In the fall of 2000, KATV was Arkansas' most-watched television station. It hadn't always been that way with Dale Nicholson at the helm. Dale's son recalls how growing up, the ratings results for November would always come in a couple days before Christmas. A loss to then market-leader KARK often put his father in a foul mood for the entire holiday season.
"Why did they have to piss off Santa Claus on Christmas Eve?" Dale Nicholson didn't like to lose. And he didn't like being told what to do, either.
In the final days of the presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore, Dale Nicholson took to the airwaves as KATV endorsed Bush. It was an unprecedented move. The state Democratic Party threatened to sue. Arkansas in 2000 was coming off of eight years of a native-son Democrat occupying the White House. While a Republican had fallen into the state's top office, a true red tide was still a decade away. Such an endorsement was a big deal.
George Bush would get 51 percent of the vote in
Arkansas. Had Al Gore won Bill Clinton's
home state (or his own home state of Tennessee, for that matter) the Florida
recount would not have decided the presidency. To say that the endorsement of the most powerful TV station in Arkansas
helped decide the most powerful leader in the world is not too much of a
But to say Dale Nicholson made that endorsement willingly…that
WOULD be a stretch.
Up until that moment in time, few had ever questioned who was
in charge at KATV. I mean, when your
nickname is "Big Pard," it is easy to forget that there is a bigger pard out
there. Dale Nicholson ran KATV as if he
owned the station…and he was handsomely rewarded by the Allbritton family for
his success. While loyalty, solid
performance and the passage of time at some companies is marked by a gold watch
or set of golf clubs, Dale's service was recognized with a convertible Ford
Mustang. And a party barge (named, what
else, Big Pard). Such displays of
appreciation were impressive.
Also impressive was the trust and freedom given to Dale
Nicholson to do his job. If he wanted to
hire people from other stations and wait out year-long non-compete clauses…he
did. If he wanted to rent out space in
the River Market and start an entirely new show…he did.
Of course, some things were beyond Dale's
control. He wanted KATV to move to a new
building. It didn't happen. Would he have liked to see Scott Inman become
the voice of the Razorbacks? Of course. Were there things Dale wanted to do where the
answer was "no?" Most certainly.
That explains the title…Lieutenant General.
Although on most days it wasn't evident, Dale Nicholson had
a boss. Like most of us. But Dale worked with the passion of an
owner…as if it was HIS company on the line every day. 50 years at KATV. Like Bob Steel shared at Dale's funeral, 20
years longer than Cronkite was with CBS or Carson was with The Tonight
Show. Dale set an example that anyone in
any line of work can follow: work hard,
become good at what you do, earn the trust of your boss, make yourself as
valuable as possible to your company and obey orders unless they violate your
values or the law. Do those
things and good things usually follow. It worked for Dale.