Documentary on radio pioneer to be screened

By Tom Joyce

April 1, 2014

A documentary detailing how Ralph Epperson developed local radio station WPAQ into a flagship for old-time and bluegrass music closes with an aging Epperson quietly repeating its longtime mission, to be “the voice of the Blue Ridge.”

But the production titled “Broadcast — A Man and His Dream,” to be screened Saturday in Mount Airy, uses numerous voices to tell the tale of the late radio pioneer, including many of those whose musical careers grew along with the station.

Epperson’s birth date is April 5 and he would have turned 93 this Saturday, when the documentary celebrating his work in preserving the area’s musical heritage will be presented at 2 p.m. at the Earle Theatre downtown. The showing is free and open to the public.

Just before the screening, Mayor Deborah Cochran is scheduled to read a proclamation declaring “Ralph Epperson Day” in Mount Airy. Earlier, a jam session will begin at the theater about 1:30 p.m. which will feature some of the pioneering musicians who played at WPAQ years ago and are featured in the documentary, including Dewey Murphy and several others.

Unlike some documentaries that use stuffy musical experts and slick, but sanitized, narrators to tell their stories, “Broadcast — A Man and His Dream,” relies exclusively on scores of interviews with real folks who will be readily familiar to most local residents.

They include family members of Epperson, who died in 2006; numerous musicians who played at WPAQ as part of its signature live performances, including some on hand when the station debuted in February 1948; former disc jockeys; listeners from the station’s early days; and even Epperson himself, who was interviewed by Director Jordan Nance six weeks before his death.

The documentary’s running time is just shy of one hour, but it is jam-packed with insider comments that tell Epperson’s story from start to finish, as a young boy on a tobacco farm in Ararat, Va., who became infatuated with the power of radio.

Much legwork was required for the well-paced, compact production that resulted, according to Ralph’s son Kelly, the station’s present owner, who appears in the documentary and Monday afternoon recalled the efforts of Nance and his parents in putting it together.

“They have spent hours upon hours, literally days, at the radio station going over all the archives,” Epperson said of the painstaking work involved with the project that began in 2006. Meanwhile, a rich array of vintage photographs also was assembled for the documentary, which is intermingled with musical clips and actual disc jockey comments recorded at WPAQ over the years.

WPAQ’s talent list included such bluegrass legends as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and lesser-known performers and bands from the area who could have been just as famous, one observer points out in the documentary. But they were happy to simply enjoy their music and live normal lives, she says.

Ralph Epperson, along with his love of the radio medium, discloses in the documentary that he felt an obligation to deliver this region’s musical culture to the world — which live streaming of WPAQ broadcasts now allows.

The production details how he took radio correspondence courses as a child, built his own radios and later hitchhiked back and forth to John Brown University in Arkansas to study engineering. Before WPAQ was constructed and went on the air in 1948 from its present site on Springs Road, Epperson operated an “outlaw” station from the home of his parents, Harry and Lula, in Ararat, Va., where groups would come to perform.

True Challenge

Developing a production such as “Broadcast — A Man and His Dream,” would have been a massive undertaking for a Hollywood film crew. But the documentary was pulled off by a young man who has been living since birth with a challenging condition known as spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

Jordan Nance, 30, gets around with the help of a wheelchair and communicates using a laptop computer, which he employed for the interviews appearing in the documentary.

The youthful filmmaker was a bluegrass fan early on and naturally migrated to the broadcasts of WPAQ, which many consider a granddaddy of that genre.

“He just became a regular listener every day,” Kelly Epperson recalled this week of Jordan, who visited Mount Airy in 1995 to see WPAQ up close and first met Ralph then. The youth was fascinated by the operation and “he just fell in love with the radio station…and my dad especially.”

Jordan was a loyal fan of a show Epperson hosted on Saturday afternoons.

The filmmaker and his parents, Keith and Joy, who played key roles in helping their only child bring the documentary to fruition, are scheduled to attend Saturday afternoon’s screening in Mount Airy. “His mom especially was instrumental in putting all this together,” Kelly Epperson said of Joy Nance.

“It’s a great opportunity to come meet him directly,” he added of Jordan, who also was assisted by Beth Crookham, a representative of an organization called the Sunshine Foundation, which helps physically challenged people fulfill their wishes. After he pitched the documentary concept to her, Crookham became its producer.

Joy Nance said Tuesday afternoon that despite the help from others, Jordan was the creative force for the documentary. “Ralph was his motivation,” she added from the family’s home, saying Jordan’s enthusiasm remained constant throughout, despite some rough times during production.

“He is very persistent and he has persevered.”

“Broadcast — A Man and His Dream” was among the productions screened during the annual Cucalorus Film Festival last fall in Wilmington.

“This is really a dream for Jordan,” Joy Nance said of his work on the documentary and the “special privilege” it provided in telling Ralph Epperson’s story. At times, the project seemed to be guided by a special force, she said.

“We felt it was a blessing from God to let Jordan interview him six weeks before he died,” Joy Nance said of Epperson.

Also during the process, Jordan wrote letters to surviving individuals with links to WPAQ, explaining the production and asking to interview them, “and there was almost an instant connection,” his mom recalled.

“Those people made WPAQ what it is and they were thrilled to tell Jordan the story,” she said.

Source Of Pride

Kelly Epperson believes that his dad, if still here, would be proud of the finished product.

“I think he would just be amazed — I don’t think he could imagine what this young man did, what he accomplished with putting this documentary together,” Epperson said. “It sort of takes your breath away.”

Along with highlighting Ralph Epperson and his dream of building WPAQ, his son believes the documentary is helping to preserve a key part of local history — the music for which Surry County and southwestern Virginia is famous. And Kelly Epperson says he will be ever-thankful to those who make the production possible, particularly Jordan.

“I’m just touched beyond words — I can’t describe the feeling that I get just thinking about the work he put into this documentary, with his limitations,” Epperson said.

“Many thanks to Jordan Nance and his family for the many hours they put into this outpouring of love and sacrifice.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.