For nearly 50 years we’ve heard his voice on the radio. We’ve invited him into our homes, our cars, and our offices. We’ve turned to him for trusted news and thoughtful entertainment, in times of joy and in times of crisis. Insomuch as one man can lay claim to the title of “Mister Chattanooga,” it just may be Richard Winham.
But during our recent interview at WUTC’s dazzling new studio, he made a shocking revelation that shook my understanding of what it means to be a Chattanoogan. It turns out that Richard Winahm – Mister Chattanooga himself - is not actually from Chattanooga! While his spot-on Chattanooga drawl may have fooled you, he is actually from a country called Great Britain (or England for short).
During the peak of the British empire, England presided over nearly one quarter of the Earth’s surface.
And while their geographical dominance may have collapsed to a pale shadow of its former glory, this relatively small island nation has maintained an impressive cultural influence around the world. Iconic megastars like Benny Hill, Mr. Bean, and a little musical group called ‘The Beatles’ all hail from Jolly old England.
“On the BBC there was a DJ named Uncle Mac who would host a show called Children’s Favorites on Saturday, and it was the only place you could hear rock n’ roll music,” Richard recalled as we shared some tea and crumpets, a biscuity treat that’s popular in England and its former colonial territories. “Most of the BBC music at that time was aimed at older audiences, but Uncle Mac would play the Beatles, and that was the one place I could hear them.”
All that changed when pirate radio stations arrived in international waters. The music was different, but so were the DJs. “The stations were all owned by Americans, and the DJs all had American accents,” Richard recalled with a laugh. “Radio London was the biggest pirate radio station in England and it was owned by Texans. They were broadcasting American Top 40 every day of the week, 24 hours a day. So this was my introduction to America and American culture.”
Rock n’ roll was a cultural revolution, and radio was the battlefield. So after failing out of school, a rebellious young Richard Winham decided to follow his dreams of being a DJ all the way to America, a pilgrimage he said many aspiring British DJs were making. “America was a much bigger country with lots more radio stations and more jobs for DJs.”
Any romanticized notions of America were quickly dashed by the realities of New York in 1972 – a city you may remember from such movies like Taxi Driver, the French Connection, and Panic in Needle Park. “It was a bloody lawless place,” Richard laughed from the relative safety of four decades.
But rent was cheap, and he soon found himself sharing a cramped apartment in the East Village with a few other aspiring DJs. He could support himself with a day job at the record store, and spend his free time cutting demos and submitting them to stations just like an aspiring band might do.
After a few months he finally heard back from a station in Utica who needed someone to cover the dreaded weekend graveyard shift. “The guy said it was absolutely the worst demo he’d ever heard. He said the only reason he hired me was because I had a British accent.”
Richard leapt at the opportunity, and soon found himself making the eight-hour round trip bus ride to Utica each weekend. “Utica was a sad city, but that station was great. They had a 50,000 watt transmitter that blasted all the way to Albany. We weren’t talking to anyone but trees, but it was FM radio and we were all hippies, so it was a great gig!”
It didn’t take long for Richard to prove himself and earn a promotion to full-time DJ with regular daytime hours. He relocated to Utica and said goodbye to the grueling commute. But only six months later, all the DJs were laid off so the station manager’s son could take over.
Richard moved back to the Village, broke and desperate for any work he could find. That’s when he heard from a friend who’d recently moved down South to a small town with the funny name of Chattanooga. He’d found a DJ job there, and was pretty sure he could hook Richard up too.
And so in the summer of 1976, Richard Winham packed up a U-Haul truck and made the fateful drive South. He joined his friend at WSIM (now WJTT), hosting six hours a day of freeform music. It may not have been a major market, and the Red Bank neighbors may have hated “that bunch of hippies on the hill playing rock n’ roll,” but he’d finally landed his dream job.
That changed as corporate playlists began to whittle away the role of the DJ. Two and a half years later, the station was sold and reformatted. The DJs were fired and all their eclectic freeform programming was replaced with a daily rehash of classic rock mega hits. The Richard-less version of WSIM did not last very long. “Everyone who liked the station stopped listening, and then KZ106 came along and killed them.”
Richard found himself working in record shops again, this time a warehouse-sized superstore called Paradise Records on Highway 153. “But then the bottom fell out of the economy in the early 80’s. Dupont downsized, TVA downsized, mills closed, and young people moved away. The record store just couldn’t sustain itself.”
He decided to go back to school and hopefully find another DJ position in time. “The problem was when I left school back in England I failed all the graduation exams, so I wasn’t allowed to go to college.” That meant he had to start by earning his GED. Over the next few years he earned an AA in Journalism from Chattanooga State and a Bachelors in English Rhetoric from UTC. He also became an official citizen of the United States.
When Richard learned one of the DJs at WUTC might be leaving, he sent in an application. But after hearing nothing for a couple of months, he assumed they’d rejected him. Then he remembers receiving an urgent call one afternoon. “They wanted to see if I could come in and cover a shift that very night.”
WUTC was a different station at the time. As Richard recalled, “There were only four employees, and two of those were DJs. I had six hours of overnight programming to fill and only 50 records to choose from.”
Much to his dismay, he was also forced to adhere to a rigid format of traditional jazz, modern jazz, and new age jazz. He could occasionally slip in some jazz-adjacent rock like Van Morrison and Steely Dan, but found himself in hot water for playing Traffic.
According to Richard, another problem the station faced was its lack of identity. Their morning programming was licensed from WUOT in Knoxville and focused on classical and opera. “Think about that for a minute,” Richard said, “Most people listen to the radio in the morning, but we had no local DJs in the morning. The station had no identity. Nobody even knew we were there.”
Retelling the story decades later, Richard still gets animated. “You’ll get ratings if you play the music people want to listen to! Let me program the station, and I’ll show you!” After a couple years of lobbying, the station manager finally caved to Richard’s demands and gave him a local morning show to host and, more importantly, the freedom to pick his own music. “That’s why the station sounds like it does now. The format we have now began with that.”
Over the following generation, WUTC and Chattanooga both succeeded at reinventing themselves. And so did Richard Winham, who went on to earn a Masters and PhD in Broadcasting from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Much like his stint in Utica, he found himself commuting ridiculous hours. “I’d wake up at 5:30 and host the morning show on WUTC before driving to UTK for evening classes. I did that four days a week.”
Strange as it may seem, Richard Winham was still only the third most famous British DJ in Chattanooga at the time. “That always struck me as the ultimate paradox: that some blokes from across the pond were DJs here in Chattanooga. Most people still listened to Top 40 at that point, so I didn’t exist,” Richard laughed, recalling how locals frequently mistook him for Alan Gold, who was a DJ for a Top 40 station before going on to open his legendary nightclub.
But now, nearly 50 years after first moving to Chattanooga, Richard Winham is definitely the most famous Brittanoogan. He’s changed the city, and the city has changed him. “I’m not one to make long term plans,” he told me as we finished our tea and crumpets, “and I definitely wasn’t one to make plans back in my 20’s. When WSIM sold I could have moved on, but by then this city had become my home. In retrospect I’m glad I stayed. Chattanooga and I have grown together.”