I was lucky enough to spend my entire work career in some aspect of the broadcasting business. A highlight of that nearly half-century was the six years I spent at WREC in Memphis. Fred Cook, the program director, hired me in 1968 to host Night Sounds, the all-night show. I felt fortunate to have a spot on the station, even the "graveyard shift", despite having ten years radio experience and a master's degree in radio-television. My pride even extended to wearing a coat and tie each night to walk through the Peabody lobby into the station. Few people saw me at that hour. Even the ducks were upstairs asleep.
After six months hosting Night Sounds, Fred asked me to switch to afternoon drive time on WREC-FM and I did. The move gave me a chance to know more staff members who sometimes told me stories about the colorful founder of the station, Hoyt Wooten. He was a stickler for small details and high standards, telling folks he wanted perfection. He insisted that screw and bolt head grooves be left vertical to reduce the chance of dust collecting in them. Really! One frustrated employee once told the boss that he was asking for the impossible; Wooten said, "I know, so I'll give you a little extra time to do it." I also was told about past glory days of the station when it originated news shows for the CBS network and occasionally entertainment shows such as Gene Autry. I heard about picking up big band broadcasts from the Peabody Skyway roof. Singers Kay Starr and Anita Kerr were among the performers getting career boosts from local music broadcasts on the station. I have since learned that employee Sam Phillips, later of Sun Records fame, was a technician who mixed sound for the remote broadcasts.
One day in the Spring of 1972 and over lunch, Fred asked me if I would write and produce a "suitable show" to commemorate the golden anniversary of the station. I accepted and spent the next three months working independently on the project after work and on weekends.
In the beginning, I was unsure of a direction to take for this assignment. I finally decided the show should be of substantial length and serve as a tribute to all the former and present staff members who had contributed to the station's history; I also wanted it to honor our long-time listeners who were fiercely loyal to the station, writing us letters, visiting, giving us parties and often treating on-air staff members as celebrities.
As I started research, I found to my dismay that few recordings existed of past shows. I had to rely heavily, therefore, on interviews with former and current employees. I remember visiting at the transmitter site with Wendall Phillips, an engineer for whom the transmitter building's living quarters was a second home for more than 30 years. I visited Mrs. Frances Benden, a long-time work associate and close friend of Wooten; I interviewed her in her home and saw her face brighten and eyes beam as she talked about the late Hoyt Wooten and described hard financial times for the station during the Great Depression. Another key employee and radio personality in the fifties, Marion Keisker, known as Kitty Kelly, came to the studio, talked about Wooten, and discussed some of her on-air notable guests, including Sigmund Romberg. Keisker and Sam Phillips, left the station at one point to start a local recording studio and make more history, but that was another story and not for me to tell.
As for other sources for my show, there was a short, privately printed book being prepared as I did my work and some manuscript pages were used to verify some names and dates (Sign On: The First Fifty Years of WREC Radio, no author given). I also supplemented station source recording with snippets and transition lines from a Longines Symphonette album about early radio (Jack Benny Presents Golden Memories of Radio).
In the years after WREC…at 50, and as I moved around pursuing my further education and college teaching career, I held on to the master tape of the show, knowing it was an important piece of radio history but not knowing exactly how I would make it available again.
Then along came the Internet, and my coming to know a marvelous fellow by the name of Donnie Pitchford. He and I met through our mutual appreciation of a couple of old-time radio characters, Lum and Abner. Donnie is an accomplished artist and writer, actor and most important here, a technical whiz dedicated to preserving radio of the past. He volunteered to help me save and present my program through the present web presentation. Read more about Donnie HERE.
So here, thanks to friendship and digital technology is our show, rising from oblivion after nearly a half century and coming straight to you for your listening--and now even viewing-- pleasure. I hope you enjoy this important part of radio history as told originally in 90-minutes of uninterrupted sound (no commercials please) and now with visual enhancements. With your ears fully alerted and eyes open or closed, let us step back in time….
_______________ Dr. William J. (Joe) Oliver is a retired professor of communication in Texas. He worked in radio for 16 years before switching to broadcast education. In 2008 he was cited by the Texas Association of Broadcast Educators for the emeritus award. In 2016, the Texas Association of Broadcasters honored him as Broadcast Educator of the year. (https://www.tab.org/convention-and-trade-show/joe-oliver)