Wednesday, July 08, 2009

After WTAR

1924 was a quiet year for radio in Virginia. Until June 20th 1924 there was only one radio station in the whole state: WTAR-AM in Norfolk. After June 20th 1924 there were two, including new comer WDBJ-AM.On May 5, 1924, The Richardson-Wayland Company secured a license to broadcast with 20 watts power on a frequency of 930 kilohertz. Frank E. Maddox was it's head engineer and only engineer. His previous experience was as a hobbyist having built 3BIY. It was his boss at his day job with Richardson-Wayland Electrical Corporation that asked him to build the real thing. Richardson-Wayland manufactured radios. Like most manufacturers of that time the prevailing wisdom was that a fuller radio dial would sell more radios. It did. More here.

That first test broadcast was of a local bluegrass trio led by future station manager Raymond Jordan. they performed Turkey in the straw and some other standards. the test broadcast was clear for some 7 miles, not bad for 20 watts. The operation moved to 106 West Church Avenue in some converted space in Mr. Richardson's office. They moved from there to the Thurman and Boone Company then in 1929 to the Shenandoah Life Insurance building. That same year they joined the Columbia Broadcasting System. They crept up to 500 watts, then by 1934 1,000 watts. By 1936 they had topped out at 5,000 watts. In 1936 they began building their own studios on 124 West Kirk Avenue. In 1941, the station moved to its current 960 KHz. In 1955 they started WDBJ-TV.

If anything WDBJ developed a greater historical significance than WTAR. Lester Scruggs of Flatt and Scruggs made his radio debut on WDBJ in Roanoke, VA in 1939. Charlie Poole played her in 1930 with the Carolina Ramblers. Roy hall played here. So did Leonard Moody from the Sons of the Mountaineers. Then local groups like the Texas Troubadours, the Blueridge Fox Chasers, McCray Family, the Roanoke Jug Band, the N&W String Band, the Charlie Scott Harmonizers, The Floyd County Ramblers. When you read it from the printed page it seems like everyone played here.

In 1969, the family was broken up. WDBJ-AM and WDBJ-TV were sold to different buyers. The TV station went for 8.2 million and retained it's WDBJ calls. The AM stick became WFIR-AM standing for "First In Roanoke". They abandoned their long-standing country format for soft AC and eventually became News Talk. WFIR is still on air today. While they do carry craptastic programs like Rush and Hannity, much of the day is still help by local talent. It's as if they still remember a January 1944 Billboard article about them and new upstart WSLS...
"...Naturally, WSLS in the same town, feeling itself competitive with WDBJ, has also announced a series of live half-hour dramas under the direction of Francis Ballard. Station reps give the lead to WDBJ in bringing back live stuff to the Roanoke area, but neither WSLS or WDBJ will give the nod to the other in who's first. And it really doesn't matter, since live stuff on the air, no matter who is first, is what radio needs locally—and nationally. "