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Donn Colee Jr. is a Florida broadcaster through and through, a trait he picked up from his dad, Donn Sr., who spent a career in Sunshine State radio and television. But for Colee, the retired general manager of CBS affiliate WPEC in West Palm Beach, the history and people of broadcasting, and the impact radio and TV stations have had on the state’s culture and politics, is bigger than the industry itself. A seventh-generation Floridian, Colee spent more than a decade researching and reporting that story for Towers in the Sand, his new book about Florida broadcasting and how its growth and metamorphosis parallels history. He spoke with B&C contributing editor Diana Marszalek about what inspired the project, his passion for broadcasting and why people outside the industry should care, too. Here are edited highlights:
Tell us what it takes to research a project like Towers in the Sand. Is the history of local broadcasting well-documented?
I spent 12 years on the book, which was a spare-time project during the first five to eight years. I felt it was important to take every station in Florida back to their origins, which I thought would be easy. I thought that would provide the history of broadcasting—the time these stations came about and the people who create them, which in the old days were the doctor, the banker, the people who got together and got a radio station license. I wound up going through every B&C [then Broadcasting] yearbook. There is no other single-source database.
That’s a pretty monumental effort; your book is more than 650 pages. What was the impetus?
Broadcasting at its best is such an integral part of the social history of the towns and the people it serves. I was really concerned that, with everything that’s happened with media and diversification these days, that one day people might not even realize there were voices in their community that in some cases did a lot of good with news—that it would all be lost. Unlike newspapers, it is very difficult to go back and recreate a history of a television station or a radio station. Most of them don’t have a documented history, and with corporate [ownership], a lot is tossed in the trash can.
You say your book is meant for all kinds of people, not just industry insiders. Why would others care?
Broadcasting has played a tremendous role in the state of Florida, and our national cultural history. It’s important to look at what made it special and the memorable things broadcasters did. I was lucky to be a teenage DJ in the ’60s on the No. 1 rock ‘n’ roll station [WLOF] in Orlando and I know the impact that station had on young people. It was a touchstone, something they could relate to. When I was getting ready for the Navy, they put me on stage and cut my hair. I met a woman recently who said she still has a lock of my hair. That’s just weird.
What about the service broadcasters provide?
There has been some tremendous journalism done on the local level. WJXT in Jacksonville did tremendous investigative journalism that really turned the city around. In these days, when the media is cast into a huge bucket and under attack by a lot of quarters, I think it’s important to document the good that good, solid investigative journalism and editorializing can do.
Other favorite stories?
When Joseph Brechner put his TV station WLOF [now WFTV] on air in 1958, Orlando was a very segregated city. Joe was from Virginia, and Jewish, which made him particularly sensitive to discrimination and [he] said it’s not right, and they should do something about it. The newspaper at the time didn’t want to stir things up, so Brechner with the mayor started a campaign of editorializing for integration of businesses and communities and as a result, in the very turbulent early 1960s, Orlando escaped most of the violence. And within a short period of time the lunch counters, businesses, hotels and motels integrated. These stories are universal. Discrimination and corruption weren’t invented in the state of Florida.