WPTF, the story – Part 1

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CORRECTION APPENDED: WPTF’s studios are located on Highwoods Boulevard just off Capital Boulevard, not in the nearby Smoketree Towers office complex as originally reported.

To mark the 85th birthday of Raleigh’s longest-running radio station, the Raleigh Public Record presents a two-part series on the history of WPTF.  Read Part 2 here.

Image courtesy WPTF.Happy Birthday to WPTF 680 AM, Raleigh’s oldest and (almost) first radio station. Since signing on September 22, 1924 at a mere 50 watts, the station has changed its call letters, frequency, air personalities and programming, but its impact lives on. Learn how WPTF influenced Raleigh and was influenced in turn as we look back at the city’s oldest radio station.

Getting started – power, frequency, call letters and broadcast studios

WPTF was originally called WFBQ when it first signed on September 22, 1924. Broadcasting a mere 50 watts of power from dawn to dusk from a studio located next to the Wake County Courthouse, listeners tuned into 1190 to hear Raleigh’s second radio station. The first was N.C. State’s short-lived WLAC, which stopped broadcasting after one year.

Within two years, the call letters were changed to WRCO (Wynne Radio Company owned it), and the studios moved to the original Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel. The station soon received permission to broadcast at 250 watts 24 hours a day.

The station became one of the first NBC radio affiliates in 1929 and got more than a signal NBC actually came down and helped construct the broadcast studio. Dick Storck, a 22-year WPTF veteran and current program director for WCPE-FM recalls his first trip to those studios. “I first saw the station in 1958 while on a field trip from UNC. I went with another UNC student named Woody Durham. We went to the old building on Salisbury Street, which is now the Waverly F. Akins Wake County Office Building.  We had an organ on what was then the mezzanine level.  We used more than the organ, a lot of country acts came and played live, also local acts.”

Unfortunately, the historic studios are no longer open to the public. When station staff gathered for a reunion after the studios had moved, Storck needed to obtain special permission to visit the space. “It’s not in the common areas; they use it for IT now.  There are no windows to this day on that northwest corner of the building.”

Today, WPTF’s on-air studios are located off Capital Boulevard on Highwood Boulevard, but the transmitter still resides along Highway 54 in an old art deco building.  The building used to do more than house the transmitter, though. It was a civil defense location. Former station meteorologist, Chris Thompson recalls seeing “rations and water and all this stuff still down there the first time I went.”

Image courtesy WPTF.

When Durham Life Broadcasting purchased the station in 1927, it changed the call letters WPTF, an acronym for “We Protect the Family,the slogan used by its parent company, Durham Life Insurance. The signal was boosted to 500 watts and the frequency changed to 720 AM. One year later, the station received permission to move down the dial to 680 and boost the signal to 1,000 watts, so long as the station signed off at sundown.

In 1933, station power rose to 5,000 watts, but the real power surge happened in 1940 when the station jumped to where it stands today, a sizzling 50,000 watts. Not every AM station broadcasts at that power and the small group that do are known as clear channel stations.  Today, WPTF’s daytime signal is smaller than its directional evening signal, which can be clearly heard to the Bahamas.

In 1984, Don Curtis sold WEWO and WSTS to Durham Corporation for a package of publicly traded stock and cash. After acquiring more stock, Curtis became one of Durham Corporation’s largest stockholders. As an officer of that company, Curtis took the company from a deficit of nearly $300,000 to a profit in excess of $1.7 million in two years. A difference of opinion with the company’s board of directors over the future of Durham Life Broadcasting led Curtis to return full-time to Curtis Radio Group.

In 1991, CRG changed its name to Curtis Media Group and purchased the radio division of Durham Life Broadcasting. The transaction was valued at $9 million and included the purchase of WQDR, a 100,000 watt FM in Raleigh and WPTF, the 50,000 watt heritage AM in Raleigh.

On August 10, 2009, Curtis Media Group announced the formation of a News Network Division that will “distribute News, Weather, Sports, and Entertainment programs to other Radio Stations. By merging the News rooms of NCNN with WPTF to create the largest Radio News staff in North Carolina.

The public interest, convenience and necessity

Harking back to radio’s pre-deregulatory standards of public airwaves policy, WPTF worked to serve the public “interest, convenience and necessity.” As the only radio outlet serving a host of needs, the station needed to be many things to many people. It also needed to become part of the community it served. Like most good community members, the station shaped the city it served and was shaped by the city itself.

As Bart Ritner, who worked for WPTF for 39 years describes it, “In large measure, PTF programming reflected the area that it served. This was before ascertainment, but people told staff and management what they did and did not like, people on the street would call and say ‘you should not say so-and-so about such-and-such.’ We had our thumb on the pulse because people called and we listened.”

It’s hard to imagine the impact of a radio station in a city with one or two newspapers and no television station, but until WPTF’s arrival, news traveled slowly in the state’s capital. Bad roads and tight finances prevented newspaper delivery in many places, so free radio news and entertainment opened the door to a broader world for many in Raleigh and, in later years, downeast North Carolina.

Today WPTF hosts a news-talk radio format and competes for market share with many other stations offering their own niche content. But in the beginning, as the only radio station in town, variety was the name of the game.

As Tom Kearney, current staff member and unofficial station archivist, observed, “The city itself shaped what the station put on air. Raleigh had more culture than other towns it size. Six to eight universities, so we had more artists, musicians and intelligentsia than most.  We programmed for these folks, but we also served eastern North Carolina and served them as well with farm news and all sorts of programs that would help their daily lives. We had a farm program up until 1990.”

As Dick Storck describes it, the two-way influence wasn’t just good radio, it was matter of survival. “I think WPTF is a reflection of the community. If we were not a reflection, we would not have had any ratings!”

Community Connections

Storck said the station earned those ratings by being “a community bulletin board of news and entertainment, too. We covered hurricanes, city government and state government. When PTF went on the air, Raleigh was a smaller city than Durham, though it was the state capital.  Having a radio station was a source of pride for the city.”

Mel Fry, long-time local piano professional concurs.  He knows WPTF studios boasted pianos for visiting musical acts because he had the privilege of rebuilding one after its sale to the wife of station engineer. Chet Atkins appeared there live so he must’ve played it.” In addition to music, he said WPTF was “the station you listened to for the local news,” but he fondly recalls the long-running program Ask Your Neighbor. “It was more down to the daily living level. It gave you a break from the music and news. They sold everything, lots of stuff from the home. It was like a yard sale only on the radio.”

Former long-time morning man Maury O’Dell explained the shows origins. “Ask Your Neighbor was started way back by a detergent company in the Midwest. They created the idea and went around and bought time on stations. After they stopped sponsoring the show, most stations dropped it, but WPTF just continued the program.”

O’Dell recalls it was “basically a swap shop and part of it was asking for answers – how to remove stains from leather, how to make a banana pudding. I put out four cookbooks from that show and they were good sellers. The recipes came from the listeners.” But as Maury recalls, the show did more than solve problems, it brought Raleigh residents, old and new, together. “I’ve had folks (who just moved here) from northern states and even California call in and say ‘You made me feel at home because of that program.” Maury recalls they started each show telling listeners, “This is a service we’re providing for you, so if you have a problem with a stain, can’t find a certain recipe, maybe you are from out of town and need an ethnic recipe, we will find the answer for you.”

Storck described Ask Your Neighbor as a group conversation. “When we talked, it was not so much a show, but a conversation that we had with our guests that folks got to hear. If they called in, they become part of conversation. It is easier to serve the public when it is both live and local. That was PTF at its best, we got involved in the community.

As O’Dell sees it, WPTF was committed to its audience.  “In the strictest sense, broadcasting served the community; they (the owners) almost put that ahead of profit. Durham Life was very attuned to doing stuff in the community and took ‘giving back’ very seriously; we did a lot more public service than just public service announcements. I worked a lot of Lazy Days. The station encouraged us to be active and contribute to our community. I can’t count the number of charity golf tournaments I’ve played in – Duke, Rex, others, even small ones no one knew about, just to promote the station and help with a charitable enterprise.  I recall on 9-11, we raised about three to four hundred thousand in one day! We were out on Capital Boulevard just letting folks drive through and the response was just unbelievable. That goes back to how PTF influenced the city, they were thanking us back for the things the station did for Raleigh.”

The 2001 fundraiser built on long-standing WPTF practice. Former sportscaster Tony Rigsbee noted the station definitely “influenced people on encouraging civic activity. So many programs featured community folks involved in community activities and fostered a volunteer spirit, especially in 40s and 50s. During World War II they organized drives for rationed items that were broadcast live at collection points. Stuff for the war effort and troops overseas. Anything with rubber in it was highly prized.”

“Shut up and let the newsmaker do the talking

Getting the news on air required flexibility, creativity and a lot of hard work, but the staff knew listeners often had no other source. Former broadcaster Bart Ritner recalls, “Often folks did not get the paper, so before TV, radio was the sole source.” And as Mike Blackman, who still works for the station attests with a true broadcaster’s pride, ”Radio is usually the first to cover something, too. That is the service that PTF did for the community, we would go out and get the news.

Working in the WPTF studio circa 1980. All images courtesy WPTF.

And get the news they did. “In 1924,” former news director Charles Stegall recalls, “we sent a fellow to the transmitter out on Highway 54 because that is where the news network feed came in. I don’t recall the network name, AP maybe, but I do recall it arrived in Morse code. So we’d send a guy out there who would get the feed, translate it and then we would broadcast the news. In 1929 we became of the NBC’s first radio affiliates.”

The association, notes Tom Kearney, made a tremendous impact. The national outlet “really gave a window to the world in the days when roads were bad. We brought music, culture and news to the people.” NBC actually did more than supply content, he noted. They came down and actually designed the studios.

The staff made up for its size with effort.  As Rigsbee recalls, Jim Reid and Phil Ellis covered news in the 40s and 50s. Reid later became mayor of Raleigh. In the 1960s, Bob Farrington was in charge. The general assembly coverage was comprehensive. A full 15 minutes every night when they were in session. It was called “The Legislative Day.Carl Goerch, who went on to found Our State magazine also covered the in a show calledDoings of the Legislature.”  As Tony Rigsbee, former longtime PTF sportscaster recalls,At that time, WPTF and the News & Observer were the Capital Press Corps.

Local folks got their say as well, recalls Stegall. We had the news and a show sponsored by Streetmans Biscuit Company in the 40s and 50s where the news of the days was commented on by man in the street.” As the station was located right by the Wake County Court House, this led to “some high profile citizens and just average joes.”

One high profile citizen was not shy about telling the station how he felt. And like any other listener, WPTF put him on the air. Blackman recalls the day: ”I’m on the air and someone from the legislature, I think, was saying something he (Governor Bob Scott) doesn’t like. Well he calls up during a commercial break and said he wanted to go on the air because he had something to say. And that’s exactly what we did!”

But Scott was just one of many reacting to WPTF. Given more information, Raleigh citizens became more vocal. Blackman notes, “The station used to influence city government a great deal. When I first got here, WPTF had full-time city hall and general assembly reporters. Folks in Raleigh needed to know what city government does and an informed population is a powerful tool for change. Because they were more informed, the people were more liable to take action.

WPTF is known for staying with a story when situations warrant.  One vivid example that stays with Stegall “was our coverage of the Raleigh-Wake County school merger. The hearing started that morning and lasted until late at night. We began live coverage at noon with a live anchor and just stayed with it. It was one of the biggest things to happen and our listeners got all the news as it happened.”

As the signal changed, so did the programming. With the jump to 500 watts “news became more regional, but so did the audience,” said Storck. Stegall concurred. ”We really did not cover any city but Raleigh. There were others that got our signal, but this is where we concentrated. Of course, once we had the 800 number, our callers rang in from all areas and cities.

At the time, agriculture was so pervasive it was both a city and rural issue. Stegall recalls, “We used to do two full farm hours, one at 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and then again from noon to 1 p.m.” As the city changed,  so did the station. “We don’t air the farm news now like that, it was cut in the 80s, I believe, but PTF did not stop it entirely. They started a network called Southern Farm Network that is still thriving today.

The practice of staying with a story was not reserved for local news. The Kennedy assassination led to what Stegall refers to as one of his proudest WPTF moments. “It was Friday and death was declared around 1 to1:30 p.m. NBC gave us continuous coverage from 2 p.m. through midnight Friday, and on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 6 a.m. until 12 midnight. After that we played classical. I made it a point to make sure we only played somber music when the news was not on, out of respect for the moment and the listeners. Our program director, Poyner, was to air a football game that Friday evening, but yanked it. We got some complaints, but we stayed with the Kennedy coverage all that time. I’m really proud of that decision to this day.”

The news staff grew and by the 1960s, Blackman recalls, “We had such a large staff, we did a half-hour documentary ever single month. You don’t see that anymore. Longevity counted for us.  The longer a reporter stayed the better his or her contacts and knowledge. “

Sometimes, the struggle to get the news led to unexpected outcomes. Blackman recalls the time the first President Bush was coming to town to do some campaigning in the Clinton race. He had no time for me once he arrived, but they said they could patch me into Air Force One and we could chat live on the air. Amazing sound quality. I had no major focus, but this being an election year, and Clinton saying the economy was bad, I asked him about that. I said, ‘Mr. President, some are saying that the economy is going to Hades in a hand basket.’ This was radio and no way was I going to use the word hell, but the president came right back and said, ‘The economy is not going to hell in a hand basket‘ and went on in that vein for quite some time.”

Today, despite airing conservative talk shows, WPTF news remains independent. As Blackman describes, “PTF news is neither conservative nor liberal, we just report what is going on. After Obama won, we did a lot of coverage, naturally, and we were accused of not doing that for Bush, which of course we did. People have short memories. We air all kinds of programs, but the news is standalone. I tell reporters ‘No one is interested in your opinion. You shut up and let the newsmaker do the talking.'”

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