One must go back to the amateur radio hobby of Frank E. Maddox for the beginning of WDBJ. Mr. Maddox, long a radio fan of the old-fashioned workshop kind (as contrasted with the more modern popular type) had constructed and operated amateur station "3BIY", until the Richardson-Wayland Electrical Corporation, his employers, interested him in the building of a commercial station in 1924. The results was station WDBJ, of which Mr. Maddox was the entire technical staff (as well as part time announcer).
On May 5, 1924, The Richardson-Wayland Company secured a license to broadcast with 20 watts power on a frequency of 1310 kilohertz. At that time there was only one other station in Virginia, that being WTAR in Norfolk. It was not 'till June 20 of the same year that WDBJ actually went on the air.
Raymond Preston Jordan was the first musician to go on the air over WDBJ, for he and his fiddle, and an unidentified older man with his banjo, were drafted early in the afternoon of June 20, 1924 for the test broadcast. A group of the station's promoters gathered in the parlor of S. H. McVitty, on the Roanoke side of Salem. McVitty was the owner of one of the very few factory built receiving sets in the area. They heard Ray Jordan play three selections... "Soldiers Joy", "Turkey In The Straw" and " Darling Nellie Gray". The broadcast came in clear and fine nearly seven miles away!
The above post card was a drawing of the antenna on top of the Shenandoah Life Insurance Company building located on the corner of First Street and Kirk Avenue. The view however was of the back of the building looking from Church Avenue. Below is what the antenna would look today if it was still standing.
The station’s slogan, according to Tom Kneitel's Radio Station Treasury 1900-1946, was “WDBJ – Down In Old Virginia”.
The transmitter was set up in the rear of the Richardson-Wayland shop at 106 West Church Avenue, and Mr. Richardson's office was pressed into service as a studio. There were no regular schedules of broadcast nor regular programs. The operators put the station on the air for an hour or two a day, "as the spirit moved them". Almost all the sets within the range of the little station were homemade ones. Most of the radios were built by Frank Maddox with the help of 15 year old Hayden Huddleston. (Hayden and his boss Frank Maddox pooled their money to make the first transmitter).
Rapid growth was inevitable, and after a short time the owners arranged the first real studio in the music department of Thurman and Boone Company. The walls and floors were covered with heavy rugs and tapestries. The announcing staff consisted of Frank Maddox, Edward C. Cox, and Miss Maude Cundiff. The transmitter, 4' by 4' was still located on West Church Avenue. About this time the power was 50 watts, and not long afterward, was raised to 250 watts.
Meanwhile the local programs were increased in number along with the hours of broadcast. Some of the earliest regular programs were those of the Thursday Morning Music Club. Glen Baylor of Thurman & Boone, was then handling most of the programs originating in that studio.
second studio was being constructed on the second floor of Grand Piano. For
a while both studios were used for broadcasting. Later the Thurman & Boone
room was abandoned. J. W. Johnson, Herman Black and Harold Gray were the announcers.
Harold Gray went on to work in New York. You might say he was the first Roanoke
Radio announcer who made the "big time".
During the winter of 1926-27, the American Theater building was erected, and two studios with control rooms were constructed on the fourth floor. The most modern acoustical materials were used. The old fashioned carbon microphones were still in use, but were soon replaced with dynamic microphones. Three years after the first broadcast was received with so much rejoicing, WDBJ was firmly on it's feet. In February, 1929, the transmitter was brought up to date and installed atop the Shenandoah Life Insurance Company building. The operating frequency was then 930 kilohertz with a daytime power of 500 watts and 250 watts at night. Ray Jordan became the program director and in the fall of 1930 became station manager.
In 1929 WDBJ became affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting system, then a small group of 20 to 30 stations, and on October 8, 1929 became a full fledged member of the chain. This affiliation continued for over 70 years.
In May, 1931, the station was sold to the Roanoke Times and World News. On May 10, 1936, ground was broken for the new transmitter building and tower. A 14-acre plot in Colonial Heights had been picked by Columbia engineers as a suitable site and one complying with all federal regulations. A 312 foot tower was erected and a two story building was built to house the RCA 5,000 watt "high fidelity" transmitter. The air conditioned building also included an emergency studio and apartment for the resident engineer. Soon after the station's 12th birthday (June 1936) construction began on the $105,000 structure at 124 West Kirk Avenue which contained the studios, offices and audition room. The building took two years to design and six months to build. This was due to intimacies of construction. The studios which were vibration-free with acoustical qualities so accurately calculated that interference of human bodies, chairs, and even music stands had to be considered. Three studios were grouped around the control room on the second floor.The station offices were located on the first floor and on the top floor there were lounging rooms for the staff and an attractive little audition studio where unknown talent may be tested, or potential advertisers could hear how their shows would sound on the air. One of the most popular bands of the day were the Texas Troubadours. They were introduced by Hayden Huddleston. The photo on the right was of studio "B" and the group performing was "Charlie Scott and his Harmonizers" The guitar player on the right is Lester Flatt.
On January 9, 1937, The Roanoke World-News spotlighted the announcers working at WDBJ - To read this article in it's entirety click here.
In 1941, the North American Radio Broadcasting Agreement changed the dial position for about 800 radio stations. At exactly 3:00 in the morning on March 29th, 1941, the radio station moved to its current frequency, 960 AM.
During the 1940’s, one of the radio station’s most enduring performers achieved national acclaim. Irving Sharp became known as “Mr. Dr. Pepper” because of his successful sales endorsements of the drink. He also hosted Sharp’s Daily Duzin’, Salt and Peanuts, and the Silver Dollar Man. “Cousin Irv” eventually went on to TV, hosting Cartoon Theatre and the Top of the Morning Show. And for decades, he continued to host weekend music shows on the radio station that made him a star.
With the advent of World War II, Roanoke listeners were enraptured by some of the most famous war coverage in broadcasting history. Edward R. Murrow, who anchored a pan-Europe roundup of war news from Vienna, became a CBS staple and international celebrity. The Roanoke Valley heard H. V. Kaltenborn’s hushed cries, “Calling Ed Murrow! Calling Ed Murrow!” when the signals from Europe grew faint.
Patriotic American music took on new importance in these days on WDBJ, along with the growth of big band orchestras, and timeless performers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, Henry Contif, Ray Mancini, and Count Basie. But as the decades passed, listeners heard less traditional fiddle tunes in favor of more commercial honkey-tonk and bluegrass music.
According to the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College, it was also during this period, as TV grew in popularity, that WDBJ and other radio stations began broadcasting fewer live performances and using less local programming in favor of slick network acts. Roanoke had its first television station in 1953 and within just a few years live country music had virtually disappeared from the dial.
After twenty years, WDBJ moved once again, this time to the building of its then-owner, Times-World Publishing, at 201 West Campbell Avenue. From 1956 to 1969, the radio station operated out of the building’s 2nd floor. 1956 was also the year the station hired one of its best-known and longest-serving air personalities, Ted Rogers. Rogers moved to the Roanoke Valley from Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked for 960 AM as a DJ and personality for 34 years, retiring in 1990. Perhaps best known for the advice segment, “Ask Your Neighbor,” Rogers’ name was synonomous with Roanoke radio for the last 15 years of his work at the station.
Something really important happened in 1969.
The newspaper was compelled to divest its radio and TV properties. WDBJ Radio and WDBJ TV were sold to separate owners in May 1969. However, the TV properties were sold first, by a matter of a few days. That meant that the new owners of 960 AM, WHBC, Inc. (Later: Beaverkettle Co.) , had to find a new name for their radio station.
Beginning November 1st, 1969, the radio station became known as “WFIR,” an acronym for the radio station’s position as the area’s pioneering broadcaster, “First In Roanoke.”
Ray Jordan's comments on changing the call letters to WFIR.
Audio Link - Magic City Star - Freddie Lee Orchestra featuring Charlie Ballou - Recorded in the Kirk Avenue studio in 1949.
Special thanks to Curtis Downey for supplying newspaper articles, photos, audio recordings, and his personal prospective in the creation of the early days of the WDBJ web page. Kevin LaRue of WFIR was also instrumental in developing this page.