It's as if there's a big story breaking and Randy Dixon is back in his old job as the news director at KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock. Dixon is excited.
We're in the basement of the former bank building on the Fayetteville square that now serves as the home of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History. There are boxes scattered about--lots of them. Those boxes are being filled with film canisters that will be shipped to a Pennsylvania company known as The Media Preserve, which has been in the audiovisual preservation business since 2007. The company has digitized materials for hundreds of institutions. Now it's going to digitize more than 550,000 feet of film that was stored at KATV's building in downtown Little Rock.
"There's a lot of Arkansas history here from the 1950s through the late 1970s when television stations began moving from film to videotape," Dixon says. "These tapes were stored with the handwritten logs that Jim Pitcock kept when he was at KATV. The company in Pennsylvania will do a high-resolution scan of every frame. We're sending them 120 crates. They will complete the work in six to nine months. People soon will be able to go to the Pryor Center website and call up footage. Needless to say, we're pretty excited."
In the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture entry on Pryor, political scientist Jay Barth of Hendrix College describes him as "arguably the most popular Arkansas politician of the modern era." Pryor served in the state House of Representatives, in the U.S. House of Representatives, as governor and as one of the state's two U.S. senators. If I could have lunch on a weekly basis with just one Arkansan, it would be Pryor. He's a master storyteller. As his third term in the Senate neared its conclusion in 1996, Pryor chose to retire from elective politics. He had money remaining in his campaign fund and donated $220,000 to the University of Arkansas to establish a center to record the state's history.
The center opened in 1999 as part of the Department of History. Professor Jeannie Whayne was the first director. Whayne says the center was "essentially a tape recorder in my desk drawer" at the start. David and Barbara Pryor had no intention of having their names attached to the center, but a $2 million gift from the Tyson Family Foundation in 2005 changed that. The Tyson support allowed the center to buy equipment and become part of the special collections division of the UA's library. In 2009, the center came under the direct supervision of the chancellor's office. Last summer, the Pryor Center again became part of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.
"In some ways, we've come full circle," says UA Chancellor Joe Steinmetz. The Pryor Center now has a large suite of offices on the square, five full-time staff members, two part-time employees, studios, editing suites and equipment that allows documentary-quality video interviews to be conducted anywhere in the state.
In 2009, KATV also donated its video collection from the early 1980s to the present. That video was moved across town to the Arkansas State Library so it would be in a climate-controlled storage area. Last November, Barbara A. Tyson and the Tyson Foods Foundation gave $1.5 million to digitize both the KATV film and video archives. Covering almost six decades of Arkansas history, it's perhaps the largest local television news archives in the country. There are almost 26,000 hours of video and film.
"Preserving these tapes is preserving our state's history," Pryor says.
Dixon says much of the material is "fragile, and the collection has been deteriorating with each passing year. We felt a sense of urgency to complete this project as quickly as possible."
KATV originally was licensed to Pine Bluff and signed on in December 1953 as both a CBS and ABC affiliate. It became a full-time ABC affiliate when KTHV signed on in 1955. Less than a year after going on the air, KATV moved its operations from Pine Bluff to Little Rock. The station has been in its current location since October 1970 when Worthen Bank moved out of the structure on Main Street. Pitcock began his television career in his hometown of Fort Smith in 1957. In 1964, he came to Little Rock and joined KATV in an on-air capacity. As news director, Pitcock became a legendary figure in Arkansas journalism. The news staff grew from three to 55 employees during his tenure, and KATV was recognized for having one of the best local news operations of any ABC affiliate in the country.
Dixon joined KATV as a 19-year-old cameraman and was at the station for 31 years before leaving in 2011 to form his own company. He had spent almost a decade as news director. In January 2013, it was announced that Dixon had been hired to direct the Pryor Center. At the time, Pryor called Dixon "a walking encyclopedia of Arkansas history because of all his years in the news department at Channel 7." Dixon's work at KATV received 10 regional Emmy Awards along with 22 regional and four national Edward R. Murrow Awards. Pitcock, Dixon's mentor, was inducted last year into the Mid-America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Gold Circle. The Gold Circle honors those who spent 50 years or more in the television industry.
David Pryor, Jim Pitcock and Randy Dixon understand Arkansas history better than most. Fortunately their work is now yielding an online treasure that for decades to come will benefit those interested in this state.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 06/20/2018