Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On the passing of Bob Carter (aka Sammy Terry)

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 11:00 AM

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Modern media only rarely note the deaths of the pioneers of local media, especially in Indianapolis. When Joe Pickett, a radio titan of the 1960s and '70s died recently, the only notice of it in the daily newspaper was an obituary paid for by his family. Other reporters haven't received even that much.

Not so in the case of Bob Carter, better known as WTTV's Sammy Terry, late-night horror movie TV host and icon. On Monday, Facebook feeds and local media websites were full of stories commemorating the incredible life of a man who not only frightened two generations of children but who also helped build Channel 4 into one of the best independent television stations in America.

Anyone of a certain age who lived in Indianapolis knew about Sammy Terry. Every Friday night, he'd appear in a purple cape and heavy white makeup, introducing B-grade horror films with a fiendish laugh, aided by crude special effects. For more than 25 years, he emerged from a prop coffin at the start of each show, conversed with a toy spider dangled from a string and commented upon the movies featured on his show.

In real life, Carter had a master's degree in broadcasting and for a time was in charge of news and sports programming at Channel 4 at a time when the station was one of the most influential and powerful voices in Indiana.

It's difficult to explain to modern audiences just how powerful TV and print outlets were in the era before cable TV and Internet media. From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Indianapolis had exactly four TV stations: Channels 4, 6, 8 and 13. Depending on where you lived in town, you might not even have that many choices.

But if you wanted to watch TV, you watched one of those channels or you didn't watch anything at all. Cable TV didn't arrive in Indianapolis until the late 1970s. If the president was giving a prime-time speech, which presidents back then did much more often, Channel 4 was the only station that was Nixon or Jimmy Carter-free.

Reception of the over-the-air signal varied in quality from neighborhood to neighborhood. Channel 4, for example had its transmitters and studios at 3490 Bluff Road, on the far-Southside, where I grew up. But if you lived in, say, Carmel, you might not even be able to see Channel 4 as anything but a dim screen of static and ghosts.

Because there were so few stations, each had a much larger audience than they do now, in proportion to the population. Unlike other Indy stations, which had much of its day and nighttime programming provided by the big broadcast networks in New York, Channel 4 had to create all of its content locally, augmented by whatever shows it could purchase from syndicators.

So Carter and his colleagues were forced to be creative.

They responded by building a mini-empire based around serving the community. A typical day of programming started at 6 a.m. or so with the national anthem, followed by live talk shows, old movies, syndicated TV shows, news and sports before signing off at midnight or 1 a.m. with another playing of the national anthem.

The station's employees were drafted into becoming on-air personalities. Besides Carter, Bob Glaze, a smart young Hoosier boy who could play a little guitar, was given a cowboy hat and became Cowboy Bob. Channel 4 acquired the rights to airing Indiana Pacers games and achieved giant ratings with them. Its news operation was first-rate as well.

The proliferation of cable TV, along with the extinction of local ownership of stations due to Reagan-era deregulation, killed off the concept of live, local TV dedicated to serving the community as well as making a profit.

Compounding that injury, since stations such as Channel 4 ran on such a shoestring budget, very little of its programming survives. Most of the videotapes with Sammy Terry, Cowboy Bob and the legendary ABA Pacers were erased decades ago, leaving no proof that they ever existed. But they did and their memory lives on.

Mr. Carter was a kind man, appreciative of his audience, fiercely proud of his work and a private man. He deserves great credit for being a key member of a staff that created some of the best independent programming in the nation as well as being arguably the most memorable local TV personality next to David Letterman.

Scientists estimate that radio waves travel at 300,00 kilometers per second, which means that Sammy Terry's shows are still traveling through space, awaiting a resident of a distant planet with the proper equipment to pick up the signal. I hope these beings, whomever they are, appreciate the love and hard work that went into all of the programming of Channel 4's golden days, especially Bob Carter and his TV persona, Sammy Terry.

Rest in peace, Mr. Carter, and thank you for your years of service to the people of Indianapolis.

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