Once upon a time, local TV stations were really committed to local programming, and I’m not just referring to local news and weather.
It was a time when locally produced programs defined the station, and the people who produced those programs did it for one reason. They loved television. That was Jack Markham in a nutshell.
Following a stint in the NAVY, Jack attended UNC-Chapel Hill and was in the first graduating class of the University’s famed School of Radio and Television Arts. After that he spent the better part of three decades at WFMY-TV, first working in production, and later as Program Director. During that time he either directed or oversaw the production of scores of local programs, including The Good Morning Show, What’s Cooking Today, RFD Piedmont, TV Matinee, A&T Sports Report, The Old Rebel Show, Newsmakers, Sandra and Friends, and many others. And it was Jack who authorized and coordinated a multi-station telethon to raise money for what became the North Carolina Zoo. Jack helped to put WFMY on the map, and made it one of the most successful and respected TV stations in the country. He also happened to be the best boss I ever worked for. Jack passed away last September during the pandemic, and his memorial service will be held this Saturday. Jack Markham was 93.
After learning my craft at the UNC-G studio where we produced weekly programs for UNC-TV, I was hired by WFMY to run the camera and perform other related production duties on just about every one of our local programs. Eventually, I worked my way up to late-night weatherman and promotion manager, but in those early days Jack’s door was always open to the crew, so whenever I had an idea for a special program, he would tell me to go for it. During the bicentennial, for example, he let me produce “So you Think you Know the Constitution”, which challenged viewers to answer questions about our nation’s greatest document. I also produced an Old Rebel tribute program, a salute to Vincent Price, and a prime-time half-hour special with Red Skelton, which was taped at the WFMY studio in front of a live audience (can be viewed on www.jimlongworth.com). One year, Jack even sent me to Hollywood to tape a series of interviews with CBS stars.
In addition to being program director, Jack was also an actor, and a real ham, so I occasionally recruited him to appear in my farcical Newsreel 2 segments, which aired during the 11 p.m. Nightbeat news. One evening I was assigned to attend a cocktail party to interview celebrities who would be playing in the Pro-Am at the Greater Greensboro Open (forerunner to the Wyndham). But prior to that, Jack and I had traveled to a muddy field in Guilford County and taped an interview at what we said was the site of the Newsreel 2 Open, a fictional golf tournament that was to compete with the GGO. During that spoof segment, Jack portrayed a developer named Mark Jack, who guaranteed that the course would be ready for play that weekend. Fast forward to the cocktail party where I asked the celebrities if they would be willing to skip the GGO and instead play in the NewsReel 2 Open. Some of the celebs thought Jack and I were serious, but most of them got the joke.
Then there was that afternoon in 1977 when I came to Jack and said, “You know, Saturday Night Live is really popular, and CBS doesn’t offer much on Saturday nights, so how about letting me produce a weekly variety show?” Jack gave me the green light, and several weeks later I delivered an hour pilot titled, “Grab Bag”, which featured celebrity interviews, a magician, music by Sammy Anflick’s Jazz Band, and a fake telethon in which we pretended to raise money to fight dandruff, psoriasis, and venereal disease. Jack looked at the show, laughed a lot, then killed it. It was, he said, just too racy for WFMY. I was disappointed, of course, but Jack’s decision taught me about boundaries and made me a better producer in the decades to come. In fact, this is my 51st year in broadcasting, and not a week goes by that I don’t think about Jack Markham and how much he meant to me. In addition to all he did for his industry and his community, you just have to love a guy who can make up a fake golf tournament.