Ralph Epperson said it routinely. The phrase was more than his signature expression; it was his way of life.
The founder of radio station WPAQ in Mount Airy was a positive man. Known for his personable gentility and reassuring voice, Epperson devotedly served his community through his beloved creation.
It didn’t happen overnight. As many of his era, young Ralph gathered round the family radio to hear the tunes and talents of uptown orchestras and hillbilly balladeers magically transmitted right into his living room just across the state line in Ararat, Virginia. He loved it, and it set his life’s direction.
Epperson changed his major in college, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in radio engineering from John Brown University. By then he knew for sure what he wanted to do, and with the encouraging help of his family, especially his father, Harry A. Epperson Sr., Ralph began tinkering with radio equipment, and making “test recordings.”
These demos are a fascinating hodgepodge of news reports, area reminisces, Scripture readings, interviews, and popular songs of the day. Many survive as part of the Southern Folklife Ralph Epperson Collection housed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and include sounds of the only “instrument” Epperson ever played — hambone — in which he made music and imitated mules and trains by slapping his knee with his hands.
Meticulous in his preparation, Epperson began testing the airwaves, most often after midnight. Neighbors enthusiastically participated by either performing for or tuning in these bootleg broadcasts. Soon enough ground was broken on the Mount Airy side of the state line for an edifice built just for radio, featuring custom made extra thick sound proof doors, multi-glassed acoustically flawless studios, and all the accoutrements deemed necessary to equip a first-class facility. It was a thrilling time.
With coverage from the Mount Airy News and energized word of mouth, anybody and everybody within earshot eagerly anticipated the advent of their very own hometown radio station. Advertisers filled the initial logbooks with dozens of embellished spots. It was Ground Hog Day, 1948, and young and old, rich and poor, privileged and ordinary tuned the dial to 740 kilohertz on the Amplitude Modulated (AM) frequency to catch the sounds of live, local handpicked music.
Ruth Phillips, then a teen, wouldn’t miss it. And didn’t. And hasn’t. From that first day until now, Phillips, now 86, has made it a daily habit to listen to The Voice of the Blue Ridge for news, weather, obituaries, and “the best in Bluegrass and Old-time Mountain string band music,” as described in station promos.
Leonard Yelton, moving to Galax, Virginia, from Maryland three decades ago, and a big fan of the Baltimore bluegrass scene, quickly found good ol’ WPAQ, and became a fixated fan.
But Phillips and Yelton, like so many others, are more than listeners; they are ambassadors. They regularly express their heartfelt love and loyalty to an iconic radio station that has persevered in determination to stay true to its roots.
Epperson was a master broadcaster, and has been duly recognized, receiving many honors, including being inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame along with that included Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Doc Watson, the Carter Family, and Tommy Jarrell. It was my privilege to hear Paul Brown of NPR, former news director at WPAQ, give the induction speech. As I listened to Brown’s inspiring recollections, I thought of a few of my own.
Tagging along with my church group in 1978, I got the radio bug at age 14 hearing the clack-clack-clack cadence of the Associated Press teleprinter at WWMO, 102.1 FM in Reidsville. By 16 I was helping there on a live Teen Time program, and hosting it my senior year of high school. From stints at WROS, AM 1050, in Jacksonville, Florida during college, WRNA, AM 1140, in China Grove, and WWGL, 94.1 FM in Lexington, while teaching school in Salisbury, radio broadcasting has been a lifelong hobby.
Our family moved to Mount Airy as WPAQ was celebrating 50 years. I immediately became a devotee. Lucy Bowman, Ralph’s sister and able assistant, discovered that I knew how to run the board and asked if I could help during the Mount Airy Fiddler’s Convention. That led to filling a weekday afternoon opening that turned into The Tuesday Theme Show, four hours of songs on topics of trains, coal mines, states, female names, and critters, to mention a few.
I announced that my upcoming first theme would be mules. It provided me an introduction to the genius and passion of Ralph Epperson, as I found a disc with my name on it of ten absolutely fantastic songs about mules, complete with detailed notes of artist, title, and date recorded. It was amazing. Ralph Epperson took the time to go through his sizeable archives to help me out. And it wasn’t a chore. He loved doing it.
“Real radio,” as I like to say, “Where the music is handpicked.”
WPAQ features traditional music handpicked by acoustic musicians, selections handpicked by live disc jockeys. It’s DJ’s choice from an unparalleled archive of vinyl LP records, CDs, and cassettes. There are two turntables with 45 and 33 1/3 capability. We still take requests, put callers on the air, give away tickets and turkeys, and let children talk to Santa. “America’s hometown radio” under the dedicated direction of Kelly Epperson, Ralph’s accomplished son, the station still follows the original community service vision expressed in our FCC charter. As from the beginning, WPAQ plays plenty of local artists, shares obituaries, promotes charity events, and reports lost and found pets.
Ralph Epperson called me one afternoon during my show. The consummate gentleman, he always started a conversation with a kind word or compliment. I had just played a song by Daddy John Love, and he told me how much he enjoyed the selection by the 1930s country artist. He said it was new to him, and inquired of how I obtained it. When I told him of how Leon Stanley, a local listener, brought it to me, he politely asked if I could ask Leon, whom he knew, if he could get a copy.
Then, with as smooth of a transition as when he effortlessly eased into descriptions of one song to another, he asked me to look to my left where I would see a set of three control knobs. He called my attention to the bass one, asking if it were set on three o’clock.
“Yes, sir” I replied.
“That’s what I thought,” he continued. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d turn that back to around two o’clock.”
That may seem insignificant, but I pondered in admiration how that not only was Ralph Epperson tuned in to his station, but his sensitive ear picked up on the incorrect bass setting, and he cared enough to have it set right. I distinctly remember at that moment thinking that WPAQ was his baby. And he babied it.
A highlight for me in my 20 years at WPAQ was the night Ralph Epperson gave me a key to the station. The key came with instructions, the last of which I’ll never forget as long as I live. He explained the simple task of turning off the transmitter. The button was red. It said “off.” All I had to do was push it. One finger is all it took, but there was a catch; a vital one. Ralph Epperson carefully and clearly explained. “Brent, don’t push this button until the ‘sign-off’ cart plays through. And the sign-off ends with a train going down the track,” he continued, his voice taking on a thoughtful tone. “And this is the important thing to remember. Don’t hit this button until the train has gone all the way down the track.”
I don’t remember betraying any look of surprise or confusion at such a specific directive, but Mr. Epperson reflectively concluded. “You see, there are some folks listening, and they always want to hear the train go all the way down the track.” After his fall in 2006 that proved fatal, I took his hand in the ICU while with words unintelligible but with evident emotion, he pleaded with me urgently. I didn’t understand what he said, but I knew what he meant.
It’s been my privilege since Ralph Epperson’s passing to host the Blue Ridge Spotlight on Saturday afternoons, a program he directed so brilliantly for more t han 30 years, preserving and promoting the music he loved. I try to do as he did by building anticipation for upcoming numbers. I play editions of past Spotlights that he hosted, knowing our listeners still want to hear the voice that cheered and comforted them for so many years. And I never ever, not once, hit the off button before the train was all the way down the track.
And every now and then, in loving memory, you will hear me say, “Yes, indeed!”
Brent Carrick is a part-time DJ and radio host at WPAQ in Mount Airy. Do you have a rememberance of someone or some aspect of life in Surry County? Share it with the community through our periodic Reader Diary feature. Send your diary to John Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org.