WTOY was the first black station in the Roanoke Valley when it signed on in February 1969, at 910 AM. The stations owners, Connie and Barry Houseman, came up with the theme using toy blocks as there logo. They had researched the radio market and discovered black radio stations were operating in larger cities. "There was no station in the valley that... had the black sound or gave the black community a voice," said Connie Houseman, who also owned Dixie Caverns and Pottery.
But Houseman didn't know how people would accept it. Here was a black station getting its start in the wake of the civil rights movement and being operated by white owners. "This was when the NAACP was very big and becoming very strong," she said. "It was the right time, but a scary time" to start a black station.
Several owners later, in March 1990, Commonwealth Media announced a change of format and the 910 frequency become the valley's first "News Station". The call letters were changed to WBNI. This turned out to be a bad move and the station ended up being sold. Roanoke was not quite ready for the News-Talk format.
Calling it a business move, Irvin Ward, owner of WSAY (1480 Khz) said he would change the format of his station from gospel and inspirational music to adult contemporary urban music. On April 2, 1990 WSAY became WTOY AM 1480, operating out of a former beauty shop.
According to Roanoke Times staff writer Melanie Hatter, the sound quality may not be as good at WTOY as at an FM station. And sometimes when the announcer is talking, listeners can hear the phone ring in the background. Or the DJ may stumble over an announcement and laugh about it on the air.
But what's important to its listeners is that WTOY is a hometown station in the heart of Roanoke's black community with hometown DJs talking to their neighbors, friends and family.
Even prisoners in jail call in. "The operator says it's a collect call, and you'll hear them shout out the name of the request," says morning DJ and production manager Tone "Tiger" Ellis. He doesn't accept the call, but usually plays their request. "I used to listen to WTOY when I was a kid all the time," said the former William Fleming High School graduate. "And now I work here. It freaks me out". Ellis bounces to the music in his earphones as he waits for the song to end so he can give the weather report and a church announcement. His chair squeakers as he moves. He plays compact discs, but two old turntables with a penny for the weight are to his right. They are mostly used for the gospel albums that line the back wall of the small booth.
Daniel "Duke" Ellington, the station's program director, does the gospel show that follows Ellis'. Ellington also is a Fleming graduate and listened to the station as a teenager. The 5,000 watt station sits at the intersection of Lafayette Boulevard and Cove Road in a modest white building. WTOY's owner, rebuilt the interior to accommodate a radio booth, production room and office. An old aqua General Electric refrigerator, left over from the beauty shop, stands in the corner of one of the cramped offices. Throughout WTOY's history, it has moved numerous times. It's has a number of different owners. But it's still humming and providing a service with no sign of wearing down.