Parks Hall Remembers WDOD Radio

by S. Parks Hall January, 2017

Some time ago my son Sam and I sat down and we talked about my years working for WDOD; thirty-seven in all beginning in 1961 and ending in 1998 having been Chief Engineer since 1967. I pulled out my photo books and other memorabilia. Perhaps that planted the seed that has resulted in his creation of these fabulous web-tribute pages.

One might logically ask, well, yes, WDOD was Chattanooga’s first radio station but why the fuss? For one of many reasons, it’s gone. Where it once stood there is no clue to the presence of the white art deco building built in 1942 topped with its proud WDOD call letters on a vertical brick column. Instead, is a parking lot in front of an unremarkable brick building that I was told by the Baylor gatekeeper is a theater. Looking out toward the Tennessee River you will see no trace of the three majestic tapered self-supporting towers that for 70 years radiated a signal to untold numbers of listening ears. And it is the only one that’s gone. All the other AM stations that signed on in the Chattanooga over the years following 1925 are still on the air, although most with non-original call signs.

I would like to share some of my memories and thoughts that bring me to consider this station’s unique place in the history of radio broadcasting in Chattanooga. It happened to be the only station in the country to sign on April 13, 1925, WDOD was in the very early wave of stations coming to life in mid-sized cities across the country and soon became an affiliate station of the Columbia Broadcasting Network.(CBS) For 11 years it was our city’s only radio station. To explore the history of WDOD is to journey through much of the history of radio broadcasting. The station was born at the very beginning of radio’s golden years, approximately from the late 20s until the late 40s. Radio became the central force delivering information, news and entertainment into the homes of Americans. A family usually had one radio, most often placed in a prominent place in the main living area of a home. It was a treasured thing that was technology, art, and a beautiful piece of furniture all in one package. It might be a table top or grand floor standing model. The family would gather around it and listen. Yes, listen, just listen and use what has been called the “theater of the mind.” There was programing for everyone. Daily 15 minute soap operas, weekly mystery, drama and comedy shows and special music shows and live broadcasts. News was delivered every hour. There was a long network newscast each evening. Many stars of these shows would travel throughout the country and visit local stations to promote themselves. The public would be invited to come to the station and meet the stars. This happened many times at WDOD and it was always a really big deal with refreshments. Often one or more office holders or politicians would drop by not wanting to miss the opportunity to be seen with the visiting radio star.

The local voices behind the microphones became household names, and for many an extended family. Many were on the air for years, and a few became legends. These were “announcers” or much later “air personalities.” There was no such label as “Disc Jockey,” a term that came into vogue in the late 1950s. The announcer sat alone in his little sound conditioned booth with a big glass window looking into the “control room.” The “engineer” sat behind a huge control console that radiated often unwelcome heat created by its many vacuum tubes.

Born in 1939, I grew up in the last decade of the golden years of radio, during World War II and the years following. I am often amazed the memories I have of that time. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother who lived in Chickamauga, Ga. She had this wonderful 1942 Philco table radio that had a beautiful cabinet and sound. (I still have it and it still works.) I remember countless hours of listening with her to her favorite station, WDOD. She would sit in her over-stuffed chair and I sat beside her in a rocker. (I still have that too) We listened to the war news delivered by the revered and trusted voices of the day. Gabriel Heatter, H. V. Kaltenborn and Walter Winchell. I can hear them now. We listened to her favorite soaps like Stella Dallas, One Man’s Family and Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins. I had my own favorite shows and joined millions of fellow kids listening to Jack Benny, Red Skelton, and Amos and Andy. My parents would never miss the weekly broadcast of Lucky Strikes “Hit Parade.”

Television stations, delayed by the war were coming on the air all over the country by the late 40s and early 50s. The impact on radio stations, especially network affiliates like WDOD was HUGE! Most of the big shows that had been on radio were moving to TV. Listenership collapsed, and many were forecasting that radio would cease to exist as an entertainment media. Radio was in an identity crisis. Owners were scared and many were selling out. Earl Winger and Norman Thomas who had jointly owned WDOD since 1925 certainly weren’t among those giving up. But it seems they, as many other owners and managers, held onto the old ways for another decade. They played the music of the day, dreamy, dreary love ballades that mostly made good background music in stores and elevators.

Two things happened at the same time in history to bring about radio’s renaissance, and anyone growing up in the last half of the 20th century knows what they were. Post war kids were becoming teens and rock and roll music became their own. Almost overnight it seemed, the kids had their own music and they wanted to hear it all the time wherever they were. Radio was their deliverance and they rescued radio. Helping also was the emergence of country and western music which caught on with their parents. The old media was hot again and everyone in the industry was excited.

Earl Winger and Norman Thomas parted company in 1956 with Winger buying out Thomas. Then Winger sold the station to Interstate life Insurance in 1957. I indulge in a little sidebar here. New modern studios were built in a building across from Memorial Auditorium. I would later work in this building that I had known as a kid in the late 40s as Tomlinson’s Restaurant. They had what I would call a little “speak easy” bar room in the back called Little New Orleans. Alcohol of any kind in a restaurant was unheard of in those days, but here one could bring in a bottle and they would keep it at the bar. When you came in for dinner, you would be served your own booze in a quiet civilized manner. I went there with my parents several times.

By 1960, WDOD was again doing something first. WDOD FM signed on. It is interesting to note that WDOD placed a FM station on the air in 1946. But no one knew what to do with it. Besides, nobody had FM radios to listen to. So the station was turned off and the license turned back to the FCC. After Interstate bought the station there was renewed interest in a FM station. No one had applied for the 96.5 frequency, so they got it and the call letters back. But again, there still were few radios in the hands of the public and no way to generate income from the new FM station. The future would not look bright for FM radio in Chattanooga for another 10 years.

My Years at WDOD

My love affair with radio had started as a boy listening to his favorite programs. But how did the sound go through the air? This interest in the technical side of radio led to my becoming an amateur (Ham) radio operator when I was 15. I was hooked on the mystique of radio. I guess even then I knew that I wanted to work in the radio industry when I “grew up.” Fast forward to 1961 when I landed my first real job at a broadcast radio station. It was WDOD. I had by then studied and passed the test to obtain the required First Class Radiotelephone license to allow me to work as a transmitter operator at an AM station such as WDOD. I was so excited. I worked as an apprentice under the then Chief Engineer, Charles Stokley. I worked in the studio control room as the “engineer” for the announcer in the little booth behind the big glass window. The engineer had to be like a monkey with four arms. Music was played on gigantic “transcription turntables.” Commercials and other recorded messages were played on one of the many rack mounted tape decks using little 3 inch reels of tape. The tape broke often. I would work feverishly to splice the tape before it was due to air. There were dozens of hand and finger gestures that the announcer and engineer used to communicate with each other. Roll tape, fade music, insert music bed, cut program, etc. It was fun and tense work. I worked with fondly remembered luminaries of the day. Bill Nash, Ernie Feagans, Gaylord [Mac] McPherson and Neil Miller and his Motor Matinee.

The other half of my job was to “watch” the AM transmitter. Back in those days the FCC required a licensed engineer be on site at all times at a transmitter such as WDOD. Around ten different meter readings had to be recorded on a special log every hour. If one or more readings was out of tolerance you turned the appropriate big knobs to bring things back to normal. The transmitter was located in the afore mentioned art decoish building at the edge of the Baylor school campus with the towers between the building and the Tennessee River in the middle of a 18-acre pasture. It was a beautiful spot. This was a building built to house the transmitting equipment only. It had two bedrooms, a kitchen, bath with shower and an office. There was a large workshop in the basement used to maintain the transmitter and a gigantic 40 Kilowatt pre war generator.

The transmitter deserves its own place in this story. When I came to work for the station the original Federal Telegraph 2A transmitter had been replaced by a more modern Collins 21-E. But the Federal was still operable and was the “standby’ transmitter. There was not another like it anywhere in the world and never would be. The story goes that Earl Winger was in New York visiting WABC in 1940 or early 1941. WABC had commissioned Federal to build a hand built one off new state of the art transmitter for them. It was one the air and Winger fell in love with it. He asked Federal to build a 5,000 Watt version for the soon to be built new WDOD transmitter site. You can see pictures of the transmitter control room and front panel in the photo presentation . But to be there, oh how I treasure that memory. My job included “exercising” the Federal every Sunday night by placing it on the air for two hours before midnight. I sat at the curved control desk with the control console in from of me. On the left side was a big oversized typewriter used to enter logging information. The startup procedure took about ten minutes. The fun began when the first “Filament On” switch was activated. The sound of the many large cooling blowers spooling up to speed was thrilling. Behind the oval blue tented glass windows on the front panel I would start to see the beginning glow of the very large transmitting vacuum tubes. Relays and contactors clicked and clunked along the way signaling that each section of the transmitter was coming to life in its designated order. I always turned the lights out in the room for full effect. It was a combination of sitting in Captain Kirks chair on the Star Ship Enterprise and being a character in a Jules Verne novel. It would be only months until my job was to dismember this treasure of radio’s technical past.

In January of 1963 WDOD was purchased by Cy N. Bahakel Broadcasting at that time headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia. No one on staff was happy about this because we know they had a reputation for running lean. Our first clue to just how lean came with the news that the lavish studio that had been a hallmark of WDOD for over a quarter century was to be no more. The unthinkable was to happen. Studios would be built in the AM transmitter building on Baylor School Road. I think we were probably the laughing stock of Chattanooga radio. And move we did! As an assistant technician to the Chief Engineer I spent countless hours helping in the moving of equipment and doing the necessary wiring. The large room that had contained the guts of the Federal transmitter was turned into a sales office. The old transmitter control room became the control room for the AM station and the bedrooms downstairs were turned into programing offices. It was functional but not pretty. There was no FM control studio. Programing for the FM, such as it was, came from its transmitter, a 1940s military surplus “Quonset hut” where one man at a time sat for eight hour shifts playing records. Yes, I did that as well.

At the time, the staff thought moving the studio to the Baylor location was a degrading occurrence for “The Wonderful Dynamo of Dixie.’ In retrospect, it was part of what shaped the “flavor” and sole of the station for the next quarter century. We were surrounded by nature and the beautiful Baylor School campus. The drive from Signal Mountain Road was the same beautiful approach taken daily by Baylor students and faculty. The building was unique in the city and yet very unpretentious. It was easy for our listeners to find and have no parking problem. They know they were always welcome to come visit with the guys, and soon to be gals on the air.

While this story is mostly about WDOD AM, it cannot be separated from the evolving history of what we called “the FM.” By the early 70s FM, with its vast improvement in sound quality over AM, was taking listeners away daily. WDOD FM made it mark on Chattanooga mostly as a country music station. During my years there every time the station experimented with a different format it was a failure and back to country we went. Country music and WDOD as a physical place just went together. Country listeners and country performers liked to visit, eat, and chew the fat. There was no better radio station studio in town for this than WDOD. The stories of the FM of the 70s, 80s and early 90s would stand on their own. I worked alongside many very talented and interesting people who worked down the hall on the FM side during those years, and they were all a joy to know and work with. All of you reading this know who you are.

The Last Glory Days: Hey Earl, Goat Man and Miss Annie Ruth Ansley

I like to think of the years from the early 70s to mid-90s as the golden years revisited for WDOD AM. Not so for AM radio at large. Over the decade most stations would resort to receiving programing from satellite networks delivering music in a depersonalized jukebox manner. Others would go with strictly religious programing. Still, others would resort to talk radio or sports. But the days of local “reach out and touch” radio were dying fast. Not so at WDOD. I think for one thing many of the station managers that came along during those years came from a past relationship with the station. Bill Nash, Ernie Feagans, Fred Webb are names that come to mind. They had real soft spots for the old AM. Then there was Earl Freudenberg. I don’t remember exactly when I started noticing this teenage kid hanging around wanting to work for the station doing anything any time. Bill Nash was manager and I think perhaps it was around 1970. At the time I thought, this guy is like a stray dog that somebody threw a bone to. He just keeps coming back. One thing I took note of though was that he had absolutely zero interest in working for the FM station. He wanted to work at the Wonderful Dynamo of Dixie, and that was not WDOD FM. This was rather remarkable, for nobody from that day on came looking for a job at the AM. For them it was all about the FM. Not Earl. For perhaps 30 years or more he was WDOD AM. I never really asked him how he acquired his infatuation with the AM, and at such a young age. He loved the history and the legends of the station and he had a true interest in and respect for the generation that had made the station great. We call them “the Greatest Generation.” He loved the same music they loved. Most of all, Earl was, and still is, a people person. He also had an interest in local events and politics. He became news director and had a daily morning show on WDOD AM. The news department actually had reporters working under Earl that went out into the world and got stories both written and recorded. We had hourly newscasts that aired live from our little newsroom across the hall from my office in the basement which had been a bomb shelter during the early cold war years. It was still stocked with emergency government rations and a Geiger counter. Earl usually had guest on the air with him in the mornings. Many weren’t planned. Earl’s friends and listeners could and would just drop in, and that was encouraged and welcomed. Earl, to me, was the Ludlow Porch of Chattanooga radio. Regular listeners would call in to talk to Earl over the air. Equipment that allowed phone calls to be placed in the air with quality audio was new at the time, and no station used this technology more effectively than WDOD. Almost without fail when Earl would answer a call over the air the caller’s first words were “HEY EARL.” And so, from then on his morning show was known far and wide as the “Hey Earl Show.” WDOD AM and Earl’s show became a popular place for city politicians to U. S. congressmen. Or it could just as well be someone talking about when to plant vegetables or how to bake the world’s best sugar cookies or, whatever.

During all my years at WDOD we had leased the acreage around the towers to someone to graze livestock. About the same time I remember Earl first being at the station we leased the land to a retired guy named Delmar Hoskins. If my memory serves me, he had been a bus driver. I could never put into words a description that would adequately describe Delmar. He loved people only slightly less than he loved his cows and goats, and chickens and rabbits. He soon built a small shack next to the big gate that opened into the pasture. He probably asked Bill Nash if it was OK and Bill said “yes,” having no idea what would eventually grow there. His little shack had a bed, stove, chairs, etc. He usually went home at night, but sometimes not. Over time he built a fence around it so his chickens could run loose. Behind the shack he had his goat pen. He was there every day, and before long he was at the station every day. He and Earl became fast friends. Over the years, “Goat Man” as Earl called him, became a regular on Earl’s morning show. Goat Man had an opinion about everything, and he loved to tell stories. Listeners would call in on the phone to talk to “Goat” on the air. It was unique and made for contagious listening. People would come by the station and want to meet the Goat Man. Someone would point down the gravel road about 500 feet to this encampment that Delmar had made his own. At any given time on any day you could see one or more people sitting outside on old wicker chairs talking to Goat Man, or was it Goatman? I never knew. New managers would come along and be bewildered by Goat’s little world down the road. It was a little undignified to put it politely. Some would want to make him tear it all down. But mostly Earl and I would have to sit down and “educate” the new guy in town to the realities of life here at the WDOD studio building. Goat was a part of the fabric of WDOD. He had become part of the folklore and mystic that set WDOD AM and FM apart from any other stations in the area. And stay he did, as an important member of the WDOD family. I am thinking that sometime in the early 90s he finally had to tear his little fiefdom down when an insurance company telling corporate they couldn’t insure the land and towers with “that” out there. My own belief is that they made this all up as way to try to gentrify the place a little.

We were a family at WDOD in those years, all of us – management, sales staff, the women in the business office and the on air staff of both stations. Every family needs a matriarch. Ours was Annie Ruth Ansley. From my own memory I think she came to work as our receptionist around 1969 or 1970. She was the first face you saw as you walked in the door and the voice you heard when you called the station. As you left the station, it was her voice behind saying “have a good one.”Every one of us came to love “Miss Annie,” and she with her big heart saw to it that our family had its social priorities in order. Through the years she made sure that every birthday was celebrated with cake and refreshments out in the “break room.” If someone had sickness in his or her family or someone in the hospital Annie would be by your desk for a contribution for flowers or to sign a get well card. She was our social director. We had picnics and cookouts on the lawn out in front of the station. Every employee would bring their family members. Oh yes, the stations did manage to stay on during these events. Sometime a new station manager and family would be greeted by one of these gatherings and Annie was always at the forefront of the planning. Yes, we were family having so much fun playing “RADIO.” One of my most cherished memories is the surprise party the staff threw in honor of the 25th anniversary of my being chief engineer. It was a beautiful day and we had several grills going. Radio people from stations all over town came by to say hello, exchange memories, and have a bite to eat. Back then there was a great camaraderie in the local radio industry.

Tommy Jett, during his many years in radio used to end every show with these memorable words: “and remember, nothing’s forever honey.” In 1998 Bahakel Communication purchased WDEF AM and FM. It was a great business move for the company, but it was to spell the end of WDOD as it had become since the studio move to the Baylor School Road building in 1962. Times and the city were changing. Ownership wanted to move all four stations to new studio facilities on the south side of the city. The casual out in the country atmosphere that nurtured WDOD AM could not be moved. Earl even tried to convince management to let him stay at the old building and continue to run the AM station from there. It was not to be. The building was vacated in 1999. Almost all the old equipment was left behind. The only life left was the sound of the air blowers in the AM transmitter in the basement. Many months before the move I resigned as chief engineer to spend all my time and energy running my contract engineering business.

The land that the old building was on had long been eyed for purchase by Baylor School. It was this big 18-acre patch at the edge of campus that they didn’t own and I would guess the abandoned studios were becoming an eye sore. In 2011 Bahakel sold the land, building and its contents to Baylor. WDOD AM went off the air and the license was turned into the Federal Communications Commission. 1310 KHz was silent, save for static and sometime the weak sound of a distant station. I never wanted to drive out to the site after the building was razed, but I did decide to take a look as I was getting ready to write this (yes) overly long piece. Standing looking at where the station had been since 1942 my mind was flooded with memories, and the sense that buried under the building that now stands there will remain little bits and pieces of The Jewel That Was Ours.