In May of 1940, Paul C. Buford, President of the Shenandoah Life Insurance Company decided that it was time to initiate some local competition for WDBJ. Buford negotiated with Lynchburg interest proposing to operate a radio broadcasting station in Roanoke. He recognized in this project a worthy advertising medium, rather than an investment per se. The company purchased 60 of the original 300 shares of capitol stock for a total of $6,000 (and later purchasing the remainder of the stock), and so was born "Shenandoah Life Station" - WSLS - a property of Roanoke Broadcasting Corporation, and with Buford heading it, brought in James H. Moore from WLVA in Lynchburg to set up WSLS. Moore, a broadcast veteran who began his career in Texas in the early 30's, quickly established a station that featured the usual range of music and talk programs. The studio, transmitter, and offices were installed on the seventh floor of the Shenandoah Building, with tower and antenna surmounting on the roof. This was the same location used by WDBJ from 1926 to 1934.
WSLS signed on a little before noon on October 1, 1940. They had planned on signing on at 6:00 a.m. but the field strength metering equipment was delayed and the readings had to be submitted to the Federal Communication Commission before they had approval to start broadcasting. After getting the figures on the performance of the antenna, the station chartered an airplane and rushed the required information to Washington and the license was issued.
Members of the first staff seated left to right, were Miss Sue Hume Jones, in charge of traffic and bookkeeping; James H. Moore, manager; and Mrs John A. Pritcher, Jr., receptionist. Left to right standing, are Joe Ripley, announcer in charge of special events; Hunton Downs, continuity writer; Fred Johnstone, chief announcer; John A. Kirk, announcer and librarian. Inserts left to right, are Frank Koehler, in charge of sales; Albert E. Heiser, chief engineer; and Jason J. Owen, Jr., announcer.
WSLS soon became affiliated with the Mutual Radio Network, which brought them prestigious national broadcasts of orchestras, dance bands, and popular singers. Equally important, Moore brought another innovation to the local market, the "Tri-City Group" that included WLVA and WBTM in Danville. This unusual arrangement, which lasted until the end of World War II, allowed WSLS to carry simulcasts from its two local affiliates.
WSLS beamed its programs to the Roanoke Valley with 250 watts of power. The dial position was 1500 Khz. Later on the frequency was changed to 1240 Khz.
Naturally, WSLS carried a regular series of country music shows. One of the first announcers was Glenwood Howell, shown on the left playing the bass fiddle. They were called the "Dixie Playboys". The announcer in the center was Mel Linkous. Local groups such as the "Virginia Hillbillies" and the "Big Lick Entertainers" became WSLS regulars.
One of the station's most popular groups from 1943 to 1947 were the "Wanders of the Wasteland". Formed by three former members of Roy Hall's "Blue Ridge Entertainers"- Wayne Watson, Woody Mashburn and Clayton Hall - What separated the "Wanderers of the Wasteland" from Roy Hall's Band was a deep-seated interest in western themes. Roy Hall was involved with hillbilly music and early bluegrass, but a love for the "Sons of the Pioneers" and "Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys" united the "Wanderers of the Wasteland". Their theme song "We are the Wanderers of the Wasteland" and their cowboy attire mirrored a deep admiration for western music.
Another popular entertainer heard on WSLS in the 1940's was Herndon Slicer - He was introduced by Tom Hughes.
WSLS-FM signed on the air November 1,
During the late 40's and 50's the music played on WSLS changed, leaning away from country to more of a middle of the road format and at the same time a move of dial position.
This was a period in broadcasting where stations tried to please every listener and features were scheduled all day long. In the industry this was called "block" programming. In 1955 a sidewalk studio was set up and the public wasted no time getting a good look at the announcers.
In 1959 WSLS hired air personality, Jack Allyn away from WROV, His style was a combination of Wolfman Jack, John R, and "Squirmin' Herman" Reavis rolled into one. His radio name.... "Jivin Jackson". Station sales representative Mack Aheron was looking for a way to introduce Jackson to the 610 audience and suggested to Lendy's owner, Leonard Goldstein, that they do a live remote broadcast at the Apperson Drive (Lee-Highway) location in Salem. It was so successful that Goldstein built the booth atop the restaurant. What started out to be a one-time remote lasted over two years, broadcasting six nights a week from 9 until midnight. The TeleTrays were wired so customers could place their food orders and music request from their cars. This was a win-win situation - Lendy's sold more food and the station's ratings soared! In 1962 Jackson moved-on, taking a job in Kentucky, where he worked for Colonel Harland Sanders.
WSLS tried to regain the younger audience by programming more youthful music, however, the agreement with NBC to run 5 minutes of news hourly and segments throughout the hour, plus "Monitor" on the weekends, probably turned away the teenage audience. By this time most local radio stations were formatted, they were playing fast paced top-40, country, and middle-of-the-road music.
Country was quickly becoming the ratings winner. While WKBA and WHYE were battling it out to see who would be the eventual winner, WSLS management had a plan. Both country stations signed off at sunset. WSLS could operate 24 hours a day. They were looking for a personality that would attract the country audience, the way "Jivin' Jackson" had done several years earlier with the teens. George Chernault and Herm Reavis found their man working at a small station just south of Roanoke. His air name was "Smitty Smith" and was a musician who knew country music, and the stars who made it. When "Smitty" went on the air that first time in late 1963, he used his given name, King Edward Smith IV. Later he dropped "Smith" and became King Edward IV. The program was called "The World of Country Music" and it ran from 6:30 to midnight 5 nights a week.
The station, however, was still committed with NBC to run "Monitor" on the weekends. Country music became so popular that a second shift was added. Pulaski songwriter and singer, June Draper was hired for the midnight to 6:30 AM time-slot. The daytime schedule included "Chicken Rock" with the late Dick Bentz playing Top-40 from 2:00 until 6:00 p.m. daily. He used Echoplexor reverb on his show. Dick celebrated his last show by playing "Live at the Apollo" by James Brown in its entirety! If you didn't recognize his name, you'll remember his voice on the lakeside commercials.
August 18, 1965, with ratings soaring, management was able to convince the owners, Shenandoah Life Insurance Company, to operate full time playing country Music (with the exception of Sunday's which they aired "Monitor"). The broadcast staff now included, King Edward IV, June Draper, Rusty Ward, and Bill Ray Peyton. "Top Gun" WSLS became the number one station in the market and remained a top station for the next 17 years.
Shenandoah Life Insurance Company sold it's broadcasting stations, WSLS-AM-FM-TV to Roy H. Park on October 15, 1969. Some insiders say that this was to raise capitol. Not soon there after, the F.C.C. ruled to break up the television and radio ownerships. WSLS-AM and FM were sold to Bass Broadcasting Division of Fort Worth, Texas. The AM call Letters were Changed to WSLC and the FM became WSLQ.
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