Renowned Texas Newsman Neal Spelce Remembers Getting His Start in the Television Business

In an excerpt of the Longhorn’s forthcoming memoir, With the Bark Off,  renowned Texas newsman Neal Spelce remembers getting his start in the television business.

When I was a student, a state representative from Kingsville, Texas, named Ben Glusing gave me a job as a part-time secretary at the Texas State Legislature. I didn’t know how to type, so I signed up for a typing course at UT’s College of Business. The class was primarily composed of women who wanted to become secretaries. 

The House chamber was not air-conditioned in those days, and the old place was sweltering. We secretaries had seats on the floor of the chamber, folding chairs next to our representatives. There was a typewriter pool behind the speaker’s podium, and you’d go back there and type letters and bills on manual typewriters. As I sat and observed the proceedings, I became riveted by the legislative process and well versed in the rules of the House. I admired its elegant protocol: “Mr. Speaker!” someone would call out. And then the speaker of the House would say, “The chair recognizes the honorable representative from the great community of Muleshoe. Home of the oldest wildlife refuge in the state of Texas. Home of the world’s largest mule shoe.” Et cetera. 

One day in 1956, my journalism professor DeWitt Reddick said to me, “Neal, I know you’re interested in broadcasting.”  

He was a very gentle man, soft spoken, with piercing eyes behind his glasses, and he’d look at you as if you were the only person in the world. (He later served as dean of the College of Communication.) He steered me toward taking a wide range of courses as I was working on three degrees at the same time—a bachelor of fine arts in radio-television, a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and a bachelor of arts in speech. 

He said, “Bill Moyers is leaving KTBC Channel 7. He’s been there part time, writing and working in the news department. Would you like me to call them and open the door for you?” 

I had met Bill Moyers in Marshall, Texas, his hometown and the place where I spent the summer of 1953. In the Marshall News Messenger I had read a call for musicians to play at summer band concerts in the gazebo downtown, and I’d signed up as a snare drummer, an instrument I’d played in high school and with UT’s Longhorn Band. A young Bill Moyers was the master of ceremonies for the musical events, and that’s when I first said hello to him. 

I was excited about the possibility of tying my experience at the state Legislature to a career in broadcasting. DeWitt Reddick made the phone call and I got the job replacing Bill. KTBC’s news director, Paul Bolton (Mr. B), hired me on a provisional basis. 

Bill had set a very high bar for writing. Even in those early days, as a college student in his 20s, he was a brilliant, incisive thinker. When I took over his job, everybody was full of praise for him and I knew I had to perform. But Bill’s shoes were nearly impossible to fill. 

The [Lyndon B.] Johnson family owned KTBC-TV and an AM radio station, and they would later add FM radio. So, at the KTBC television station, LBJ’s name was omnipresent. When I was finally introduced to him, I was very nervous. I walked into the station one morning and there he was, the powerful Senate majority leader, larger than life, and I was this pimply-faced college kid from the sticks. 

Mr. B said, “Neal, I want you to meet Senator Johnson.” 

“Yes, sir. How are you, sir? It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” 

The normal salutations, but I was awestruck. It was all I could do not to jabber on about seeing him emerging from a helicopter when I was 12 years old.  

LBJ gazed down on me and said, “Neal, I want you to know that whenever you shoot any film of me, this is my good side.” With a half-joking smile, he showed me which side.  

In a New Yorker article in 2019, biographer Robert Caro revealed that it was LBJ’s mistress Alice Glass who counseled him “always to be photographed from the left side, because that side of his face looked better.” 

If you examine most of his posed pictures, they’re taken from the left side. He had very large ears and a prominent nose, with a memorable face. I recall the actor Sean Connery saying, “I attribute my success to having an interesting face.” LBJ was the same way. 

At that first meeting, I didn’t know what to expect, and all I got out of it was to shoot his best side. It was the beginning of my many remarkable interactions with Lyndon Johnson over the next 16 years, some of them warm and pleasant, some of them not. 

Lady Bird Johnson had used her inheritance from her well-to-do East Texas family to purchase the AM radio station (590 on the dial) in 1943, and she’d expanded her interests by launching a television station in 1952 (KTBC-TV). These wise investments helped fund her husband’s political ambitions. 

Critics have speculated that Mrs. Johnson was an absentee owner who rarely took an active interest in her stations, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In her biography Lady Bird, Jan Jarboe Russell quotes Mrs. Johnson as saying, “[Lyndon] told me I needed to get down there to Austin and learn all about the station—to familiarize myself with the staff, the market, and the accounts. I understood that we couldn’t make a success of it and be running the station from Washington, so I went to work full-time.” When she arrived in Austin, she found the station in need of cleaning, and she recalled, “I got a bucket, a mop, and a pail and started to work on it.” 

In person, she was incredibly gracious, genteel, very polite, and she had a way about her. There I was, a small-fry college student, one of her employees working in her television studio, and yet when she talked to me, she’d look directly at me, listening thoughtfully and conversing as if I had something valuable to say. Those were her hallmark virtues: personal, kind, attentive. She was a woman of great integrity and charm. 

I never called her Lady Bird. Never. That would’ve been too familiar. It was always Mrs. Johnson. And even today, more than 60 years later, I still refer to her in conversations as Mrs. Johnson.  

At that time, KTBC was located in a small space on the ground floor of the elegant Driskill Hotel at Sixth Street and Brazos in downtown Austin. In 1960, KTBC moved four blocks away to its own building at 10th and Brazos, an old YWCA they converted into a television studio. It had an apartment on the top floor that was used by the Johnson family when they were in town. Mrs. Johnson and their daughters, Lynda and Luci, were often in and out. The Johnsons used it as a place to cook, have meals, and spend the night. 

KTBC was a family operation with a friendly atmosphere, Texas-style, less formal than the corporate structure in New York and elsewhere. Lynda and Luci would sometimes bring home-baked cookies to the staff. LBJ, the consummate dealmaker and arm-twister, would have farm-fresh eggs delivered from their ranch, and the employees were asked if they wanted to buy them. We bought them. It seemed like the wise thing to do. 

When I began working at KTBC in 1956, it was a CBS affiliate and the only TV station in town. Critics believed that because the powerful Johnson family owned the station, they kept everybody else out of Austin. It was a popular urban myth, but it wasn’t true. 

When the Johnsons applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a television station in 1952, there wasn’t a competing local application because owning a TV station was very expensive and a big investment. It required towers, studios, experienced staff, on-air personalities, sponsors, the whole thing. 

NBC and ABC had no station in Austin, so KTBC program director Cactus Pryor negotiated a deal with those two networks to carry some of their programs. 

Around 1958, KTBC decided to be like the big boys in New York City and run the news at 11 p.m. rather than at 10 p.m., like everyone else in our part of the country. Eleven o’clock news was unheard of in the Central time zone at the time. 

Of course, KTBC didn’t have any competition. But the real reason for the change was it gave the station an extra hour of prime-time programming in the 10 to 11 p.m. time slot, where KTBC could drop in an NBC or ABC show. Cactus maintained that Austin viewers got the best of the TV world because he was picking and choosing the best programs from all three networks. KTBC would play popular series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza at different times, so the best shows didn’t overlap or compete with one another. 

I wanted to be a broadcast journalist because that profession put you in the middle of everything. You were at the legislature when lawmakers were debating and passing bills. You were in the center of the action when there was a major new construction in the city, a tragic event, a community celebration. You rushed to cover what was going on. That’s the attraction of the news business, and that’s why I was delighted to work at KTBC. 

Austin in the late 1950s wasn’t very impressive. With only about 156,000 people, it was a state university, state government town. There were small businesses, small industry, nothing remarkable about it yet. 

My first job at KTBC was to go to the cop shop at 4:30 every morning and read through the overnight police reports, make notes on police activity, then return to the station and write up the stories. They worked them into newscasts all day long. And that was great for me because it didn’t interrupt my UT classes. I’d finish up at about 8 in the morning and stop by the PK Grill on Seventh Street for a great homemade breakfast of eggs, sausage, and biscuits. It was the kind of lunch counter that rarely exists anymore, where the waitresses called their customers “darling” with a warm and innocent affection that was common in that era all over Texas. My favorite waitress called me “sweet pea.” 

The first time I ever got on the air was when I called in to Paul Bolton to say I’d found a great story in the police reports. He said, “Get on the phone and let’s put it on the air.” So, I went on the telephone and said, “This is Neal Spelce at the police station” and finished the report. We were using the kind of primitive technology that typified those early days of radio and television.  

I found out later that Pryor, the program director for both KTBC-TV and AM radio, heard that report and said, “I don’t want that guy on the air ever again. His voice is horrible.” 

I was very green, I had an Arkansas accent, and I wasn’t schooled in on-air speech. 

Nobody had television experience in those days, and to be honest, Paul Bolton didn’t have any of the qualities you’d think would be successful on air. He was a crusty codger who’d been an International News Service (INS) correspondent and bureau chief, strictly a print and wire-service man. When KTBC put him on the air, everybody joked about him because he was fumbling around and didn’t know he should be looking at the camera. He was terrific at writing the news and an expert in terms of content, but the camera did not love him. 

Mr. B was my mentor, but he was a notorious curmudgeon. One day we were sitting back to back, writing stories with the police radio on nearby, and I stopped typing. Without turning around, he asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I’m trying to figure out a way to end this story.” And he said, “When you finish what you have to say, just shut up.” So, I said okay and ripped the story out of the platen. “Thirty,” as we used to say. Finis. 

In my first months at KTBC, I managed to mess up all the time. On one occasion I was working on the night shift, and as Mr. B was leaving, he said, “LBJ always says, ‘Make sure you turn out the lights when you leave.’” That was LBJ’s signature frugality, ever the poor country boy saving nickels and dimes, even in his White House years later on. 

When I finished up, I turned out the lights and went back to the teletype machines and turned them off, too. I didn’t think a thing about it. The next morning, there was no news, no copy, because the teletype machines had been shut down all night. They weren’t computers that could store memory.  

When Mr. B came into the office in the morning and didn’t have any copy waiting for him, I don’t know how he managed. But he let me know in no uncertain terms that I’d screwed up. As I recall, he led with, “How stupid can you be?” Not, “Everyone makes mistakes, son. Take a minute and reflect on what you just did.” There was no snowflakery in those days. I got my butt chewed out real good. 

Even though I was still wet behind the ears, I wrote stories to accompany the film we put on the air. I was eager to do anything and everything I could. I delivered a radio report here and there, and I was on television a number of times, reporting from the field. At some point, they eased me into the studio and let me start reading the news on camera.  

One of the reasons Paul Bolton hired me at KTBC was because I’d worked as a secretary in the Legislature. One morning when I was working a little late, still writing stories at 10 a.m., Mr. B turned to me and said, “I got a call that James Cox is going to appear at the Legislature shortly to make a personal privilege speech.” 

James E. Cox was a Texas state representative who’d been audiotaped at the Driskill Hotel accepting a $5,000 bribe from the president of the Texas Naturopathic Physicians Association. When the story broke in the Austin Statesman, Cox didn’t show up for a couple of days at the Legislature, so it was a big deal when he decided to address members on the floor of the House. 

Mr. B was getting ready for the noon television and radio newscast—we ran both simultaneously—and he said, “Neal, grab a camera and go up to the Capitol and cover that.” 

I literally ran from Sixth Street and Brazos up Congress Avenue to the Capitol, which was five long blocks away. I arrived out of breath, and while Cox was making his personal privilege speech, I took notes and snapped photos. As an indication of how early it was in the history of television broadcast news, the camera I grabbed was a black-and-white Polaroid, the kind in which you took the picture, pulled the negative out, smeared a gel fixer on it to set the image, like a developer, and waited for the gel to dry. 

In the KTBC studio, we’d jerry-rigged a curved panel with a black matte finish, and we would attach those Polaroid photos to the panel, pan the images from one to the next using the studio camera, and use it as the “video” for the story. Eventually, the station bought 16 mm cameras and the processing equipment and studio playback equipment for black-and-white 16 mm film, which was a historical leap in TV news technology. 

Early in my career at KTBC, John Nance Garner was having a 90th birthday party out in Uvalde, Texas, a whole different world on the edge of the Texas Hill Country, 160 miles southwest of Austin and not far from the Mexican border. “Cactus Jack” was a former U.S. speaker of the House and had served as vice president under FDR. We got the word in advance that former President Harry Truman was going to be there, and I thought, “Wow, a very impressive event.” I had always wanted to meet Harry Truman. So, I asked to go to Uvalde to cover the story, and in what was typical of that time in the local news business, I drove my own car and paid my own way. 

Uvalde native Dolph Briscoe was hosting the party. He was a wealthy rancher and former Texas state representative who would later become governor of the state. 

Several national leaders were there to honor Garner, including his fellow Texan Sam Rayburn, who had been Garner’s protégé in Congress and was by then the powerful speaker of the House. Truman was invited because he and Garner had become friends when Garner had presided over the Senate as vice president and Truman was a U.S. senator. 

Truman was famous for taking his morning constitutional, an invigorating walk in the early hours of daylight. Uvalde is not a big town. We reporters thought, Let’s go out and stand around early in the morning. And sure enough, here came Harry Truman briskly walking along. We ran up to him, but he didn’t break stride. I asked him a dumb question, just something to start a conversation: “Mr. President, what kind of vice president was John Nance Garner?” He kept walking and walking, and he finally said, “Well, he’s a lot better than that birdbrain we’ve got now.” 

His reply was a shocker. I didn’t have a comeback, so he filled the void. “If you don’t know who I’m talking about,” he said, “I’m talking about Richard Nixon.” 

That was Truman’s hallmark. He was straightforward, outspoken, and very open. 

Years later, when LBJ took a group of us to visit the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri—while LBJ’s own presidential library was under construction in Austin—I took a photograph of Harry Truman that showed him ruddy-faced and vigorous, as we all remember him. Unfortunately, that picture has a blur on one side because my camera cover swung around and got in the frame. But his face had so much character, I didn’t mind. 

I interviewed Sam Rayburn years later, when he was a visitor at the LBJ Ranch. It was one of those interviews where I got blindsided. I walked over with my microphone and stuck it in front of him and asked him a question. He grabbed the microphone out of my hand, looked into the camera, and started talking. He had a very forceful personality, with a hard look, and I was too intimidated to stop him. He finished his remarks, gave the mic back to me, said thank you, and walked away. My brilliant interview amounted to him making a speech. 

As I look back at those times in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s difficult to assess myself and my colleagues and the quality of our work at KTBC. There was a camaraderie on our staff, a mutual respect. We all liked one another and shared a collective sense of humor. We sometimes tried to crack each other up on the air and make someone laugh on camera. 

Jesse Kellam was the general manager of the television and AM radio station and a longtime supporter of LBJ. I don’t think Kellam had a broadcast background. He was a former high school football coach. When I asked him to write a letter of support for my application for a CBS Fellowship at Columbia University, he wrote, “I don’t have a son, but if I did, I’d want him to be like Neal.” 

That amazed me. My gruff old boss thought of me as family.  

That was the attitude throughout the station. We were friends working together. Family. I don’t know where that came from—from up top or down where I was—but that was the ambience at KTBC. Most of the people I worked with became lifelong friends, staying in touch long after we all went our separate ways. The station seemed to be a reflection of LBJ’s informal Texas style. It was a great work environment.   

With the Bark Off: A Journalist’s Memories of LBJ and a Life in the News Media will be published by the Briscoe Center for American History and the University of Texas Press in September 2021.  

Credits: (from top) Courtesy of Neal Spelce; Vern Sanford
Portrait by Matt Wright-Steel

 
 
 

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