Wytheville’s “hometown sound” turns 70 this week.
World War II was still fresh in everyone’s mind in 1949 when Art Gates traveled from Ararat to Wytheville to launch a radio station. On Sept. 21 of that year, WYVE 1280 AM hit the airwaves with a noon broadcast of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The station has been a source of news, weather, sports and entertainment for the local area ever since.
WYVE now boasts its AM frequency as well as a FM frequency (99.9FM) that went on air in August 2018. WYVE serves Wytheville as well as the surrounding counties including Wythe, Smyth, Bland, Pulaski, Carroll, and Montgomery.
The station began commercial broadcasting from an office above the old Hobert N. Grubb hardware store, 213 W. Main St., at 6 a.m. the next day. The 1,000-watt station broadcast from dawn to dusk. In the summertime, the station could stay on air until 8:45 p.m., but in the winter, it was off the air at 5:15 p.m. because of the shorter days.
The station played classical, folk, name bands and bluegrass. It also broadcast a number of live acts including the Melody Four and the Virginia Skyline Boys.
The station’s crew members also performed shows that they created, including “Just Plain Talk,” a morning segment Gates created to address the needs and thoughts of the community. There was also a comedy/adventure series called “The Adventures of Hap Hazzard,” which chronicled the life of Hap in the town of Whistleville, and “The Roadrunner Show,” hosted by Craig Allison and Jack Fleming in the 1960s-70s.
“Jack and I would get on there; it was totally adlibbed,” Allison said. “We didn’t have any format. We’d just get on there and do stupid stuff, whatever came up, we’d go with it. We didn’t know what we were going to say.”
In one of the show’s most memorable moments, Allison and Fleming asked voters to call in and vote to decide which one would push the other up Main Street in a wheelbarrow while wearing a pair of red, long underwear.
Each vote was a pledge by the listener to donate d a pint of blood to the blood bank – In the end, Allison lost.
In addition to creating shows, the station’s talent would become colorful on-air characters like Allison’s popular Granny Frye. Allison would often dress as Granny Frye and show up when WYVE was broadcasting live from around the county. Today, the character lives on as Allison’s email address handle.
Allison grew up working at the station and still works there today.
“I was fascinated with the fact that we were going to have a radio station,” he said. “I was eight years old when it went on the air, and I thought it was just amazing.”
At that time, the station was in the Grubb building next to the Millwald Theatre.
“I would go there and hang around as a kid, and I was barely tall enough to see above the window wills into the control room,” Allison said. “They kept running me off, and I’d come back.”
When he was about 13, he caught a break when the radio station asked him to help with the equipment used to broadcast Sunday morning sermons.
“Heck, I could hardly lift it, but I carried it around to different churches,” he said. “Then, when I was 16, I could get a workers permit. So it was the summer of 1957 when I was actually hired.”
But that time, the radio station had moved to Spring and First streets. While in high school, Allison spun records of popular music for a show called “Teen Time.”
The only time Allison took a break from WYVE was his freshman and sophomore years at Virginia Tech. His last two years there, he hitchhiked home to do weekend broadcasts.
“By that time, I knew that was what I wanted to do; my heart was with radio,” he said. “So, when I graduated, I came back full time.”
Allison, who has a gift for changing his voice, created his Granny Frye character to answer questions from fictional listeners. He’d end his crazy advice with “Your old buddy, Granny Frye.”
In the mid-1980s, Danny Gordon came to the WYVE news desk from the Southwest Virginia Enterprise newspaper, now The Wytheville Enterprise. He liked radio’s faster pace.
““It was instantaneous,” he said. “You got the story out and went on to something else. At the newspaper, you had to wait several days.”
Gordon said he most enjoyed interacting with fellow WYVE employees like Gates and Fleming, a talented fellow who also played the steel guitar and drew cartoons.
“He always had a joke or cartoon in the morning,” Gordon said. “He would leave cartoons on people’s desks.”
Gordon’s most memorable story? That’s easy.
“The UFO story caused me a lot of extracurricular work, and I ended up writing a book,” Gordon said, of his UFO sighting in the fall of 1987. Others in town saw them, too.
Gordon also met a lot of celebrities, politicians and musicians during his time at WYVE. He retired in at the end of 2016.
The management and staff of WYVE are planning special events on- and off-air to celebrate the station’s 70th anniversary. Current and former air staff will take the microphone beginning Monday, Sept. 16 for special Morning Show broadcasts from 7 to 9 a.m. The shows will highlight the best of WYVE, past and present.
Those slated to be on air during the broadcasts are Danny Gordon on Sept. 16, Craig Allison on Sept. 17, Jerry Stone on Sept. 18 and Thom Moore on Sept. 19. On Friday, Sept. 20, there will be a special celebration.
WYVE thanks the community for 70 wonderful years of continued support. The station can be heard on air 24 hours a day on both 1280AM and 99.9FM.
WYVE is owned by Three Rivers Media Corporation in Wytheville, which owns and operates three radio stations WYVE, WXBX and WLOY.
Allison credits Gates for creating a successful radio station.
“Art Gates was a very progressive-thinking boss,” he said. “He was a great boss and a mentor to me.”
Allison said Gates kept up with industry news and was always ahead of the times, creating a dedicated local news department with local newscasts, and, for a time, having one of the first stereo AM stations, and erecting the first United Press International satellite.
“We were doing stuff others weren’t doing,” Allison said.
To reach Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.