The Sound of The Voice Loud and Clear After 65 Years

By STEVE KAUFFMAN
Contributing Writer

It was July 1949, hot and humid in mid-summer Louisville.

It was even hotter in Siberia, where the Soviet Union had just detonated its first-ever atomic bomb. Harry Truman was in the fourth year of his presidency, eight months after defeating Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, despite the famously premature “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” headline in the Chicago Tribune.

That summer, Bear Bryant was beginning to assemble his 1949 Wildcat football squad around another sophomore hopeful, quarterback Vito Parilli, who ran the newfangled T-formation. At Louisville, football was more or less an afterthought. The Cards were still playing the likes of Catawba and Evansville. In 1949, Johnny Unitas was a 16-year-old quarterback and halfback at St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh.

But in anticipation of the 1949-50 basketball season, the Cardinals’ biggest star ever, Burgin’s rugged Jack Coleman, was coming back for his senior season on Peck Hickman’s occasionally nationally-recognized team. After going 23-10 in the Ohio Valley Conference the year before, UofL was returning to Independent status.

Very few Americans knew where Korea was – yet.

CHECK YOUR MAILBOXES

And on Thursday, July 14, about 5,000 St. Matthews mailboxes contained the very first copy of St. Matthews: Your Community Newspaper.

“It is your newspaper,” said a front-page editorial, entitled “Greetings, St. Matthews.” “We are merely servants of the people of St. Matthews. It is up to you to determine the editorial policy of the paper. The publication will be non-political and non-religious.”

And, addressing an issue very much on the minds of independent, suburban St. Matthews at the time, “we are neither for nor against annexation.”

The big news on the front page was the opening of the third annual Potato Festival. Peewee King and the Golden West Cowboys were going to entertain. Also Uncle Hiram, “The Juggling Clown.”

John H. Harralson, former owner of The Voice-Tirbune.

John H. Harralson, former owner of The Voice-Tirbune.

Daredevil Don Woods was going to parachute out of a balloon at 1,000 feet. Truckloads of Gordon’s Potato Chips were going to be given away each evening. A 1949 Buick was going to be raffled off.

A $500,000 shopping center was announced at Brownsboro Road and Rudy Lane. And a contest, with a $100 prize, was launched to name the new newspaper.

THE VOICE

A month later, St. Matthews got its Voice. The response of the contest winner, four-year-old Martha “Cissy” May: “How much is a hundred dollars?” (A whole heck of a lot more in 1949 than in 2014!) Anyway, she was to get only $25, splitting the rest with her family, and intended to buy a tricycle with it. (Five years ago, Dr. Martha May McCarthy, now a professor at Indiana University, told The Voice that, actually, she doesn’t remember ever getting the money from her parents.)

Like so many long-term ventures, the original owner’s paper thrived for a while, then encountered the ebbing and flowing tides of shifting populations, economic changes, consumers’ tastes and habits.

In 1952, the paper was acquired by Al Schansberg, who later bought the Jeffersontown-based Jeffersonian and eventually merged the two papers into the Voice-Jeffersonian.

Ownership then passed to Bruce Van Dusen (1971); the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain (1979); Bill Matthews (1981); and John Waits (1982).

On Sept. 3, 1986, Waits published the final edition, seemingly putting an end to a gallant 1,930-week run.

OUT OF THE ASHES

But seven months later, April 3, 1987, under a banner declaring The New Voice, the paper was back in business under the aegis of the Southern Publishing Co. and chairman John Harralson.

“I’d been the editor of employee publications for the telephone company,” Harralson says. “My mother had worked for the weekly newspaper in Central City and I always thought it would be fun to have a weekly newspaper like that one. I modeled the paper after her paper – weddings, obituaries, but also other local news. And lots of pictures!”
In fact, he says, some of the reporters used to complain, “Harralson’s trying to make Life magazine out of it.”

“But then, when they saw our circulation numbers go up, and up, because of all that local coverage, they changed their tune.”

Among the new innovations were the additions to the staff of well-known and respected sports journalist Earl Cox and social columnist Carla Sue Broecker. Lucie Blodgett returned to the Voice’s pages the following week.

It was a homecoming for Carla Sue, who wrote a weekly column for The Voice in the early days, when she was in high school. “I wrote a column about the Springdale and Worthington communities, where I lived,” she recalls. “It’s where the Summit is now.”

What did she write about? “The Stentzenburgers had the family in for fried chicken dinner Sunday after church. There were 15 people in attendance. After dinner, the men played horseshoes.”

It was not all so light-hearted. Broecker also wrote about the efforts of her mother and a few other neighborhood women to get a school bus and cafeteria facilities at Worthington Grade School for the children of tenant farmers in the area who otherwise had to walk three miles to school every day.

Harralson said the paper hadn’t had regular sports before, but he was a UK graduate and Wildcat fan, and so the early coverage favored the Cats. UK-inclined Cox was the perfect hire – he stayed for around 25 years – and he regaled readers with his clear-eyed recollections of people he’d known and games he’d covered around the commonwealth over the decades.

But he wasn’t an easy sell. Harralson recalls that his first choice, Billy Reed, was too busy with the Lexington Herald-Leader and suggested Cox, instead.

“We took Earl and his son to lunch over at Hasenauer’s and talked him into coming over,” John recalled.

Cox’s first story was how Clay County and Richie Farmer wrested the state high school basketball championship from Ballard High School and its phenomenal sophomore, Allan Houston, in overtime.

The loss kept Ballard coach Scotty Davenport from winning the title in his first year on the job. (Promises made, promises kept.)

Dick Tracy also joined the fold, pursuing Pruneface  as some kind of caper. “I always liked Dick Tracy,” Harralson admits with an embarrassed laugh.

Not everything was new, though. Harralson chose to keep the Voice’s distinctive logo, including the cursive V, in the Belwe (rhymes with “twelve”) Roman Old Style type font, that remained the paper’s signature for another 20 years.

Along the way, The New Voice name was dropped “because some people thought we were a religious newspaper or part of the New Age movement,” said Harralson, and in 1994the paper was renamed The Voice-Tribune because “one of the meanings of the word ‘tribune’ is champion of the people, and that’s what we’d like The Voice-Tribune to be.”

Harralson bulked up the paid subscriptions, which had fallen below 2,000, to 14,000 and counted total readership at close to 60,000. The Voice was also the first newspaper in Kentucky to use a computer for typesetting.

“In 1987, we paid about $3,000 for a few little square Apple computers,” he said. “The writers would use them to write, then we’d remove a wire and take it to the back room, and the production people would take the copy off the wire and print the paper from it.”

However, newspapers in general were undergoing a societal change. The “champions of the people” were having to share the crown with cable television’s 24-hour news programming and, later, with the real-time news of the Internet. And that medium continued to evolve, from mainframe monitors on workers’ desks to streamlined, transportable computers on people’s laps to smart phones under everyone’s thumb.

Big city afternoon newspapers were the first to go because most people headed home to get the latest news on television. Then, even the mainstay morning dailies suffered, because people began to prefer logging onto the Internet instead. Some major U.S. cities have found themselves without a daily newspaper where once they had several.

The Voice struggled, too. Harralson remembers putting a lot of his own money into keeping it going, and putting the payroll on his MasterCard. But he enjoyed it too much to let it go.

STAYING IN THE PICTURE

Eventually, though, Harralson did sell the paper, in 2005 to Bruce Beston, who sold it to current owner Blue Equity in 2007, which has moved the paper into the 21st century with an updated web site, sponsored events and a glossy four color magazine four times a year. In fact there will soon be even more changes – with a new, fully updated website in the New Year, and an even bigger surprise with the first issue. It will be a chance to keep The Voice-Tribune contemporary and relevant – visually different but still the same paper people in Louisville have grown to love.

An inveterate camera bug, as owner, John Harralson liked to prowl the town, take pictures of people gathering and enjoying themselves, and publish those pictures in the paper. He established a regular full page of photos that, along with Broecker’s Party Line and Blodgett’s Social Side, offered a fun cultural review of the citizenry that Louisvillians weren’t getting in any amount from The Courier-Journal and certainly were not getting from CNN or The Huffington Post.

“I was out almost seven nights a week, attending functions, taking pictures,” he recalls. “Derby parties, formal events. I wore out about three tuxedos.”

“He never looked happier than when he was out with people, taking pictures,” Broecker says. “He’d stay out all night.”

“It got me into places I might not otherwise have had access to,” Harralson agrees. “Most people love to have their pictures taken, especially when they’re all dressed up and happy.”

The photo page grew to several pages, then to a full section overseen today by chief photographer Chris Humphreys, though you’ll continue to see the occasional John Harralson photo credit.

The Voice has upgraded its sports coverage, too, so important to Louisvillians – not just the Cats and Cards, but also high school sports (major and minor, boys and girls, including the soccer mania here), horseracing, as well as Bellarmine and Spalding sports. It has photographers at all Louisville and Kentucky home football, basketball and baseball games and some road games as well, like the huge win at Notre Dame this past season, and will likely accompany the Cards to Charlotte, N.C., for the Belk Bowl on New Year’s Day.

The NCAA basketball tournament always gets plenty of up-close coverage, of course, because Kentucky schools – not just UK and UofL, but also Morehead State, Murray State and Western Kentucky, from time to time – are so frequently involved. And for the Cats and Cards, it has become their own private affair: two national titles and six Final Four appearances in five years.

The former news editor, Jacob Glassner, explained to me once how local coverage was the exclusive province of the community newspapers, and why community newspapers were continuing to thrive. “People love to see pictures in print of their friends,” he said, outlining The Voice’s secret sauce, “and they especially love to see pictures in print of themselves.”

“Yes,” says Broecker, a cagey observer of the Louisville cultural scene for lo these past 35 years, “and they also like to see when their neighbors have had big parties – and they weren’t invited.”