Soon after WSB took to the airwaves in 1922 in Atlanta, the radio station began broadcasting live old time fiddle music by the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner among others. Across the nation other stations began their own “barn dance” programs such as WLS in Chicago with its’ WLS Barn Dance. Nashville’s WSM premiered the “Grand Ole Opry” in November of 1925 with fiddling by Uncle Jimmie Thompson. It followed suit that Roanoke’s new radio station WDBJ would start a barn dance program featuring local old time string bands. The Roanoke Entertainers with Hayden Huddleston as announcer were heard each Saturday night from midnight to 2:30 AM playing old time music that could be heard by listeners across the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghenies of western Virginia-“the birthplace of Hill-Billy Tunes” as WDBJ called it.
Other local string bands such as the Roanoke Jug Band and the Salem Highballers took their turn before the WDBJ microphones. In 1930 well known old time singer and banjoist Charlie Poole along with his band, The North Carolina Ramblers, played live over WDBJ for a program. Roy Harvey, the guitarist in the band, acted as master of ceremonies for the program that could be heard on radio by his family living in Beckley, West Virginia. The Floyd County Ramblers also played over WDBJ singing a song called “The Story of Freeda Bolt” that they had recorded for Victor Records in August of 1930. The band also appeared on WRBX that was on the air from Roanoke from 1929-1935.
By 1930 approximately one third of all American homes had access to a radio broadcast which meant more people were exposed to “hillbilly” music especially among Southern radio listeners. While this would lead to a certain standard style of playing and singing, it also led to a greater recognition and appreciation of early country music – inspiring more young guitar players and singers to want to become a “radio star.” Some of these, no doubt, would come from Franklin, Floyd, Patrick, Carroll and Grayson counties of Virginia. — Kinney Rorrer
Virginia Traditions – Early Roanoke Country Radio
Roanoke country radio began at midday on June 20, 1924, with station WDBJ’s first broadcast. The Richardson-Wayland Electric Corporation engineers were making their initial test of the twenty watt transmitter in order to monitor its power and the quality of the signal. No doubt nervous, a fiddle playing employee, Ray Jordan, and an unidentified aged man playing the banjo joined together to perform the traditional dance tunes “Turkey in the Straw” and “Soldier’s Joy” as well as the turn-of-the-century popular song “Darling Nellie Gray.”
Radio, which was little more than a novelty for most Americans in 1924, would quickly establish itself as the most potent force in disseminating hillbilly music from its southern home to a nationwide audience. Nashville was not yet known as “Music City,” and southern cities such as Louisville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond fostered their own distinctive country music scenes. In fact, what was then called “hillbilly,” “old-time,” or “country” music could be heard across the southern United States and in many midwestern “border” states such as Iowa and Indiana.
Radio instantly transmitted talk, news, and music to its audience, thus freeing people from the restrictions of listening to music on phonograph records or attending live performances. As radio stations spread across the country during the 1920s, so too did live broadcasts of country music. Such powerful early radio stations as WLS in Chicago and KDFA in Dallas featured regularly-scheduled country music shows. In the Southeast, the airwaves between Washington, D.G, and Atlanta provided an open invitation to entrepreneurs.
Substantial printed information about early radio programming in Roanoke is difficult to obtain because until the Roanoke Times and World-News purchased WDBJ in 1931, the newspaper did not regularly print the complete daily schedule for either WDBJ or WRBX (which signed on the air in 1929). It is clear, however, that local performers dominated the live broadcasts heard over WDBJ until 1929 when the station joined the fledgling CBS radio network. As soon as it signed on the air, WDBJ began featuring Roanoke Valley entertainers on fifteen- or thirty-minute segments.
WDBJ’s audience was not comprised exclusively of Roanoke Valley residents because at night the station’s “DX” (a phrase that referred to “Distance Unknown”) programs regularly brought its signal into homes across the eastern United States and eastern Canada. In addition to telephone calls, Bob Reiley, circa 1920. (Courtesy Bob Reiley) letters, and telegrams from Virginia listeners, WDBJ often received country music requests from as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nova Scotia.
The overall professionalization of American country music had begun slowly during the middle 1920s with the advent of radio and the special “old-time” and “hillbilly” record series on commercial labels. These early recordings document the regional nature of country music and its strong folk roots, which are far removed from the homogeneous, often synthesized sound of contemporary “Nashville country.” By the late 1920s such nationally-recognized performers as Uncle Dave Macon, Jimmy Rodgers, and Riley Puckett were all working as professional musicians. In addition to recordings and personal appearances, live radio broadcasts were instrumental to their success.
WDBJ became Roanoke’s first radio station with an initial broadcast on June 20, 1924. There were then 536 licensed radio stations across the country, though relatively few in the Southeast. Over the ensuing two years WDBJ’s power increased from fifty watts to 250 watts, and the format also grew from sporadic morning and evening daily broadcasts rarely lasting more than two hours to a regular six-hour daily schedule.
WDBJ’s first studios were located in the rear of the Richardson-Wayland Building, but during the winter of 1926-27 they were moved downtown to the second floor of the Grand Piano Company. By this time Hayden Huddleston was known as the “Red Headed Announcer,” and his job included hosting most of the local country music programs. 1927 also marked the creation of the Federal Radio Commission to regulate the broadcasting industry, an event that would later impinge upon WDBJ.
By 1929 the station had firmly settled into new, state-of-the-art facilities atop the Shenandoah Building and was broadcasting over twelve hours a day at the power of 500 watts during daylight and 250 watts at night. Its signal now covered the entire Roanoke Valley and several adjacent counties. WDBJ had also joined the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System, which provided the station with a link to live major network broadcasts by nationally-known musicians and a variety of dramatic programs.
Ray Jordan, who joined Richardson-Wayland in 1918 and moved to WDBJ in 1924, became the program director in 1929. In 1930 he took over as station manager. Jordan was the firm, guiding force over WDBJ and oversaw its transition from a low-power station to a twenty-four hour a day regional giant that eventually included FM. He was the manager when WDBJ hired such well-known announcers as Irving Sharp, Dexter Mills, Dudley Townsend, Charles Ballou, Hal Grant, Jack Weldon, Bob Youse, Irving Waugh, and Paul Reynolds.
The next major change at WDBJ came in 1931 when the Times-World Corporation, publishers of the Roanoke Times-World News, purchased the station from Richardson-Wayland. In 1934 the station received permission to boost their night- time power to 500 watts, which carried its signal to an even wider audience eager to listen to the talents of nationwide entertainers such as Kate Smith, the Boswell Sisters, Walter Winchell, Benny Goodman, and Phil Harris. WDBJ also broadcast dramatic productions such as the “Romance of Helen Trent,” “The Women in White,” and “One Man’s Family.” Local programs included shows produced by the WDBJ Dramatic Guild as well as music programs such as the Thursday Morning Music Club and the Melody Aces.
WDBJ’s dominance in the Roanoke Valley market is underscored by a survey that appeared in the July 5,1938, Roanoke World-News. The report indicated the station’s primary and secondary day- time coverage area included sixty-two counties and just over 1,000,000 listeners. The same report stated that ninety-seven percent of all Roanoke radio owners that were surveyed listened to WDBJ at some point during the day.
Roanoke’s most ephemeral station, WRBX, went on the air in 1929 after two years of work on its transmitter and tower. The station was owned by the Richmond Development Corporation, the same company that built the Valley’s water reservoir, Carvin’s Cove, in affiliation with the Roanoke Water Department. Its first studios were in the Hotel Roanoke, but by 1933 WRBX had moved its operation to a Crystal Springs location in south Roanoke.
This new facility was self-contained and included two small studios and office space. Popular vocalist Sid Tear sang over WRBX in 1934, and he recalls that during good weather the station’s live children’s program was often broadcast from outside because the tiny studio could only accommodate twelve participants. WRBX’s operation was so small that when Dexter Mills performed as a singer, the WRBX newspaper would grandly list “Dexter Mills and his Orchestra” even though Mills generally sang with only a pianist’s accompaniment.
WRBX shared a frequency (1410 kilocycles) with WHIS in Bluefield, West Virginia, which was put on the air in June, 1929, by local businessman Hugh Ike Shott. WRBX and WHIS traded two- and three-hour blocks of airtime between 6:00 a.m. and midnight, with WHIS beginning and closing each broadcast day. The Roanoke station beamed its 250 watt signal from a transmitter located on nearby Mill Mountain.
By 1935 a combination of the ongoing Depression and the overwhelming local presence of WDBJ forced the owners to reconsider the plausibility of operating WRBX. Apparently unable to obtain a clear frequency and increase their power, WRBX could no longer make money. The station sold its equipment and its frequency to WHIS, which was then able to broadcast for a minimum of eighteen hours a day. Some of WRBX’s “on-the-air” talent such as announcer Melvin Barnett also moved to Bluefield to work for WHIS.
From Virginia Traditions – Early Roanoke Radio Country Radio – BRI Records, Ferrum College