Much has happened in the past 75 years — including 14 American presidents and the enduring of several wars while musical, fashion and other tastes came and went, but a local radio station has remained constant since 1948.
It was on Feb. 2 of that year — Groundhog Day — when Mount Airy’s WPAQ launched its first official broadcast at 740 on the AM dial as a flagship for the traditional string music of this region. And it’s still doing so today from a perch on Springs Road where tunes from the North Carolina foothills initially hit the airwaves.
The building of the radio station — the first in Surry County — fulfilled a dream of owner Ralph Epperson, who wanted to both preserve the music of the Blue Ridge and promote local talent while also exposing it to a wider audience.
Although Epperson died in 2006, that vision continues today with his son Kelly at the helm of the station, who has never been inclined to do things any other way.
“Since I’ve been in charge, I’ve always tried to honor my father’s promise that he made to the Federal Communications Commission,” Epperson said of the agency that licenses broadcast stations and the music the elder Epperson pledged to perpetuate. This includes devoting several hours to playing it each day.
“Seventy-five years later, I just don’t want to go against that,” Epperson added Thursday.
Celebration at Earle
That milestone will be commemorated next Saturday, Feb. 4, when a WPAQ 75th-birthday event is scheduled at the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy, free to the public.
Doors will open at 4 p.m., with a free screening of the documentary “Broadcast: A Man and His Dream,” directed by Jordan Nance, to begin at 4:30 p.m. It details the story of the late radio pioneer and WPAQ, including an interview with Epperson just weeks before his death.
Then at 5:45 p.m., live music will begin at the Earle by several featured groups including Travis Frye and Blue Mountain, The Country Boys, The Slate Mountain Ramblers, The Nunn Brothers and Harrison Ridge.
“I think a lot of people in the area really appreciate what we’ve done all these years,” the station owner said in looking forward to the celebration.
And by the same token, the support of musicians and listeners who have been a big part of WPAQ’s success also deserves mention.
“I am just just so grateful that people have responded to us as they have for the past 75 years,” Epperson said.
Formula for longevity
Name just about any radio station that’s been around a good while and chances are it has experienced a format change, or two, or three. It might have started as a country station, then shifted to rock and later easy listening.
Not WPAQ, still operating under the same values and with much of the same programming as in 1948 — which has been a recipe for success.
“I think just being unique, providing a format that is unlike any other that I know of,” Kelly Epperson commented in discussing its emphasis on old-time, bluegrass and gospel music.
“It’s not been easy,” he said of staying that course amid the pressures surrounding the commercial broadcast industry often guided by ratings whims.
Besides the music, the station has kept other facets alive which have defined its existence over the years.
Ralph Epperson made a standing commitment that its programming would be suitable for the entire family. And that still rings true today, according to historical information about WPAQ provided by Jennie Lowry, an announcer there who hosts its weekly Merry-Go-Round show originating live from the Earle.
Two hours of Christian programs continue to be a part of the morning lineup, while big band music has a three hour-slot on the evening programming schedule.
The station also has continued to be a source for news, and in earlier days that included tobacco market, agricultural pricing and related content that was important for listeners, the information from Lowry states.
Additionally, covering local sports has been a long tradition at WPAQ, as evidenced by this past football season when the Mount Airy High School Granite Bears won the 1-A state championship. The station broadcast the title game live, just as it had on Thanksgiving Day 1948 when the Bears also became state champs.
The information from Lowry further mentions how WPAQ has been on hand for live remote broadcasts of numerous business grand openings, including that of Mayberry Mall in 1968, and every Autumn Leaves Festival since that event began in the late 1960s.
Meanwhile, musicians continue to be encouraged to share and develop their talents as they perform live from the station’s Studio A or the stage of the Merry-Go-Round, the nation’s second-longest-running live weekly musical show of its type.
“From Day One Epperson’s commitment to serve his community with news and entertainment was paramount as he saw that the station’s programming reflected the cultural and musical values of the region,” says the information from Lowry.
“Though the facade is worn, the equipment replaced and the personnel changed, an unwavering commitment to preserving the culture of the region promises future generations the same informational and traditional music programming which their parents and grandparents enjoyed on 740 AM since 1948.”
“My dad wanted it to be a community station,” Kelly Epperson said regarding its varied offerings.
The local radio station’s reliance on the traditional doesn’t mean it has ignored technological innovations of the modern world.
This has included establishing an Internet presence.
Developments of recent years have included the addition of 106.7 FM and wpaq740.com, both offering 24-hour programming.
About a dozen people, both full- and part-time, now are part of the operation on Springs Road, which also includes personnel of WSYD, another local AM station which became part of its fold.
Kelly Epperson said one other possible change in the future might involve increasing the station’s broadcast power.
“I’ve always wanted to have a 50,000-watt station,” he said, compared to the present output of the local AM outlet of 10,000, with 50,000 the highest possible.
Yet such an upgrade would be quite costly and require extensive engineering studies, the station owner acknowledged.
WPAQ’s present capacity already ensures a wide reach, with Epperson recalling that he once picked up its signal while waiting at a stoplight in Harrisonburg, Virginia, located in the Shenandoah Valley more than 200 miles away.
And while his dad was alive, a commercial airline pilot reported regularly tuning in at high altitude, being able to first listen to the station in West Virginia and doing so all the way to Georgia.
Kelly Epperson, who first began working there as a high school sophomore in 1977, is proud of all WPAQ has accomplished so far.
“It has just been a blessing.”