The second Arkansas television station to join the airwaves, KFSM-TV signed on in 1953 with a signal limited to twenty-five miles. In the twenty-first century, the state’s oldest still-operating TV broadcaster reaches a half million viewers spread across nine counties in northwestern Arkansas, the Arkansas River Valley, and eastern Oklahoma.
Media mogul Donald W. Reynolds established KFSA-TV (with the call letters standing for Know Fort Smith, Arkansas) in 1952 to complement his Fort Smith (Sebastian County) newspapers and radio station. Broadcasting on UHF channel 22, KFSA-TV signed on at 4:22 p.m. on July 19, 1953. The first broadcast was a ceremony at the station celebrating the station’s debut. The receptionist logged 200 phone calls from viewers during the initial broadcast, with the first call arriving two minutes into the show.
KFSA-TV was originally located at 920 Rogers Avenue, where it signed on each day at 4:00 p.m. for about seven hours. The station was initially affiliated with three national networks—ABC, NBC and DuMont—due to the nearest broadcasters being located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Little Rock (Pulaski County). Early local programming included news broadcasts, a cooking show, and a “homey program”—a proto-talk-show that included segments on fashion and cooking, along with interviews from residents and community leaders.
News production at KFSA-TV during the 1950s was rudimentary, with one former anchor describing it as a “seat of the pants type thing.” Visuals consisted of filming still photographs stapled to easels, while anchors—sans teleprompters—read wire reports from the Associated Press. The newscast lasted only fifteen minutes.
Roughly three years after launching, KFSA-TV merged with local rival and CBS affiliate KNAC-TV, which broadcast via VHF on channel 5. KFSA-TV took over KNAC-TV’s VHF band, which greatly expanded its coverage area. In the late 1960s, KFSA-TV opened a bureau in northwestern Arkansas, becoming the first TV station with dedicated coverage of the region.
Due to federal regulations barring common ownership of newspapers and broadcasting outlets, Reynolds sold KFSA-TV to Texas-based Buford Television in the early 1970s. Despite Buford’s brief ownership—only six years—the company made a minor yet enduring change in 1973 when it switched the station’s call letters to KFSM-TV. The new identification matched Fort Smith’s IATA airport code (FSM) and further distinguished the TV station from KFSA-AM, a radio station that Reynolds still owned.
In 1979, the New York Times bought KFSM, ushering in a new era of professionalism for the station. Reporters in the bureau based in Fayetteville (Washington County) received a critical upgrade, as the Times purchased vital editing and microwave relay equipment that allowed them to remotely transmit stories. Previously, reporters needed to complete their work by early afternoon so the footage could be bused down to Fort Smith and put together for evening broadcasts. One longtime reporter recalled the frenzy of meeting deadlines as “driving like a bat out of hell down Archibald Yell to the bus station.”
The 1980s saw continued innovation and change at the station, beginning in June 1980 when KFSM switched its primary affiliation from NBC to CBS (which remains its affiliation in the twenty-first century). The decade also saw KFSM adopt an “absolute commitment” to weather, with the station incorporating Doppler radar and hiring only meteorologists for its weather coverage.
Times ownership also allowed KFSM to cover more national stories and send reporters on international assignments. Local programming continued to expand in the 1990s and 2000s, with additional news broadcasts added to morning and afternoon time slots. The northwest bureau twice received upgraded facilities, both of which included small studios.
The Times sold KFSM to an equity firm in 2007, the first of three new owners in a twelve-year span. In 2013, the firm sold KFSM to Tribune Co., which sold the station to Tegna, Inc., in 2019.
KFSM combined its news operations into one location in northwestern Arkansas in June 2019. The over 26,000-square-foot facility in Johnson (Washington County)—a suburb of Fayetteville and Springdale (Washington and Benton counties)—firmly planted KFSM in the region alongside its competitors, although the station continued to maintain a presence in the Arkansas River Valley.
For additional information:
KFSM-TV. https://www.5newsonline.com/ (accessed April 23, 2023).
Poindexter, Ray. Arkansas Airwaves. North Little Rock, AR: 1974.
Special Section on KFSM-TV. Southwest-Times Record, July 12, 1953, pp. 2A, 3A, 18A, 19A, 21A.
“Television Goes on Air for First Time in City.” Southwest American, July 20, 1953, p. 1.
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