A Mount Airy radio station in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains turned 75 years old last week.
Kelly Epperson, who owns WPAQ 740 AM, with his wife, Jennifer, shared the story of the station, which is really the story of his late father, Ralph, who took the station on air Feb. 2, 1948, a Groundhog Day.
“That old groundhog, I don’t know if he saw his shadow that year, but he did hear a new radio station in town,” says Kelly Epperson.
The Green Valley Boys, a regional bluegrass gospel band, performed on that maiden broadcast. Epperson credits the 10,000-watt station continuing with his father’s vision of providing an outlet for traditional string music native to that region as essential to the station’s success over the past seven decades.
Epperson also talked a lot about the long relationship WPAQ has built with its listeners.
When the Mount Airy Bears won a state football title in 1948, the new radio station broadcast the game for fans back home. When the Bears won their eighth state football championship Dec. 10 at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium, WPAQ was there again to bring the game to fans of the Surry County school. This time, people all over the world could also listen via streaming services at WPAG740.com.
“We want to be the voice in the community, the voice heard around the world,” says Epperson. “And I think we play a pretty significant role in the community.”
WPAQ still promotes traditional string music of the Blue Ridge region and covers big events live, such as the opening of Mayberry Mall, which refers back to Mount Airy being the fictional TV town of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
The station also continues to encourage musicians to share their talents each Saturday by performing live from the station’s Studio A or the stage of the Merry Go Round. It’s the nation’s second-longest running live weekly musical show of its type, broadcast live from the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy.
“The community has given us so much support and we’ve stayed true to my dad’s promise to the FCC that he’d promote the music native to this area and that he would set aside time for the musicians in this area to perform live,” says Epperson.
WPAQ also broadcasts a high percentage of its programs live, a rarity for radio these days, says Epperson.
“That’s the way radio started and that’s what we’re still doing,” says Epperson. “Daddy used to say if there’s 25 stations up and down the radio dial doing the same thing, why would you want to be No. 26?” The station has extended its reach by adding a FM translator station at 106.7.
Ralph Epperson also has an interesting story, shared in the documentary film “Broadcast: A Man and His Dream,” by Jordan Nance, who has lived with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy since premature birth. The Sunshine Foundation helped finance the project.
Ralph Epperson grew up in a farming family in the 1920s and 30s in Ararat, a small foothills Virginia town 10 miles north of Mount Airy. One night while listening to the radio, he learned about a radio broadcasting program offered at John Brown University in northwest Arkansas.
“He hitchhiked more than 1,000 miles one way just to get to school,” says Kelly Epperson.
After earning his college degree, Epperson served his country at the Naval Research Laboratory during World War II. When he returned to Virginia, Epperson began to perfect his radio skills from his parents’ home with weekend broadcasts of music and preaching on an unlicensed station.
This fueled Epperson’s passion to start a community radio station in Mount Airy. For many years, WPAQ featured tobacco market and agricultural pricing news, important information for that region.
Ralph Epperson remained active with WPAQ until his death in 2006 at age 85. His son, who started at the station in the 1970s as a sophomore at Mount Airy High School, wants to stay involved as long as possible. He says filling in as an on-air announcer remains one of his favorite roles at the station, which employs about a dozen workers, including part-timers.
His oldest son, Hal, a teacher at East Surry High School, also helps at the station. He’s interested in keeing the station family owned.
Curiosity led me to ask if Epperson ever tires of the connection between Mount Airy and “The Andy Griffith Show?”
After discussing the deliciousness of a pork chop sandwich from the Snappy Lunch on Main Street, which the show made famous, Epperson said: “No, not really. It’s still quite important for our community. We get a tremendous amount of tourists and it helps our economy.”
Kelly Epperson and his wife also own WSYD 1300 AM in Mount Airy, which plays classic rock and beach music. He and his sister, Deborah Stringer, own WBRF 98.1 FM, a classic country station with a studio in Galax, Virginia.