One day in the mid-1960s, a college student in his 40s who had recently arrived from Atlanta turned up at WBIR and asked news director Jim Early for a job. Though Carl Warner had no experience as a television news producer, Early was so impressed with his enthusiasm and resume that he hired Warner to produce weekend segments. Local news had yet to see the kind of lengthy magazine-style pieces he would create, and Knoxville probably hadn’t seen a figure like Warner before.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1924, Warner had already had a storied career in television and motion pictures before arriving in Knoxville. After earning a degree in radio, television, and film at the University of Miami, with a minor in journalism, he worked as a sound mixer for motion pictures, TV commercials, and the TV series Route 66. At various points, he worked for all three major television networks as either a cameraman or sound engineer, including a stint covering the White House. He first stepped in front of a camera in 1964, when he snagged an important interview while working for United Press International in Miami. No news organization had interviewed Cassius Clay since the boxer had announced he would be changing his name to Muhammad Ali. Warner got to him first and, with no reporter around, he set his camera up and interviewed Ali himself.
Warner spent some time as a news cameraman in Latin America, was jailed in Cuba and Jamaica, and was shot in the chest when terrorists shot up the UPI bureau in Caracas, Venezuela. A telegram from his wife sent during the 1961 upheavals in the Dominican Republic reads, “DONT WANT RICH DEAD HERO COME HOME IMMEDIATELY BARBARA”.
Warner came to Knoxville to pursue a teaching degree at the University of Tennessee. He wanted to earn some money but could only work weekends, so he produced short on-location news segments for WBIR. He soon began turning in half-hour documentaries on often controversial topics. For a 1970 piece on a Children of God colony, Warner moved into the group’s Fort Sanders communal home for several weeks to get a sense of how the so-called “Jesus Freaks” really lived. He fought with news producers over content they found too sensationalistic or scandalous; he says he was fired and rehired multiple times.
Warner loved to court controversy. His editorials for Cas Walker’s Watchdog seemed crafted to bait local politicians and liberals. In the 1980s, he hosted “On the Line With Carl Warner” for WETE radio, and he’s upfront that many of his shows were designed to create controversy. Sex, politics, and religion were frequent topics. He recalls with glee the ongoing arguments he had with one particular liberal caller and says that, though they both believed in their stances, they also knew it was good theater.
Now retired, Warner is moving to California to live near his son. He’s getting rid of a lot of things from his home in Clinton. Much of it made its way to the landfill, but fortunately he donated film, audio tapes, and work-related documents to the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. We’ve been going through them the past week or so, and there’s some pretty fascinating stuff, including some of his man-on-the-street interviews conducted downtown in the 1960s and ’70s for WBIR.
One peculiar cassette tape held an episode of his radio show in which he had invited a prostitute on to discuss her profession. The calls that came in to the Tennessee Playgirl were equal parts curious, condemning, and condoning, but one particular truck driver seemed a bit too enthusiastic, and funny to boot. As he went on, it became clear the caller was local prank-call legend John Bean. (Read more about Bean here and here.) On another tape, Cas Walker calls in from a nursing home to give his thoughts on candidates for local office, with Warner egging him on.
Given such an eventful media career, it’s good to be reminded why Warner came to Knoxville in the first place. As proud as he is of his media work, he is just as proud of his work as a teacher and brings it up often in conversation. He taught at Vine Junior High School for years and says he was the first white teacher there. He went on to work at numerous elementary, high school, and colleges around the area.
As he prepares for his move and recounts story after story of what has been an uncommonly interesting life, Warner says his only regrets are the things he didn’t get a chance to do.
“It was in my DNA,” he says. “I had this talent and inspiration since I was a baby to do exciting things, interesting things, challenging things. And that’s what I did.”
Inside the Vault features discoveries from the Knox County Public Library’s Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, a collection of film, video, music, and other media from around East Tennessee.
Eric Dawson is Audio-Visual Archivist with the Knox County Public Library's Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, and with Inside the Vault combs the archive for nuggets of lost Knoxville music and film history to share with us. He's also a longtime local music journalist, former A&E editor of the Knoxville Voice and a board member of the nonprofit performance venue Pilot Light.
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