WAGY Radio Station
It’s Beginnings and Early History
Barry D. Yelton
I had the great privilege of working at WAGY radio from January 1963 to June of 1967. When I started I was all of 16 years old. A few years back we had a little reunion of former announcers, DJ’s, and others from the “Old WAGY” before the FM band was sold, which occurred sometime in the 80’s I believe. That got me to thinking about the history of the station. I did a Google search and could find almost nothing about WAGY, except a Facebook page about the current AM operation still operating. It seemed to me that the colorful history of the station should be at least partially told. It may have value and meaning to the descendants of those who participated in its golden age in the late fifties and sixties. I can only relate what I know (and remember at age 71 in the year 2018) about those wonderful days working with some of the best people I have ever known.
The station was formed by G.T. “Uncle Bud” Becknell and Hoyle Lovelace around 1958. They were business partners in a radio and jewelry store in Forest City, NC and decided to get into the broadcasting business. Uncle Bud (I must call him that because that is how everyone knew him and addressed him) was the general manager of the operation. I saw Mr. Lovelace only occasionally. He ran a general store in Bostic, NC, where, as fate would have it, I bought my wife-to-be her first FM radio in 1964, which we still own (and it still works).
My introduction to the station was through my best friend, and third cousin, Johnny Medford. Johnny lived just down the road from the old station (which is now a private residence) on what they currently call Old WAGY Road. Somehow, he began to stop by the station, and Uncle Bud offered him a job. I believe he began as the early morning “janitor” and part time DJ. Johnny and I were lifelong friends until his passing in December of 2014. He later became the station manager and was an integral part of the operation. He left there sometime around 1969, married, and ran a country store. During his time there Johnny was known for his friendly demeanor, wry humor, and terrific radio voice. He was a truly great individual.
As previously mentioned, Uncle Bud was the general manager and the undoubted boss of the operation. When I was there he was about fifty years old. He wore an old fashioned pencil thin mustache, which I am told, he fashioned after his favorite performer, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Uncle Bud was a household name at that time. WAGY had the largest listening audience in Rutherford County, and Uncle Bud’s morning show was the most popular of them all. His homespun way of talking, country humor, and jovial persona was popular with people and the reason a great many of them tuned in each day.
Uncle Bud was also a visionary. He saw the need for a water reservoir in Rutherford County and I am told promoted the idea, though it did not go anywhere. A severe drought a few years back certainly made me think that it would have been an excellent idea, as municipalities scrambled to keep from running out of water. He also talked about forming a cable TV operation. At the time neither I nor anyone else there even knew what that was. But Uncle Bud could see that it had a future, though to what extent only time would tell. If he had had the resources of a Ted Turner, who knows what may have happened.
Everyone loved Uncle Bud’s way of talking and his country expressions. If you didn’t know him you would think he was a simple country boy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to being a visionary he was an entrepreneur and a good businessman. However, to the world he was Uncle Bud, the friendly voice on the radio who repeatedly said things like “Good Old Rutherford County,” except it came out “Good ole Releford County.” I can hear him say it to this day.
His early morning show was one of the most popular on the station. It started out with a rousing rendition not of some country or bluegrass tune but with “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” Why he chose that as his theme song, I never knew. But I surmise that he chose it simply because it was upbeat and he liked it.
WAGY in those days had a music/talk variety format. One of the talk shows was “Swap and Shop.” People would call in with items to sell, items or pets to give away, or items wanted. In those days there was not tape delay and whatever the caller said, went right out over the airwaves. This led to a number of embarrassing and sometimes hilarious exchanges. A lady once called in with a couch for sale. She described the couch and gave a price for it. Uncle Bud, in his country manner, said, “Would ye euchre on it?” The lady gasped and said, “Uncle Bud, I am a Christian.” And she hung up the phone. I hope she later realized that he meant was would she negotiate the price. That was a word he used every day, but apparently she was not clued in.
I hear a while back that years after he sold the station and retired, he came to some sort of community event, and no one knew who he was. I am told it made him very sad, and that makes me very sad as well. Uncle Bud was the heart and soul of WAGY and later on you will see what I mean. More than that, he was the voice of Rutherford County for many years. His contribution to the culture, enjoyment, and well being of citizens of that era deserves great respect and honor. It is a shame he never really received that respect and honor later in life. Lesser men have had statues dedicated to them in city squares.
Gerald “Pappy” Bedford was a full time announcer who also developed a following at WAGY. Pappy had contracted polio as a child (in the days before Dr. Salk’s vaccine). He was paralyzed from the waist down and walked with the help of two special crutches which clamped on to his lower arms with grips lower down for his hands. He literally walked on his arms, and believe me no one could beat him at arm wrestling. He had a unique way of talking, with a sort of halting annunciation, which made him unique among the DJ’s and announcers there. His radio persona was always upbeat. In person, he loved a good joke, laughed a lot, and poked fun at me every chance he got. When I went there I was 16 and he was 26. Pappy passed away a few years ago. The last time I saw him was at the reunion in about 2012. He had begun using a wheelchair, and someone helped him around. He treated me as an equal and I always considered him my friend.
Dave White was station manager before Johnny took over. He was truly the golden voice of the station. I have never heard a better voice on the radio. He was a local boy, who loved music. He wrote a number of successful songs for people like Whisperin’ Bill Anderson and others. When Bill Anderson came through the area, he sometimes stayed with Dave and his wife. Dave later moved to Nashville to continue his songwriting career. I understand he passed away at a young age from a heart attack.
He was always very nice to me though he did give me a bit of a joshing when I combed my hair forward Beatle-style in early 1964 (I soon reverted to my old plain haircut). Dave was a talented man. It is a shame he passed away so young. If you Google his name, you will find there was a singer-songwriter named Dave White who had some commercial success. That is a different person altogether. I don’t know for sure if Dave of WAGY penned any hits, but I know Bill Anderson, a huge star back then, thought a lot of him.
Don Lovelace, Hoyle Lovelace’s son, worked at the station, and I believe later bought it and operated it. I never was truly sure what Don did. I saw him rarely, but I believe he helped with the management of the station.
There was an ad salesman and I believe his name was Fred Blanton. Always a snappy dresser and wore a hat. He spent most of his time out getting business for the station.
Joey Arrowood joined the staff later and became the morning “janitor” and a part time DJ. Joey was a couple of years younger than me. We were the kids at the station in those days.
Ms. Lou Haynes was the secretary when I came to the station. She was there for a few years and later was replaced by a lady whose name I cannot remember. Lou and her husband Herman were members of Smiths’s Grove Baptist Church, where my family attended. Lovely lady and always very nice to me.
When I first came to WAGY, Cecil “Towhead” Atchley had the morning janitor job. He and Johnny Medford were seniors at Cool Springs High when I was a freshman. By the time I came there, I was a sophomore at the then new East High and they had both graduated. Towhead left shortly after I came there, though I do not know where he went.
In 1963 the station’s format was music variety and some talk, such as Swap and Shop, and a call in radio program I ran for a while where students would call in with homework questions, which other students would call in and try to answer. It was a fun little program from 8-9 at night, during the Top 40 show. I would play a song or two, and then take homework calls. One of the calls came in from Judy Jackson in Cliffside, NC. We began talking on the phone and I was taken with her sweet voice. We set up a blind date and ended up getting married. We still are after over 50 years.
The station’s morning would start off with Pappy’s show from about 6 AM to 8 AM as I recall. He played mostly country and bluegrass music. Uncle Bud came in around 8 AM and played music and called around to different places in the county to get reports. He used to call Mr. Tisdale at his store in Ellenboro for a regular call on the doings in that community.
The daytime programming was mostly country and pop music, with different DJ’s. I believe Dave White had the morning slot, and Johnny Medford the afternoon slot.
Of course the programming I remember best was what I did after I graduated from being a morning janitor and phone answerer. I started with Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, the least popular slots for other DJ’s. I was in hog heaven because I got to play the songs I wanted to, within the programming format of the hour.
Sunday mornings I literally started the station up, and began the morning’s programming. I believe we started at about 8 AM on Sundays, and of course it was mostly Christian music and preaching. The Royal Quartet came in around 8:30 for half and hour. Great group, with some very talented singers, including one cousin of mine Ray Poteat who sang bass.
At 9 AM the Echoes of Glory, an African American gospel group came in and did a live show. They were great and I came to be friends with them and to really appreciate and enjoy their joyful music.
Later we have various preachers come in and do a live sermon, and then there was recorded Christian music. My mother used to come by on her way to Smith’s Grove with a couple of banana sandwiches and a mason jar of chocolate milk. She knew were her little boy liked!
I later progressed to doing weeknight radio, which was my favorite slot. My friends at East and other schools listened and called in their requests, which I tried dutifully to fulfill (unless of course I could not stand the song they asked for and then I might play it and I might not!). The evening started at 6 PM with “Organ Melodies” which I could only barely tolerate. It was old traditional music performed on the organ by masters like Ken Griffin. I could appreciate their ability, but I did not care for that type of music.
At 7 PM it was the “Gospel Music Hour.” We played tunes by The Chuckwagon Gang, The Happy Goodman Family, The Blackwood Brothers, the Lefevres, and others. I especially liked a song called “Without Him” written by the 17 year old Mylon Lefevre. That song has become a classic and is now included in many Baptist Hymnals.
At 8 PM, my favorite hour began – “Top 40.” I had a theme song which had some snappy organ riffs but I cannot remember the tune or the artist. The mid-sixties were an exciting time. The British invasion came along and groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and others brought a fresh new sound with tremendous energy and unbelievable creativity. The Americans answered the invasion with The Byrds (my personal all-time favorite), Simon and Garfunkel, The Turtles, Bob Dylan, Jay and the Americans, the Mamas and the Papas, and many others. I do not believe there was before or has been since such a period of creativity in popular music, and I truly try to be objective.
Could there be a better job for an 18 to 19 year old than playing his generation’s music on the radio every night? I did not know it at the time, but it was the job that was the least like work of any I have ever had. Probably should have stuck with it, but frankly I did not believe I was good enough to make the big time. Now we will never know! At least I do have the memories and they are almost all good.
From 9 pm to 10 pm we had the show that surely won the radio program alliteration award, “Platter Picks of the Past.” We played older music from the late fifties and very early sixties. It was also a joy to host, but not like the Top 40 show. Pop music had pretty much moved past the doo wop era, with the harmonizing groups and the crooners, though some of them hung around through the mid-sixties. It was a fun show and was very popular. On that show people could write in requests for a number of songs, and we would play six or eight of their favorites.
Fun Facts about WAGY
WAGY was the only station in the sixties in the area that had both a 1,000 watt AM transmitter and a 100,000 watt FM transmitter.
WAGY had a 300 foot radio tower built behind the station, and late had a 300 foot tower built on top of Cherry Mountain. Uncle Bud bought a jeep so he could go up and work on the equipment there in bad weather.
It was not unusual at night for me to get calls from as far away as Ohio, Vermont, and Florida. That 100,000 watt FM transmitter was what they call in the industry a real “blow torch.” It was powerful.
Joey Arrowood drove a VW Beetle. I liked it so much I later bought one. One day, while he was on air, some friends came over and while he was working, they manually turned it sideways in the parking lot.
WAGY did not operate 24 hours. The AM side had to shut down at sundown each day due to overlapping signals after dark. The FM side signed off at 11 PM each night. It was my duty to close out with the national anthem, and then carefully power down the transmitter.
More later, as I remember it!