By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Knoxville media legend Ross Bagwell Sr. regaled an appreciative audience with numerous stories from his storied career during the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s (KEC) most recent “First Friday Fanfare” last week.
Speaking as part of KEC’s “Founders Series,” Bagwell’s gems told a good deal about the early days of television and the persistence he exhibited in making his own breaks. The latter insights are always useful for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Bagwell said he was enamored with the media as soon as he saw his first television – a 10-inch Philco during a stint in the U.S. Air Force. After being discharged and working for a brief period of time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory while pursuing a college degree, he left his young family in the care of his parents and headed to New York City to make his mark.
Bagwell was focused on a job with the NBC network where you had to start as a Page. The first person that he met told him NBC had a two-year waiting list for new Pages.
“I only have enough money to last two weeks,” Bagwell told the man who clearly was uninterested and certainly undeterred. Bagwell was staying at the YMCA for $3.65 a night, but that’s another story!
The young East Tennessean kept returning almost daily, receiving the same answer from the NBC executive. One day, Bagwell said the man was not present, and another NBC person asked him what he wanted. When he told him, Bagwell was directed to go to the employment office where he was immediately hired!
Obviously, the lesson for an entrepreneur is persistence and an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer.
Another important lesson came early in his career at NBC, working on the Howdy Doody Show. Bagwell recalled an equipment failure that required him to help entertain the studio audience, made-up of kids. That impromptu experience and the way that he “stepped to the plate” led to Bagwell being hired as a Production Assistant on the show.
Again, the lesson that he imparted was take advantage of every break you get.
Bagwell returned to his East Tennessee roots in 1963, working at WATE-TV and later with Lavidge & Associates before starting his own firm – Bagwell Communications. He founded Cinetel Productions in 1985 and worked with The Nashville Network(TNN) to produce 415 episodes of “I-40 Paradise.” Over the next 10 years, Cinetel developed programs for A&E, the History Channel, Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Travel Channel, Nickelodeon, and TNN. After selling his company to Scripps Howard in 1994, Bagwell continued in the business. Rivr Media is now led by his daughter.
Improvisation, a trait that is important to successful entrepreneurs, is obviously one of Bagwell’s strong suits as evidenced by several stories he told. One involved a high-priced camera that he could not afford to purchase. So, he bought a much cheaper one – $3,500 versus $85,000 – and had the body of the camera painted white. He then gave the repainted camera a new name and a fancy model number. When clients would ask him if he had the more expensive camera, he would say “no,” but I have this one.
“They nodded and said they had heard of that camera,” Bagwell fondly recalled.
Throughout his storied career, the Knoxville executive interacted with a number of media stars – Dave Garroway and Hugh Downs of the Today Show and Western movie stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – to name a few. Bagwell described the latter as “the two greatest guys I ever worked with.”
During his decades in the business, there have been a number of changes, not just technological ones.
“In my day, we owned the content and licensed it to the network,” Bagwell noted, something that is much different today. “I think that will turn in time.”
Many people talk about Knoxville as a large media production market, perhaps third behind New York and Los Angeles. Bagwell said he knows of at least a dozen producers in Knoxville actively selling to cable companies.
In response to a question about his current activities, Bagwell said he is starting production on his first movie based on a script he wrote himself.