Radio is not a visual medium, hence the expression that ugly people have a face for radio.
Mount Airy radio station WPAQ 790 AM, however, is a notable exception.
The WPAQ call letters, lit up in bright pink neon on the Spring Road hilltop building, have served as the station’s face since founder Ralph Epperson first flipped them on in 1948.
The family-owned radio station is iconic for its long-running weekly broadcast, the Merry-Go-Round live music program and its role in fostering and preserving the unique Surry County musical tradition.
The letters themselves are iconic as well.
With most radio stations buried in a building or featuring non-descript signage, “ours were really unique,” said Kelly Epperson, co-owner and Ralph’s son.
“People would drive up here at night to see them lit up,” Epperson said. Besides a destination for fans, the letters were frequently photographed for newspaper and magazine articles, featured in documentaries and appeared on numerous album covers.
“Those letters are famous,” Epperson said.
Ivy Sheppard, afternoon and weekend announcer, explained that “WPAQ is a national treasure. Ralph Epperson signed on the air on February 2, 1948, with the promise to preserve and promote the music of this region, and the station has stayed true to that promise to this day. Those letters are synonymous with culture and heritage of Surry County and the Blue Ridge.”
About two years ago, the letters had been removed from the building during renovations and were too deteriorated to be put back to use.
“It was a sad day when they came down,” Kelly Epperson recalled. “I thought they’d always be up there.”
It was sad not just for Epperson and staff. Listeners flooded the station with calls and Facebook posts, offering donations for a new set to be constructed.
Shortly before the station’s 68th anniversary in February, a large anonymous donation added to the pile made commissioning a new set immediately possible.
“Lots of listeners really wanted those letters back up there,” said Jennifer Epperson, co-owner. “It just shows how important they are. They’re part of the history.”
“(The listeners) probably wanted the letters up more than we have,” said Kelly Epperson, noting that the letters would have been replaced eventually but not as quickly or easily without the push from the public.
“I was touched,” by the outpouring, he said.
The original letters were donated to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History where they are on display with other iconic WPAQ items.
Jantec Sign Group of Lowgap was hired to construct the new set.
In the meantime, the radio station building went without the beloved pink beacon.
“It just seemed so bare and empty without them,” Kelly Epperson said. “It’s just a plain brick building on the outside.”
“But with so much magic on the inside,” Sheppard finished.
On Wendsday, Phil and John Marsh, of Phil Marsh Electric, worked for several hours installing the new letters.
The Eppersons, Shepherd and many other employees gathered outside watching the process with excitement.
“It’s like we’re going to put life back in to this place. It has a name again,” Epperson said. “I might just spend the night out here tonight.”
The timing of the installation was fitting as well, with the station gearing up for WPAQ’s live broadcast of the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention and the anniversary of Ralph Epperson’s passing on May 31.
“It’s a nice reminder of my dad,” Kelly Epperson said. “We think about him a lot this time of year. The Fiddler’s Convention was so important to him.”
Sheppard recalled with Kelly how “your dad would let me flip them on the first time I came up here.”
Epperson said, “I guess we’ll have to draw straws to see who flips the switch tonight.”
That honor went to his daughter, Abby Epperson, and her best friend, Lily Muckler.
“It’s magical to see those letters on the station again,” Sheppard said. “We can all only hope that those letters will be lighting up the hillside off Springs Road for many years to come.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.