March 23, 2020, Susan Harber, The Daily News Journal
Standby….and Action! WGNS Radio has 72 years of deep and time-honored history in Murfreesboro. There were 10,000 residents in the city when the station signed on the air on New Year’s Eve of 1946. At the time, there were no local television stations or competing radio dials. Talk Radio was introduced in 1991 and remains a dominant feature of this special station.
Today, this column will reveal the bare highlights and achievements of a ‘walk through time’ of the greatest local radio station in the state. I was interviewed at the station in 2017 regarding the Civil War history of the Johns/King Home in Smyrna. I was so fascinated by the entire process and loved every moment of being a part of this historical station firsthand. On the day I stopped by, Bryan Barrett was host and so professional and hard working.
The station upholds a positive spin to the core of their content. The call letters represent ‘Good Neighbor Station’ and operate on AM 1450, FM 100.5, FM 101.9 and a TV station WETV-LP. The mastermind of the operation is Bart Walker, who was born in Knoxville yet created a lifetime home in Murfreesboro. He is a fabulous writer and on-air personality, who has a beautiful baritone voice. He is a gentleman always smiling and maintains a winning and affable personality. Bart was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame in 2016. His son Scott Walker is at the helm of day-to-day operations.
Bart is in his 35th year with WGNS and thrives on his position in radio. As a 10-year old, he received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for Christmas from Santa, and the dream began. By 7th grade in 1957, he built a low-power AM station with enough voltage and power to excite field agents of the FCC. Soon afterward, Belle Meade Theater manager E.J. Jordan offered Bart the chance to interview classic performers, such as Fess Parker, Pat Boone, and Guy Lombardo, who came by the playhouse to sign the ‘Wall of Fame.’WKDA DJ Ronn Terrell was a mentor to prospective youth and offered Walker experience to cover Friday night visits to his radio show.
At age 14, Bart was at Nashville’s WFMB station with easy listening and classical music in the L&C Tower; and, at age 21, he worked at WLAC-FM for three years as morning host. In 1968, Bart graduated from MTSU after studying journalism and moved to Nashville to work with the Department of Education and later with an ad agency. From 1965-1968, he worked at WBFJ in Woodbury as Program Director and with WAMB ‘Big Band format’ in Nashville from 1971-1984.
Bart has been very visible in community service and activism long-term in our county. He received the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters Distinguished Service Award and Leadership Rutherford’s Pinnacle Award. He was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame in 2016. He has truly performed the magic for radio artistry in Rutherford County.
The journey began on a cold, chilling night on December 31, 1946 at 10 pm when a clear new signal on dial 1450 was suddenly in motion. On New Year’s Day 1947, popular dance bands were beaming in the homes of 8,000 listeners in rural Rutherford County. Further, a broadcast of the Cotton Bowl game in Dallas was on-air this day for eager sports fans. Cecil Elrod, Jr (1913-1977) was general manager, and Bill Pepper was station manager.Ownership of the station began with the Elrod family, who operated WGNS for 13 years. The broadcast studio was originally just 300 feet from the radio tower that was situated on a nearby Murfree Spring wetland. Cattle and farmland surrounded the 328-foot tower. A year later, the station moved to the mezzanine of Cecil Elrod’s elegant French Shoppe on the east side of Murfreesboro square. Both Bart Walker and former State Representative John Hood worked diligently there in the 1950s.
In 1960, Bill Vogel owned and operated WGNS. The Elrods built the two-story structure at 306 South Church Street as a studio and leased space to Vogel. Monte Hale, Sr, a talented broadcaster, partnered with Vogel for 19 years. Bill Barry, a World War II veteran, was one of the first on-air personalities and a highly intelligent technician at WGNS. He moved on to build powerful radio stations in Middle Tennessee. Another early announcer was ‘Pee Wee’ Brown, who served the station for 38 years and was a pioneer in remote broadcasting for WGNS. From 1979-1984, the Davidson Corporation owned the station. In 1984, local ownership returned with the purchase by Bart Walker and Ray Kalil. Bart later purchased Kalil’s share along with the building still owned by the Elrods.
During the primitive days of radio, equipment encompassed big tubes that produced much heat causing complex maintenance issues. The introduction of transistors and advanced technology is now much smaller and produces perfected sound. Broadcasting ‘live’ today by digital technology is much less complicated and a triumph for the radio industry.
WGNS has a hometown emphasis like none other. Live feeds through the years promoted square dances, garden shows, street festivals, fundraisers, and grand openings for stores. Chili Cook-offs, Red Cross blood drives, and Uncle Dave Macon Days were also thoroughly covered. The emerging Murfreesboro Center for Arts and the 1987 opening of Sports Com were ‘front and center’ events. Bob Dole was at the Murfreesboro Civic Plaza in 1996 running for president and being showcased by WGNS. Scores of politicians were welcome to state their positions on the airwaves. Every resident within Murfreesboro remembers viewing the live remote vehicles, including a station Corvette, starting in the 1960s.
Sports were dominant at WGNS from the first day. Before the Blue Raider Network was born, WGNS was promoting college and high school sports in 1947. In the same year, the first Sports Director was Ray Duffey, a beloved Murfreesboro commentator, who made a strong entrance along with ‘color’ broadcasting that included gifted announcer Hollis Harris. The public could now listen at home to a basketball game at Central High and feel as if they were there in person. Through the decades, numerous athletes from area high schools have received outstanding recognition in baseball, basketball, and football by radio. Many thousands of games have been anchored by fantastic sportscasters B.K. Hamm, Monte Hale, Chip Walters, Jeff Jordan, Bryan Barrett, Dick Palmer and Jon Dinkins. Since 1981, the station has been a huge supporter of Atlanta Braves baseball and continues to broadcast their games.Strong expertise has permeated the walls of WGNS. Glenn Snoddy, a savvy engineer, moved on from WGNS to become a dynamo in country music, as he engineered hits by Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash at his Woodland Studios in Nashville. He recorded Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Neil Young, Don Gibson and Waylon Jennings. Carl P. Mayfield, a 25-year veteran of WKDF fame, and radio superstar John Young both began careers at WGNS. John Young is a member of the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame.In March 2007, WGNS broadcast on FM 100.5 and FM 101.l. They were the first radio station in the United States to expand FM translator service to a community. In present-day programming, on-air features include local high school and MTSU events and national sports, as well as Swap and Shop, news, finance, and religious programming on Sundays. The ‘Coaches Show’ and a flurry of permanent talk-show hosts add so many flavors to the mix in this daily line-up.
A very serious, tumultuous chapter within station history occurred on Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001. A powerful tornadic storm destroyed WGNS’ massive radio tower of steel that crashed hard to the ground. The current program ‘Straight from the Heart’ was suddenly quieted. When Bart Walker received the disastrous call, he immediately inquired ‘are the tower lights on?’ His need to know if electricity was ever-present proved all-important. The issue at hand was a resultant loss of 75% of the tower. With huge community support at a Zoning meeting, the 378-foot tower was replaced and set in motion by a 300-ton crane three months later, and all was well. Former WGNS employee Bill Barry was instrumental in rebuilding the tower that now beams 32 stories high above Murfreesboro as its tallest structure. A hundred years from today, WGNS will remember Bart Walker as the embodiment of devotion and perseverance for coursing a top-rated radio station in Murfreesboro. Bart beheld Murfreesboro’s growth from a small town to a large city of 141,000; and, in turn, his station grew in stature with the times. His goals of vision, supreme quality and premium broadcasting have far exceeded the master plan.