the National Association of Broadcasters, serving a term on the association's board of directors.  Outler was chosen as Chairman of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters in 1956. 

Outler's affable style made him quite popular as a speaker at industry meetings, schools and other business organizations. 

Outler, believing in the principles of his Christian home, led the way on television for the expansion of Civil Rights in Georgia, a nationally recognized accomplishment which Outler proudly displayed in the studios.   

"When Johnny Outler retires, an era retires," so said one of Outler's fellow broadcaster's.  That era finally came to an end in 1958.  After more than four decades with the The Augusta Chronicle,  The Atlanta Journal, WSB-Radio and WSB-TV, Company president Leonard Reinsch presented Outler a large token of Cox Broadcasting Company's gratitude when he delivered a 14-foot cruiser to the retiring icon of Georgia broadcast journalism and to a man who was known to fight for what was right for radio. 

John Outler died on New Year's Eve on the last day of 1966.  In his career, he served through the infancy of radio and aided the  birth of television in America.  And, during all that time, he  did it with grace, charm and compassion.     

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