Alfred Johnston “A.J.” Fletcher is the founder of Capitol Broadcasting Company. He and a small group of partners formed the company in 1937 with hopes of winning a license to operate a radio station in Raleigh. They were successful and ever since that simple start years ago Fletcher’s company has grown into one of the premier communications organizations in the nation.
A.J. Fletcher learned the value of hard work at an early age. Born in 1887 to a Baptist minister in Ashe County, NC, Fletcher spent his formative years working as a stable boy, bank clerk, bellhop, delivery boy for a grocery store and an attendant at a fruit stand.
Fletcher’s first brush with the communications business came early; as a law student at Wake Forest College he ran out of money for school and began running the small weekly paper in Apex. He served as news reporter, editor, ad solicitor and publisher, working every angle as a one man show.
In 1910 Fletcher married Elizabeth Utley and took the $900 he had saved working at the paper to return to school. He never graduated from college but learned enough law to join the bar and run his own practice as an attorney.
He founded the Fuquay Springs Gold Leaf weekly newspaper and invested the money he earned at law and the paper in a variety of interests. Radio Corporation of America was one such company that caught his attention.
In 1919, Fletcher moved his young family to Raleigh. He and Elizabeth had three sons—Fred, Frank and Floyd–and added a daughter, Betty Lou, three years later. He looked for new pursuits in the Capitol City while he continued to practice law and publish the weekly newspaper.
By the late 1930’s Fletcher’s son Frank had followed his father into the practice of law and was among the first group of lawyers hired by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC.
Because of A.J. Fletcher’s interest in music and business and Frank’s encouraging reports from Washington, DC on the new medium of radio, Fletcher and his partners applied to the federal government for a radio license. On July 28, 1938, the FCC granted their request to operate station WRAL on 1240 kilohertz with power of 250 watts. WRAL-AM signed on the air on March 29, 1939, with NC Governor Clyde Hoey and Raleigh Mayor George Isley issuing welcoming addresses.
A.J. Fletcher wasn’t content to just own radio stations—his interest in television had already been piqued shortly before WRAL-AM went on the air. He and his eldest son, Fred, saw a demonstration of television at the RCA booth at the 1939 World’s Fair. When the television industry began taking off in the early 1950s, Fletcher was ready to take on a new challenge. At the customary retirement age of 65, A.J. Fletcher began a legendary battle in Washington, DC to win the first VHF television license for Raleigh.
After a grueling three-year competitive application process, Fletcher’s Capitol Broadcasting team beat out heavily-favored Durham Life Insurance Company and won the license for VHF channel 5 in Raleigh. On December 15, 1956 – WRAL-TV signed on the air as an NBC affiliate in the state’s capitol city. A.J. Fletcher’s hard work had paid off.
A.J. Fletcher had a wide variety of non-broadcasting interests, but remained particularly devoted to opera. Himself a bass singer and avid performer, he formed the National Grass Roots Opera Foundation in 1948. He wanted to make opera available and accessible to the public and also sought to provide young artists with professional careers. As a result of the Foundation, more than two million North Carolina school children heard opera sung in English. The Grass Roots Opera Foundation eventually evolved into the National Opera Company and later the Fletcher School of Performing Arts.
A.J. Fletcher’s many personal philanthropic efforts included grants to churches, orchestras, the Baptist State Convention, Duke University, East Carolina University and Southeastern Theological Seminary. In 1961 he founded the non-profit A.J. Fletcher Foundation to carry on cultural and educational outreach. The Fletcher Foundation has blossomed into one of the state’s leading philanthropic organizations, focusing on education, human service and poverty programs, and new and emerging non-profit groups across the state.
Not only did A.J. Fletcher launch WRAL-TV, he designed the station’s landmark azalea gardens that opened to the public in 1959. “It was simply my way of paying tribute to beauty for beauty’s sake,” said Fletcher, who loved azaleas and enjoyed finding new varieties for the property. In 1974, Fletcher received a national award from the American Association of Nurserymen for the design of his beloved gardens.
Fletcher was the recipient of many other honors and awards. In 1975 he was elected to the North Carolina Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. Also in 1975 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Duke University. And in 1978 he received the North Carolina Public Service Award from the Pfeiffer College Alumni Association.
A.J. Fletcher died April 1, 1979 at the age of 91.