Chester Martin Remembers Early Radio In Chattanooga

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

The earliest radio stations I remember in Chattanooga were WDOD (1310, CBS) and WAPO (1150, NBC). WDOD hearkened back to the start of commercial broadcasting in the U.S., 1925, but I think WDOD is the older of the two. Both were strictly AM stations as FM was unheard of at that time.

All commercial radio included much variety in those early days in an effort to please all tastes. WDOD did an excellent job in that regard.

Capt. Vaughn Cornish, sometime president of the Chattanooga Yacht Club, sang "Beautiful Dreamer" and other songs in his rich baritone voice, while Gaylord MacPherson, program director, read poetry on his afternoon "Dream House" program. "Arthur Godfrey Time" appealed to housewives each morning from CBS, and on Sunday mornings you could frequently hear the "Hamilton Harmony Quartet" along with the famous "Renfro Valley Sunday Gathering" from WHAS in Louisville, and courtesy of CBS. Every Saturday morning there was a special program for children, called "Let's Pretend". Famous newsmen of the day were "Elmer Davis and the News", mornings, and "Edward R. Murrow" evenings. Call letters, "WDOD" were to stand for the slogan which then best described Chattanooga as the, "Wonderful Dynamo of Dixie."

Early staff announcers on WDOD were Chuck Simpson (whom I recently found on YouTube, doing his early morning broadcast in 1940 - the year I started grade school!). John Gray was an early WDOD announcer, also, having come to Tennessee from out west. He later transitioned to television as one of Chattanooga's first TV weathermen. Bob Bosworth's deep and rich voice was of "network quality." Morris Quave and others were announcers, but I also remember Merrill Parker, Buell Bobo Anthony, and Gregg Yantis as being among the Engineering staff.

WDOD started "atop the Patten Hotel," but they soon moved to a new wing of the Hamilton National Bank building (now First Tennessee) where they had a palatial layout which included executive offices, one large studio equipped with grand piano and organ, plus three smaller studios - each of which had grand pianos. Master Control had double-paned windows which looked into all four studios. Later, WAGC took over the vacated Patten Hotel studios of WDOD and affiliated itself with the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), now long forgotten. Best thing about WAGC was its Sunday afternoon of Mystery shows! I was an aspiring artist, and those shows kept me busy working at the kitchen table for many, many hours over a period of several years. Roy Morris first became famous in Chattanooga while working for WAGC. He also worked for WDOD before transitioning into TV.

Nelson Krepps was an executive of WAPO, which was located on the "Magazine (Mezzanine) Floor of the Read House, as one of their announcers, Cuzzin Clem, used to call it. Mr. Krepps was the husband of my dear 5th grade teacher at Sunnyside School, Mrs. Margaret Krepps. Oilman W.A. Patterson, though, was station owner. He had the quick-thinking sensibility to apply to the FCC for call letters which so admirably fit both his name and profession:  W A P(atterson) O(il). My family and I listened almost equally to WAPO and WDOD. I still have the old wooden Philco radio we listened to, and can instantly spot where the dial should be set for either of those stations.

WDEF came along somewhat after the two discussed above. Definitely a latecomer, it quickly shot up in popularity to equal the other two. One main reason: LUTHER! - combined with the genius of one Joe Engel! Engel had founded WDEF as a promotional vehicle for his Chattanooga Lookouts baseball team, and he needed good people to work for him. I have only read it, but Engel used to stop for gas at a station where a very affable young man would "fill 'er up" for Mr. Engel. They became friends, and Engel soon asked that young man, Luther Masingill, if he would like a job at his new radio station. The answer was "yes", of course, and the rest is history! Luther used to talk about how he broadcast the start of WWII, then went into the Army for a tour of duty, and, when discharged, returned home in time to broadcast the war's end! Luther was on the air for WDEF Radio and TV until past his 90th birthday! Joe Engel had definitely hit one out of the park that time! Another highly popular nighttime announcer on WDEF was Ernie Feagans. He had the right persona and appeal for veterans returning from WWII; he knew exactly what they and their girlfriends wanted to hear, and played it for them. One of the most popular songs of the later 1940's was Bennie Goodman's version of "Sentimental Journey" - one of those rare songs it is impossible to forget. Ernie Feagan's show was called "Feagan's Follies", which he frequently dubbed, the "Foolies". Rarely has Radio ever reached out and touched so many people as in this period of national Jubilation at the end of "The War". WDEF was long affiliated with the ABC Network.

There were plenty of new stations which came along at later dates and which fit the new trends. WFLI was all-Rock, and WDXB was all-Country, for example. FM was beginning to eke out a tiny bit of the market, but it was slow a-coming. WVUN was Chattanooga's first FM station - 98.1 on the dial. It had swanky new facilities in the Dome Building - on the second floor, with windows overlooking 8th Street. It was purely non-commercial and was kept on the air for several years (as a tax write-off?) by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, (ILGWU). When it closed, WDXB moved in. It is while working there that their long-time announcer, Lloyd Payne, was stricken with polio while on duty. A friend of mine helped him to his car that evening and drove him home. It took a long time, but Lloyd bravely recovered - slowly - eventually returning to work. His audience was supportive in every way.

Sometime about 1949 or '50, Chattanooga's first Black radio station, WNOO, started. Their studios were on West 9th Street, now MLK., in a rather charming part of "old" Chattanooga soon to be destroyed forever by the "Golden Gateway" development, the cutting down of Cameron Hill, and the widening of 9th Street (MLK). I went to visit there once to visit their studios and listened to a live presentation of a Shakespearean drama done by high school students.

Unfortunately, the oldest Chattanooga stations were denied "good" frequencies. The early radio dials used to go from 550, on the left, to about 1600, on the right. The lower frequencies (left side) were reserved for 50,000 Watt "flame throwers" in the larger cities, and Chattanooga did not qualify as a larger city. We had to go for the right-hand side of the dial. And there were restrictions, set in stone for all eternity by the FCC: 5000 Watts by day, 2000 Watts [?] by night (sundown). There were other restrictions which were supposed to protect stations to the north of us, meaning our local stations had to beam their signals southward. And that is why, to this day, I can only barely hear WGOW AM at night in the eastern Brainerd suburb. (WGOW is the former WAPO). Their signal is not strong by day, and gets even weaker after power is cut at sundown. The station has tried and tried to receive approval for a power increase, but nothing can be done about it.

A small detail I can tell involves WDOD, where I worked as a student in 1954. It was when FM was just starting, and the local FM dial had only two audible stations and several distant, inaudible "blips." WDOD's studios were in a new wing of the Hamilton National Bank, and they beamed their FM audio to a transmitter on Signal Mountain using the first dish antenna I had ever seen. It was such a curiosity I liked to point it out to my friends from across Broad Street. It was only about one foot in diameter, and attached to the building just outside a window. Gosh, that seemed so high-tech and modern!

In the mid-1950's WDOD fought a vicious battle with WAPO for Chattanooga's first TV license. The opposition brought an array of disgruntled former WDOD employees to Washington for hearings before the FCC. WDOD lost, and was forced to move from its palatial layout in the Hamilton National Bank building to a much smaller location on McCallie Avenue directly across the street from First-Centenary UMC. It soon removed, however, to its transmitter building on Moccasin Bend, where it is still located today. The Chattanooga Times gave a daily blow-by-blow account of all the proceedings in Washington. WRGP (now WRCB) TV became our first network television station. The original station name, with letters "RGP", stood for Raymond G. Patterson.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

 


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