Edited by Tower Site's own Scott Fybush - and available now in print or as an e-book!

November 14, 2008

WPAQ, Mount Airy, NC

So we're all done with our recap of Big Trip 2007 - and just a few weeks ago, a big pile of boxes of Tower Site Calendar 2009 came back from the printer, all ready for sale and for your office or transmitter shack wall. We hope you'll take a moment to get your order in for the calendar, or better yet, show your support for Site of the Week and NorthEast Radio Watch with a subscription!

This week, we continue a multiple-installment "Little Trip," recapping our travels as we made our way to Charlotte, North Carolina for last year's NAB Radio Show.

In this week's installment, we finally rectify a huge omission from our 2003 swing through the Carolinas and Virginia: while we made it as far as the parking lot of WPAQ in Mount Airy, North Carolina - and even saw a bluegrass band heading through the front door to play live on the air - we were in a hurry to get up to Roanoke and didn't think to follow the band inside to see what there was to see within this sturdy brick building, seemingly unchanged from the day Ralph Epperson put the station on the air in early 1948.

That, as it turned out, was one of the biggest mistakes we've made in all these years of tramping about the country looking at radio stations - for we learned later on that the inside of this building is just as pristine as the outside. Sadly, the way we learned about the gem that is WPAQ came with the death of its founder in 2006.

But there's good news, too: Ralph Epperson's son, Kelly, and his wife, Jennifer, inherited the station, and they're committed to keeping it going just as Mr. Epperson did: live and local from sunrise to sunset, presenting a blend of programming that's as close as any of today's radio can come to the sound of small-town radio back in 1948. Even the music is local - bluegrass, mostly, with old-time southern gospel mixed in, accompanied by a healthy helping of local happenings, death notices, preachers all day Sunday and sprinkled in throughout the weekdays - in short, a radio station that sounds just like the community it serves. (And did we mention that Mount Airy, North Carolina, hard by the Virginia border in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is the hometown of one Andy Griffith and the model for TV's Mayberry?)

WPAQ itself is nestled in the rolling hills north of downtown Mount Airy, where a curving driveway draws visitors up to the front door .

Inside, there's a spacious lobby crowned with a photo of Ralph Epperson above the windows that look back into the studios. Check out the "WPAQ" call letters in the original linoleum, now carefully framed in the carpet - and the playpen for Kelly and Jennifer's young daughter, who's growing up as the third generation of radio Eppersons.

(If the family name sounds familiar, there's a very good reason: Ralph's brother Stuart founded Salem Media, growing the company into one of the nation's biggest religious broadcasters; other Epperson cousins own bluegrass WBRF 98.1 and gospel WWWJ 1360 in nearby Galax, Virginia, while Kelly and Jennifer also own Mount Airy's other AM signal, satellite country WSYD 1300, which was operating from a separate facility across town when we stopped by in September 2007.)

WPAQ's business offices flank the main lobby - and off to the right, another door leads down the hallway to the studios and transmitter room.

The typical station layout of the forties included not only a control room but a true studio, where bands could perform, radio dramas could play out and preachers could come in and preach on Sunday morning.

In most surviving examples of radio architecture of the era, those big studios have been broken up into offices, converted into newsrooms, or repurposed as studio/control rooms for sister FM stations. Not so at WPAQ: here the studio is still a studio, complete with windows looking out to the front lobby and in to the control room, plus a table for an announcer, a piano in the corner, a huge monitor speaker on the wall, and a collection of vintage microphones that would make any serious mike collector either break down in the corner weeping - or perhaps grab a few gems and try to bolt for the door. (Not so fast - for this is a real studio door, many inches thick and made of heavy pine wood.)

At WPAQ, though, those old RCA 44s and 77s are still very much in use, not only here in the studio but out in the field, where WPAQ puts on a live music show, the "Merry-go-Round," from the Cinema Theater in downtown Mount Airy every Saturday. And we can't walk out the door of Studio A without a tip of the hat to the amazing array of talent that's played within these walls: Ralph Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs, Charlie Monroe, Grandpa Jones, and the list goes on and on.

Heading back out into the hallway, we find a smaller studio off to the side, presently vacant but soon to be rebuilt as the new home of sister station WSYD, moving from its present facility across town - and the door to the control room, graced by the vintage "Employees Only - Please Do Not Enter" sign that we cheerfully ignore as Jennifer Epperson leads us into the heart of WPAQ.

Midday guy Tim Frye is on the air as we walk in, and yes, those are actual LPs and carts he's playing. WPAQ has accumulated a tremendous collection of regional music over its six decades on the air, going back to the days of transcription discs and wire recorders; thankfully, the oldest and most valuable material has been transferred to the University of North Carolina for preservation. But there are still thousands of LPs, CDs and cassettes here, and they all get played. (It's not uncommon for a band to come in to drop off a new album and end up playing live on the air, as we saw back in 2003.)

WPAQ's technical facilities are relatively simple: the station is non-directional from the tower right out back, running 10,000 watts during daylight hours, 1,000 watts during critical hours, using a relatively recent Harris DX10 in one of the small rooms right behind the main control room, to the right of the racks that sit right behind the DJ position. Those racks are remarkable in their own right: those old General Radio modulation and frequency monitors in the right-hand rack are still working, complete with Ralph Epperson's handwritten notes attached. There's a whole history of audio processing in the left-hand rack - CRL gear near the top, the mighty Audimax/Volumax combo near the bottom, flanking a Symmetra-peak, not to mention some vintage Collins and RCA boxes that I think are out of the airchain now.

Two small rooms off to the left of the rack (and to the DJ's right) serve as a newsroom/production studio and a record library; tucked back behind the record library is a storage room/engineering shop that also houses an old CCA transmitter that preceded the Harris.

The Eppersons maintain an "open-door" policy at WPAQ, so if you find yourself in the region, make that drive to Mount Airy and do what we failed to do back in 2003: knock and say hello! And if you can't make it to the Blue Ridge region any time soon, there's excellent news: WPAQ now streams (and sells cool T-shirts and fridge magnets) from its website at wpaq740.com, so wherever you are in the world, you can tune in - and now you know what it all looks like behind the scenes.

(One more note - in lieu of a Big Trip this year, we're coordinating this series of Tower Site of the Week presentations with weekly audio updates over at our sister site, Tophour.com, so be sure to head over there each Wednesday to hear the IDs we gathered as we made this trip last year.)

Thanks to Jennifer Epperson for the tours!