John M. Rivers (1903–1988)
After 12 years in banking and two successful years as vice president of a securities firm, John M. Rivers surprised the Charleston business community. He accepted a job as manager of WCSC, the city's first radio station.
In fact, years later, a longtime business acquaintance told him, "Your friends thought you were insane to leave the securities business for radio broadcasting."
While he was learning the business, Rivers might have agreed. In 1987, though, when WCSC-TV and related holdings were sold for millions of dollars to Crump Communications, Inc., of Houston, Rivers could look back with satisfaction on a remarkable career in broadcasting and public service.
John Minott Rivers was born July 22, 1903, in Charleston, the son of Moultrie Rutledge and Eliza Ingraham Buist Rivers. He attended the public and private schools of Charleston and the College of Charleston for two years, and in 1924, he received a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
After graduation, he returned to Charleston and joined the Bank of Charleston (which became South Carolina National Bank), first as a runner and later as manager of SCN's Greenville branch. He was an assistant vice president of SCN when, in 1936, he left banking to become vice president of the Charleston office of McAlister, Smith & Pate, a Greenville-based securities firm. Two years later, he entered the broadcasting business.
When he lived in Greenville, he became acquainted with W. Frank Hipp, president of Liberty Life Insurance Company, which also operated radio stations in Columbia and Charleston. Hipp approached Rivers about managing WCSC in Charleston.
Rivers recalled in an interview that when he told Hipp he knew nothing about radio broadcasting, Hipp insisted, "It's just like any other business. You have to take in more than you spend."
On January 1, 1938, Rivers became president of South Carolina Broadcasting Company, operating WCSC radio. A year later, he became president and manager. With improved programming and sound, WCSC became more and more attractive to advertisers, and sales soon doubled.
Hipp told Rivers that if he made the station successful, someday he would own it. Hipp wrote an unsigned memorandum to that effect. Upon his death, Hipp's sons Francis and Herman and their uncle, Grady Hipp, honored Frank Hipp's commitment, even though there was no contract. Rivers once told a writer, "I think that's an example of high moral and business responsibility. The arrangement demonstrated the integrity of the Hipp family, and my feeling is one of gratitude." Subsequently, Rivers bought the station for $144,000, payable in 12 years.
In 1948, Rivers began operation of the FM radio station and brought WCSC-TV, Channel 5, South Carolina's first VHF station, on the air in June 1953. With those developments, he became president and manager of WCSC AM/FM and WCSC-TV. In 1972, he became chairman of the board of WCSC, Inc., relinquishing the titles and responsibilities of operating the radio and television stations to his son, John M. Rivers, Jr.
In 1952, Rivers and other broadcasters founded the South Carolina Broadcasters Association. A past president of the association, Rivers was inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1974, the second person to be accorded that honor. G. Richard Shafto of WIS was the first, inducted in 1973. Rivers also served as chairman of the CBS Radio Affiliates Board.
During his business career, Rivers was a major force in the public affairs of his community, state, and nation. In 1936, at the age of 33, he was the youngest person ever to be elected president of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce, and he also served as chairman of the Charleston Development Board. He served as president of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce in 1969 and was named its Businessman of the Year for 1986. He was director emeritus of the South Carolina National Bank and a director of the South Carolina National Corporation.
Rivers was a member of the South Carolina Educational Television Commission from 1966 to 1982 and served as vice chairman in 1980. He was awarded the Silver Medal of the Advertising Federation of Charleston in 1977.
He served on the Coker College Board of Trustees and the Winthrop College Board of Visitors and was a member of the board of the South Carolina Foundation of Independent Colleges and chairman of Ashley Hall School, where the library is named for him.
In 1989, the College of Charleston's John M. Rivers Communications Museum was established through an endowment from the Rivers family. It contains early radio and television equipment, audiotapes and videotapes, and photographs of entertainers and others who were part of WCSC's early years.
He was a member and past president of the St. Andrews Society and a member of the St. Cecilia Society and the Huguenot Society.
While living and working in Greenville, he met his future wife, Martha Robinson of Gastonia, North Carolina, who was a student at Converse College. They were married December 7, 1929, in Gastonia. They were the parents of three children, Martha R. Ingram of Nashville, Tennessee, also a South Carolina Business Hall of Fame laureate, Elizabeth R. Lewine of New York, and John M. Rivers, Jr., of Charleston.
Rivers and his family worshipped at St. Philip's Church, where he served on the vestry and was a senior warden. John Rivers died January 24, 1988, at his home. He was 84.
He was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1997.
© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame