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Radio in Rural America
Radio in Rural America in the Early Years
In the 1930's, the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) was, without question, the driving force behind the growth of the new medium of radio in American rural communities. Having electricity in your home not only meant many household and farming tasks would be much simpler, but electricity also opened up a new level of knowledge for folks living in remote areas.
For the first time, rural citizens had access to local and national news as it was happening. One of the best examples of the impact of this information sharing, was the "Fireside Chats" delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the American people. In the years between 1933 and 1944, FDR addressed the nation 50 times via evening radio talks to explain the serious situations of the day such as the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt, who is regarded by many to be one of radio's greatest communicators, used the airwaves to restore confidence to a nation that was filled with despair. When he opened his broadcasts with the words, "my fellow Americans", all of a sudden the president was a real person and not just a politician in the White House.
Entertainment, the likes of which rural Americans had never known, was now available via the radio. Neighbors gathered together to listen to shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen and Our Miss Brooks. Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Bob Hope became welcomed household visitors. And music could be heard in the mountains, valleys and across the plains of rural America courtesy of the radio.
Does the Golden Age of Radio Still Exist?
That time period of American history when radio was in its infancy, has become known as the "Golden Age of Radio". However, this writer believes radio is still "golden" in our American rural communities.
To confirm that belief, I set out on a mission to find a small town radio station that still held a sense of appreciation and high regard from its listeners. I was looking for a community in rural America that still relied on its local radio station even in an age where television, newspapers and the internet existed and offered entertainment and information.
Kelly Epperson Owner of WPAQ
My Search for a Rural America Radio Station
My search led me to the small town of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, population a little over 10,000 people. This Blue Ridge mountain community was the birthplace and boyhood home of actor Andy Griffith and is believed to be the model for the fictional town of Mayberry.
It was in this Mayberry kind of town that I met Kelly Epperson, a man with radio literally in his blood. His father, Ralph Epperson, founded radio station WPAQ in 1948. Continuously on the air since that time, Kelly is carrying on the tradition of service to the community that was his father's dream.
The legend of Mr. Epperson lives on in the integrity with which Kelly runs WPAQ. The station (and Kelly) prides itself with programming that is a vital part of this small town ... broadcasts of the local high school football games, funeral announcements, community news and events, and much more. Listeners can even call in a birthday or anniversary greeting to honor a friend or neighbor. Kelly likes to tell about the 90+ year old lady that was celebrating her birthday. He took time out of his busy schedule to sing happy birthday to her on the air. Needless to say, she was thrilled by this act of kindness from her local hometown radio station!
Kelly has no plans for significant changes to the format of WPAQ. It worked as it is for his father, for Kelly and, most of all, for the listeners.
What the Listeners Have to Say About Their Local Radio Station
Talking to the owner and staff members at WPAQ gave me the sense that I was on the right track. Or maybe I should say the radio station is on the right track to giving their audience what they need and want to hear. However, to get the true feeling of the success of that endeavor, it was necessary to actually speak to the most important people...the listeners.
Kelly Epperson graciously allowed me and my husband 3 hours of airtime on a Saturday afternoon to accept calls on the air from the folks of Mt. Airy and the surrounding area. Amazingly, the phone kept ringing from people that wanted us to hear what they had to say about their hometown radio station. Here are just a few of those comments:
- In answer to the question, "what would Mt. Airy be like without WPAQ" a gentleman said, "It would be just another generic town with a robot radio station".
- One listener explained that she has a radio in every room in her home. Each one is tuned in to WPAQ so that as she moves from room to room, she doesn't miss a minute of what's happening".
- A local business woman spoke about the advertising dollars she spends with the station. Her thoughts are because the radio announcers know her, it gives credibility to her business, just merely by them mentioning her by name. She believes you couldn't possibly get that kind of endorsement from a big city radio station.
- Another caller, a long-time fan of Epperson and his station, shared she is a widow and her days are very lonely. She said just listening to the announcers at WPAQ is like having a friend in her home every day.
But What About the Music?
WPAQ's main musical focus is bluegrass music, which is not surprising due to its location in the part of the country where string music began. To showcase this music which is indigenous to the Blue Ridge mountains, the station hosts the popular live radio show, the Merry Go Round. Every Saturday, from the stage of the historic Earle Theater in downtown Mt. Airy, WPAQ broadcasts the show featuring local talent performing gospel and bluegrass music.
It is the 2nd longest running live radio broadcast in America, running behind the world famous Grand Ole' Opry, which is broadcast live from Nashville.
During my recent visit to the Merry Go Round, the audience was entertained by the Reed Island Rounders performing songs like "Old Cow Crossing the Road", "Flowers from the Fields of Alabama" and "St. James Infirmary Blues", which was my favorite.
You can feel the excitement when the lights go dark and the "on the air" sign lights up!
The Reed Island Rounders Performing on the Merry Go Round Live Broadcast on WPAQ
Another Visit to the Merry Go Round
A few months later, I once again visited the Earle Theater in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. My timing was perfect to catch the broadcast of the Merry Go Round program and to enjoy the music of another group, the F.A.R.M. T.E.A.M. I just had to find out what that unusual name was all about.
This bluegrass group is comprised of Mary Jo and Charlie Leet along with Gayle and Rory McTighe. The performers quickly explained to the audience the meaning of each initial in their name: Free Alliance of Recalcitrant Musicians Totally Eclectic About Music. Boy, that's a mouthful!
These talented folks put on a wonderful show which was simultaneously broadcast over WPAQ radio. They certainly lived up to their slogan, "Expect Unexpected Music".
My Conclusion About Rural Radio
Big city dwellers probably wonder why anyone would listen to radio when the internet and television offer everything you need for entertainment and information. The answer to that question is based on where you live and what lifestyle you are seeking.
Rural America makes up about 17 percent of the population according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors. The state of North Carolina, where WPAQ is located, has one of the larger rural populations in the country.
My conclusion is that for the people who live within the reach of a local radio tower, their station is the heartbeat of their community. And the reason can be summed up in two words, credibility and reliability. It is all about knowing and trusting the people that are delivering the entertainment and information into your home. And, most of all, knowing they will be there when you tune in.
The golden age of radio is still alive and well and is considered to be a friend of rural America.
To experience local rural radio firsthand, go to www.WPAQ740.com and click on "Listen Live".
© 2015 Thelma Raker Coffone