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Radio Daze Columns in chronological order. Includes columns from "What's In It For Me?" published by WIFM Radio, AND ONLINE columns which appear ONLY here

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RADIO DAZE

By Mike Walker

 

He’s Baaack! (And Wif-um is 50!)

This is a happy time for me. It’s my first "Radio Daze" column in over a year. I left WIFM in February of ’98 to concentrate on my home-based radio production business. This after an 8 year run, the longest I’ve stayed at any station. And it wasn’t my first job at WIFM. My radio career was born in 1974 when Leon Reece hired me as an announcer…a month before my sixteenth birthday.

 

Recently work produced in my studio has aired on my favorite station. And now my column is back. I am so pleased…not only to be doing this work again which I love so much, but at the occasion which lead to it…the 50th birthday of WIFM! I’m not sure I can find words adequate to express how proud I am of this station, of the hard work and sacrifices of so many who have gotten us to this point, and of my own association with the station…which spans fully half of it’s life. Perhaps I can’t find adequate words. But in future columns I’ll try. Hopefully the sentiments I’m unable to express can be voiced by those I will interview, and of whom I will lovingly write.

 

A history of WIFM is at least in part a history of fm radio, because WIFM is one of the oldest fm stations in America. In the decade following the Second World War, two new forms of broadcasting were introduced to consumers…fm radio, and television. At least one of them (tv) was an immediate hit. To say that fm was a late bloomer is an understatement. It wasn’t until the early 80s that the total size of the fm audience equaled that of am. Although fm began to pierce the consciousness of at least radio hobbyists in the (mostly post-war) 40s and 50s, Major Edwin H. Armstrong, who served in the Army Signal Corps in World War I, actually introduced the technology in the 30s.

 

After leaving the military, Armstrong’s passion for improving the technical quality of radio led him to several inventions, which are still in use in today’s radios. Armstrong’s "regenerative" circuit made it possible for radios to amplify weak signals, bringing in even very distant stations with minimum fading and noise. And his "superhetrodyne" circuit, still used in the vast majority of radio receivers, introduced much needed "selectivity" to the receiver market. Put simply, it made it possible for you to listen ONLY to the station you were trying to tune, without interference from it’s neighbors. Money made from licensing receiver manufacturers to use his patents enabled Armstrong to continue his research, and pursue the goal of a radio system that was immune to static. The result of this research was fm, or frequency modulation.

 

In the late 30s the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) set aside a band of frequencies for fm broadcasting. Armstrong even established his own radio network called "The Yankee Network", with stations throughout the New England area which provided high fidelity programming on fm.

 

Always a patriot, Armstrong voluntarily gave his fm frequencies back to the government for military use at the start of WW-II. This "original" fm band used frequencies now occupied by tv channels 2 and 3. Consequently pre-war fm radios were useless after 1941.

 

 

While Armstrong’s fm system worked beautifully, and provided stunning sound quality, it never brought him the recognition, or financial rewards he deserved. In fact David Sarnoff, chairman of RCA/NBC, and a one-time friend of Armstrong’s stole his fm technology to provide the sound for television. Armstrong was never paid a cent by tv manufacturers, at least not during his lifetime. In frustration, marital and financial ruin, Armstrong took his own life in early 1954. Ironically, after his death his widow won a pending lawsuit, and collected millions of dollars in damages from those who had infringed upon her husband’s patents.

 

After WW-II, the FCC established a "new" fm band…the one we use today (88.1-107.9 mhz). Which sets the stage for the birth of post-war fm, and of WIFM. In future installments I’ll chronicle WIFM’s history. Doing so should prove quite a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’m glad to accept.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Practical Magic

 

Radio is magic. Voices traveling through thin air at the speed of light. No voice is too soft; no event too distant to prevent it’s coming in loud and clear on your radio. How would you define magic?

 

Radio is a daily visit with an unseen friend, often many miles away. It’s news and information that comes to you, rather than expecting you to come to it…as with television. Radio is the most immediate and personal of all media. Although dozens of people may work at your favorite station, when you listen to radio the illusion is complete. Only two people are involved: you, and your favorite personality…your friend.

 

The magic of radio is nothing new. At WIFM alone it’s fifty years old. But harnessing the magic in a way that was both practical and economically viable took some time, and experimentation. The need to make the magic practical at WIFM led to some interesting, and in hindsight sometimes amusing solutions to problems.

 

In the early days fm radio was an enigma. Anyone could see the potential of this new medium. The sound quality was so good. Amazing in fact…especially to broadcasters, frustrated with the noise and interference that still plagues am today. Of course fm stereo has its share of problems too…most notably "multipath" distortion, caused by signals being "scrambled" by multiple reflections from mountains and tall buildings. "Multipath" distortion can sound bad, but it’s primarily a problem with stereo reception. This was way before fm stereo. In fact, in the pre-stereo days fm radio had much lower noise, and was far less prone to interference than today. (Increased noise and interference wers accepted as a fair price to pay for broadcasting in stereo). As I said…the potential for fm was obviously enormous. But that potential was many years, decades as it turned out, from being realized. The sad fact is that early fm stations were mostly a financial drain to their owners. Almost nobody had fm radios! That’s why WIFM added an am station very soon after the fm. Businesses must generate revenue in order to survive!

 

So WIFM, like a growing number of stations in the 40s and 50s, had an am station which paid the bills, and an fm station which sounded incredible, but hemorrhaged money. Since this hemorrhage couldn’t be stopped, the best that could be done was to minimize it. There was another option, of course. Stations like WIFM could have simply let their fms die. Many did…at least temporarily. WHKY FM in Hickory (now Charlotte’s "Lite 102.9") went off the air for several years in the late 50s, and came back in the early 60s when the penetration of fm radios had grown somewhat. There was a risk in this strategy, however. An fm station that was allowed to "go dark" could come back in the future as a competitor. So, while some fms changed hands, and some went off the air , WIFM found ways to keep costs down, and wait for a brighter day.

 

One could ask, "why not just carry the same programming on the fm as the am?" That’s done in many places today. But in those days the FCC had rules preventing am/fm "combo" stations from "simulcasting" more than a small percentage of their day’s programming. The reason for this was to encourage them to operate their fms as separate entities, maximizing the diversity of available programming. These rules lasted until well into the 80s. So WIFM found ways to program the fm station as cost-effectively as possible.

 

A really high tech solution was found early on. In 1948 RCA had introduced the 45 rpm record, and Columbia the 33 1/3 rpm "lp". Another late 40s invention, the record changer was enlisted at a surprising number of fm stations to provide long periods of uninterrupted music. WIFM was one of them. Announcers from WIFM am would periodically pop into the fm studio, and put on a stack of record albums. An hour and a half to two hours later, the stack was simply "flipped". Thus broadcast "automation" was born.

 

In the 60s and 70s the number of fm radios grew sufficiently that it became feasible to produce some separate programming for WIFM fm. On a typical day of the WIFM of the mid 70s, for instance, am and fm simulcast Leon Reece’s "Good Morning Show" and "Open Mike" from 6-8am. Then pop/rock music began on am at 8, and continued throughout the day. WIFM fm carried country music from 8am-12noon (by this time pre-recorded reel to reel tapes had taken the place of lps for "unattended operation". From noon to 5pm either Wade Chapel, Leon Mikels, or Dick Paulsen (for many years WIFM’s chief engineer) hosted a gospel music program. "Automated" country tapes returned from 5-7pm, and from 7pm-midnight the pop/rock music programming from the am was picked up by the fm. WIFM am was a "daytime" station (licensed to operate only during daylight hours), so the fm allowed it’s programming to continue after dark.

By utilizing these cost-cutting measures, WIFM fm was able to survive until fm broadcasting became financially viable. Thus the magic of radio was made practical. So now you know the secret of WIFM fm’s survival through the lean decades. "Practical Magic".

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

The Haunting

 

I don’t mean to alarm you, but WIFM is haunted. Not the new building on North Bridge Street, but the old one…on Elk Spur. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any former WIFM employee who spent time alone in the building at night. So commonly accepted is the "haunting" on Elk Spur, that the spirit which inhabits the building even has a name. "Will".

 

As an announcer at WIFM from 1974 until 1977, I spent many nights in the old building. Sometimes I was completely alone. But most nights somebody else was there for at least part of my shift.

 

During my first "tour of duty" at WIFM, Ralph Shaw was News Director. And as anyone who knows him can testify, Ralph is a force of nature! In his youth Ralph was tireless. From the time he first visited the Elkin Police Department an hour or more before sign on each morning, until he had filed his last news report on whatever meetings may have occurred on a particular evening on the 10:05pm news, Ralph never stopped. Very rare was the evening that Ralph didn’t put in at least one appearance.

 

During this same time period, a young couple from New York State was hired. And being young, and in love with radio, either Karen Kelly, Russ Pomeroy, or both found a reason to spend time at WIFM most evenings. I was glad for both their company, and their passion. We became great friends. Russ passed away several years ago, but Karen is still a dear friend.

 

In those days WIFM had no dedicated "production room" (a studio where commercials, newscasts, and other program elements that are recorded before airing are produced). But since WIFM AM could legally broadcast only during daylight hours, one of the station’s two studios was vacant at night. So staff members frequently scheduled production sessions "after hours". Leon Reece was one of them, frequently stopping by to produce commercials at night. The point of all of this is that, although I spent many nights at WIFM in the 70s, I wasn’t alone in the building often enough for it to occur to me that perhaps I wasn’t alone at all. I did hear sounds I couldn’t explain. But because so many visited so often, I always assumed I had "just missed" one of them. Had I known the stories then that I do now, I would have paid more attention to those sounds.

 

"BANG" a door slammed. "Clip, clop, clip" came footsteps down the hall. "Is someone there?" I heard no answer. On this particular Saturday night in the fall of 1994 I found myself alone at WIFM at night for the first time in years. As Program Director, it was expected that I would cover any shift an announcer on my staff couldn’t. "Bang"…I was sure I heard the front door slamming again. I arose from my chair, and walked to the front of the building to investigate. Not only was I alone, the door was locked.

By this time, I had heard stories of "Will". Multiple staff members had told me of their experiences and the sounds they had heard. Do I believe in ghosts? As I sit at the computer in my living room writing this, the answer is "of course not!" But, were I to find myself alone in that building at night once again, well, I’m not so certain!

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

In The Beginning

 

"I’ve loved it. If I were a young man, I’d be out there again…building stations, running them, having fun". The words of James Childress of Sylva North Carolina. A legendary broadcaster, Jim Childress has made a career of bringing radio stations to small towns…mostly in North Carolina, but also in Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

 

The list of stations he gave life to reads like a "Who’s Who" of small market radio. Included are WRGC Sylva, WOXF Oxford, WKSK West Jefferson (a station I’ve done some work for), WKRK Murphy, WKJK Granite Falls, WKYK Burnsville, WKHK Saltville Virginia, WBKZ Jefferson Ga. (built for his daughter). WYZD Dobson (built for his Brother Lee), and WCOK Sparta (built for his father in law Sid Comer). In addition to stations he has started, Mr. Childress at one time owned many other stations, including WYDK Yadkinville (later WDIX, now "dark") WBRM Marion, WLAF Lafollett Tennessee, and of course…WIFM. Now retired, Mr. Childress today owns just WRGC in Silva.

 

By the way, there’s a pattern to Childress’ choice of call letters. "Lots of them are for my family’s initials. WKRK, for instance, was named after children Kim, Ronnie, and Kathy. WKSK got its call letters from the initials of my daughter Suzanne."

 

As for WIFM "I bought it in 1954. And despite the fact that Elkin was the best little radio market I’d seen up until then, within a week I knew I had made a mistake. In ’54 there was an attempt to unionize Chatham Manufacturing. So Dick Chatham shut the plant down for a long time. Just closed it. I knew Dick, but he didn’t tell me he was going to do that. If he had, I wouldn’t have bought the station. What had been a booming little town just ground to a stop. Nobody could afford to advertise. I was in trouble!"

 

WIFM’s original owner, Al Hinshaw is deceased. But Mr. Childress offered some insight into the earliest days at the station. "Al put the WIFM on the air in ’49 as an fm only. Al’s brother owned a radio repair shop, and the two of them were big believers in fm. They pushed it like crazy. But with almost no radios, there weren’t any listeners. In about ’53 the am was added. But it didn’t do well either."

 

"I bought WIFM in ’54. I lost money, but still had fun. In those days we used "block" programming. Music was mostly pop, but there were also "blocks" of country, and gospel. There was live music too…lots of live music. One of the greatest talents was David Reece (Leon’s brother). David turned out to be one of the nation’s best gospel singers. Preachers screamed on Sunday mornings, but I never allowed preaching at other times on any of my stations. It’s bad programming".

 

In his youth Jim Childress was an aspiring singer/songwriter. He sang on some of his stations in the early days, but eventually "gave up one dream to pursue another".

 

And what of radio’s future? "It’s still a great business. I’m about to turn 75. But if I were younger and could find good managers, I’d buy or build one every year. The future is bright for for fm and am. I love this business".

Me too, Jim. Thanks for the interview, for your tremendous contributions to broadcasting in North Carolina, and to WIFM during it’s first 50 years.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Hail To The Chief!

"Is that a helicopter?" I asked the person next to me. The year was 1975. I was a junior at East Wilkes, and played in the band. Although I had worked at WIFM for several months, I was there as a trumpet player, not a broadcaster. I was excited. How often does a sitting U.S. president come to Wilkes County?

 

"Yes, I think it is a helicopter. Shhhhh listen…it’s definitely a helicopter"…answered my band-mate.

 

"Look alive, everybody…get ready for "Hail to the Chief" barked young band director Keith Secreast, who 24 years later still leads the band at East Wilkes.

 

What had been just a dot in the sky could now clearly be seen to be a large helicopter. As the side turned toward the band, and the Presidential Seal became visible, I got a lump in my throat, and began feeling misty eyed. I was about to see the president…in person!

 

The helicopter landed perhaps 30 yards away in an open field. It was so loud I was sure the president wouldn’t even hear us. No matter…he was there. So were we. And just like him, we had a job to do.

 

"READY" Mr. Secreast screamed, as he raised his baton. "1, 2, 3, 4". We all began playing, although I have no idea how well. Between the noise from the helicopter, and the sheer excitement of seeing the president, I doubt any of us played our best. We couldn’t hear each other. The only way we stayed in sync was by watching Mr. Secreast’s baton.

 

Gerald Ford has always seemed such a likable man. He even campaigned nicely. The ’76 election may have been the last time candidates were civil to one another…as two genuinely good men challenged one another’s political beliefs and agendas, not their personal and character flaws. Had it not been for the cloud surrounding Watergate, and the pardon of President Nixon, the ’76 election may have gone a different way.

 

The president moved quickly from the helicopter to an area where people waited to shake his hand. I put my trumpet in the trunk of my car, and returned to the crowd, hoping to meet the president. My mind flashed briefly to discussions at the station in preparation for the event. "Will the Marti (remote broadcast relay transmitter) reach Elkin from West Wilkes?" "We’ve used it there for ballgames before. With a good antenna site, it should work fine".

 

Inside the gymnasium Leon Reece and Ralph Shaw had begun broadcasting. When I put my trumpet away, I had switched on the radio for perhaps 30 seconds to make sure everything was ok. The signal was a little "crackly", but stable. WIFM would be able to successfully broadcast the president’s speech.

 

Suddenly my hand was clasped in a warm, firm handshake. "Hi there…nice of you to come". "Thank you Mr. President".

 

He was gone. It was 4:45. There was no way I would make my 5pm airshift at WIFM on time. I needed to find a pay phone.

As I drove back to Elkin, listening to WIFM’s broadcast of the president, something occurred to me. I had met the president without going through any security checks. Even after leaving, opening the trunk of my car, and returning, the Secret Service Agents ignored me. There probably seemed to be little threat to him in these days before the world had heard of "Squeaky" Fromme, and Sarah Jane Moore.

Radio Daze

A guest column by Karen Kelly

*Karen Kelly and Russ Pomeroy worked at WIFM from 1975-1978 (M.W.)

"Only Yesterday"

 

 

Only yesterday I woke up and happily went to work at WIFM with my husband, Russ Pomeroy.

 

Only yesterday I sold commercials while Russ entertained us on the air. Russ thrived on talking with his listeners. We had the great joy and honor of loving our work and being able to share it. He produced the women's talk show I hosted on WIFM, "Our World, Too". It was a delight to see him smiling at me from the control room. He would make sure I sounded my very best, as we prepared for a live edition of the program. I went to school and learned the radio business, but I never loved the radio business until I lived it through Russ' eyes.

 

Only yesterday I was greeted by the smiling face of WIFM secretary, Kathy Long. I never heard a harsh word from that patient, kind lady.

 

Only yesterday I talked with Leon Reece, the station manager - a talented, fair and easy man to work with - a man who inspired trust and confidence in us all, including our audience. One April Fool's Day, he announced that the telephone company wanted people to hang their telephone receivers over a bucket to drain water which had gotten into the lines from recent heavy rains. People did it. We trusted Leon.

 

Only yesterday satin voiced Chuck Kenney, was keeping listeners company. Chuck had a knack of keeping things easy and low-key in the control room.

 

Only yesterday Ralph Shaw flew past me in the hallway with a hot news story to report. I was in awe of him and his news ability. It was Ralph who first contacted Russ and me at WPAQ in Mt. Airy, and told us that there might be an opening at WIFM for both of us.

 

Only yesterday, I met young Mike Walker, who was barely out of high school. Radio had him, and would never let him go. Mike's enthusiasm was intoxicating. He would excitedly tell me about a new "Audio-Tronic-What-Cha-Ma-Call-It". I never understood the "tech talk" , but his attitude was so contagious I found myself wanting one, too!

 

A lot has happened since yesterday.

 

Russ and I went on to work at many stations, eventually living our dream of co-managing one. Russ passed away about 13 years ago, and is missed by all of us who loved him.

 

I answered another calling, and became an ordained minister. God blessed me again with a wonderful husband, Tony, who works for the US Postal Service, and also helps me in the ministry. We have a happy and blessed life in Greensboro, where we live with our two cats, Angel and Johnny Angel.

 

While it is not good to "live" in the past, it is good to "look" at the past, and be grateful for our blessings. Thank to those who made us feel at home. Thanks to the staff of WIFM. Together, we got the job done, and enjoyed each other’s company.

 

On Sunday mornings now, I say, "Good Morning and welcome to our Sunday Morning service!" Often after the service someone says "Reverend, it sounded like you were introducing a radio show." God understands. He knows that I have a permanent case of "Radio Daze".

*Many thanks to my dear friend Mike Walker, who invited me to share his "Radio Daze" column. After 20 years apart, Mike, located me through computer e-mail. We picked up our friendship, right where we left off - like it was only yesterday.......(Karen's e-mail address is Justbeone@aol.com I'm sure she would enjoy hearing from you. MW)

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Here and gone

 

Thanks again to Karen Kelly for her recollections of WIFM in the 70s in last week’s column. I began my radio career in 1974, so when Karen and Russ (Pomeroy, her husband) arrived, everything about broadcasting was still fresh and new to me.

 

In those days I couldn’t imagine anything cooler than being on the radio. The idea that it was possible to talk at once to thousands of unseen listeners seemed like magic. I thought those who earned their living as radio personalities were the most fascinating people alive.

 

In Russ Pomeroy I found a kindred spirit. Russ adored radio as much as I did, and his enthusiasm and creativity inspired me in ways I’ve only recently begun to understand.

 

Russ was the first true ‘production wizard’ I met. He thought of the task of producing commercials, promos, and other pre-recorded elements not as a chore, but an adventure. From wrapping tape recorder capstans with Scotch tape to create ‘Munchkin-like’ voices, to placing microphones at the bottom of large metal trash cans to create an ‘echo chamber’, Russ taught me that if a sound could be imagined, it could be created!

 

I have been accused of being a perfectionist in my work. If it’s true, then in large measure I must thank/blame Russ Pomeroy. He and I were the ‘ears’ of WIFM…tweaking, modifying, and fixing anything we thought prevented the station from sounding it's best. From twice weekly wrapping Scotch Tape around the motor shaft of the aging turntables to bring them back up to speed, to tweaking the audio processor for the best possible sound, (‘It Keeps You Runnin’ by the Doobie Brothers was our standard test track. It’s difficult for even today’s fm stations to reproduce correctly) there were always things that could be done to make WIFM sound better. And we tried ‘em all!

 

The last time I saw Russ was in 1981. I was the nighttime personality at WNNC (am) in Newton, N.C. While editing a voice track for a commercial I was working on, a familiar voice said ‘I wonder where he learned how to do that’. CAREFULLY setting my razorblade and splicing tape aside, (in the WIFM days we used scissors and Scotch tape for editing…no kidding!) I stopped what I was doing and we went to dinner. It was like old times! We talked about nothing but radio…which stations were up, which were down, and which were the most fun to work at.

 

About three years later, Russ called me at home one night. By this time he was at WGBR in Goldsboro. Again we swapped war stories, and reminisced about WIFM. I never spoke to him again. The next I heard of Russ was that he passed away in 1986. My only regret was that I never told him what an important influence he was to me. Wherever you are buddy, I’m telling you now. Your spark lives on in me.

*In chronicling WIFM’s history in these columns for our 50th anniversary, I’m afraid that some important stories will be missed. If you worked at WIFM in the past and haven’t been contacted by me yet, or have amusing or interesting stories relating to the station and those who worked here, please e-mail me at Mike@theproductionroom.net , or RadioGiant@aol.com . I look forward to reading of your experiences, and sharing them in ‘Radio Daze’.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Bookends

Welcome to summer!

Memorial Day and Labor day traditionally mark the beginning and end of summer…kind of like "bookends", with all the cookouts, ballgames, trips to the beach, work in the yard and garden, long walks, and fun that can be squeezed into the season sandwiched in between.

 

The arrival of summer has me thinking about all the summers’ past at WIFM. All the Fourth of July celebrations we’ve sponsored through the years at various locations…Ridgeview Crossing Shopping Center, Elkmont Shopping Center, Elkin Village Shopping Center, Memorial Park in Elkin, and WAY back when I was a young ‘un…at Lila Swaim Park in Jonesville. We’ve also regularly visited the BIG Independence Day events at Mountain Park. My brother-in-law even won some money in the cow-patty contest a couple of years back.

 

Then there are all the remote broadcasts. Through the years WIFM has done tons of those. And in the pre-cd/pre-computer days when most radio listening was still done on the am band, we had a different approach to remotes. Sure we could have sent the announcer out with just a microphone and remote transmitter, relying on the "board-operator" back at the station to play all the music, commercials, and news. That’s the way almost every radio station does it today. But 25 years ago we believed that people coming to a remote broadcast deserved to really see a radio show being done. So we did as much as possible on location. In the back of the station van we had a large, heavy wooden desk with a small mixer, and ONE turntable built into it. When we did a remote broadcast, the announcer on duty brought HUNDREDS of 45rpm records along, and played them at the site, while a big horn speaker on top blasted the sound for hundreds of yards. It was FUN. Girls in halter-tops and cut-offs wanted to flirt (hey, I was single then!), children begged for free records, friends stood by and grinned, and everyone wanted to say "Hello". As anyone who’s been in radio awhile will tell you, in the days before we were bombarded with so much media (cable, satellite, video, etc.), a remote broadcast by the local station was an event.

 

I fondly remember Saturdays in the 70s when I broadcast from Lake Alpine swimming pool ("You mean I get paid to look at women in bathing suits all afternoon? Cool!"), from various businesses throughout the Tri-County area, and from more festivals and celebrations than I could possibly remember.

 

One Friday night in 1976 Karen Kelly and I were broadcasting from in front of the Reeves Theatre in Downtown Elkin for the premiere of "Rocky". Of course the streets were filled with cruisers. At Karen’s suggestion I asked, "will everyone listening to WIFM please honk your horn?" The ensuing blast was DEAFENING. Merchants and customers alike left businesses up and down Main Street to see what was going on. Those were the days!

*After my last column, in which I invited those connected with WIFM’s history to contact me so they could share their experiences, I received an e-mail letter from B.D. Reece. He and Tiffany are doing well, and expecting another "bundle of joy". B.D. has a unique perspective on WIFM, having begun broadcasting here as a small child. I look forward to interviewing him in a future column. To share your experiences or comments, write to me at Mike@theproductionroom.net , or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Here’s What’s His Name!

When Gilvin Couch did nights at WIFM back in the 70s he used to have a jingle that said "Here’s What’s His Name"…after which he’d usually say something like "What the heck is a Gilvin anyway?"

Nobody I’ve known has enjoyed radio more than Gil. "I look back at the 70s and there was such a mystique about radio. It was really cool. It was about the neatest thing in my life. Radio was maybe even more powerful then than now. Mike, you and I have been in this long enough to remember when radio was KING! It was more than entertaining. The kids didn’t have MTV or HBO, no video games, no Internet, just RADIO. At night kids would be home studying, and just listening to the radio. When people recognized me it was like "OH MAN, are you really on the radio?"

How did you get started, Gil? I know you beat me on the air by a few months. But you’re a few months older too, even though we were in the same grade at East Wilkes. "Yeah…I was born in January". And I was born in September. I started in August of ’74. When did you start? "In January. I was still a sophomore. I started part-time, working weekends. My first regular shift was Sunday mornings doing sign-on. I also filled in for Tim Parsons on Saturday nights. Then I got my lucky break. Ralph Shaw was "promoted" from doing nights to the News Director’s job. And Leon (Reece) let me have the position, fulltime. It was more than just full-time. I worked ALL THE TIME, 7 days a week. You remember what that was like Mike. You did it too". Oh yes. In fact I volunteered to work for you rather than going to the prom when I was a Junior, so you and Diane could go. Remember? "We would have rather been on the radio".

"I remember about March or April I had worked 40 straight days without a break. When I finally got a night off, it was to go on my first date with Diane, who was to become my wife. We’ve been married 25 years, and have 3 wonderful children."

These days Gil is Chief Engineer at WXLV, "ABC 45" in Winston-Salem, and WUPN, "UPN-48" in Greensboro. He’s also a pastor at Foothills Community Church in Austin.

"As much as I enjoyed being on the radio, I knew I wanted to be a television engineer. Dick (Paulsen, WIFM’s longtime Chief Engineer) took me under his wing. I learned solid state in school, but Dick taught me tubes. I have a tube from WIFM’s transmitter mounted in my office, to remind me where I came from".

What’s your funniest WIFM story? "One night there was a terrible storm. I opened the front door and a black snake that was trying to escape the rain came between my legs into the building, and went under a sofa. I finally got up the courage to move the sofa. He wasn’t there! I opened the closet. NO SNAKE! My brother in law came to the station with a hoe. We couldn’t find him. So I left Leon a note "Oh, by the way…there’s a snake in the building". The next day I came by the station, and everybody had their feet up on their desks".

Any closing thoughts, Gil? "I just want to thank Leon for seeing something in me that I didn’t even see in myself. He believed in me. Without him, I don’t know where I’d be. Certainly not here!"

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Small market news done BIG!

During his nearly 3 decades in broadcasting, Ralph Shaw has won more than 20 major awards…including "Reporter of the Year" from the North Carolina Radio-Television News Director’s Association, and the first two "Roy Hardy" awards for "Reporter of the Year" from the Associated Press.

"Someone once said to me "Before you started doing news at WIFM, nothing ever happened here". That wasn’t true, of course. But I considered it such a great compliment because people weren’t hearing about all the things that happened before me".

How did you get started, Ralph? "I grew up listening to WLS and WCFL (two clear channel am top 40 stations in Chicago, which in the 70s were locked in battle). I was amazed at the jocks (air personalities). I had been thinking about a career in pharmacy, and had taken all the math and science courses at Surry Central in preparation. But listening to them got me thinking about radio. Leon (Reece) at WIFM told me "you’ve got to have a license, but once you get that we can use you".

Ralph got the license, and Leon kept his word. "The first Sunday after I got my license, I ran a race. Alan Combs showed me how. After just a couple of screw-ups, I got it right. Then I was assigned Sundays…working from 7am till 9:30pm. I ran both am and fm…at the same time. You remember that, Mike…throw the switch to the left and it’s fm, to the right and it’s am. I did nights for a while, and then was promoted to News Director."

What are some of the most memorable news stories you covered on WIFM? "In early Feb of 75, there was the Siloam Bridge disaster. 4 people were killed, and it was my first national story. In addition to reports on WBT, WSJS, the North Carolina News Network, and stories for the various wire services, ABC used my report. My voice on a national network! It was sobering!"

"The first story I ever cried over was in the late 70s, when 5 kids drowned after falling through a frozen pond on C.C. Camp Road (in Elkin)" "Then there was the visit of President Ford to Wilkes County, which you wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Mike. I had a 500-foot mic cable. Sheriff Bill Anderson took my hand, and pulled me up to the president so I could talk to him."

"I’m very proud of a broadcast you were involved in, Mike…the presidential election of ’76. I anchored, you ran the board and tied everything together, we had reporters in all the counties, plus state reports from Raleigh, and national reports from ABC. That was a great night!"

"Probably the thing that hurt me the worst was when Mike Ford (also a former WIFM News Director) died in a car crash. I returned from the scene of the accident about 3 minutes before my newscast, and had to report that he was dead. I had nothing written…it was all ad-libbed, and I nearly lost it."

"One day I had a story I thought Paul Harvey could use. I called, expecting to talk to one of his assistants. I was surprised when Paul answered the phone. He was so nice…and sounded exactly the way he does on the air. We talked for about 15 minutes, and I’ll always cherish that."

Since leaving WIFM, Ralph has worked at radio and TV stations ranging from small markets, to network owned major leaguers. But for many, he will always be the one who put WIFM’s news department on the map. The national map.

*E-mail me at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net, or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Where’d he go?

This week’s column was to have been an interview with former WIFM personality, sales person, and AM Station Manager Dusty Ball. But a combination of scheduling conflicts and deadlines prevented it. Hopefully Dusty will appear in next week’s column.

Just hearing Dusty’s name makes me smile. Dusty and I are longtime friends, and were classmates in the Wilkes Community College Radio-TV Broadcasting "Class of ’77". Ours was the first class to mis-use the college radio station, WSIF…all 10 watts of it. Once during the "Spring Fling" of ’77 a WSIF announcer said, "If you’re within the sound of my voice, you’re already close. So walk on over!"

During the school year of 1976-77, Dusty became a part-time employee at WIFM. I was by this time a "full-timer", doing the night shift. Joey Sprinkle, another member of our class, also started about this time, but soon found a real job (one outside of radio) more to his liking!

In his youth, Dusty lived for mischief. Being around him was never dull! He was certifiably INSANE! Of his many pranks in the 70s, two stand out.

Dusty used to sneak into the building at night when I thought I was alone, and do some very unusual things. For instance, he used to perch entirely in the uppermost section of a doorway, with no part of his body touching the floor, and stay that way until I stumbled upon him…usually scaring me half out of my wits! And he was capable of doing more EXTREME physical comedy, with no worries of injury. Once just as the 10pm ABC News came on, I looked through the window of the main control room into the adjacent studio. On top of a podium used during live broadcasts, Dusty was standing on tiptoe, as if preparing to dismount a diving board. Just when he knew he had my attention, he dove to the floor. I couldn’t believe it! Naturally he was completely unhurt! Even in his prime Chevy Chase had NO MOVES on Dusty!

After graduating from the program at WCC, Dusty and I added sales to our list of responsibilities, hoping to earn enough money to escape our parents’ scorn. Our goal was expansion into Yadkinville, which had it’s own radio station (WYDK, later WDIX, which went "dark" in the early 90s). Being the new guys in town, we started by traveling together…introducing ourselves to potential clients. Each day we made our way to Yadkinville, where we shook hands, had lunch, and occasionally found an excuse to wander into Winston-Salem. Neither of us excelled at sales. But we had great fun. Soon I accepted another job. Having just gotten married, a salary increase with no sales responsibilities couldn’t be ignored! In December of 1977 my first "tour of duty" at WIFM ended. I took from it fond memories of wonderful people. None left a more lasting impression than my friend Dusty Ball.

*For comments, suggestions, or to tell me your WIFM story, e-mail me at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net , or RadioGiant@aol.com Your letters are always welcome!

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

Silliness Rules!

"One night when Gilvin Couch was on the air, I snuck into the building. When I got back to the control room, he still hadn't seen me. So I quietly took the fire extinguisher from the wall…and BLASTED HIM." The words of Dusty Ball, a WIFM employee for 9 years, who was also manager of the am station, WJOS.

Last week I told you some of the antics of this very silly man. But there were some I wasn't even aware of. Now the truth is revealed, as WIFM's most notorious prankster CONFESSES!

"I used to put fake announcements in the community events folder. I don't think Leon ever noticed. One day I heard one of 'em…an announcement that the Elkin Water Polo Team would be meeting by the falls behind the library. He read it just as it was written, and kept on going."

Didn't you also put fake items in the "Trading Post" folder? "Uh…yeah. I remember once I put an item in there that someone had a brown, short legged pickup for sale."

And then there were the fake commercials…"I once put a cart (tape cartridge) in the control room with nothing but a chimpanzee sound on it. Not just a chimpanzee, a very wicked sounding one. I put the name of a fictitious business on it, and then wrote commercials for this business on the program log to make sure it got played. Leon was the first to play it. I was listening one morning, and suddenly the sound of a chimp came on the air. He thought the tape wasn't cued up properly, and that he had played the tail end of a spot that had that sound effect on it. So a few minutes later he played it again. And again the sound of a chimpanzee blasted out of the radio. I thought he would kill me when I got to work. But he didn't say anything. I think he still thought there was something wrong with the tape, and that the chimp sound was at the end of a legitimate commercial. So the tape stayed in there all day. And one by one announcers played it. The night guy was still playing it. Just like Leon, he played it a couple of times. I'm not sure if anyone ever figured out it was a joke. Maybe I shouldn't confess this." The statute of limitations must've run out by now!

Any more confessions, Dusty? "Hmmm. I used to catch mice, and put them in a toolbox in the control room. When anybody opened the toolbox, a mouse would come running out. I don't know how many times I did that. I never told anyone about that." (Laughing) How on Earth did you catch mice? "Uh…I put bread into a garbage can and caught 'em before they could escape." My suspicion is Leon may still hunt you down and kill you! "I've got long legs, I can run fast."

"Oh…I also put a rubber snake in a paper bag, and stuck it under the control board where Jimmy Hayes (host of a black-gospel show) would find it. Everyone in town must've heard him scream!"

"Thinking back, I may not have been cut out for an airshift. I used to think "it's a great day, I could be playing basketball".

But he played pranks instead! Dusty and his wife Debbie have two daughters…15 and 17. These days he works at Yadkin Telephone. If you work with him, consider yourself WARNED!

*To comment, or make a suggestion…e-mail me at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net , or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Odds 'n ends

In doing these columns celebrating WIFM's history, some things are by necessity left out. I've had to slice conversations that lasted from an hour and a half to two hours down to just a few good stories.

Obviously much hasn't "made the cut". Such as Dusty Ball's memories of HUNDREDS of ball games he covered. And Ralph Shaw's stories of life at other radio and tv stations…including some very large ones.

Half Life

It's strange for me to realize that as WIFM turns 50, my involvement with the station spans half of its life. I was here as WIFM turned 25 in 1974. There were no big celebrations. I remember a discussion Ralph Shaw and I had in the parking lot one summer afternoon about how we should do something big. We didn't. The event came and went pretty much without notice by anyone who didn't work here.

The same was true of WIFM's 10th anniversary in '59, it's 15th in '64, and it's 20th in '69. However the 40th anniversary in '89 was marked by a big on-air celebration. We even gave away a new car, in cooperation with Henderson and Wood Chevrolet, Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge on 268 west in Elkin. I wasn't a WIFM employee at the time, but have scheduled an interview with Alan Combs, then WIFM (fm) Station Manager. I'll quiz Alan about the 40th anniversary celebration in a future column, and (probably in another column still) discuss his long history with the station…dating back to the 60s.

Did you miss one?

In case you missed a "Radio Daze" column, I've made them available online at my web site at www.theproductionroom.net. Click on the "Radio Daze" link near the top. Or you can access them directly at www.angelfire.com/nc/theproductionroom/radiodaze.html

What you won't find is columns before they're published. They'll always appear in "What's In It For Me" first. What you will find is ones you may have missed…spanning the past 4-6 weeks. I put them there simply as a convenience in case you've missed an issue, or lost one from weeks past and want to refer back.

Great summer toy/Y2K survival tool

I leave you this week with information about a great summer toy that you can justify to your spouse as a "Y2K survival tool". It's called the "Bay Gen Free Play", and if you've ever been frustrated at the cost of batteries to keep your portable radio going, read on. The "Free Play" doesn't need batteries. Ever! Outdoors in sunlight it plays on a built in solar cell. And when there's no sunlight available, just wind the clockspring generator. Turn the crank for roughly 15 seconds, and the radio will play for about an hour. Cool, huh? I LOVE mine. And not only does it work, it works well…with a surprisingly warm, full bodied "tone". It's not a "boom box" however, and won't play loud enough for parties. But the tuner, particularly the fm section, is very sensitive. And it NEVER needs batteries! Go ahead; tell your spouse "I think we really need this. After all the Y2K thing is coming. And you never know when a storm will knock out our power". Then enjoy it…in good weather and bad. This is a must for any gadget lover!

As I write this, it's the beginning of the July 4th weekend. More interviews will come soon, as we get past the vacation rush.

*To comment, or make a suggestion…e-mail me at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net , or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

World's Least Radio Station
(and other "Combs Tales")

"My first radio job was at home. I built my own station as a project for the Science Fair. It was WLRS…World's Least Radio Station" remembered Alan Combs, whose broadcast career spans more than 35 years, many of them at WIFM.

Alan was a member of Surry Central's first graduating class, in 1962. As a teen, local radio stations fascinated him. "I used to hang out with Ed McEntire at WSYD in Mount Airy. Soon Ed got a job at WPAQ, and my senior year so did I."

"Although I loved radio, I was convinced that I would become a history teacher. A year at Appalachian State University changed my mind. But I did help put the school's first radio station on the air…. a carrier current station, which covered just Justice Hall."

In 1963 Alan joined the Army "sort of to figure out what I wanted to do. I was at a 50,000 watt station in Thailand, put there by the State Department to counter Communist propaganda from Radio Hanoi, and Radio Peking."

His last year in the army Alan was stationed in Tampa. While home on 30 days leave he "called the WIFM to request a song for my mother. Leon (Reece) answered the phone and asked "What are you doing? Do you have a license?"

"When I told him that I was on leave for a month, and did have my license he said "If you want to, come on over and work."

"About 25 days of my leave were spent at WIFM. Back in Florida Leon called to offer me a job when I was discharged, which I quickly accepted! I started as an announcer and sales person, but soon became WIFM's first News Director. Not long after I started doing news there was an attempt to unionize Chatham, and they had a big strike. We didn't have any hand-held recorders in those days, so I took an old red Ampex reel to reel recorder and microphone down there, and interviewed everyone who would talk to me."

Alan left WIFM a few times through the years. In the early 70s for about 6 months he was Jonesville's Town Manager. In 1976 he became General Manager and part owner of WHIP in Mooresville. From 1980-82 he held those same positions at Dobson's (then) new station, WYZD.

"I found my way back to WIFM in '83, and was with the station until '94."

Got any great WIF-UM stories? "Of course! During a broadcast from a car dealer I once asked a young lady if she'd come to buy a car, and immediately wished I hadn't! Her reply was "I just bought one, and it's a lemon!"

"What I really enjoyed at WIFM was the Trivia program, which I started in 83, and you continued. It was a way to incorporate my love of history with radio."

"I also remember the 40th anniversary in '89, when we gave away a blue Mustang. The finalists had all been given keys, and the one whose key started the car won. We gave it away during the July 4th celebration at Elkmont Shopping Center, and the winner was delighted!"

In 1994 Alan, John Wishon, and Ken Byrd left WIFM to bring a "dark" station (WWWC in Wilkesboro) back to life with a new gospel format. "We're now celebrating our 5th anniversary." Congratulations, guys! And thanks Alan for your kindness and generosity both early in my career, and in granting this interview.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Why are we here?

 

The Kennedy name is in the news again. Not for any legislation introduced to make life better for Americans. Not for any philanthropic acts, nor even for revelations about the personal excesses of family members. How unfortunate that the family name has once again been in the news because of the untimely death of one of it's young men.

 

I first heard of J.F.K.'s assassination while riding with my mother, listening to the news on WIFM. Five years later, WIFM also brought news of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. to my young ears. Although I was only 10 in '68, the sadness of these events wasn't hard to grasp. Neither was the general feeling that the world was spinning out of control, and we felt helpless. By this time the Vietnam war seemed unwinnable, and many prominent Americans had begun to question the wisdom of our being there…including the "most trusted man in America", Walter Cronkite. President Johnson is now known to have lamented "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America".

 

To many it seemed as if God had turned his back on America…as if our "moment in the sun" had ended. Fortunately it hadn't. And neither had 1968. For after the riots, the debacle at the Democratic convention in Chicago, increasingly sad news from Southeast Asia, and the senseless slaughter of such promising young leaders, the best event not only of the year, but one of the greatest achievements ever was yet to take place.

 

For the first time in history, we left our troubled world behind…a quarter of a million miles behind. On Christmas Eve 1968, as the crew of Apollo 8 orbited the moon, and read from the book of Genesis, a world that seemed to be coming apart suddenly pulled together. Again America regained the feeling that anything was possible, and that as a nation nothing was beyond our reach. If we can dream it, we can do it! We all believe that, don't we? Arrogant as it may seem to others when we express it out loud, isn't it still true that most of us believe God has chosen America to do great things?


It doesn't mean that we won't stumble along the way, or suffer heartbreaking losses. But it seems that it does mean that we as a people have a mission…. to leave this world better than we found it. Say what you like about the Kennedy family and their individual weaknesses, for generations they have lived by a creed which seems to apply to our country "To those whom much is given, much is expected."

 

When the crew of Apollo 8 first emerged from the far side of the moon, they beheld a sight as historic as any ever seen: home from so very far away. Seeing the famous "Earth Rise" photo (immortalized on a stamp) still brings tears to my eyes, because it reminds me that we are capable of such good. If the death of J.F.K. Jr. has taught us anything, it should be that our time here is limited. Our job is to leave this world better than we found it. So little time, and so very much to do. We better get started!

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Dr. Froglevel will see you now...

 

If not for radio, what would the Chuck Kenneys of the world do? On the air, Chuck was a natural. His "Hot Line" program in the early 70s generated hundreds of calls per night. "At 9 every night I had an album feature. While the album was on, kids called in for the "Hot Line"...which was tape recorded, and played back after the 10pm news. Although we were only able to put 40 to 60 kids on per night, hundreds tried to get through. And they all wanted to speak to Dr. Froglevel".

 

The Earth has turned many times since Dr. Froglevel's retirement. Tell our readers about "The Good Doctor".

 

"Well, I had been experimenting with a character voice, kind of an old farmer, and one night Dr. Froglevel just sprang to life. I've always thought the name "Froglevel" (after the community in Wilkes County) was hilarious, and wanted to do something with that. He would answer any question the kids asked. But the most common was "are you a real Doctor?"

 

" In those days, if you were on the local radio station, you were a star. Everyone knew you! That's a feeling that's tough to get in most jobs. You remember that, Mike. There was no MTV, no Internet, and no computer games. No FM stations in Winston-Salem even played rock, and you couldn't get the AMs at night. When it came to entertaining kids, we were it!"

 

A 1966 graduate of East Wilkes High School, Chuck began working part-time at WIFM his senior year. "Scott Wheeler did a country music show each night called 'Tri County Jubilee'. I filled in for Scott sometimes, and then began doing the show. Later I did an easy listening show from 5-7pm."

 

"When I went full-time, I sold (advertising) half the day, and worked on the air the other half. Then in '68 I was drafted. I wanted to work in Armed Forces Radio, but was too green. I had only two years' full-time experience, so Uncle Sam had other plans. I was with the Combat Aviation Battalion, based north of Saigon. But I did get to visit the A.F.V.N. (Armed Forces Vietnam) studios while I was there."

 

"After I got out of the army, I returned to WIFM, and went back to work full-time doing nights. That's whey I really started to hit my stride (early 70s). It was such a family, remember Mike? We all got along; everyone helped each other out. We had limited facilities, but we all tried to make the best of what we had. We all loved going to work!"

 

How long were you at WIFM before you went back into the army? "I went back in '79. I was in the National Guard from '72 until '79. The army offered good money, and retirement benefits. So I went back to active duty from '79 until I retired in '95."

 

"I did two tours in Germany. Both times I worked at American Forces Europe radio and TV. I even won an award for a TV story I did about 'Nike The Missile Dog', who lived at a missile site and loved rocks. In fact he tried to eat them."

 

Any final thoughts, Chuck? "WIFM was special to me. Radio was special. I loved it and still miss it sometimes. Who knows? Maybe I'll do it again!"

 

*Archived Radio Daze columns are available online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net>, or access them directly at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/RadioDaze.htm> E-mail comments and suggestions to Mike@theproductionroom.net ,or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

A New Beginning

 

In January of 1995 the decades long ownership of WIFM by Tri County Broadcasting came to an end. The station changed hands for the first of two times in the 90s...with it's purchase by F.S.A. Broadcasting, of Mocksville.

 

Just a few weeks after the transition, Jeff Smith (Chairman of F.S.A. Broadcasting), Chris Newman (by then WIFM's new General Manager) and I (Operations Manager/Program Director) toured a site we believed would be our new home...an abandoned Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall off Elk Spur Street. But zoning questions, and concerns by our would-be neighbors made it prudent to continue the search. And another site was found...on North Bridge Street in Elkin, in a former medical office complex adjoining Bridge Street Pharmacy.

 

This building met all the requirements...plenty of space, high visibility, and it had "line of sight" to both West End Elkin (where the AM transmitter remained) and the FM transmitter site on Brushy Mountain, so microwave linkup with both was feasible.

 

In July WIFM's offices made the move to the new location, but studios remained on Elk Spur Street for a few more weeks. This was a very strange period, as the sales, clerical, and general management offices were on the other side of town from the studios. People who had worked together now went for days without seeing one other. I had the fortune of working at BOTH locations. I did my morning show and commercial production on Elk Spur Street, then spent the afternoons on North Bridge Street discussing studio construction with engineers, and learning the new technology so that I could teach it to others.

 

Mr. Smith was impatient for every department to be in place a.s.a.p. (Understandably...it was his money on the line), so studios were moved in early August...weeks ahead of schedule. On Monday August 7th 1995, I sat behind the audio console, ready to broadcast from our new home for the first time. As I opened the microphone and said "Good Morning from our new state of the art studios on North Bridge Street in Elkin", there was so much static in the headphones that I could barely understand my own voice. There were many other "bugs" to be worked out too. Back in the NewsRoom, Ray McCrary (then our News Director) couldn't hear me when I talked to him. MANY pieces of equipment in our 3 studios were either wired incorrectly, or not all. Amusingly, the phones rang constantly as people told us how much "louder and clearer" we sounded. We did, too. Everywhere but inside the radio station! However, one by one we sorted out the technical issues. And soon everything worked as it should. Ray and I are very proud to have been the first voices heard from this lovely new facility, which has been recently upgraded again. And from which WIFM has just begun the second half of its first century of service.

 

*If you've missed an installment of Radio Daze, archived columns are available online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net> or you can access them directly at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/radiodaze.htm> Your comments and suggestions are always welcome. My e-mail addresses are Mike@theproductionroom.net , and RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

World's Youngest Radio Personality?

 

In 1975 young Darrin Reece became perhaps the world's youngest radio personality. At age 5 "B.D." (Which stands for "Baby Darrin") and his brother Derek began hosting "The D.C. and B.D. Show", which aired each Saturday morning until the early 80s.

 

"We came to the station with Dad (Leon Reece, longtime General Manager and part owner) on Friday nights, and recorded the show. It was FUN. We played our favorite songs, and talked about community events, with LOTS of help from Dad. He ran all the equipment. Derek and I just talked."

 

Both Reece boys worked at WIFM through their teens. But as B.D. puts it "I think the radio bug bit me harder than Derek." Throughout high school B.D. did two weekend shifts. "I did a marathon on Saturdays...from noon till midnight. Then on Sundays I worked from 6pm till 11pm. It was tough. But it was fun!"

 

When did you graduate from the Radio-Television program at Wilkes Community College? "In '91. And I continued part-time work at the station. Once I graduated, I finally went full-time."

 

By that time, I had been doing mornings from 8-12 for a while. Once you graduated, you went on the afternoon shift, didn't you? "Yes, I believe that's right. But as you recall, Dad switched us for a short time." I remember. I did noon-5pm. That didn't last long. "You're right. I spent most of the next few years doing afternoons."

 

But you did lots of other things behind the scenes, right? "Sure. I did logs for both (fm and am) stations, did payroll, paid bills sometimes, did some selling...especially servicing Dad's accounts when he was away. You may not know this Mike, but for a long time I even cleaned the station." Oh yes, I did know that. One of the perks of being the boss's kid, huh? "Oh yeah...only the boss's kid gets to scrub toilets! But it was another way to make money. I just did what needed doing. I remember one night there was a bad storm, and power was off in West End Elkin. I took candles to the station so Tim (Parsons) wouldn't be in the dark. And after Tri-County Broadcasting sold the station, I was made Station Manager of WJOS (am) briefly."

 

Got any great stories or confessions? "One Saturday night I went to work sick. We had a network oldies show on, and the segments were long, so I lay down on the sofa in the lobby to rest. The next thing I knew it was an hour and a half later, and Mom and Dad were banging on the front door. They weren't mad, just concerned. But the station had been dead for a LONG time!"

 

That's typical of B.D. Even his worst on-air blunder was a result of service above and beyond the call of duty. Rain or shine, weekends, holidays, it didn't matter. B.D. always did more than his share...cheerfully, and without complaint. Working with him was a great pleasure. Now B.D. is employed by Industrial Office Supply (Elkin), and the Elkin City Schools. He and his wife Tiffany have a son, Andrew, and are expecting another child in October. Many thanks to B.D. for his kindness and professionalism through the years, and his time in granting this interview.

 

^Archived Radio Daze columns are available online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net>, or can be accessed directly at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/radiodaze.htm> Comments and suggestions are welcome. Write to me at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net or RadioGiant@aol.com And if you have a WIFM story you'd like to share, I'd LOVE to hear from you!

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Pigs 'n Cows 'n News Directors

 

"Mmmmmmmm". The standard response of Ray McCrary to my corny jokes, when he and I did the morning show at WIFM. "Mmmmmmmm". Geez, it sometimes sounded like we had a cow in the studio! But that sound became so much a part of the show that Ray recorded it for me to use after he left!

 

WIFM wasn't Ray's only broadcast experience...merely the most recent chapter in a lifelong love affair with radio. "When I was 14 or 15 I became a constant pest at WBUY in Lexington. They let me hang out in exchange for sweeping, emptying ash trays, and cleaning the john."

 

When were you first on the air? "When I was a student at NC State I became a staff member at WKNC, the student operated radio station. It was a little carrier current AM that could just be heard within 150 feet of the dorms."

 

You also worked at some REAL radio stations in the Raleigh market..."Oh yes. After I had been on WKNC for about a year, I went to work for WRAL AM and FM, as well as the Tobacco Network (which evolved into the North Carolina News Network). Once I graduated in 1964, my radio career took a 30 year hiatus, during which time I taught high school, then went to work for IBM, from which I retired prior to joining the staff at WIFM in December of 1994." That was just before the station was sold to FSA Broadcasting. "Yes...Leon (Reece) told me that he would hire me, but he didn't know if the new people would keep me on. Hey, I wasn't doing anything, so playing radio sounded like fun...even if it was just for a short time. I said YES!"

 

You were WIFM's News Director, co-host of the morning show, but you also did more than that, huh? "You and I re-wired things that didn't work at the new studios on North Bridge Street. And I used my computer experience to save the station some money when upgrading systems...adding new drives to the on air computers, for instance."


"I also enjoyed being the only person at the station during an ice storm...periodically sweeping ice from the satellite dishes. It was satisfying to know that I kept the station going."

 

How long were you News Director? "Until April of '96. Then IBM made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I returned when offered the position of AM Station Manager in January of 1997. However, by my first day the decision had been made to let the AM "go dark". I was told that my job would be as a salesperson. And I'm not aggressive enough for that. So in May of '97 I accepted ANOTHER offer from IBM, where I've worked ever since."

 

What's your favorite WIFM story? "It was right after I started. You were on the air, and I brought you an announcement that Tom Rumple had lost his potbellied pig. At first you didn't believe me, but I swore it was true. So you put it on the air. A couple of hours later we had FOUND THE PIG! That shows the immediacy of radio. It happens in real time, so people can help their neighbors! If it were a dog I would have forgotten it by now. But that was my first, and only pig reunion."

 

*Now the entire series of Radio Daze columns (including the original series from 1997-98) is available online at <www.theproductionroom.net> Your comments are welcome at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net, or RadioGiant@aol.com Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

"Southern Gospel's Best"

 

The title of this week's column was the slogan of our AM station, WJOS, which ran a Southern Gospel format from the late 80s until 1995. During much of that period, John Wishon was the Station Manger, and Morning Host.

 

"I got into radio in large part because of my love for Southern Gospel music. I believed that a Southern Gospel station could make it on advertising revenue alone...on the strength of the music and other programming, without the interruption of preaching and other spoken word programs. There are many stations that do that now, but at the time it was kind of a radical idea...one we've continued here at 3WC (John is now part owner, Program Director, and Morning Personality at WWWC in Wilkesboro.)

 

Weren't you involved in gospel music long before radio? "Oh yes! I've been singing with 'The Wishons' (a popular gospel group featuring John, his wife Jackie and his mother and father) for 15 years. And I just turned 30!"

 

How did you get started in radio? "About 1988 I ran into Chris Newman at a gospel concert in Iredell County. At that time Chris was the Station Manager of WJOS, and was looking for someone to do Saturday afternoons. I'd never done it before, but Chris gave me a chance. Later they asked me to do afternoons on the FM. So I played rock music 5 days a week, and did gospel on Saturdays. But my heart was ALWAYS with the gospel music. I was later made News Director (for both stations). That was in 1990, and even though I was working 6 days a week already, this was my first salaried full-time job."

 

How long were you News Director? "Too long" (laughs). "I left to go to WABZ in Albemarle in late 1990. It was a chance to do a Southern Gospel show full-time, not just weekends. I was there for 8 months, and learned a lot. Albemarle is a part of the Charlotte market, so it was a real growing experience. But in '91 I got an offer I couldn't refuse...Station Manager of WJOS. It was a chance to try out my ideas and see how they worked. One of them was doing what may have been he first two-man morning show on gospel radio...with Mike (Cheek...now WWWC's News Director). "The John and Wally Show" was a big hit. After we started doing it, we had a gospel concert with free food at Lila Swaim Park in Jonesville. We ended up feeding nearly 3,000 people! It was almost a fishes and loaves kind of thing." (Laughs)

 

What's your favorite WIFM/WJOS story, John? "Once when I was News Director, they came to me too early. I barely had enough material prepared for 5 minutes, and had no idea how to fill the extra time. I had played both of the sponsor's commercials, done a station id, and still had 15 seconds. So my brain went on autopilot, and I said something I couldn't believe: "Have you heard that Clemson will only be dressing 10 players at the game tomorrow? The rest will dress themselves." The station erupted in laughter, but Leon (Reece) was not amused! It was my last broadcast before going to WABZ. And it's probably a good thing. I think it would have been my last even if I hadn't found a new job!"

 

Still staying busy with the music? "I sure am. And I'm preaching now too...about 100 times a year. So I'm not home much!" Thanks, John. And best wishes in all your endeavors!

 

*Archived columns are available online at <www.theproductionroom.net>

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Have our cake (and eat it, too!)

 

Happy Birthday to us! For months now in Radio Daze I've written about WIFM's history, to help commemorate our 50th anniversary. Now we're doing more. We're having a party! And you're invited!

 

We've had several "Open House" events since moving to our new location on North Bridge Street in Elkin in 1995...beginning with a Christmas party that year. Perhaps you've attended one or more of them. But WIFM has continued to grow. There are several new faces since our last Open House/Party. And this is our first party since the ownership and management change earlier this year. So regardless of whether you've been to one of our previous events, you'll want to attend this one...and help us celebrate a half-century of service!

 

We have many special events scheduled, leading up to our party. We'll fill the airwaves, and your speakers with memories! On Monday September 27th we'll feature music we played in the fifties and sixties. On Tuesday the 28th it's music from my mis-spent youth, as we feature songs from the seventies. On Wednesday it's back to the days of supply side economics, and groups with big hair as we bring you the music of the 80s. Thursday we spotlight the last decade of the millennium by bringing you 90s music. And Friday October 1st it's the big event...our 50th anniversary party! Consider this your personal invitation!

 

The party runs all day during business hours...9am-5pm. There will be free cake and punch! While you're at the party, put your name in the party hat. You could win a beautiful classic style radio (it looks like an heirloom, but plays like it's brand new..., which it is, of course) from "Classic Hits/Today's Hits...100.9, WIFM."

 

When you stop by, be sure to take some time and meet the people behind the scenes at WIFM, and "What's In It For Me". Once you see the faces, you'll know why we're NOT on TV! (KIDDING!)

 

Plus during the morning show on Friday October 1st Dustin will be interviewing some of the people from WIFM's past, the voices you've heard through the years...many of which you've read about here in Radio Daze!

 

So remember...the week of September 27 through October 1st is an exciting time, as we celebrate our 50th anniversary on and off the air. Elkin Mayor Tom Gwyn has even proclaimed October 1st at "WIFM Day"! Make a note on your calendar, and be sure that you listen for the special programming each day. Then listen for the interviews on Friday October 1st, and come to our party from 9am till 5pm. Enjoy some cake and punch, and meet everyone. Here's a hint, though...come as early as possible, because Dustin Atkinson is not to be trusted with cake!

 

*If you've missed any of our Radio Daze columns, the entire series is now available online at <www.theproductionroom.net> Or you can access them directly at <www.theproductionroom.net/radiodaze.htm> Your comments and suggestions for this column are always welcome. My e-mail addresses are <Mike@theproductionroom.net> and <RadioGiant@aol.com> I'd especially enjoy hearing from you if you have a favorite WIFM story or memory to share!

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Cutting edge, 40s style!

 

When WIFM was born in 1949, broadcasting was in a period of transition. So was the country! World War II had ended, the Baby Boom had begun, and prosperity was at hand. But on a more somber note, the Cold War had begun, and the Russians had "The Bomb".

 

In 1949 Gunsmoke and Dragnet were among the nation's most popular RADIO programs. But the end of "Big Time Network Radio" was in sight. "Uncle Miltie" was already wearing dresses, and millions of American children knew it was "Howdy Doody Time".

 

My grandfather, Ralph E. Martin (longtime postmaster of Ronda) had purchased one of Ronda's first TVs. He bought it to watch the election returns in November of '48. Contrary to what you may have read, Dewey DID NOT beat Truman!

 

But in '49 the vast majority of American homes had no television. And families still gathered around the radio to hear Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and Amos 'n Andy.

 

Into this atmosphere WIFM was born. And it was a new kind of radio station.... FM ONLY (at least at first), and with a new kind of programming...mostly pre-recorded MUSIC. Quite a radical concept in '49, but one which would sweep nearly the entire industry by the late 50s, and remain the dominant form of radio programming to this day.

 

The WIFM of the late 40s/early 50s would have been immediately recognizable to anyone who had visited before our move to North Bridge Street in 1995. In the early 80s the large "live studio" was reduced in size, and made into an AM control room. A new wall was erected about two thirds of the way back (the front of this studio faced Elk Spur Street, the back faced the "main" (FM) control room). Behind this new wall were two desks, and four noisy reel to reel tape machines, placed there because the "clunk" they made when activated was too loud to allow placement in the FM control room. This was the ONLY major structural change made to the building during the almost 5 decades WIFM occupied it.

 

In the control room (in '49) were two 16-inch "transcription" turntables, designed for playing long form programs recorded at 78 rpm (or revolutions per minute). However, two new competing formats released in '48 (the 7 inch 45 rpm "single" from RCA, and the 12 inch 33 1/3 rpm long playing album, or "LP" from Columbia) would soon spell the end for the big 16 inchers! Although intended to be competitors, turntable manufacturers and the public soon adopted BOTH new formats. As for the larger hole RCA had made a part of the 45 rpm standard to force consumers to buy special turntables, a variety of adapters (from yellow plastic snap-ins that were placed inside the hole of each 45, to long cylinders that slid over the center spindle on record changers) were introduced, and used until the CD took over in the 80s. Since these things were so easily lost, broadcast equipment manufacturers began building non-removable 45 rpm adapters into turntables for radio. Knowing that an entire generation of young adults now among us has never played a phonograph record makes me feel old!

 

We are proud to have been one of the earliest stations to offer primarily music, rather than drama and comedy. Although in fairness the lack of a network affiliation had something to do with that!

 

*The entire series of Radio Daze columns is now available online at <www.theproductionroom.net> Your comments are always welcome at Mike@theproductionroom.net, or RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Radio's Digital Future

 

For the past several months in these Radio Daze columns, I've spoken of WIFM's first 50 years. And I'll continue to do so in the weeks to come. We've SO proud of our past. But as excited as I am by our half-century of service, I'm certain that the NEXT 50 years will be even better. New technology will TRANSFORM radio, and bring AMAZING new capabilities to our fingertips (and desktops)...as well as NOISE FREE, CD QUALITY SOUND for both FM and AM stations!

 

There are many names for it.... DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), DAR (Digital Audio Radio), DARS (Digital Audio Radio Service), and several others. Just as with computers, the names used to describe the new technology are a veritable "alphabet soup". To the radio listener, what it all means is that VASTLY enhanced service from America's radio stations is just around the corner!

 

Imagine listening to radio in your car without hearing ANY interference...ever! Imagine sound from your local radio station that's INDISTINGUISHABLE from a CD...under ANY conditions! Imagine listening to an interview on the radio, and being able to read contact information for the person being interviewed on your radio's display panel! Imagine listening to the radio on a tuner card in your computer, and having hyperlinks to advertiser's web pages appear on-screen as their commercials play! Imagine NEVER wondering what song you're hearing, because the artist, title, and album info is on your radio's display panel, updated while each song is playing! (No longer will the announcer HAVE to talk in order to convey this information!) Imagine hearing traffic bulletins, which interrupt regular programming WHILE IN YOUR CAR, even though they won't bother people listening at home, or in the office! Imagine being able to hear a local newscast that has been downloaded to a memory chip in your radio ANY TIME YOU LIKE, even if the station which originated the newscast is broadcasting music, or a ballgame! Speaking of ballgames, imagine that on a particular Friday night TWO football teams in your community are involved in championship games, but there's only one station in town. No problem. The station will be able to broadcast BOTH games, SIMULTANEOUSLY (with perhaps even a third program for listeners not interested in sports!) Imagine reading personal observations from the morning host of your favorite station while a song, interview, or comedy piece is airing. Imagine NEVER having to wait for a talk show host to give a phone number, because it's INSTANTLY available from your radio's display! Imagine a radio that will automatically turn itself on and wake the family should a weather emergency occur overnight!

 

If you have pictured any of these things, then you've glimpsed into radio's future. No, it isn't science fiction. All of these capabilities are on the horizon...perhaps as soon as the summer of 2001, when America's local radio stations begin the transition to DIGITAL broadcasting. Now you can see why stations like WIFM are so excited by the possibilities of the "Information Age", an age which began with the first commercial radio newscasts more than 75 years ago! We're proud of WIFM's first 50 years, but you truly "ain't seen NOTHIN' yet!"

 

*The entire series of Radio Daze columns is archived on the web at <www.theproductionroom.net> Comments and suggestions are always welcome. My e-mail addresses are Mike@TheProductionRoom.net and RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Who says nice guys finish last?

 

"I never set out to have a radio career. It just sort of happened by accident" explains Chris Newman, former employee, and General Manager of WIFM. "After high school I went to ASU, and was planning on majoring in music."

 

How long were you at ASU Chris? "Two Years. But my part-time job at Belk turned to full-time when they offered me a chance to enter their management program. At Belk in Elkin Leon and I became friends, during his many remote broadcasts. When a sales position became open in 1986, he offered it to me."

 

What else did you do? "I started doing ballgames on Friday nights, then later became Sports Director. When Ralph Shaw left, I was offered the job of Station Manager of the AM station" (Then WJOS)

 

With your background, and WJOS' gospel format, wasn't it a natural fit? "Yes. I was Minister of Music at Poplar Springs Baptist Church. In fact, I still am. I did the morning show on WJOS, sports on FM, sold, did ballgames, and basically never went home. Eventually I asked Leon for relief, and he made John Wishon AM Station Manager."

 

"In the summer of 1994 John, Alan (Combs), and Ken (Byrd) left to purchase WWWC in Wilkesboro. Alan had been in charge of sales, so Leon gave me the title of Sales Manager for the FM station. I held this title until the station changed hands in January of '95."

 

Chris, you and I both had meetings with Jeff Smith, who was to be the new owner. When did he offer you the job of General Manager? "On the first day after the transition. He took me to lunch at John Boys, and offered it to me." That was an exciting time, wasn't it? "Yes it was Mike. We all were thrilled. New resources were available to us, which allowed the move to North Bridge Street, the purchase of new equipment, and a major facilities upgrade." As I've told you before Chris, I've never enjoyed any time more than that first year. We had some fun! "Yes we did. And I'm very proud to have been a part of it."

 

When did you leave to go to the Red Cross? "In 1997. The Surry County Chapter had an opening for Blood Services Director, and offered the position to me. A year later I was promoted to Donor Recruitment Representative for the Carolinas Blood Services Region."

 

Any favorite WIFM stories? "I was in my car listening to Paul Harvey. He was telling about a beautiful, well-endowed young bride in a low cut dress. At her ceremony, someone stepped on her train, and the...er...contents of her dress landed in the minister's Bible. The announcer on duty didn't realize his microphone was on. He was saying "Oh really? YEAH, YEAH...Oh, you KILL me Paul!" I was racing to get to the station to tell him that his microphone was on. When I got to the parking lot, I was laughing so hard I fell out of the car, and ripped the knee out of my pants."

 

Ah...the Good Ole' Days! Thanks Chris. We all miss you!

 

*If you've missed an installment, the entire series of Radio Daze columns from 1997 to the present is now available online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net> Your comments and suggestions are always welcome! My e-mail addresses are Mike@TheProductionRoom.net and RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Treasure or trash?

 

I've always been a "pack-rat". It's one of my many faults. I romanticize things, and have real trouble parting with them...even when they're obviously no longer needed. Usually it isn't the item itself that I value, but the memories that I associate with it.

 

I'm sure that my knack for associating memories with seemingly useless things partially explains why I felt so comfortable in our old building on Elk Spur Street. Nearly everything in the building had some significance to me, and carried a memory. Many of these items would undoubtedly have seemed like junk to you. But when most of them were disposed of before the move to North Bridge Street in the summer of 1995, my heart sank.

 

The storage closet at the front of the old building contained program logs, with signatures of former WIFM personnel dating back to the 60s. On these logs were hand-written notes, scribbled in the margins by many names you're familiar with. Not long after I began my "second tour of duty" at "WIF-UM" in 1990, I rummaged through the old logs in search of my own history. And soon I found it! A log with my signature from August of 1974, the month my broadcast career began. Here the teenage boy that I once was had made note of the fact that a commercial for a car dealer had been misplaced. I wonder if it was ever found?

 

Sadly, when turning the pages of those old documents, I found the signatures of friends who have passed away. Dick Paulsen, Mike Ford, Russ Pomeroy, Danny Spencer...their names were all there. And now they're gone...taken to the landfill, and long since destroyed. But I can still see the faces and the signatures when I close my eyes.

 

Not everything was discarded, of course. Just as we all do when cleaning our closets at home, selected pieces of history were saved. Including an aging file folder with "dx letters" ("DX" simply stands for "distance". Listeners write from hundreds, or even thousands of miles away with information about broadcasts they have heard, seeking confirmation that they actually heard them) dating back to the 1950s. Many of these describe in great detail programs which were received. These descriptions are perhaps the only remaining documentation that these programs ever existed. During the pre-move cleanup in '95 Jeff Smith (then the new owner) handed the folder to me and said, "this probably shouldn't be thrown away. Keep it if you want to." I did!

 

Another treasure which was saved is an old red reel of tape, with perhaps WIFM's earliest jingle package. You heard many of the jingles from the "red reel" during our 50th anniversary celebration. One of the last things I did before leaving WIFM in February of 1998 was digitally restore the audio from the "red reel", lovingly tweaking it until it sounded brand new. At that time the original tape was extremely brittle from age. Today it may not be playable at all. Soon my re-mastered copy may be the only one. And should it be lost or damaged, another piece of WIFM's history will be gone.

 

In life it's important to remember that it's people, not things which truly matter. But the older I get, the greater my appreciations for the things that are our only remaining link to the past!

 

*Access to Radio Daze columns you may have missed is available online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net> Comments and suggestions are welcome at Mike@TheProductionRoom.net and RadioGiant@aol.com

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

"Good morning, you're on Open Mike"

 

In the title above are the first words Leon Reece said when Dustin Atkinson interviewed him during WIFM's 50th anniversary celebration in early October, and the first words thousands of people from this area heard each morning for many years.

 

Of "Open Mike", Leon told me "I've always regarded it as one of the best things I've ever done, although I know some other people will say it's probably one of the worst things I ever did. I'll let them believe that. But I only know that I could go anywhere in this three county area (Wilkes, Yadkin, and Surry counties), into a group of people who didn't even know who I was, and they could tell me what I had talked about that morning on "Open Mike". And that's a pretty good barometer."

 

"A lot of people in radio told me that 'you can't do talk on FM.' I really don't know what makes FM not talkable, but that's what they said." I've never thought that listeners made the distinction between FM and AM that we broadcasters do. It's the programs that they're after. "That's right, Mike. Of course we have to acknowledge that still talk radio is primarily AM." But even that is beginning to change. There are quite a few large FM talkers now. "True. (When I did "Open Mike") I was constantly keeping my eyes and ears open looking for material. Sometimes still when a provocative topic comes to my attention, I think that it would be a good "Open Mike" topic."

 

What are some of your most memorable moments on "Open Mike"? "As you know, I'm a pilot. I did some flying for Joe Harris, who was the head of Mutual Federal, Later BB&T. Joe owned an airplane, and I flew that plane quite a bit for him. One of my assignments was to fly to Raleigh on Sunday evening, meet Speaker-Of-The-House Jim Wright the next morning, and fly him to several points in North Carolina. During the course of the day, we had a chance to talk. Of course, he and I were total opposites when it came to politics. But I still regard people for what they are, not for what their political beliefs are. On one of our stops, we had a few minutes to wait. So I said 'Congressman, I have my tape recorder with me. I do a morning radio talk program. I wonder if you would be willing to take a few minutes to talk with me.' 'Absolutely', he said. So we sat in the back seat of that airplane and did an interview. I played it for my listeners on "Open Mike" the next morning."

 

"I want to say one thing, Mike, and please make sure that it gets into print. I want to thank the many fine local merchants, who by their faithful support through the years, made it possible for me to practice a vocation I thoroughly enjoyed for over 40 years. I am more grateful than they will ever know, as I express my THANKS!"

 

More with Leon in next week's column, as we talk about flying, his musical background, and growing family. You may listen to my entire interview with Leon, (done Wednesday October 27th at WIFM's offices on North Bridge Street in Elkin) at my web site www.TheProductionRoom.net or access it directly at www.TheProductionRoom.net/leon.html No special software is needed to listen. The interview will play through any modern browser (Netscape or Internet Explorer), on either PC or Mac computers.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

More with Leon Reece

 

This week we continue our discussion with Leon Reece, WIFM's longtime General Manager, Part-Owner, and Morning Host. Leon retired from WIFM in January of 1995, after more than 41 years in radio.

 

You started working at WIFM in high school didn't you Leon? "Umm hmm. I was a sophomore." Your association with the station began in fifty..... "Three. 1953." What did you do at first? "The first thing I did was an afternoon show called 'Tri-County Jubilee'."

 

"A man who was instrumental in me being hired was Tom Caviness, who went by the name Tom Wilson. Tom played gospel piano. And he, my brother James who's no longer with us, Cecil Ireson, his brother J.B. whom we called "Fuzz", and I sang in a gospel quartet. We also did things like 'Cool Water' by Sons of the Pioneers. Tom was instrumental in getting me started. At the time I was recovering from a bus crash that rather severely injured me, and I was only able to use one hand."

 

The injury dashed your hopes of being a fighter pilot, didn't it? "That was my first love...flying. I had always been crazy about airplanes, and still am. (After the crash) I would not have been able to pass the physical. But I was able to get my pilot's license, and fly commercially some, which is very satisfying."

 

Did you go full-time at WIFM right out of high school? "No. I went to school at Emanuel College in Franklin Springs Georgia. And I worked at WKLY in Hartwell Georgia evenings and weekends. In the summer between my two years there, a friend of mine decided to go to Manchester Georgia, next to Warm Springs...where F.D.R.'s "Little White House" was located and put up a station. He said "Leon, will you go with me?" I was only 17 at the time. It was a great experience for me. I was the first voice on radio station WFDR in Manchester Georgia. I had a mid-day program there with a lady named Gertie from the community. She could talk to anyone about anything, and also played piano beautifully. So we started a program called "Morning with Leon and Gertie." Did you do live music? "Sure...she played and I sang. We did recipes, had community announcements, and covered the gamut. It was a very popular program. We had lots of listeners, since the station was new anyhow...."

 

"After my second year at Emanuel I had decided that I would continue in radio. So I came straight to a position at WHPE in High Point in late '58. It was while I was at WHPE that Will Erwin called and asked if I would consider coming back to WIFM as Manager in 1962. I thought it was a good idea (laughs). So from '62 to '95 I was in that position. Initially I was a "token stockholder". I owned only a small percentage. That was one of the incentives to have me come back. But I had pretty much a free hand in running the station." How old were you? "I was 20, or 21." General Manager of a radio station at 20, or 21. That's pretty unusual. "I felt so." Didn't you have employees who were older than you? "Yes. And that was a little difficult."

 

More with Leon next week. You may listen to my entire interview with Leon at my web site www.theproductionroom.net or access it directly at www.theproductionroom.net/leon.html No special software is needed to listen on either PC or Mac computers.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Leon Reece interview Part 3

 

"I have always been interested in airplanes, and still am. It was my first love", said Leon Reece when I interviewed him for this series of columns.

 

How old were you when you got your pilot's license? "I was 19. That would have been about 1958 or '59". That was a pretty expensive undertaking, wasn't it? "Not at that time. Barney Hall (an announcer at WIFM in the 50s and 60s, now a longtime voice of NASCAR racing on MRN Radio) and I had talked about buying an airplane. So we went 'halvers' on one. We brought it out to the Swan Creek airport and housed it there. It was quite a nice little machine. At that time I didn't know how to fly, although in my young years I hung around airports, and flew any time I got an opportunity. So I got instruction in that plane. In those days it wasn't nearly as expensive as it is now. But when I got my further training, I had to do it at Smith-Reynolds in Winston-Salem with Piedmont Aviation. I got my commercial license and instrument rating from them."

 

"I've enjoyed flying through the years, although I don't fly that much any more because I have free flight privileges with Continental Airlines." Really? "Yes...I went to work for them after I left WIFM, and worked for them for a year. I would have most likely stayed with them. But they decided to close their hub in Greensboro, and the only way I could have stayed was to transfer to Houston, Newark, or Cleveland. Can you see me living in any of those places, Mike?" Not really! "(Laughs) So I took the severance package which included free flight privileges for five years." Have you used it to go a lot of places? "We have, but not nearly as much as we'd like to, because Kathy teaches school (at Elkin High School), and that's quite a commitment. And of course I'm in a commitment with Reece Tours International."

 

According to Jim Childress, there were some rocky financial times in the 50s when he owned WIFM. Was that period over when you took charge? "Well yes. That's why Jimmy sold it. But (when I managed it) the station was on a sound financial footing all the way through."

 

Leon spoke also of the challenges of remote broadcasts in the pre-satellite, pre-digital era. "As you know, in the pre-digital days we aired network programs by re-broadcasting the audio from other stations...including the SCA (a secondary signal which an fm station can transmit, with different audio from the main channel. SCA audio can't be heard on consumer radios, only on special receivers). We had difficulty receiving another stations signal inside the walls of WIFM. But in those days WIFM broadcast the services from Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. So they decided to utilize that telephone loop (installed for the church broadcasts). They took an fm receiver to the church, hooked it into the 'phone lines, and that's how we picked up The World Series, and several other sports broadcasts. Also at one time you may remember that I had a receiver..." In your basement "(Laughs) that's right...in my basement. And that's where ABC came from before we got satellite. The audio came to the station on a 'phone line."

 

Next week final thoughts from Leon Reece. You may listen to my entire interview with Leon at my web site <www.TheProductionRoom.net> or access it directly at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/leon.html> No special software is needed to listen on either PC or Mac computers.

*The entire series of Radio Daze columns is archived online at <www.TheProductionRoom.net>

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

Concluding the Leon Reece interview

 

You've interviewed most candidates, and office holders from around here, haven't you? "Yes. I've always had an interest in government, and what makes it go."

 

Wasn't it 1974 when you ran for Surry County Commissioner? "The year after Watergate! (Laughs). (As a Republican candidate) I should have known better." Then we had 'The Fairness Doctrine' which meant that any time your voice was on the air, the station had to give equal time to your opponent. "Not many people knew about 'The Fairness Doctrine', so (when I asked her to sign a waiver) she didn't really understand what I was trying to say. So I just took myself off." I remember the struggle to make sure your voice wasn't on anything, including commercials. "It was important to me that I not be seen as trying to take advantage of that (my position with the station), because I was genuinely trying to see if I could make a contribution. And I recommend to everyone that they run at least once."

 

What are some of WIFM's accomplishments, which you're most proud of? "It was a personal satisfaction to me when I split the stations (AM and FM). I'm sure that if I had handled that a little differently, and done an extreme amount of promotion for the AM it may have made a difference. But hindsight is always 20/20. At one time we moved the station to Jonesville..." That'w ehre the WJOS call letters came from "Exactly. And if I had had more time...I don't want to put it that way, but that's what it amounted to."

 

"I remember how excited we were when we went stereo. I couldn't wait to get home and hear us in stereo. And then there was the move to the mountain" (where WIFM's tower is now, which tremendously increased coverage area). "I'm also proud of our July 4th celebration, in conjunction with McDonalds and the Elkmont Shopping Center. We did it for 10 years, and brought to town probably the largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Elkin."

 

Both of your sons worked at WIFM at various times. Tell us about their involvement. "They started at about age 5 doing the DC and BD show" (which BD Reece talked about in my interview with him). "It's something I wanted to do for them, for their own personal development. I ran the equipment, and my sons did the show...which aired on Saturday mornings>"

 

"As it turned out Derek didn't have a real strong interest in radio and went on to other pursuits. He's now the Greens' Superintendent at High Meadows Country Club. Of course BD did like it, and he stayed with me until Jeff Smith bought the station."

 

BD and his wife Tiffany just had their second child "That's right...Rebecca Katherine. She's sweet. That's number five for us...five grandchildren, and I do enjoy them."

She is beautiful, too! Congratulations to the Reece family. And thanks so much Leon for the opportunities you've given so many others, and me. And thanks for your tireless work on behalf of various causes in local communities, and your decades of service at WIFM!'

 

The entire series of 'Radio Daze' columns, and audio of the Leon Reece interview are archeved at <www.TheProductionRoom.net> Access the columns directly at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/radiodaze.htm>, and the audio of the interview at <www.TheProductionRoom.net/leon.html>

*Archived Radio Daze columns are available online at <www.theproductionroom.net>

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

My Story (Part 1)

 

As several e-mail letters have pointed out, I haven't told my own story in these 50th anniversary columns. This week I'll begin.

 

Born at the tail end of the baby boom (in September of 1958), I've never known a time when there wasn't a television in my home. And yet it's always been radio which captured my imagination.

 

I grew up listening to WIFM personalities such as Leon Reece, Barney Hall, Gary Dorenburg, Alan Combs, and later Chuck Kenney. Plus during my youth the "golden age" of AM top 40 was in full swing. So I also spent many evenings listening to John "Records" Landecker on WLS in Chicago, "The Spiderman" on WLAC in Nashville, Wolfman Jack on XERB in Tijuana, and later on WNBC in New York. My dad was a fan of WOWO in Forth Wayne, and loved to hear them give the temperature "outside on the fire escape". As a teen I could catch legends like Rick Dees on WTOB in Winston Salem and WCOG in Greensboro, and Jay Thomas (now a well known actor...perhaps best known as Karla's husband on "Cheers") on WAYS and WROQ in Charlotte. The airwaves were alive with great music, wildly imaginative talent, and so much fun that I had to be a part of it.

 

When my friend Gil Couch began working at WIFM while we were both in high school, I knew I'd waited long enough. So I asked Leon Reece for a job. It was the spring of 1974, and I was all of 15. Leon told me that if I got my third class license (then required), he'd try to find some work for me. A few weeks later I took the FCC exam in Winston-Salem and passed. Although there were no openings at WIFM, I asked Leon if I could do Sunday afternoons on the AM station free of charge, just for the experience. At that time one person was running both (AM and FM) stations on Sundays, so Leon agreed to turn the AM shift over to me. As of the second Sunday in August of 1974, a month before my 16th birthday, I had my own radio show. I was in heaven!

 

After a few weeks I began filling in for full-time staff members who were sick or on vacation...and was paid for these shifts. In spite of our agreement, Leon soon began paying me for Sundays as well. In 1975, Gil Couch gave up his nighttime shift, and I became a full-time employee...in the summer between my junior and senior years in high school.

 

After graduation from East Wilkes in 1976, I entered the Radio/Television Broadcasting program at Wilkes Community College, while my duties at WIFM increased. With a full class schedule, I often worked 55 hours or more per week. And, despite the lack of sleep, I loved every minute of it!

 

Upon graduation from WCC in 1977, Leon made me an account executive. I needed the extra money, because I had planned to marry Robin Thompson, my high school sweetheart in November. I didn't realize it, but my first "tour of duty" at WIFM was coming to an end. The day after Robin and I returned from our honeymoon, I was offered, and accepted a position with WKBC AM/FM in North Wilkesboro. So in early December of 1977 I left WIFM, and spent the next 13 years chasing the radio dream at other stations. Next week I'll talk about my return to WIFM in March of 1990, and my more recent experiences here.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

My story Part 2

 

In last week's column I talked about my first "tour of duty" at WIFM. In December of '77 I began my second radio job, at WKBC AM/FM North Wilkesboro. Most of that time was spent doing the night shift on the FM station, although briefly I was "promoted" to the afternoon drivetime shift on WKBC AM, a country station. I soon asked, and was allowed to go back to the FM. At age 19 country music just didn't "speak" to me.

 

In July of 1980 my wife Robin and I asked for a tour of WNNC in Newton, NC Duane Cozzen, the afternoon personality was gracious enough to show us around, and I was most impressed. A couple of weeks later I received a call from Duane inviting me to apply for an opening at WNNC. I did, and was offered and accepted the position of nighttime personality by the station owner...a young man named Dave Lingafelt. In August of 1980 I began a 4-year stint at WNNC. Most of that time was spent doing afternoons..."The Goin' Home Show". They still call it that 15 years after my departure. I was also eventually made Music Director, and later Program Director. Duties included critiquing the performance of the entire air-staff...including the owner, who did the morning show. Not an easy task, particularly since EVERYONE on staff was older than I was!

 

Although I loved my time at WNNC, I had a burning desire to do a morning show. And in November of 1984 one was offered to me by Carmen James, a former classmate of mine in the Radio/Television Broadcasting program at WCC, who was then the Program Director at WWWC in Wilkesboro, NC Interestingly the Vice President and General Manager of the station was WIFM's current General Manager Omer Tomlinson.

 

I did the morning show at "3WC" until offered the same position at WFMX in Statesville, N.C....a 100,000-watt country station. By this time I was comfortable with a country format, and had made a conscious decision to SEEK employment with FM country stations (which historically have had the largest audience of any format in the south) as a path toward career advancement. When WFMX was sold to "Adventure Communications" in 1989, I was made Production Manager...,which thrilled me, as new DIGITAL multitrack equipment was on the way. (Ten years ago digital technology was vastly more expensive than today). Perhaps my most rewarding experience at WFMX was being the first voice that listeners heard after Hurricane Hugo, as I broadcast from a panel truck parked by the station's transmitter building at a VERY remote setting in Rowan County. Thanks to Hugo, we were unable to send a signal from the studios in Statesville. Telephone service was out too, so ham radio operators relayed information to me about emergency services which were available. In January of 1990 WFMX's new Program Director showed me the door...the first, and only time that's happened to me. The experience was even more traumatic because at the same time my retinitis pigmentosa, which had been diagnosed a couple of years earlier, had advanced to the point where I could no longer see well enough to drive.

 

At home I applied to every station close enough that my wife could take me to work. One of them was WIFM. In March Leon Reece called, offering me a job. Although there was really no opening, he created a position for me. Next time my memories of eight more years spent at WIFM.

Radio Daze

By Mike Walker

 

My Story Pt 3

 

Upon my return to WIFM in March of 1990, I was assigned the afternoon shift, but was soon switched to mornings after "Open Mike".

 

Before long I was asked to do "Open Mike" while Leon was away. Thus began my love/hate relationship with the show. Politically I'm 180 degrees in opposition to Leon, and I never tried to hide this fact (nor was I asked to. Leon encouraged me to explore my different perspective). Sometimes I regretted agreeing to do the show. I hadn't previously been very political on air, and rightly or wrongly I felt that listeners needed to weigh my own biases into their considerations of what was presented. Unfortunately sometimes there were bad feelings among those that missed Leon, and didn't choose to have their points of view challenged. Although I had hosted my own talk show previously on another station, "Open Mike" was never my show.

 

In early 1991 I was promoted to the position of "Program Director" for WIFM FM. I programmed the station until my departure in 1998, and was very pleased at the positive comments from listeners about the station's sound...as I slowly moved it to a more mainstream adult-contemporary format. The final switch in format (from all oldies) took place just before the move to North Bridge Street in 1995.

 

I began doing the entire morning shift (not just 8-12) before Leon's departure, although it was not official until after the sale to FSA Broadcasting became final. At a very early meeting with new owner Jeff Smith it was agreed that since "Open Mike" would always be identified as "Leon's Show", it should end.

 

Under the new regime I was again promoted...to Operations Manager for both AM and FM stations. I'm proud of the technical accomplishments of moving all facilities to North Bridge Street ahead of schedule, and my part in making sure that all of the new computerized equipment was installed, and worked properly.

 

I'm also proud of the people I hired, or had a hand in hiring...including Dustin Atkinson and Paula Rice. One of Leon's last official acts was to hire Ray McCrary as News Director, and I very much enjoyed sharing the morning show with Ray, and enjoy my lasting friendship with this brilliant and funny man.

 

In 1997 I began writing these columns, and have enjoyed the privilege.

 

The last "Mike Walker Morning Show" was Monday February 16th, 1998. I miss WIFM tremendously. But I left to pursue my radio/audio production and voice-over business (which I previously operated on the side) full-time. Work from "The Production Room" is now heard on numerous stations, including WXRC and WCCJ in Charlotte, WKSK in West Jefferson, WGDN AM/FM in Gladwin Michigan, WIRC in Hickory, WNNC in Newton, and of course WIFM. I am on "95-7, 'XRC-Charlotte's Best Rock" Sunday nights from 6-12...a show which I do from my studio. I also have produced audio for numerous web sites, including my own. At <www.TheProductionRoom.net> I operate an "Internet Radio Station", streaming programs to a worldwide audience in stereo in Real Audio G2 format, and in mono using a format which requires no special software.

 

Thanks for reading my columns; especially the ones this year chronicling WIFM's 50th anniversary. I will continue to write new columns for my web site, which will deal with a variety of media related topics, no doubt including more recollections of WIFM. And thanks so much to WIFM's listeners who invited me into their radios every morning through the years. If you're one of them, I am more grateful than words can express...for you allowed me to earn a living doing the work that I love. I sincerely believe that WIFM's best days are in the future, not the past!

 

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