Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hard knocks at WNOX

KDKA-AM is almost always credited as the first radio station in America. Despite the meager veracity of the claim it's become the accepted history. But after there was a first, there was a second, and a third... so on and so forth. Interestingly Nobody advertises their status as number two, there is something about the American character that prohibits that. Number ten however, 990 WNOX-AM takes the title proudly. (Though in print they sometimes claim they are number eight.)

Sixteen-year-old Stuart Adcock first signed on the 50 watt station as WNAV-AM in 1921.  He worked for People's Telephone and telegraph Co. the station lasted three years and was then destroyed in a fire. Adcock rebuilt, that same year.  He sold it about a year later to the Sterchi Brothers Furniture Company. In 1929 he bought another local station 1450 WNBJ-AM, it was two years old and owned by the Baptist church of Koxville.  He bought a 2-year old station and  set up WNOX's first local competition. Sterchi sold more than furniture, they also sold records. They leveraged that to get better bookings. In 1926 the brothers changed the calls to WNOX-AM and bumped the power to 100 watts.  In 1929 at WNBJ-AM PD Caswell "Cas" Walker created a variety show known as the Farm and Home Hour. In 1930, the station was bought by the Stuart Broadcast Co. and moved to 1310 AM. In 1931 they changed calls to WROL-AM.  More here.
In 1935 WNOX was sold to the E.W. Scripps Company which also owned the local newspaper, the Knoxville Sentinel. The Scripps Company hired announcer Lowell Blanchard in 1936 to and told him to hire more hillbilly performers. It was probably their plan to compete better with the upstart WROL. He began the variety program called the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. It became an institution. It mixed comedy, dixieland, swing and live Hillbilly performers. It was not a pure country program by any stretch but it went head-to-head with the Farm and Home Hour on WROL. In 1936 it's star Roy Acuff quit to work at WROL. They were now rivals, not just competitors.That would last into the 1940s.  In March 1941, WROL moved to 620 AM;  they changed calls to WATE and began doing more news.

1936 was also the year they hired Archie Campbell.  He graduated that Spring from Mars Hill College in North Carolina and got a job at WNOX. He performed on a program called on the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round with country music artists like Roy Acuff, Cowboy Copas, Flatt and Scruggs, and Carl Smith. He left for a job at WDOD in Chattanooga a few years later. He stayed there until 1941 when he began his service in WWII under the U.S. Navy.  It is sometimes written that he created the Tennessee Barn Dance.  That program debuted in 1942, a which time he had already left WNOX, but also had left war.

It seems incongruous but actually the way the program began was as an outgrowth of the Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.  It's performers were rounded up to play an evening program on Saturdays at Market Hall. It was initially called the WNOX Carnival. It was merely renamed in 1942. By then he had already made his "Grandpappy" character famous. After WWII ended Campbell returned briefly to WNOX before moving to 1490 WROL-AM in 1952.  He developed two more country variety shows: Country Playhouse and Dinner Bell. It went well enough that on WROL-TV he helped produce Knoxville's first country music TV program; the Country Playhouse, that premiered in 1952 and ran until 1958. He left in 1956 for the Grand Ole Opry. (He wrote a very readable biography in 1981) More here.
In 1962 WNOX dropped country for Top 40. Lowell Blanchard stayed on and focused on emceeing and announcing.  He began doing play-by play on local baseball games. He died following one in 1968.  In 1977 he was inducted into the Country Radio hall of Fame. In 1971, WATE became WETE and they moved to an AC format. In 1976, WETE-AM became  WRJZ-AM and they went top-40 going back to their old fight with WNOX. In 1981 WNOX was sold and it flipped back to a country music format. It was a return to their roots as they had pioneered the format in the1930s. In 1982 WRJZ followed suit. But then it sputtered and went off air. WNOX had won.

In 1988 WNOX flipped calls to WTNZ-AM and it was sold to Dick Broadcasting who changed the calls to WIVK-AM. They segued in the 1980s into an all News Talk format which persisted for decades. Shamefully WNOX-AM changed calls to WNML-AM In May of 2005 as part of a Sports Talk re-branding.  It simulcasts on 99.1 WNML-FM.  The WNOX heritage calls live on at 100.3 the old WOKI-FM, formerly a AAA outlet.