Remembering Nashville Radio:
The Good Old Days At WKDA
By: Hudson Alexander
It would be hard to exaggerate the popularity of Nashville radio, and particularly the Top 40 stations, to my generation of teenagers growing up in Middle Tennessee. Somehow we just knew we were a special generation: we were being raised on the best music ever recorded with rock and roll; we got to listen to that music over radio stations that seemed almost magical; and the result was radio stations and disc jockeys who were just as popular- if not more so- than the records, themselves!
In looking back, it seems that WKDA really ruled the Nashville airwaves as far back as I can remember, even to the earliest days of rock and roll- even back in the late 1950’s. WKDA had signed on the air as only the fourth station in Nashville on January 5, 1947. The only other stations on the air at that time were: WSM; WLAC; and WSIX.
The original owners who put the station on the air were: Thomas B. Baker, who had been serving as Advertising Manager for 11 years at WLAC radio; and Alvin G. Beaman, well-known Nashville businessman, whose family was involved in several successful business ventures. Among them were: the Seven-Up Bottling Company (later to add Pepsi Cola to the fold) and the Beaman Motor Company (forerunner to all the Beaman Automotive Group of dealerships). The station’s 340-foot transmitting tower was located atop Rutledge Hill on Second Avenue South and Peabody Street.
Just a few of those early DJ’s- the talented people who shared the microphone at WKDA- included: Bob Irvin; Hal Smith; Hugh Cherry; Sam Hale; Ronn Terrell (Terrell L. Metheny, Jr.); Hairl Hensley; Quin Ivey; Bill Randall; Wayne Moss; Dick Buckley; Rally Stanton; Audie Ashworth; Bill Hudson; and legendary sports announcer Larry Munson. Munson came to Nashville from Cheyenne, Wyoming in the early part of 1947 as WKDA’s first Sports Director. He told me, personally, about his infamous on-the-air miscue, which is still talked about to this very day.
“Hell, I was doing a baseball game back in 1948 between the Nashville Vols and New Orleans.,” Munson told me back in 1974. “I thought I had switched back to the station, but back at the studio, they had left my mic open. I turned to one of the guys in the booth there at the ballpark and I say…’ain’t this a helluva way to make a G.. D…. living!’ Now, just as you might expect, that didn’t go over too well with the management people, and I was suspended from the air pretty fast after that little deal.”
But Munson’s on-the-air miscue at WKDA didn’t slow his career down too much. He wound up at WSM radio doing, among many other things, the play-by-play for the Vanderbilt Commodores for many years in the 1960’s. Later, he was on WSB in Atlanta and was a mainstay as the voice of the Georgia Bulldogs at Athens, Georgia for many years even after that.
Back in the old days, the WKDA announcers were looked upon as stars around Nashville. One veteran WKDA announcer, Sam Hale, told me that was certainly the case when he was there in 1958-1959. According to Hale, there were very large portraits of all the WKDA announcers hanging in the main lobby of the old First American Bank Building on Union Street. The top floor of that building served as the home of the WKDA studios from 1947 until the move was made to the top floor of the Stahlman Building in 1966.
In 1959, the air staff at WKDA broke down in day-parts this way:
6 AM-9 AM: Bob Irvin
9 AM-12 Noon: Dick Buckley (Richard C. Huckaba, Jr.)
12 Noon-3 PM: Hal Smith
3 PM-7 PM: Sam Hale
7 PM-12 Midnight: Ron Terrell (Terrell Metheny, Jr.)(aka Mitch Michael)
12 Midnight-6 AM: Hairl Hensley
In the latter part of 1959, Sam Hale left WKDA to accept a position at WYDE in Birmingham, Alabama. Shortly after Hale left, Audie Ashworth came to WKDA. He remained at WKDA for many years. Both Hale and Ashworth had worked together previously at WBMC in McMinnville, Tennessee.
Another well-known WKDA announcer from this era was Hal Smith, who came to the station in March of 1957. Hal has reminded me of something I’d almost forgotten: WKDA was once the CONELRAD radio station serving Middle Tennessee. Remember those little Civil Defense-looking icons that were affixed to the AM radio dials at 640 AM and 1240 AM? They denoted the CONELRAD stations. CONELRAD was the abbreviation for “Control of Electromagnetic Radiation.” This was back in the days of the Cold War, and the Federal Government had set aside these radio frequencies to broadcast instructions, in the event of a nuclear attack.
Hal has this interesting little story, since we’ve touched on this subject: “We once had a dj meeting in Jack Stapp’s office. Dick Buckley arrived late. He said, ‘did I miss anything?’ Jack said, ‘Yes. Since we are a CONELRAD station, and in case of an attack, someone would have to stay behind and operate the station. We’ve elected YOU!”
According to Hal, the KDA announcers at that time were:
* Bob Irwin (Robert Aycock)
* Dick Buckley (Richard Huckaba)
* Lee Anthony (Wally Beecham)
* Bud Dancy (John Dancy, who later became a field reporter for NBC Television News)
* Nate Street (Nate Street)
* Hal Smith (Hal Smith)
Hal Smith also related this interesting story from back during the late-50’s era at KDA: “We did weekly ‘hops’ with some well-known recording artists of that time…Gene Vincent, Link Wray (“The Rumble”), Dicky Doo and the Don’ts, (who didn’t….show up, that is), Carl Perkins, Patsy Cline, among others. The ‘hops’ were held mostly at the old Hippodrome Roller Rink. We also booked Jerry Lee Lewis and rented Sulpher Dell baseball stadium. Just after the deal was signed, it was announced that Jerry Lee had married his 13-year old cousin. He was in Europe and ours was the first show after he returned. About 600 people showed up. Jerry Lee got a percentage of the gate, no guarantee, 10-percent went to the baseball stadium. We then had expenses of cops, a sound system and a piano. When all were paid, we had $20-dollars left. The guy we rented the piano from came in and said that Jerry Lee had broken the piano stool and he wanted to be paid for it. I’m sitting there with $20-dollars in my hand and said, ‘how much?’ He looked at me and said “$20-dollars!”
Hal Smith left WKDA in October of 1959 to take a job at WAKY in Louisville. From there, he moved on to the west coast, where he enjoyed a very successful career in radio. He is now (2006) retired from radio and is living in Lincoln, California- about an hour north of San Francisco.
By 1960-1961, the WKDA air staff consisted of:
6 AM-9 AM: Quin Ivey
9 AM-12 Noon: Dick Buckley (Richard C. Huckaba, Jr.)
12 Noon-4 PM: Bill Randall
4 PM-7 PM: Rally Stanton
7 PM-12 Midnight: Wayne Moss
12 Midnight-6 AM: Audie Ashworth
By late 1962 and into early 1963, the WKDA air staff included:
6 AM-9 AM: Eddie Kilroy
9 AM-12 Noon:Dick Buckley
12 Noon-4 PM: Hairl Hensley
4 PM-7 PM: Jack Wiley
7 PM-12 Midnight: Audie Ashworth
12 Midnight-6 AM: Don Schroeder
FLORIDA JOURNALIST RECALLS COLLEGE DAYS AT VANDY:
AND A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE INTO WKDA, 1959-1963
The following segment was contributed by Bill Herald, who has extensive recall of his days as a WKDA listener and, later, as a part-time air personality. Herald went on to pursue a career as a newspaper journalist. He has worked at the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune for more than 40 years. Here are some of his interesting recollections and insights:
“From the time I arrived in Nashville, in September 1959, to begin four years of under-graduate study at Vanderbilt, I was an instant and avid WKDA listener because the station reminded me of KOMA in Oklahoma City, which had “hooked” me on the Top-40 music format while attending high school in Boulder City, Nevada.
Eventually, I started working on the weekends at WKDA in the autumn of 1961 after I volunteered to handle the Saturday afternoon football scoreboard broadcasts. I offered to do so without pay, just to ‘get my hand in,’ so to speak. Just by listening one day, I could tell that Hairl Hensley , the Saturday afternoon DJ at that time, was having a hard time organizing and then presenting the football scores, so I phoned him at the station and told him I’d be happy to organize the scores, as they came in, and present them on-the-air if he had no objections. So I did that for the remainder of the football season, and received nominal pay for doing so.
I got to be good friends with ‘drive time’ (4 to 7 PM) DJ Jack Wiley, and Jack encouraged me to stay around, after the football scoreboards, to read the Action Central News reports while he was doing his Saturday afternoon DJ stint. Naturally, I was tickled to death to actually be reading and presenting the newscasts on Nashville’s top-rated station!
I recall one particular Saturday night: I was still hanging around the station, which was ‘high atop the First American National Bank Building in downtown Nashville,’ and KDA’s all-night DJ, Don Schroeder, surprised me by virtually ‘whispering’ that he had a severe case of laryngitis and asked if I would pull his air shift, while he and an engineer handled the ‘technical’ endof things. I was thrilled! I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to be hosting my own show on-the-air at WKDA. But it happened. I did all the announcing that night from midnight to 7 AM.
Dick Buckley, who had a show from 9 AM to Noon weekdays plus a 7 to 10 AM stint on Sundays, showed up at around 6:45 AM that day and told me that he’d heard me filling in for Don on his way to the station. He complimented me on a job well-done, and asked if I’d be willing to do the same thing every Sunday morning. And he didn’t exactly have to twist my arm to get me to agree to that. However, the station was required, by FCC regulations, to keep an engineer in the studio. In those days, even though an on-air personality only needed a ‘permit’ and not a full FCC license, no one was allowed to broadcast from the studio unless they were accompanied by someone with a full FCC license.
After my college days at Vandy ended, in the summer of 1963, I wound up taking a job at the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune as Sports Editor, and I’ve been in the newspaper business ever since- although I’ve always had thoughts of going back to radio…but never have.
Here are some more memories of those days when I was very much a part of the happenings around WKDA:
WKDA Contests And Giveaways: The station was big on keeping and catering to its large audience through a series of contests and giveaways. One that I recall was the 1240 Club. It was open to any WKDA listener be simply requesting, via mail, a 1240 Club Card. During all the daytime shows, sometime during each hour Monday through Friday, the DJ would call out one of the numbers on a 1240 Club Card- and the lucky cardholder had 12-minutes, 40-seconds to call the station and claim their cash prize. The prize amount would go up hourly, in the event there was no winner.
For a time, the station also had daily record giveaways: a copy of the ‘WKDA Album of the Week’ and six copies of the ‘WKDA Pick Hit of the Week.’ To be eligible, a listener had only to mail in a postcard with their name and address to: WKDA Pick Hit (or WKDA Album of the Week), Nashville 3, Tennessee.
In addition to the record giveaways, the station also offered a free transistor radio to a designated listener who called in the Best News Tip of the Week. Several times during the day, a DJ would make an announcement, somewhat along the lines of: ‘Each week, WKDA gives away a free Emerson portable transistor radio for the best news tip of the week. Today’s winner is _______, who can come by the WKDA studios, high atop the First American National Bank Building at Fourth and Union in downtown Nashville and pick up their free transistor radio, compliments of WKDA and The Good Guys!’
An Early Beatles Record In The WKDA ‘Throw-Out’ Box?: This item is probably more of a non-story than a significant story, but I’ve always wondered about the possibility of what might have been…
WKDA had what was called a ‘throw-out box,’ in which some records (duplicates provided by record distributors and records not deemed good enough for air play on WKDA) were placed to eventually be discarded. While I was there, people such as Program Director, Smokey Walker, and Music Directors Ronnie Page and Joe Hathcock made it clear that I could ‘help myself’ to anything that was placed there.
Well….a short time before I left Nashville in the summer of 1963, I found a copy of the record ‘From Me To You,’ a song by The Beatles, in the ‘throw-out’ box! On occasions, back then, I’d take some of the throw-out records to the Production Room (this was always on weekends, when the Production Room was unattended) and play them on a large turntable and sound system located there.
I really liked ‘From Me To You,’ and I told Joe Hathcock that he should reconsider that song for rotation on the KDA playlist. He listened to it again- and he rejected it again! So I took two promotional copies of the song back to my dorm room at Vanderbilt- and I still have them to this day! I’m sure these records must surely have a pretty decent value today, since they were some of the very first available in America- and this was about a half-year before The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Of course, the rest is now history, as we all know.
In looking back…somebody in the U.S. must have actually played ‘From Me To You’ in the summer of 1963 because it reached as high as No. 116 on Billboard Magazine’s ‘Bubbling Under The Hot 100′ list. I virtually forgot about The Beatles for several months- until the so-called British Invasion began in early 1964. As a matter of fact, when I discovered ‘From Me To You’ in the throw-out box, I didn’t even know The Beatles were from England.
Once in a while, I still wonder if, when The Beatles hit it big, Joe Hathcock (and perhaps others at WKDA) might have remembered back to that time and thought, ‘you know…that Vandy student, Bill Herald, actually tried to get us to play that Beatles record last summer, but we didn’t think it was good enough.’
And I also wonder if (and fully realizing that ‘if’ is a big word) I might have personally discovered The Beatles more than six months before the Fab Four hit it big in this country!
My Influence On The WKDA Playlist: In spite of the true story about The Beatles, there were times when I did have occasional input and influence on the WKDA playlist. When I visited my parents in San Diego during the 1962 holiday break, I really liked the song ‘Rhythm Of The Rain’ by The Cascades, a San Diego-based group that was already a big hit in southern California. When I returned to Vandy, I discovered that ‘Rhythm Of The Rain’ had been relegated to the throw-out box at KDA, having originally been rejected by the Music Director. But I was able to convince him to play it- and the song went on to be a #1 hit.
And there was also one week in early 1961, when the WKDA Pick Hit of the Week was a song called ‘First Taste Of Love’ by Ben E. King, and it started moving up the WKDA Big Sound Survey. However, I pointed out to the powers-that-be that there was actually a true gem of a song on the flip side…the ‘B’ side… called ‘Spanish Harlem.’ I convinced them to start playing it- and it wound up as one of the top songs for that year!
Some Odds And Ends From Memory:
* For a brief period in 1959-1960, WSIX (AM-980) made an attempt to compete with WKDA and WMAK in Nashville’s rock ‘n’ roll market. Late-evening DJ Noel Ball (later at WMAK) headed to air staff, and the station published a weekly music listing of its own, dubbed the ‘Rock-It 98 Survey.’
*WKDA often featured ‘world-debut discs,’ being the first radio station anywhere to air certain songs, usually recorded in Nashville. For instance, when Elvis Presley returned from military service in the spring of 1960, his first hit record upon his return, ‘Stuck On You,’ backed by ‘Fame and Fortune,’ was first played on WKDA shortly after Elvis completed his Nashville recording session. And naturally, with Pat Boone being one of the station’s owners, WKDA was almost always the first station to broadcast Pat’s new releases- hot records in their day and time!
*The music playlist was very strict at WKDA. During daytime programming, DJ’s were limited to playing only Top-40 (later, Big Sound Survey) tunes, plus the Pick Hit of the Week and, of course, some ‘oldies but goodies.’ This playlist was expanded by about a dozen (usually up-and-coming) songs during Audie Ashworth’s 7 PM to midnight show, and the all-night DJ was given more freedom than any of the others with his record selections.
*WKDA was blessed with some very talented air personalities, but they all had to work six days a week, each week, and also split up duties in handling KDA’s Action Central News. The newscast duties usually meant more work: the DJ had to come in an hour early, and perhaps stay over for an hour after his shift was complete, so he could read the newscast at 55-minutes past the hour while a fellow DJ was either at the turntables or about to go on-the-air.
*WKDA was one of the first stations to put all its survey songs on tape cartridges- a project that reached fruition by 1962. Instead of ‘cueing up’ a record on a turntable, a DJ then simply had to pull a taped version of the survey song out of that rack and place the tape into a cart machine. Of course, the oldies, ‘from the back stacks of classic wax,’ still had to be selected from the record library and played, via the conventional route, on a turntable.
*Speaking of the oldies records, WKDA was also one of the pioneers in its inclusion of such ‘blasts from the past’ among its regular Top-40 programming. In the spring of 1960, the station inaugurated the first of its popular ‘Weekend Spectaculars,’ which featured nothing but oldies – all day Saturday and Sunday. These ‘Spectaculars’ were held several times each year from that time on.
* Throughout the broadcast day, an automatic ‘time jingle’ mechanism was always in place on WKDA. All the DJ had to do was press a button and a singing jingle (such as ‘The greatest sound can always be found at 13 til 8, WKDA’) would go on-the-air, providing the exact time of day for the listeners.
* Newscasts and weather reports at WKDA were always accompanied by various sound effects (including musical intros and jingles). A typical newscast would begin something like this: ‘At 9:54…this is Bill Herald reporting for W-K-D-A Action Central News…a service of Beaman Bottling Company, bottlers of Pepsi Cola, 7-Up, and Orange Crush.’ And a typical newscast would end something like this: ‘Just ahead of more music on the Jack Wiley show, the current call from the W-K-D-A Time and Temperature Tower…mark the mercury at 77 degrees. This is Bill Herald reporting…it’s 9:59.’ And their was a reason for this strategy: management at WKDA always wanted the newscast to end…and the music to begin…at one minute before the top of the hour, so WKDA could be clearly identified at THE Top-40 station in Nashville. And the listeners, especially those who were just tuning in, could hear music on WKDA at a time when the competition was joining their network (or other) newscasts on the hour. Thus, ‘Live At :55′ actually began at :53 or :54 in order to conclude by :59.
In closing, let me say this: I’ll always have fond memories of my college days and remember one of the truly great radio stations of the Top-40 era. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who recalls the glory days at WKDA!” -Bill Herald, 2007
(Thanks To Bill Herald For Sharing These Great Memories!)
WKDA ENTERS THE MID-60’S ERA:
By the mid-1960’s, the Top 40 radio audience was divided up among the two “Little Giants” in Nashville: WKDA (AM-1240) and WMAK (AM-1300). Both stations were small in stature, since neither had an abundance of power: WKDA had only 1,000 watts during the daytime and 250 watts at night; WMAK had 5,000 watts during the daytime hours, but had to reduce power and go directional with their broadcast signal at night. However, what the stations lacked in power, they more than made up for, when it came to a powerful audience rating! After all, these “Little Giants” regularly beat out the bigger stations in town, including the huge 50,000 watt monsters of the local airwaves, like WSM and WLAC.
It was always interesting to see these “Little Giants” go to war with each other. There were even times when both WKDA and WMAK claimed to be number one in the market, and both had the stats to back up their claims- depending on what day-part and demographic base was being measured. And as far as listener loyalty went…In those days, you could find a ready argument, sometimes almost a fistfight, over which of these stations was the best in town. Some were loyal to the “Good Guys” at WKDA; some were faithful to the “Mighty MAK” at WMAK; and still others hopped back and forth between the two stations. This was made especially easy in the cars of that era, which came equipped with push buttons on the AM radio. If one station had too many commercials, you’d simply push the button- and chances were, you might just land right in the midst of a great music set on the other station.
On a personal level, I must confess that WMAK always seemed to have a cleaner, clearer radio signal out in my hometown of Franklin, Tennessee. The signal at WKDA seemed to be a little more clouded, even though I found their DJ’s and format superior to that at WMAK. It also seemed like WKDA ruled the audience on the east side of the Cumberland River. In East Nashville, for example, it was not uncommon in those days to see the exterior of business establishments painted up like a giant billboard promoting the “Good Guys” at WKDA. Like most of the kids growing up at that time, I used to listen to both stations for hours on end. But at night, the listening habits were altered for those who lived outside the Metro area. Mandated by FCC regulations, both WKDA and WMAK had to reduce their power at sundown, so we used to tune to WLS (AM 890) out of Chicago for our nightly dose of top 40 radio. And if you were in a mood to listen to rhythm and blues music, you’d tune the dial to 1510 WLAC to hear John R., “Way down south in Dixie,” as he beamed out his popular show up and down the east coast.
Among the early names I remember from WMAK include: Allen Dennis; Noel Ball, “Cigar And All;” “The Silver Fox,” Jack Sanders; Coyote McCloud; Dick Kent; Scott Shannon, who always ended his air shift at midnight with the ever-popular song, “Cherish,” by the Association; Mike Donegan; Dave Randall; and Russ Spooner. Who could ever forget Spooner making his morning telephone calls, while on the air, to his unsuspecting victims. Most times, they were caught off guard by the calls, which were always pranks meant for good fun and good candid radio humor. And it worked well! I’ll never forget the black man Spooner called one morning. He asked the man if he shined shoes. When told that he did, Spooner informed the unsuspecting gentleman that he had a monkey that needed his shoes shined. The man kept saying, “I ain’t gonna shine no shoes on no monkey!” The radio audience laughed about that one for days!
Over at WKDA, the “Good Guys” included: Charlie Brown; Doc Holiday; “D.J. Dan” Hoffman; “The Wild Child,” Bill Berlin; Dick Buckley; Bill Craig; Ray Lynn; Don Sullivan; and the infamous “Captain Midnight,” Roger Schutt. According to information I’ve received from former WKDA jock, Sam Hale, Schutt’s earliest days at the station came in the late-1950’s. However, he was not immediately put on-the-air. Instead, his early years at the station were spent writing advertising copy for WKDA sponsors. Hale said it was several years later, in the mid-60’s era, that Schutt became a Nashville radio legend as Captain Midnight.
Even today, there are still stories circulating about the antics of Captain Midnight. Once, back in the 1970’s, a well-known Metro Policeman told me that he used to get complaints called into the department’s Communications Room from a radio station up in Louisville, Kentucky. He said radio personnel at the Kentucky station (WINN), which shared the 1240 frequency with WKDA, called to complain that the Nashville station was knocking them off the air right in their own town. Captain Midnight, he explained, grinning, had actually turned the power up when he came on the air at 12 midnight. Thus, instead of being on low power at only 250 watts, which had been assigned by the FCC as the nighttime maximum, he had cranked the transmitter back to the daytime assignment of 1,000 watts- which meant overpowering all the other stations assigned to 1240 for many miles around. As it turns out, the staff in Louisville had already complained directly to Captain Midnight at WKDA- but to no avail. He had merely laughed them off, so they had sought help, as a last resort, through the Metro Police Department!
According to Lee Dorman, one of the former WKDA Good Guys, Captain Midnight was fired from his job on at least a couple of different occasions. Dorman recalled one time when Captain Midnight had taped his show and, instead of being on-the-air live, was eating at the Noel Hotel Coffee Shop. It seems that his tape broke during his absence, resulting in 40 minutes of “dead air”- and his dismissal. Each time Captain Midnight was fired, it was Dorman who would come in to take the all-night show on WKDA, from midnight until 6 am.
Just to give you an idea of the popularity of WKDA back in my teenage years, consider this true story: Back in January of 1968, I was listening to Doc Holiday one morning, just like I always did before I left out for school. On this particular day, he asked for a certain caller- and said the winner would receive an autographed copy of Robert Knight’s new album, which contained his new hit single “Everlasting Love.” I quickly grabbed the phone and dialed the number- but only got a busy signal. I tried again…and again….and I finally got through and won the album! At school that day, I’ll bet I was told by over 100 fellow students that they’d heard my name that morning on WKDA! It seemed like everywhere I went and every way I turned, someone was sharing in my excitement over the album I’d won.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM:
PLANS QUIETLY MADE FOR BIG CHANGES
While WKDA continued to dominate Top 40 radio in Nashville between the years of 1965 and 1969, the engineering and programming crews at WKDA were quietly working together behind the scenes to set the wheels in motion for the station that would someday come to dominate the Nashville radio market: WKDA-FM.Just as you might expect, there was a lot of excitement in the air at the station, even before the station got on-the-air!
In its infancy, FM-103 was known as WNFO-FM, which had been only the third FM station in Nashville (behind WSM-FM and WLAC-FM). The owners of WNFO-FM had run upon hard times and were forced to sell it back in 1965. Keep in mind that this was a time when there were not a lot of FM receivers on the market. In fact, the large majority of automobiles were still years away from the time when FM receivers were standard equipment. But this is why the times were so hard for those pioneers of FM broadcasting, and also why WNFO-FM was bought by WKDA. After almost a year of silence at 103.3 on the dial, and while new plans were made and equipment purchased, the call letters were finally changed to WKDA-FM- and the station once again took to the airwaves in December of 1966. Interestingly, it first went on the air as an automated station, playing rock and roll oldies music with no live DJ’s. It had an FCC assignment of only 20,000 watts at 103.3 on the FM dial. Also, the transmitter tower was located atop the Stahlman Building.
During this time of excitement and apprehension, the station’s primary tower site remained at Second Avenue South and Peabody Street. The studio was on the top floor, the 12th floor, at the Stahlman Building on Union Street downtown. But big changes were in the wind, and soon Middle Tennesseans were talking- and this time the big talk was about the new “underground” rock station that just debuted during the late-night time slot at 103. All across the area, the young adult audience- the ones who had grown up on a healthy diet of rock and roll music via the AM radio stations- was turning to the new stars of Rock Radio. And the pioneers in this area were people like: Dick Buckley (Richard C. Huckaba, Jr.), the Manager at WKDA-FM, who had rolled the dice- took the big chance- while bringing this new rock format to the FM dial; Ron Huntsman, who came to be Program Director during that exciting time (Huntsman made the statement that he was enjoying radio more at that time than anytime in his broadcasting career); and Bob Cole, a veteran broadcaster who had came to WKDA-AM in 1968 as the newest “Good Guy,” only to switch over to become Nashville’s first FM Rock Jock on January 1, 1970. That was the date when he began to host the first radio show fully devoted to progressive rock in Nashville. It aired nightly on WKDA-FM from 10 PM until 5 AM.
Several old staffers, including former Chief Engineer George Hale, told me that, at one time in the earliest days, you were lucky to hear WKDA-FM out in the Green Hills area in south Nashville. But that almost seemed to work in favor of the station in those early days, when listeners worked hard to fine-tune the only “underground” rock station in the area. It had a certain mystique and aura to it which made the listener feel all the more fortunate to have discovered this little “gem” out there broadcasting rock music in FM stereo. Now, for the first time, the listener was afforded the luxury of hearing their favorite rock music broadcasted on radio in a way they could not duplicate, except through expensive hi-fi stereo components of that day (such as the legendary Marantz systems).
It didn’t take long…and it didn’t take a rocket scientist… to realize that Nashville Radio was in the midst of a huge transformation…and one that would have a huge impact on Nashville radio for years to come. The almost immediate and positive audience response to Bob Cole’s show, which had been nothing short of amazing, and especially since it had been a pleasant surprise to even the staunchest believers in FM rock radio, had now set the stage for all that would follow.
FORMAT CHANGES AT WKDA SEND SHOCKWAVES
THROUGH THE NASHVILLE RADIO COMMUNITY:
Who could ever forget that sick feeling the first time we heard that WKDA-AM was changing their format to country music? I know I’ll never forget it! I kept wondering why the top rated rock and roll station in Nashville…year after year after year…would make such a change. Or could this be just a hoax…a chance for a publicity stunt to make the station even more popular than ever? Unfortunately for a lot of us fans of the “Good Guys” at 1240, we came to the sad realization that the format change, at first just a rumor, was indeed a fact.
On February 23, 1970, the format changes at WKDA were confirmed in a story in the Nashville Tennessean. Under the large headlines, “WKDA Plans Format Change,” came the following lead paragraph:
“WKDA, long one of Nashville’s best-known ‘Top 40′ radio stations, will change its programming format to the ‘very modern Nashville Sound’ in the near future, its new general manager said yesterday.”
The article went on to quote WKDA General Manager Al Greenfield as saying that Nashville, at that time, had no full-time country radio stations. Greenfield explained that WSM featured country music prominently only during its overnight broadcasts, while WENO, the only other country station in Nashville, signed off the air at midnight. Greenfield said it was his hope that WKDA-AM would become “the flagship station” for listeners of Nashville music. Greenfield said he hoped to have the changes completed by late March.
It was also announced that WKDA-FM would continue to broadcast its ever-popular underground rock music format on a full-time basis.
THE DAY OF RECKONING: WKDA CHANGES FORMAT, DIRECTION
By the time WKDA made the transition from playing rock and roll to the new country format, the news had been the “talk of the town” for several weeks in communities all across Middle Tennessee. There were still many fans, loyal to the “Good Guys” on 1240, who couldn’t believe the change was really being made. For some, it was a case of having to finally hear it to believe it. And for those die-hards, that final proof came on a Sunday morning in mid-March of 1970.
Buddy Sadler, who was working at the station on that historic day, can’t recall- for sure- if the change came on March 8th or March 15th. But it was one of those Sundays in March. And Buddy has very vivid memories of that day:
“With my fondness for rock and roll, you can imagine my feelings when, just before noon on a Sunday in March 1970, I played the last rock record (A Change Is Gonna Come by The Fifth Dimension); read a newscast; and then listened as Mac Allen, then the Program Director and later to be Operations Manager, played the first country record (I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail by Buck Owens). I later grew fond of country music, but at the time, that was a bad day.”
It was a bad day for a lot of people who’d grown up listening to WKDA. But it was also a new day- and marked the beginning of a new era for the station. It was an era that would take the station well into the decade of the 80’s as a leader among the stations catering to country music, and doing it right in the city that had become famous for country music- “Music City U.S.A.”
THE FIRST AIR-STAFF WHEN WKDA TURNED COUNTRY:
We’ve had many interesting discussions over at the Nashville Radio Group at Yahoo, on the internet, about who served on the first air-staff at WKDA, once the format changes were made and things “settled back down” to normal day-to-day operations. Based on the best information I have been able to put together, and much of this comes from the people who worked at the station, this was the first roster of dj’s to play country music on KDA:
* 6 AM-10 AM: Don Howser (later, in the fall of 1972, Bob Ogles worked the morning drive shift)(Ogles later went to WSIX AM-980 to pull 7PM to Midnight)
* 10 AM-3 PM: Don Sullivan
* 3 PM-7 PM: Buddy Sadler (later, Buddy went back to the newsroom and Gary Allen took over this shift)
* 7 PM- Midnight: Joe Lawless (this is the only shift where there was any question, but the concensus was that Lawless was “more than likely” the man)
* Midnight-6 AM: Richard Van Dyke (Jim Eskew) (Later, Jim McWilliams took shift and Eskew went to WKDA-FM, where he became one of the most successful morning men in Nashville radio, during the early 70’s, as Jay Franklin, “Franklin In The Morning.”)
One notation should be made here with reference to the country music format on WKDA: Anytime we think back on the transformation at 1240, we almost immediately think of the station suddenly entering the radio arena as “Country KDA.” But that is not exactly the way it happened. During much of the time, after the changes came, Joe Lawless served as Program Director at KDA. From all those I have talked to, they tell me Lawless was a good man to work for- and he was popular with the members of his air staff. He remained in that post until the late part of 1972 or early 1973. At that time, Mike Wingfield was brought in to serve in that capacity. And it was Wingfield who actually started the “Country KDA” image. Later on, when Wingfield departed KDA, they brought in Dick Kiser to serve as Program Director at KDA.
By the way, the Nashville Radio Group always welcomes new members into this interesting forum. They can be accessed at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nash_radio/
JIM ESKEW RECALLS HIS DAYS AT WKDA:
AND HOW “FRANKLIN IN THE MORNING” CAME TO KDA-FM
I’ll never forget the first time I met Jim Eskew at the studios at WKDA-FM. It was in the early spring of 1974. At that time, to be quite honest, Jim was the reigning king of morning radio in Nashville, pulling his ever-familiar 6 AM to 10 AM air stint as Jay Franklin- doing the gig that made him a household name to thousands of people all across Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky as “Franklin In The Morning” on stereo 103.
I was visiting the Stahlman Building that day to see the WKDA news operation, where I had been sending in telephone news reports from my hometown of Franklin (more about that later). Steve Dickert took me into the FM studio that morning and introduced me to Jay Franklin.
I was impressed with the friendliness of the whole staff at WKDA that day- but I must confess that I was especially in awe of the guys on WKDA-FM. After all, they were the ones that- to me- were larger than life! And the bottom line: one of the highlights of that morning was in getting the chance to meet Jim Eskew, one of my heroes in Nashville broadcasting.
Since those days, I have gotten to know Jim through his regular contributions to the Nashville Radio Group at Yahoo over the internet. Still today, Jim is a fascinating person- and he’s also a great story teller! And now, thanks to his kindness, he’s agreed to re-live some of those old days in radio with the readers of this segment. If you loved Nashville radio back in the late 60’s and into the rocking days of the 70’s, buckle up- you’re in for a treat in this segment!
The Early Days That Led To 1240 WKDA: “When I was a student over in Murfreesboro at M.T.S.U., back in 1969, the school got a government grant to build an FM radio station. The construction was overseen by Jim Gilmore, who was in that chain of engineers and broadcasters who knew of all the job openings in the Nashville area. It was Gilmore who knew that WKDA-AM needed on overnight discjockey and also a weekend person. The weekend job went to Dave Crabtree (air name: Dave Clark), who had been the 7 PM to Midnight jock on WGNS-AM in Murfreesboro. In those days, WGNS day-parted and played for the college and high school crowd with requests at night. Dave Walton and I had gone to the WGNS studios and watched Dave work- and Walton later got the job to replace Crabtree on WGNS.
In early February of 1970, I made my first trip to the Stahlman Building. The week before, I’d did an audition tape at WSM-FM, in the basement of the TV station up on Knob Hill. As it turned out, they offered me weekends there, but by then I’d already taken the job that was open at WKDA. Looking back on it now, that’s the job I should have taken, so I could have stayed in school. But…the allure of working for one of the stations I had listened to growing up in Nashville was just too much!
Here’s how long ago this was: the afternoon I went to the Stahlman Building to apply for the job, the parking lot right next to the building was free. Then, I go through the marble-laden lobby and into the most lavish elevator I’ve ever seen. Amid the polished brass and leather sits an elderly black lady on a stool. She asks me what floor I’m going to…I tell her the 12th floor…she pushes the button, and then she goes back to her conversation with the lawyer-types.
Up on the 12th floor, there is no sign on the outside of the door to the radio station. The top-40 station, WKDA-AM, is long past its heyday- and the whole place looks like it needs a makeover. The Program Director at WKDA was Al “The Duck” Adams, who used to drive the hustling hearse- which later stayed parked at the AM tower site on Peabody Street and actually served the homeless for many years after.
Al listened to about 10-seconds of the “fake” air check I sweated over the night before, and he turned to me and said, “could you start tonight?” I guess I just didn’t know enough about radio to see all the warning signs…so I said “yes” to my first job at WKDA…a job that paid 80-dollars a week and included 6-days each week of pulling the 12 midnight to 6 AM shift. Back when I had worked at WMOT in Murfreesboro, I had pulled a 2-hour show for 3 nights each week. I found that the 6-hour air shift at KDA seemed endless!
“The Duck” walked me back to look at the studio, which was quite impressive: windows on two sides, with one side overlooking Second Avenue and the other side overlooking Union Street, it gave a great view of downtown; and they had a woodgrain custom board built by WLAC’s Everett Larson- anytime anything went wrong with it, our engineer, Chester Stinson, would call Everett.
The line-up was: Mac Allen pulling 6 to 10 AM, with Buddy Sadler on news; Don Sullivan and “The Duck” shared the mid-days; and Bob Cole did afternoons. The 7 PM to Midnight guy was Tom Roberts, who had replaced Jay Thomas. It was Tom who told me about things like formats…and jingles…and talking up records…and making a decent air check. He really couldn’t believe that such an ignorant “newby” was on-the-air! Tom later went to an agency in Knoxville and did well. “The Duck” also went back to Knoxville.
I had been on-the-air at 1240 WKDA-AM for only a couple of weeks when a staff meeting was called one morning at 9 o’clock. I stayed over after my all-night shift, and that was actually the first time I ever met the General Manager at KDA, Dick Buckley. But that was also his last day on the job. There were two strangers in the meeting, and they turned out to be the new GM, Al Greenfield, and a radio consultant hired at KDA, “Cactus” Jack Gardner. When the meeting got underway: Buckley said goodbye; Greenfield got up and introduced Gardner; and they told us about our brand new format…”it’s adult programming”…a new approach to a good idea. But they just could not seem to say the word “country.” And then, rather late, in strolled Bob Cole- and he asks, in that mumbling ramble, “so…we’re playing Chinese music?” And then, Greenfield finally says it: “Country…Adult Country.” As it turned out, Bob knew exactly what was going on because they had already got him to commit to taking over the FM station, where they were playing automated oldies on 19,500 watts with the stick on top of the Stahlman Building.”
New Beginnings On WKDA-FM: “For the first six weeks, after the big changes came to WKDA-AM, the automated oldies played on WKDA-FM from 6 AM to 3 PM. Bob Cole played the first real underground rock music live each night from 3 to 7 PM. Dan Dixon pulled the 7 PM to Midnight shift. Dan was a Vandy student, and a rich kid from Boston. He drove an MG and knew his music. Dan had a pad in a house just off campus where there must have been 25 people living there with him. All the rooms were sectioned off by tents or rugs or just a bed. Each one of them had their own stereo that was always blasting away. It was a trip to walk through there and just drift from sound to sound, between the stereo systems! Jeff Wolfe pulled the Midnight to 6 AM shift. Jeff was another Vandy student, who soon graduated and started a production house here in town.
About a month later, and while KDA-FM was still in its earliest days, they found another guy to pull Midnight to 6 AM over on 1240 KDA-AM (Jim McWilliams), and I came over to join the crew on the FM side. Actually, Bob Cole rescued me from the crazy days of playing country over on 1240. And he also gave me a 20-dollar a week raise, which by that time had brought me up to 120-dollars a week. The joke over on the FM side was this: we got paid…oh yeah… all the t-shirts and records we could eat! When I came over to FM, I first pulled the 7 PM to Midnight shift. But Bob Cole decided he wanted to get away from the office people, who were still hanging around at the station during the afternoon business hours, so he started pulling the shift from 8 PM until Midnight. At that time, I moved to the 3 PM to 8 PM shift…Dan Dixon pulled the overnight shift…and Jeff Wolfe moved to weekends.
When they finally did away with the automated oldies segment, and we went with the rock format 24-hours a day, Dan Dixon moved into a daytime slot and Jeff Wolfe did some wake up. The next staff additions at KDA-FM would have been: Dave Walton, who first used the air name of Dick Mason, since he was still doing air work in Murfreesboro; and a kid from Franklin by the name of Ray Curtis. A little side-story about Ray Curtis…after Bob Cole was fired and they made me both Music Director and Program Director at KDA-FM, one of the things I had to do was fire Ray for no other reason, except this: there was a guy by the name of Carl Mayfield, who we thought sounded better, and we could get him for the same money. And I’ll have to tell you…firing Ray Curtis was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do! But there is also a funny twist to all this, too….I ended up having to fire Carl for showing up drunk one morning- and it was a year or so later before the management people at the station would let me bring him back! By the way, it was during this time that I did morning drive for the first time at KDA-FM.”
Recalling Air Names And The New Creation Of Jay Franklin: “The best air name was for weekender Steve Glimpse, who used the name Steve Schaffer. He took that name from the automation system. Steve worked for the state and we used to go over to his place to watch football cause he could afford a great TV set. At WKDA-AM, Mac Allen named me Richard Van Dyke, after Charlie Van Dyke. This was still better than back in my college days at MTSU, when GM Doug Vernier made me use the name Jim Love because I was on late at night. After those two air names, both of them a mouthful, I was gun-shy for awhile. In fact, for the first few months on KDA-FM I didn’t use anything at all. Or sometimes I would call myself Nashville’s Biggest Jay, Benton Harbor, or just anything that came to mind. Bob Cole always referred to me as Rich. But then…a little second-grader asked me for an autograph one day while his class was touring the station at the Stahlman Building, and the only thing I could think of at that moment was “Jay Franklin.” So that’s how it all started. Back then, the company that owned WKDA AM and FM sent one of their VP’s to Nashville for a week each year. The lucky VP got to bring his family and spend a week in the Music City. To impress that VP that year, a school group had been invited up to tour the station…..of course they were still showing off the AM station at that time…the FM was still considered like the pesky little brother. I made the mistake of walking down the hall that day during all the commotion- and I got cornered by a kid, who thought that everybody in the building must be famous. So he had asked for my autograph.
The Day Of The Green Hailstorm Along Third Avenue: “ The only bad thing about the new FM control room at the Stahlman Building, when it was relocated down at the end of the short hallway and adjacent to the WKDA newsroom, was that they covered the window side with racks. There was a space of about a foot or so, behind the racks, and when they moved out of there years later- they made a surprising discovery: that entire space was filled with empty liquor bottles, hundreds of empty half-pint bottles. If there was a down-side to Union Street, it was the proximity to the liquor store on Fourth Avenue and Printer’s Alley, a half a block away- as Capt. Midnight had known before we got there. Of course, the WMAK studios were actually above the Captain’s Table restaurant at the end of the alley. They must have had more Alley employees looking for something to do at 2 AM than we did.
I’ll tell you a story that can involve no names….but it is true. One day on the news wire, a story came over that there was a bomb threat at the Stahlman Building. Of course, the place was filled with offices occupied by local lawyers and judges…and this report went on to say that bomb-sniffing dogs were being brought in to secure the building. Now…our not being sure about what else a bomb-sniffer could sniff out caused a near riot up on the 12th floor that day. After both toilets were flushed until they would no longer function, there seemed to be no other alternative than to open the windows, “shoo” away the pigeons, and create a sort of “green hailstorm” down on Third Avenue!”
The Most Interesting Call On The KDA-FM Request Line: “The best call I ever got was from a little old lady and a “jive” security guard, who was trying to translate for her. Actually, for awhile I thought this was one of the other jocks messing with me- but as it turned out, the lady was the Allman Brother’s grandmother. The boys were the Allman Joys when they lived here in Nashville with their granny. She was living in the retired teacher’s home and the security guard there had found out who her grandsons were!
Early one morning, maybe around 6:30, I was playing “Whipping Post” and the security guard was listening. He took his radio up to Granny’s room and lets her hear the boys playing. At the end of the cut, I did a promo for the Allmans coming to town- and this is why I got the call on the request line.
So…I’ve got on my request line a “jive-talking” black guy who’s making no sense and keeps handing the phone to a little old lady, who keeps saying, “Hello!” It finally dawned on me that this was too strange to not be true! Ron Huntsman (KDA-FM Program Director) really picked up the ball here- and we end up arranging for Granny to be picked up, along with her roommate at the teacher’s towers, and we had them transported to see the Allmans at the old Fairgrounds Building. I was just thinking…Man…I saw the turtles there in ‘67.
Those were some special times at KDA-FM. We were in our hometown, playing the music we wanted to hear for our friends. I think we knew then that it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
(There may be more to come in this segment….check back!)
WKDA-FM: THE SLEEPING GIANT AWAKENS
After two years of being touted as Nashville’s new underground rock station, but still floundering with only 20,000 watts- the power was finally cranked up at WKDA-FM. The sleeping giant could now awaken, stretch, and put some bite with the bark! In making the official announcement March 5, 1972, Program Director Ron Huntsman said the changes had been in the works for the past two years. He said the station would now transmit 100,000 watts in two and four-channel stereo. According to Huntsman, the listening area would be expanded and extend as far east as Cookeville; north past and including Bowling Green, Kentucky; south to Pulaski; and west all the way to Waverly. He also announced that the first four-channel stereo broadcast was set for 10 PM the following night. This was a first in Nashville radio.
These changes came less than a year after construction work had begun on a new 500-foot tower at the old site at Second and Peabody Street. The new tower replaced the old 340-foot tower, in use since the station went on the air in 1947. The new tower served both stations.
Shortly after the power was increased, the ratings at WKDA-FM took a power surge, as well. It was soon noted by area sponsors that WKDA AM-FM offered one of the most attractive “advertising combo packages” in the Nashville market, since it covered a wide demographic base that included everything from teenage listeners to the mature adult audience now tuning into the new “Country KDA” format on AM.
Just a few months later, in July of 1972, James B. Ragan Jr. came to WKDA AM-FM to serve as Vice President and General Sales Manager. Ragan was a 19-year veteran of the broadcasting business. Jim Ragan was a very popular leader for the stations…the right person for the right time…and a perfect fit. He was devoted, energetic, and highly successful in the radio sales end of his work; he was a people-person, who was easy to get along with, while earning the utmost respect from his many employees; and…bottom line… he was a fine gentleman in every sense of the word.
A WORD ABOUT THOSE REAR WINDOW STICKERS:
Recounting the history behind WKDA AM-FM would not be complete without at least some mention of the rear window stickers that were handed out to listeners. These became very popular, and especially with the WKDA-FM audience.
During the years from about 1973 and extending on into the later 1980’s, these stickers were seen on vehicles all across Middle Tennessee. They featured a round black circle with the call letters, “KDA” in the top portion of the circle- and “FM” across the bottom of the circle. In the middle of the “KDA” and “FM” portions was displayed: “Stereo 103 Rock” in white lettering. The colors for the “KDA-FM” lettering on these decals varied. I have seen the early versions done in yellow, green, and red. This famous decal changed in the late fall of 1976, when the station changed call letters to WKDF. At that time, the lettering in the center read: “KDF.” Just above the call letters, it read: “FM 103″- and below the call letters it read: “Rock.” The only color for these stickers, once the call letters changed, was in bright yellow. There were also a number of T-shirts with this logo that were sported during the period mentioned.
Rear window stickers for WKDA-AM were done using the more basic, rectangular motif. During the years from 1973-1976, these decals sported red, white, and blue colors- and the wording: “Country KDA.”
Window stickers for both stations were available, for free, at many of the local record shops and retail outlets around Middle Tennessee. They could also be picked up at the WKDA AM-FM studios on the top floor of the Stahlman Building.
THE NEWS STORY THAT LAUNCHED A NEW CAREER:
In the early part of 1974, one of the biggest news stories in the area involved a football coach at Fairview High School, in west Williamson County, who was alleged to have been arranging dates for his football players. The public was quite shocked to learn of this unlikely match-maker, and the Nashville news media swarmed all over this story.
Shortly after this all came to light, the media gathered one morning at the school, expecting some sort of impromptu news conference whereby school officials could address the situation. It seemed like reporters had came from everywhere. I was one of them, covering the story for the local newspaper at Franklin. Another was Steve Dickert, who was covering it for the WKDA.
While we were waiting for the story to unfold, Steve and I began talking about a number of subjects: the story we there to cover; other big news stories we were covering; the other media reps gathered there; Nashville radio, in general; and WKDA radio, in particular. Before too long, we had began to forge a friendship that would last for many years to come. Let me make a few comments about Steve Dickert: Steve was a very good radio newsman. In fact, he was one of the best in Nashville. Steve had came to WKDA AM-FM in 1972 while studying at the College of Communications at MTSU in Murfreesboro. He was a native of Chattanooga. I think Steve was still a bachelor at this time, although he married shortly afterward. I found Steve down-to-earth, very professional, and a lot of fun to be around.
After waiting around for a couple of hours, it became obvious the school officials were stalling for time. Members of the media- and especially the electronic media- work on a tight schedule, and many were becoming impatient. Steve explained that he had two more news conferences in Nashville that he had been assigned to cover, and he asked me if I planned to stay on the story at Fairview. I said I was there to cover it- and I’d stick it out until the school officials were forced to finally face the music…and the media! Steve asked if I’d file a story for WKDA, via the telephone, after the news conference. I agreed to help them out with the story, and that was the beginning of a career shift that would divert me from newspaper work into radio work.
Over the next few weeks, I began to cover the big news stories in our area for two outlets: my newspaper, which at that time was The Williamson Leader, a small weekly publication in my hometown of Franklin; and the news team at WKDA AM-FM. I don’t think my editor was too wild about this arrangement, since the radio station was always more demanding of my time to have the story into the newsroom as soon as it happened. However, there were only a few times when I found myself working on deadline for both outlets. This worked well for a time, but eventually I was asked to visit the studios and meet the rest of the WKDA news team- and after that I became devoted to the radio end of the business.
The first day I came to the Stahlman Building, I was amazed at the hectic pace around the radio station. I found that the newsroom was sandwiched between the AM and FM studios. On the wall opposite the news board and broadcast equipment was a large banner, shaped like a huge blue ribbon, with large gold lettering that proclaimed: “WKDA Award-Winning News.” At that time, the news team consisted of: Buddy Sadler, News Director; Ernie Keller, a seasoned veteran of radio news. He had been at WSM and WSIX (both radio and television) before coming to WKDA; Steve Dickert; and Paul Allen (Paul Allen Weese), who was one of the nicest, most polite people I ever met in radio. Paul used to always say, “Hudson, you’re a gentleman and a scholar.” Little did he probably realize it, but that would have been a perfect description for himself. He was always a fine person- and quite a good radio newsman, too. Buddy Sadler told me he hired Paul out of Virginia.
At this time, the news was simulcast over both stations. The DJ’s played progressive rock on the FM station and country on the AM station, but come the top of the hour, when the news sounder played- both became part of the same newscast. It always ended the same way, too, as I learned while watching Steve Dickert work on-the-air that first day at the studio:”I’m Steve Dickert, reporting for WKDA AM and FM…Nashville.” Then, each station would resume their individual programming schedules. It was like magic watching the whole thing unfold, and especially to the greenest cub reporter in radio news at that time. But I was learning!
By the spring of 1974, there were some big changes underway in the WKDA news department. Bob Witkin, a Boston native, was brought in to serve as News Director. He replaced Buddy Sadler, who had left to accept a similar position at KIKK radio in Houston. Sadler would only stay in Houston a short time. He would later return to Nashville, where he spent many years anchoring news at WSM radio.
It was shortly after Witkin arrived that I joined the news team on a full-time basis. I was hired to cover the Metro Police beat and to assist with the station’s election coverage that summer. Also, as a personal request of Jim Ragan, I handled engineering and production chores for a noontime talk show on WKDA-AM that was broadcasted each day from the old Biltmore Hotel in the Melrose area of south Nashville. This show was hosted by the legendary country music writing team of Ed and Patsy Bruce. This legendary husband-wife duo had penned, among other big songs, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” While doing this show, I met many of the stars in the country music industry. Among them were: Mae Axton; Tanya Tucker and her older sister, LaCosta; Faron Young; Bill Anderson; Brenda Lee; Tom T. Hall; Johnny Rodriguez; Mel Tillis; Lynn Anderson; Billie Jo Spears; Ronnie Milsap; and a host of others, which would truly read like a “Who’s Who” of country music. I recall that both Ed and Patsy always extended to me every courtesy. Many times, I enjoyed the excellent buffet lunch at the Biltmore restaurant. Yep..Ed and Patsy were great folks- and hosted a very interesting talk show each day. Naturally, I enjoyed every minute of that assignment!
When Bob Witkin arrived at WKDA, he quickly became somewhat controversial with the veteran news team that had been there during the previous regime. The entire news team, which Witkin inherited, had a deep affection for…and felt an undying loyalty toward Buddy Sadler. Everybody was sad to see Buddy depart for Houston- but everybody was happy to see him make a climb in his personal ladder of success to a larger radio market, too.
But back to Bob Witkin: instead of coming in and quietly assuming control of the news organization, after succeeding such a popular leader, Witkin latched onto a game-plan that didn’t exactly endure him to his staff of news veterans. He hit the ground running- and with many changes. In all fairness to Witkin, I think he made several changes that were later considered, in hindsight, vast improvements in the overall quality of the news organization. One of the most significant changes came when the news was no longer simulcast, but was totally separated on the AM and FM stations.
At WKDA-AM, where the news format did not undergo any radical changes, the news operation was still tweaked in certain areas. For instance, there was a new emphasis placed on covering events at the Metro Police Department. That’s where I came in. It was my job to report to police headquarters early every morning, and to report all the major overnight happenings from there during the morning drive newscasts. I enjoyed this work- and found officials at the Metro Police Department to be very receptive to this new arrangement, since it was the first time this had been done in Nashville radio news. I quickly realized that, without their help and cooperation, it would have been impossible for any one reporter to come up to speed each morning with all the overnight news happenings in such short order. Among the people there who were so helpful, day in and day out, were: Sgt. Willie B. Dunnaway; Polly Ducette; and Pat Trimble. These kind people, along with others that I know I have probably overlooked, made my job easy. Usually, by the time I arrived at the Police Department each morning, Polly had already made a note of all the big stories that had taken place overnight. Sgt. Dunnaway would fill in the details on these events- and he would even arrange for the officers who investigated the big stories to meet with me in the Communications Room for radio interviews. And finally, there was at least one other significant change in the AM news department. This one involved a much higher visibility for WKDA newsmen in the downtown area. Almost daily, the news team took to the streets and conducted many man-on-the-street type opinion interviews. Back at the station, we would package these interviews and drop them into the newscasts throughout the day. Many of the downtown businessmen became avid listeners of the station just to hear the opinions being voiced about the burning issues of the day.
On WKDA-FM, there were some dramatic changes in news presentation. Suddenly, with the arrival of Witkin, the “hard news” was almost completely removed from the station. Instead, it was replaced by more human interest features and “soft news,” which was geared specifically for this new generation of rock radio listeners. The news anchor took this new style of news presentation directly to the FM control room- not in the traditional newsroom- and the news was read over a music bed in the studio. Instead of reading “hard” news copy from United Press International, the FM newsman was now reading “soft features” from Mother Earth News, one of the syndicated news features Witkin subscribed to at that time.
The old-school newsmen at WKDA AM-FM were quite shocked at this departure from the traditional newscast on the FM station. Some were equally alarmed when one of the telephone lines into the newsroom was designated as the new “KDA-FM Concert Line.” This number was given out at the end of each newscast, and directed listeners to information about the latest rock concerts in the area, complete with ticket information. Back at the newsroom, the one now used only for the AM news broadcasts, the tab on one of the telephone lines was changed to read, “KDA Concert Line.” However, there was a change made to this phone one night as a sort of protest for all the changes: it seems that one of the frustrated news veterans had modified this new phone tab to read, “KDA Kook Line.” This was good for a few laughs- and was just one of the episodes that stands out in my memory with regard to the changes being made to the news operation at WKDA-FM. However, in spite of the skepticism within the news ranks, there was one overriding factor that simply could not be ignored: the new format had become a “hit” with the group that mattered most- the WKDA-FM listening audience. It proved to be a big hit with them!
When I came to the station in 1974, the air staff on WKDA-FM consisted of:
6 AM-10 AM: Jay Franklin (Jim Eskew)
10 AM-12 Noon: Jack Crawford- Program Director
12 Noon-4 PM: Dave Walton
4 PM-7 PM: Carl P. Mayfield
7 PM-12 Midnight: David Mize
12 Midnight-6 AM: Clark Rogers (Roger Frith)
Part-timers on the FM air staff included: John Haggard; J.J. Ramey; Harvey McGee; and Tom Bootle, who had just came to WKDA AM-FM in the summer of 1974. Bootle was one of the most talented people at the station. He had a great voice, and not only logged air time on both the AM and FM stations, but also handled a lot of production chores, including some of the best sounding Station ID’s ever recorded in the Nashville market. He was a true “gem” and was recruited to the station by Bob Witkin. As I recall, Witkin had met Bootle while working at a station in South Carolina.
The air staff at WKDA-AM, which was known as “Country KDA,” featured:
6 AM-10 AM: Johnny Potts
10 AM-3 PM: Tony George
3 PM-7 PM: Mike Haynes, Program Director
7 PM-12 Midnight: Scott “Truckin” Parker
12 Midnight-6 AM: Beverly Parker
Part-timers on the AM air staff included: Steve Anderson; Bob Nelson; and Fred Lehner, with occasional weekend shows hosted by Tom Bootle; Harvey McGee; and Ed Sheppard.I recall a few occasions when two of the old-time WKDA veterans from the “Good Guy” days of the 1960’s, “D.J. Dan” Hoffman and Don Sullivan, handled some weekend work, as well.
A Tribute To My Radio Mentor:
Ernie Keller, A Nashville Radio Legend
I knew there was something special about Ernie Keller the first time I ever met him. For one thing, he was blessed with one of the best radio voices I ever heard. Ernie had, as we used to say in the radio business, that “voice of God.” At that time, he was the veteran news anchor at WKDA AM-FM. In other words, he’d probably forgotten more about radio news than the rest of the staff would ever know! He’d been active in radio since about 1940, and he was a pro in every sense of the word.
Almost immediately, Ernie and I became fast friends. But even more than that, it was Ernie Keller who took a personal interest in my broadcasting career and provided valuable advice and assistance to make me a better radio newsman. There were many times when Ernie would rip news copy from the UPI machine and send me to the production room to tape a simulated news-cast. When I returned with my tape, we would first sit down and listen to it all the way through. Than, Ernie would critique the performance, and provide tips on how I could improve the next time around. He always managed to do this with his unique style where I knew he was not being critical of my work in a personal way- but he was helping me to improve my delivery and develop my own style for reading news. Most everyday in the spring of 1974, he was sending me to the production room with my daily assignment, and I must admit that I was vastly improved by the time summer rolled around.
It was during those summer days that Ernie became a friend, confidant, and a sort of father-like figure to me. I would begin each day very early, at around 4 AM, by reporting to the Metro Police Department to report the overnight police stories back to the station. Ernie was anchoring the news back at the station, along with Steve Dickert, who handled mostly the news chores on WKDA-FM. After I had completed my work at the police station each morning, I’d return to the studios at the Stahlman Building and record some news “voicers” to be used by the news anchors throughout the day. The rest of the morning, I was always free to just “hang out” with Ernie.
I recall that Ernie took it real hard when Bob Witkin came in with all the changes to the news format. In Ernie’s mind, there was only one way to do radio news- and that was the way he had always done it since the early days: you stuck to newsworthy events, covered them accurately, and got the news on the air and to the listening audience as soon as possible. He was not much for Witkin’s new “soft news” approach on the FM station. He was also in disagreement with the way Witkin wanted a “team approach” with more than one news anchor on the air within the same newscast. Witkin liked to have at least two news anchors, and he liked to have them alternate reading the news copy. In other words, one anchor would read a story; then, the other anchor would read the next story- and so forth. Ernie didn’t mind this team approach too much during the hourly newscasts, although he wasn’t jumping for joy over the idea, either. But it really got on his nerves when Witkin adopted the same policy during the very brief segment which featured news headlines on the bottom of each hour.
One day, as a sort of personal protest to this new format for the news headlines, Ernie got Steve Dickert and I to go along with him to poke fun at Bob Witkin. He knew Witkin was listening back at home because he had just called and scolded Ernie because he had done the headlines the previous hour without Steve Dickert. He had read the headlines solo- and Witkin called to let him know that he wanted the “team approach” even with the headlines. After he had a few minutes to mull over Witkin’s comments, Ernie devised a plan- and it went like this: Under normal conditions, the way Witkin wanted it, Ernie would read a headline; then Steve Dickert would read a headline; then Ernie would read another headline; then Steve would read another headline; then Ernie would bring it all to a conclusion by saying: “All major news events of the day…thirty minutes away….on KDA!”
But on this day, it would be done Ernie’s way.
“I’m tired of all this Mutt and Jeff crap,” Ernie said. “If he wants this thing to sound like a three-ring freak show, he’ll get it! We’ll just cook his little goose this next time around.”
Ernie laid out the master plan for the next round of news headlines. It was decided that our format would be: Ernie would read a headline; then Steve Dickert would read a headline; then I would read a headline (and I wasn’t even supposed to be on the air for headlines); then Steve would read another headline; then Ernie would say: “All major news events of the day;” Steve would say, “Thirty minutes away;” Ernie would say, “On K”….Steve would say “D”….and I would say, “A.” It was the funniest thing you ever heard on the air- and it was hard for us to pull it off with a straight face.
As you might expect, as soon as we completed the headlines, the phone rang in the newsroom. It was Witkin. I answered the phone and he said, “Who the hell is trying to be the friggin wiseguy up there?” Then, there was a few seconds of total silence- and then Witkin couldn’t hold it back any longer. He burst out into laughter. He laughed…and laughed…and I laughed…and we laughed together for what seemed like a couple of minutes. Then, he suddenly straightened up and said, very sternly, “Make sure that shit never happens again!” And he slammed the phone down! We didn’t team up like that on any more news headlines, but we had stuck together and made our little statement of defiance that morning, too.
I leaned a lot about Ernie Keller, on a personal level, during the time we spent together in the studios after I had completed my news assignments for the day. Ernie would still have a couple of newscasts left before his day was complete, but by that time he was caught up on everything, unless there was any “breaking news” that might unfold during those last couple of hours.- and many times it did. This leisure time provided us with some free time for some socializing and great discussion about the old days of Ernie’s radio career. Back in those days, there was a liquor store right in the downtown area. I think it was up on about fourth or fifth avenue at Union Street. Anyway, just about every morning, Ernie would send me up there with enough money to buy us a pint of Old Kessler. When I returned, Ernie retrieved a couple of coffee cups and would pour it up: Ernie got about a half cup of Old Kessler and a half cup of water; I got about a quarter cup of Kessler and three-quarters cup of water. Then Ernie would tell me stories that were truly priceless.
“Back when I was just a young buck….about 17-years old, I was already doing my first radio show at WBIR in Knoxville,” Ernie told me one day. “At that time, most of the announcers at the station were a lot older than I was. And these old guys really became very envious of me, being just a kid, with my own show. And what made it even worse was this: I actually pulled in higher audience ratings than they did.”
“One day, one of those old announcers approached me, “ Ernie continued, “And he says… ‘I just noticed that WSM has an opening for an announcer in Nashville, and since you’re such a little hot shot, why don’t you go apply for the job.’ I thought about that for a second, and I said, almost without thinking, ‘I think I will.’ So I took a train to Nashville, auditioned for the job, and was hired on the spot! Can you imagine that, for a 17-year old kid still wet behind the ears? And you should have seen the look on those old geezer’s faces when I returned to Knoxville just long enough to give my notice, say my good-byes, and pack my things for the trip back to Nashville.”
And that was just the start of what turned out to be a great career for Ernie Keller. He spent many years at WSM. Then, when World War II came around, Ernie broadcasted on the Armed Forces Radio Network. His news reports were beamed out to our soldiers all over the world! After the war, he returned to Nashville with WSM. Later, Ernie was at WSIX, where he was engaged in both radio and TV work. In fact, at one time, Ernie was the voice behind WSIX-TV, as he handled many off-camera announcing assignments for the station. Ernie also enjoyed his long-running stint as the public address announcer for all the Vanderbilt Commodore football and basketball games. He was always a big favorite with all the Vandy fans!
I don’t know the exact year, or the circumstances behind, Ernie’s coming to WKDA AM-FM. He was already there when I arrived in 1974. I have been told that Buddy Sadler brought Ernie to the news department in 1973. I am sure of one thing: when I left the station in the late fall of 1974 to begin studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, it was hard to part company with the man who had made such a lasting impression on me. Fortunately, I saw Ernie several times over the next few years. Most of the time, I’d slip in the Press Box and visit with him during the Vanderbilt football games, and several times we got together at halftime of the basketball games.
In the years after he left WKDA, Ernie anchored news at the Tennessee Radio Network. In that capacity, he was again beaming out that fabulous voice over radio stations all across the state.
I was just as shocked as everybody else when I learned of Ernie’s death, on the night of September 29, 1982. I recall that there were several of us from Ernie’s days at WKDA who attended his memorial service together. It was an especially sad time for me. You see, Ernie Keller was a lot of things to me: my hero…my friend…and my mentor. I loved him.
When WKDA News Scooped The City:
State Politics Amid Summer Fun
I’ll never forget that first summer in the WKDA news department. I had met some wonderful people, like Ernie Keller, who had helped me get my feet wet in broadcasting. However, I had also been forced into a very steep learning curve due to the transition from newspaper work to radio work. Even though I was somewhat seasoned when it came to covering news stories, I was having to work extra hard to adapt this basic knowledge of a news reporter to a radio style of news format- not to mention all the learning involved in operating the radio equipment at the studio. There were some harrowing moments in that learning process, but there was also one especially lucky break that came my way during that summer of 1974, and it seemed to give me a boost to get through that awkward time.
As I recall, the deadline was fast approaching for candidates to qualify for the Tennessee governor’s race that summer, and news reporters in Nashville were turning their major focus on the political intentions of a colorful local attorney and businessman named John Jay Hooker, Jr.
Hooker came from an old state political family. His father, John Jay Hooker, Sr., had been a personal friend and adviser to former governor Gordon Browning. The elder Hooker had also gained national fame while serving as Chief Prosecutor in the case against Jimmy Hoffa, who once headed up the powerful Teamsters Union. Hoffa, along with five co-defendants, were charged with jury tampering in a case that took center stage in the early part of 1964. There were many reporters who converged on Chattanooga for this high-profile trial, and many of them touted it as the most dramatic and significant court case in Tennessee history since the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. The elder Hooker teamed up with some of the state’s most talented legal minds, which included the likes of James Neal and Jack Reddy. The trial dragged on for weeks, but the result was almost a total victory for the prosecution team: Hoffa was carted off to prison, along with all of his co-defendants, except for one (and ironically the only defendant to evade a prison sentence, Nocholas J. Tweel of West Virginia, was represented in the case by my uncle, Franklin attorney Dave Alexander).
To say the least, the younger Hooker was born into state politics. He always had a certain flair to him: he always wore expensive three-piece suits; he wore fancy hats; and he possessed certain mannerisms that might have been plucked straight from the days of the Old South. Hooker had already made two previous attempts at the state’s highest office, in 1966 and again in 1970, but had failed both times in very close elections. Many of his political partisans were vowing that a third time might be the charm! The old Hooker political machine was only awaiting the “word” and the mighty wheels would be oiled and ready for another fight.
I had met Hooker several times while serving as a copyboy, or understudy, at The Tennessean. He would often show up to talk business and politics with editor John Seigenthaler, who was his greatest media ally in the state. But it had been a couple of years since I had seen him. I had left the paper in 1973. I had left behind there a number of friends and also my younger brother, Pat Alexander, who remained with the paper in the dual role of copyboy and cub reporter.
When Hooker announced that he would hold a news conference to announce his political plans for the 1974 elections, it became the big news story in town. Hooker had been spending his time in Florida, conducting the business affairs of a large corporation (STP). However, he was due to arrive back in Nashville to meet with reporters.
Almost immediately, all the major newspapers in the state and the wire services had been reporting that Hooker would seek the governorship for a third time. Even Seigenthaler’s paper, The Tennessean, went along for the ride on this story.
The day Hooker arrived back in Nashville- and the day before his scheduled news conference with reporters- I was busy as usual in the newsroom at WKDA. Like every other media outlet in the city, we had also been reporting that Hooker would again toss his hat in the ring. After all, it would have been absurd for any respectable reporter to have said anything to the contrary- or at least up until the phone call I received in the newsroom that day. It was only about ten minutes before our next newscast that afternoon. On the other end of the phone was my brother, Pat.
After a couple of minutes of small-talk, Pat got right to the point.
“How are you handling the Hooker story?,” he asked.
“Just like everybody else,” I said. “I guess it’s no surprise that he’ll run again. I mean…”
“Well, he’s not,” Pat interrupted.
For what seemed like the longest time, there was silence. I knew he was just waiting to gauge my reaction to the little bombshell he’d just set off.
“What do you mean….he’s not gonna run?,” I asked.
“ I mean…he’s out! He’s gonna announce that he’s given it a lot of thought, but he’s decided not to make the race this time,” Pat said.
“And how do you know that?,” I asked.
“I just delivered Hooker’s speech to him over at his hotel room,” Pat said. “Mr. Seigenthaler handed me an envelope and told me to take it to Hooker at his hotel room ASAP! The envelope wasn’t sealed up, so I opened it and read the whole damned thing on the way over there. It was his full speech for tomorrow. Seigenthaler wrote it…and Hooker’s not running!”
“Damn!,” I shouted, as I glanced at the clock and realized that we were less than two minutes away from news at the top of the hour. “I can’t believe Seigenthaler’s been going along with everybody else on this story, as if Hooker’s gonna run…but I’ve gotta go. Thanks!”
I quickly turned to Bob Witkin, who was preparing to go on the air, and explained the call I had just received. He couldn’t believe it, but I explained that my source on this story was as good as it gets. Witkin put on his headphones, and opened the newscast with this ad-lib of the biggest story in town:
“WKDA News has just learned that, contrary to reports being circulated throughout the city, well-known Nashville attorney and businessman, John Jay Hooker, Jr., will announce tomorrow at an afternoon news conference that he has decided NOT to make the race for governor.”
Within a matter of minutes, and even before Witkin got off the air, the bells were sounding on our UPI copy machine. These bells always indicated there was a “hot” story about to come off the wire. I grabbed the news copy. Just as I expected, UPI was sticking to their story that Hooker would run for governor…BUT…they were reporting that one Nashville radio station had just broke the news, without naming their source, that Hooker would not seek the governorship.
Nobody ever knew the source of our story that day: just Pat, Bob Witkin, and myself. But the big payoff came the next afternoon, when Hooker walked to the hotel podium. With a press room packed with reporters, Hooker reached into his suit pocket, and proceeded to read the exact speech that Pat had delivered to him the day before, word for word!
WKDA had scooped the entire city!
THE LIGHT POPS ON:
IN WALKS MOBY
By the Fall of 1974, I’d departed WKDA to enter the College of Communications at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. But I’ll always remember a Friday night in the Fall of 1974, when I was back at the Stahlman Building to visit my friends at WKDA. Tom Bootle was on-the-air in the AM studio; Dave Duncan, I think, was working on the FM. Many people will remember Dave best for the way he signed off his show every night at midnight. He’d always say, “stay high!”
Anyway, I was in the AM studio visiting with Tom Bootle, when the big light in the newsroom suddenly popped on- indicating that someone was at the door, which was always locked after normal business hours. Tom asked me to check and see who was at the door.
When I arrived at the door, I noticed this great big guy standing out there with a big grin on his face. Now… when I say a big guy, I’m talking about a 3 or 4-XL size guy. He probably weighed close to 500 pounds. When I opened the door, he stuck his hand out, and said, “hey, man, my name is James Carney- but everybody calls me Moby. I guess you can see why they call me that. But I’ve just been hired on to work on the FM. Can you show me to the studio?”
As we walked down the long hallway that led from the reception area to the studios, we had a chance to exchange some information. He said he was born and raised in Crossville over on the Cumberland Plateau, and his first experience in radio had came at one of the small stations there. I welcomed him to WKDA, gave him a brief run-down on my own experiences, and then introduced him to Tom Bootle and Dave Duncan. I left Moby in the FM studio that night, but over the next five years, I got the chance to know Moby much better.
Moby had one of the most popular shows on KDA-FM and later KDF for the 7 pm to midnight shift. He was also a whiz in the production room. He always put everything he had into every advertising account he worked. Before coming to WKDA-FM, Moby had worked at radio stations in his hometown of Crossville, Columbia, and most recently at WAMB in Nashville, where he says he was paid $100 per week!
Moby also went on a serious diet shortly after he came to the station. In fact, he lost so much weight that when I returned to the station full time, in 1977, I didn’t even recognize him. He told me he had lost almost as much as he weighted, which was around 250 pounds. He said he’d lost most of it by following a simple daily regiment: he would only eat one meal a day, always the noon meal, and at that time he would eat as much as he wanted. But he couldn’t eat again until the same time the next day- and under the same terms. And I’ll have to say that his system worked. He looked like a different person!
Just recently (2006), I have been in contact again with Moby. He tells me he is now in Roswell, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and doing very well. According to Moby: “I’m doing a syndicated country music morning show. We’ve got 10 affiliates on board, with more beginning in the next few weeks. We retain one minute an hour for ad sales, and stay pretty much sold out. So…as frightening as going into business for yourself can be, it looks like the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t some midget welding the tunnel shut!”
As of this latest writing, in 2007, the list of Moby’s radio affiliates includes: Anything Country 92.3 FM in Monroe, Louisiana; WALH 1340 AM in Mountain City, Georgia; WBRB 101.3 FM, The Bear, in Buckhannon, West Virginia; WEKS, The Bear, 92.5 FM in Griffin, Georgia; WEYE- Eagle 104.3 FM in Tri-Cities, Tennessee; WLSB 1400 AM in Copper Hill, Tennessee; WMCG Country 105 FM in Dublin, Georgia; WNGC Country 106.1 FM in Athens, Georgia; WRJY The Wave 104.1 FM in Brunswick, Georgia; and WYHG 770 AM in Young Harris, Georgia.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to work alongside Moby in the Nashville market, it has been no surprise that his radio career has taken off so well and soared to new heights in recent years. Moby has been a past recipient of many numerous awards presented by the Country Music industry. And there’s never been a nicer guy that I’ve ever met in radio than James Carney…or Moby, to all of us who know him best!
Hope You Enjoy This
Trip Down Memory Lane…
MORE TO COME….
Please Keep Sending In Your Info.
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Moby (James Carney)
And all the gang at the
Yahoo Nashville Radio Group.
Please Check Back…
Copyright, 2006-2012. Hudson Alexander III. Revised: Mar. 17, 2007.