Twenty-five years ago the staff of WCTE decided that holding a “Great TV Auction” on air would financially benefit the small public television station and help with normal operating expenses. The first auction was held at the Cookeville Drama Center and lasted for three days. Richard Castle, who was station manager at the time, had participated in auctions at other stations and knew it might be a great fundraiser. Becky Magura, who is now WCTE’s general manager, was a brand new employee and was chosen to spearhead the first auction. When 360 donated items brought in $23,440, it was a boost to the WCTE budget and deemed a success.
For the first auction donations came in from businesses, artists and others who appreciated having a public television station in the Upper Cumberland. Major donors that first year who continue to support WCTE to this day included the four big banks at that time – First Tennessee, Bank of Putnam County, First American and Citizens Bank – and businesses like Borden’s Jewelry and Deuel’s Creative Photography. The Tennessee Tech Athletic Department always donates game tickets and visits with the team. Other names on the first donor list include Bowling World, Cracker Barrel, Chris Koczwara, Laverne and Janet’s Jewelry and the YMCA.
The staff of WCTE, of course, could not have an auction without community and volunteer involvement. The phone bank, which now has to be manned eight nights, is usually underwritten by businesses that can provide enough volunteers to answer the 20 plus phones. Food is also vital to the auction, especially when phone bank and other volunteers are stuck in place for four to five hours. Many restaurants generously donate food for the volunteers, and most have donated for a number of years. Dairy Queen and Coca-Cola have provided drinks for all 25 years, and Foutch’s continues to donate coffee for volunteers.
Boards are underwritten by a variety of businesses desiring television exposure, and most notably, Chuck Johnson Garden Center has underwritten the popular “Firehouse Quickie Board” for all 25 years. Other companies come and go, some change names and some change owners, but most new owners continue to recognize the value of donating and supporting WCTE. This year the staff hopes that additional businesses will participate to mark the occasion of the auction’s 25th anniversary. And as WCTE moves toward the FCC-mandated conversion to high-definition, the money raised by the auction continues to be vitally important.
For the first TV auction, the staff decided that incentives were needed to encourage overbids and to also encourage bidders to pick up their merchandise at the Cookeville Drama Center. Baskin Robbins and Letter Perfect signed up to donate sundaes and monograms the first year and continue to offer these perks today. Another loyal auction contributor is Jim Crabtree of The Cumberland County Playhouse in Crossville. Tickets to his summer venues have always been a part of the Great TV Auction.
Another integral part of the auction is all the individual volunteers who have helped over the years. Early on Romola Drost and Lois Fronfelker of the Cumberland Art Society solicited art, displayed it in the society’s gallery for previewing during the month of May and joined other members of the society manning the art board during the auction. There have been a number of other volunteers over the years, some of which work all eight nights at the auction. It sometimes is a family affair.
According to Joyce Hunter, WCTE auction director for 17 years, more than 750 businesses and individuals donated merchandise and money to the 2006 event, which raised more than $100,000. Although the viewership for the auction has never been measured by a ratings system, the numbers of bids have been counted and many people participate. This year the staff of WCTE-TV will be interested to see how many Dish Network and DirecTV customers become auction bidders, since WCTE is now on Dish Network and DirecTV in the Nashville market.
The 25th anniversary edition of the Great TV Auction is airing nightly beginning at 6:30 from May 31 to June 3 and from June 7-10 on WCTE.
Donna Castle, Program Director/Promotion, WCTE-TV
Photo: WCTE archive
Noted Cookeville artist Chris Koczwara donated her painting “Blue Mist” to WCTE’s First Great TV Auction in 1983. Nobel Cody, then chairman of Tennessee Savings and Loan where the painting was displayed, was photographed with Koczwara and auction coordinator Becky Roberson (Magura) to publicize the fundraising event.