In 1995, Capitol Broadcasting Company President/CEO Jim Goodmon decided that WRAL would become one of the first TV stations in the country to launch a site on World Wide Web. The move was bold considering that this decision was made when the predominant internet browser was Netscape Navigator and Google Chrome was still 13 years away.
Early hires for the website included John Whitehead, the first webmaster, who built the tools and automation that made what was originally called WRAL OnLine the envy of local media companies across the county. Other original staffers were Graphic Designer Bill Burch, Web Producer Michelle Singer and Managing Editor John Conway.
WRAL OnLine (originally at http://www.wral-tv.com) went live on Jan. 17, 1996 during the 5 p.m. newscast, with technology reporter Tom Lawrence introducing viewers to the Triangle’s first local news website. The site was delivered by a single Silicon Graphics server from an office just around the corner from the women’s restroom on the second floor of the main WRAL-TV building. (By 2010, WRAL.com was using 25 servers at its north Raleigh data center to deliver content to website visitors – a sign of the tremendous growth that took place in the following 15 years.)
The original homepage – or front door to the website – was a far cry from the highly dynamic homepage of today. That first homepage was a hand-drawn imagemap of a virtual town dubbed Happy Valley. Visitors navigated the simple site by clicking on the satellite truck for news, the stadium for sports and the sun for weather.
Less than eight months later, Hurricane Fran took the site offline for more than two days. Most homes lost power and phone connections, and the internet connection between WRAL and Interpath’s hosting facility on Hillsborough Street was severed.
Whitehead, Jason Priebe and John Conway loaded updates on a disk drive and drove the updated content from Western Boulevard to the 711 Building so that the latest information about Fran’s wrath and the recovery could be pushed out to the small slice of Triangle area residents who had working dial-up access.
By 1997, the homepage was redesigned to showcase the vast array of content being posted to the site around the clock, including full access to the Associated Press and Reuters wire stories that typically were only seen by newspaper editors. Another redesign followed in 1998, aimed at showcasing images and audio. With some occasional tweaks, it lasted until 2001.
That year CBC partnered with Internet Broadcasting System in hopes of reducing operating costs while tapping into IBS’ relationships with national advertisers. In May 2001, IBS launched an updated version of WRAL.com and assumed operations of the site for the next five years.
In 2005, the decision was made to bring control of the WRAL.com website back in house. Jason Priebe, an early member of the technology team that helped build and grow the original site, was hired back to help design the content management system, dubbed Diesel, and new site. On Dec. 16, 2006, the “new” WRAL.com went live shortly after midnight, with Jim and Jimmy Goodmon on hand for the switchover.
WRAL.com has continued to thrive and grow in the years since. In December 2010, the site hit a milestone, serving more than a billion pages in a single year.
Today, the site averages about 100 million page views and 4 million unique visitors a month. Staffing also has grown, from four full-time employees in 1996 to 35 in 2014.
The original site also has produced spinoff sites such as WRALSportsFan.com and HighSchoolOT.com.
In January 2014, WRAL.com launched a new version of the site to better serve the needs of smartphone and tablet users. The responsive design was the first of its kind in the Raleigh-Durham DMA and one of the earliest nationwide. The project required more than a year of planning and testing.
Since its inception, WRAL.com has operated under the simple premise that “Content is king.” That can be seen in the tremendous traffic figures, staff growth and awards the site has received.
WRAL.com was the 2009 winner of the national Edward R. Murrow Award for best local TV Web site.
In 2010 WRAL.com was named best local TV website in an international competition sponsored by Editor & Publisher.
In addition to the two national awards, the site has been a frequent winner of regional Murrow Award, including most recently in 2012. WRAL.com also has won numerous best-website awards from the N.C. Associated Press Broadcaster’s Association and from the Radio and Television Digital News Association of the Carolinas.
Content and interactive graphics produced by the site also have won several Mid-South Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.