During my 1970s kidhood, local stations’ news programs were austere affairs of scowling men in dark suits at gray desks droning on about attempted assaults and school board meetings. Then in 1976, WNDU-TV in my hometown, South Bend, unveiled its revamped news program, NewsCenter 16. WNDU’s bright new orange and tan set and upbeat, hummable new theme music were on the leading edge. A man and a woman read the day’s news, and they smiled sometimes. They even bantered a little bit with the sports and weather guys. If you’re enough younger than me you take this stuff for granted; it is now local-news idiom. In 1976 it was almost radical.
WNDU’s changes captured my interest, and I started paying attention to technological and formatting changes in television news. In time, I learned that there’s an entire industry that serves local TV stations with music and graphics and even strategies and philosophies.
Telesound, a music production company in that industry, supplied the first NewsCenter 16 theme. It was called “Classical Gas,” based on the 1968 Mason Williams hit. At least 10 other stations around the country used this theme. According to the SouthernMedia News Music Search Archive, an index of news themes that includes many audio clips, WBAL in Baltimore used it first, starting in 1974. This 1976 WBAL Classical Gas news open is a classic of its time. Most of the other stations that used the Classical Gas theme stole liberally from this open.
WFTV in Orlando used a different cut of the theme, the same one WNDU used. Here’s WFTV’s open from 1978. I sure wish I had video of WNDU’s version of this open!
A handful of companies produce most news themes in use today. If you go from city to city, you’ll hear the same themes in use. For example, the theme package WNDU uses today is called “The NBC Collection” and is produced by Gari Communications. It is used in 25 markets today.