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40 Years of Straight from the Heart: The history behind 'Straight from the Heart'

"When you give something, breathe life into the words then they mean something to people."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For 40 years now, WBIR Channel 10 has lived by these words: "Straight from the Heart."

All through 2023, we want to share some of our favorite Straight from the Heart stories over the decades. Let's start with the history of the motto itself.

Generations of people who've worked here at Channel 10 will tell you that these four words have a lot of power. Straight from the Heart wasn't simply a motto -- it defined how we wanted to serve East Tennessee and became the standard we hold ourselves to. 

The East Tennessee television market was in a major period of growth and change in the 1980s. At the time, Channel 10 had always been the CBS affiliate, but then-General Manager Jim Hart suspected that could change after the local NBC and ABC network affiliations swapped stations in 1979.

He and former Marketing Director Steve Dean were tasked with finding a way to solidify Channel 10's identity and reputation in the community separate from its network affiliation.

"After enjoying our position for a period of time, Jim says, 'We have to do something that says the next time there's a massive movement in the market that that we will be remembered for something besides what network we carry,'" Dean said.

The goal was to forge a lasting identity -- not only for the television station but for the community it served. However, advertising agencies wouldn't even come to meet them. They thought Knoxville was too small. Then a man named Bob Klein stepped in.

"I had never been to Knoxville. I had never been anywhere in Tennessee. But when they had this conversation with me, all I could think of was barbeque!" Klein said. "Then I came to Knoxville, and everybody I met was really nice."

Klein said he felt other television stations were too invested in making "hard sells" to their audience, so he wanted to do something different to connect stations with their audiences.

"And Bob came here and spent overnight and Jim and I took him all across East Tennessee to see what was special about the place," Dean said.

"And he came back with the current themes, where people love the mountains. They were friendly, they talk to each other. They love the beauty. And those were two of the key points that kept coming up over and over again," Hart said.

It was Klein who presented the station with its new slogan: Straight from the Heart. 

"What he tried to do, it was an atypical slogan for a television station, and nobody ever thought it would last 40 years. It's probably the longest-lasting identifying line of any TV station in the country," Hart said.

"A good idea will last," Klein said.

Hart said his first thought was that people would see the slogan and think it was connected to his last name. Even though it was a coincidence, the concern almost led to them going with a different slogan.

"It had nothing to do with my name, and so I was concerned about even doing it," Hart said. 

"When you give something, breathe life into the words then they mean something to people," Dean said. "I think we were like a mirror to the people of the area, and when they looked they saw themselves when they watch this television station."

In 1983, Hart decided to go all in on the idea, and WBIR ran a series of memorable promotional segments to introduce people to the heart of East Tennessee. And it wasn't just the stories. From day one the promotions told their own stories with little glimpses into the simple-but-precious life in East Tennessee.

"Jim... made it possible. I keep saying that, but he had to have the courage financially for us to put something forward that people would notice. So we did a massive 60-second shot on 35-millimeter film, which at that time was extremely expensive," Dean said. "And I'm sure the guy who wrote it never wrote this line before, 'Catfish on the line, country ham so fine.'"

The idea eventually came to fruition and served its original purpose in 1988 after WBIR became an NBC affiliate. Channel 10's identity in East Tennessee remained "Straight from the Heart."

Now 40 years later, we stand on the shoulders of the great people who came before us, laying the groundwork and creating a mission that was straight from the heart.

"It did set us apart and gave us something to focus on and be constant with for years that resonated with people," Hart said.

From "The Heartland Series," to Bill Willams' "Mondays Child" -- all the way to John Becker's "Service and Sacrifice" -- each story told has been held to a higher standard, in part thanks to four simple words.

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