WPTF, The story – Part 2

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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 1 here.

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.

The Hurricane Station

Before hurricane warning systems were invented, Hurricane Hazel devastated North Carolina in 1954 and WPTF was the first to bring the news from the coast.  WPTF’s Mike Blackman: “Hurricane Hazel was before my time, but as I recall we had the first coverage and it came from a flight arranged by a state construction company who loaned both a pilot and a plane. The audio is amazing as it predated reel to reel, they were recording on wires”

“PTF always sends someone to the coast when a hurricane was coming and not everyone did,” recalls former news director Charles Stegall, but hurricanes were not the only natural disaster covered. “We handled the tornadoes that went through Lauringburg to the northeast (in 1984). PTF went to wall-to-wall coverage and fed news to all our affiliates. We did the same when tornadoes hit the North Hills area (in 1988).”

Getting news in a natural disaster didn’t often make for a safe or comfortable beat, but the staff – and the station – persevered. Thirty-nine-year WPTF staffer Bart Ritner remembers, “So often we would get all geared up and nothing happened. On several snow days, we would drive the roads to check the conditions and how traffic was flowing. The last time I had to do that, a portion of I-40 was already open, but I was the only fool out there driving around checking to see how the roads were, but who cared, no one was on them.”

When asked how the station managed to find staff to work at such times, Ritner replied, “They could not leave, they were trapped. They came in to report and could not get out. We ended up sleeping on the floors and under tables. Some stayed out of dedication. Others just had no choice…but since we were there, we worked.” And in these days of specialization, it is hard to remember when everyone did everything. Rigsbee notes that staff “did farm coverage, Ask Your Neighbor, you were a generalist, you had to do a bit of everything and that made you a more complete broadcaster.”

Or a more complete engineer. As WPTF’s corporate history states, “In 1996, WPTF provided coverage of Hurricane Fran even though the station was without power for nearly a week. The station and transmitter site ran on generator power, allowing residents in the Triangle and beyond to call in for storm and damage information and find out where to get needed supplies, such as ice, water, and food.” Much of that was made possible by the long-term commitment provide by Bob Royal, who worked at the station for 60 years before retirement. From live musicians to hurricanes and annual remote broadcast from the N.C. State Fair, WPTF’s engineers made reporting live and local possible.

That made the WPTF difference possible. They not only covered disasters, they worked to relieve the suffering left in their wake. Even when it was more heartfelt than devastating.  As newscaster Stegall remembers, “I personally lived near NCSU and (in bad weather) ended up walking in because of the bad roads around 6 a.m. I was the only one there and the phone was lit up like a Christmas tree with kids wanting to know if they’d get out of school that day. That happened more than once. “

Long before the Weather Channel, Mike Blackman covered so many hurricanes for the station for the simple reason that he knows the area and, as a ham radio operator, he has access to news sources most traditional reporters don’t.  His memory of covering Hurricane Gloria would make most weather station broadcasters wince.

“I went to the beach like usual and, like usual, drove past all the evacuation signs on the side of the road. I went to Fort Fisher, the ground’s low there and if it’s going to flood, that would be a good place to see it. Well, the road was clear, so I pulled up into the parking lot thinking ‘this isn’t that bad’ and got ready to file a report. Next thing I knew, the wind pushed my truck sideways about four to five feet.  I was live at the time, so I described what was happening and then got off the air and left as fast as he could!  Then I figured I’d check out Emerald Isle. The high bridge there was closed – it gave great visibility – so I went on down to the next high rise bridge and that was the one to Beaufort.  There’s a sign saying ‘Don’t travel if winds are above 40.’ Well, I had no idea what the winds were, so off I go and let me tell you, I was at the top of that thing and got hit so hard by a gust! I was so relieved when I got to the other side, and then I realized I was on an island and needed to go back over the bridge. It was after that I bought a weather system for my truck.”

Then there was Hurricane Fran. “Once again, I’m on the road, this time I-40 and no one else is there, but I did see a big convoy of CP&L trucks headed east. I passed them and saw this cop car on one side blocking a lane. That was when I realized one lane of I-40 was flooded.  I reported that, went a bit further and then I found that both lanes were covered with water!”  Weeks later, CP&L told him how much his reports helped them.”

Not all of WPTF’s reports required on-the-scene reporting, but they still required endurance. Meteorologist Chris Thompson appeared on Durham Life Broadcasting’s TV station, but also did meteorologist work for WPTF. As he recalls, “Hurricane Hugo came into South Carolina and as it did it knocked the power out, so there were no local radio stations. I ended the news on TV and went up to PTF to record audio because the storm required an update. The studio guys invited me to sit down because I used to work in Charleston, knew the area and they were getting calls from there.

“Before we went on air, I tuned into Charleston so we could see the radar in the WPTF control room and when they started taking calls from SC, I knew where they were, all the little towns and neighborhoods. I could talk to them about what was going on, like with the eye wall. The emotion was just incredible. One guy was huddled in the house said there was a deafening roar outside. It gave me chills. I could say “you probably have 20 minutes before the break (the eye) but don’t go far from your house, because it will start back up again. I was just trying to keep folks informed. I stayed on the air until 5 a.m.”

Thompson’s work that night did not escape notice. Dick Storck, 22-year WPTF veteran, said, “We captured the broadcast on reel-to-reel. When we submitted it, we won a national award from the National Association of Broadcasters. That met the standards I was taught in school, radio should serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.” Or as Mike Blackman put it, “Only radio can do that. That was great radio and a public service. That is what you get your license for and that was a proud moment.”

Tales of Derring-Do

Even fine weather didn’t guarantee an easy gig.  Reporter Mike Raley recalls covering a hostage situation at North Hills at a time when the Unabomber was still at large. “I got there before the police tape went up. North Hills, It was before cell phones and my bag phone was not charged, so I did my reports from the phone booth at the corner of the Exxon station. I reported live to CBS from that phone booth.   I had to wait a while before I could get my car. I was there all day. It was a hard 12-hour day, but it was good radio.”

When asked if he ever felt his life was in danger getting the news Mike recalled another long hot day.” I once covered a 7 a.m. story in downtown Raleigh. I was sent to southeast Raleigh where, apparently a father had holed up in a house with guns and his young son. I recall it being very hot July day and standing out there with other reporters and watching RPD climb buildings and looking at the house. We were herded back and could not see the house. Later on that day, there was gunfire. The little boy died. I think the father did too. I recall standing in a circle near that street after we got word from the RPD and hearing screeching tires. The wife of that man was coming down that street knowing something terrible had happened. We had to scatter, she came on so fast. I thought I might die that day.”

When prisoners at Central Prison took hostages in mid-April 1968, one WPTF staffer became part of the story. Ritner recalls he “got a call from Sam Garrison, the warden at the time, and he wanted me to come down there because the hostage takers had demanded a media presence.” I went to Central (the old one) and found the folks holed up in an office on the second or third floor, they were barricaded. My function was to hear what they were demanding and take it down to the warden’s office. I had guards next to the room, but that was it. I made four or five trips, took them food and water and took messages back to the warden.”

“The warden’s office was full of prison officials and assorted responding parties so I would go and say, ‘Well, they want such and such.’ There was a discussion and then they would tell me, ‘Go back and tell them they can do this or we don’t agree with that’” This went on for a couple of days at least.  I did get to go back home and sleep, though. What they really wanted and I’m not sure why, was that they said they felt threatened, that they would be harmed if they stayed at Central Prison. This was why they took the hostages, as I recall. They wanted to be transferred to the federal prison in Petersburg, Va. Central agreed to transfer them, which they did one morning – it was the second or third day, I don’t recall. They transferred them at 3 or 4 am and lived up to their agreement. Of course, the next day they had to transport them back, because the prisoners at Central – knowing they had kept their end of the deal – released the hostages. So the hostages were freed and the inmates transferred were returned to Central.”

The Birth of WPTF Talk Shows

Known today as a talk-news station, WPTF’s first talk shows were more a matter of necessity, according to Charles Stegall. He said NBC gave the station 8 hours of programming a day, but then the network “started to trim back so we needed programming. I think our first talk show ever ran from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. and it was about birds. I think a bird watching society sponsored it.”

Other show soon followed. As long-time reporter Mike Raley recalls, “I can’t be sure that we started the talk show as a format in NC, but we may as well have. Bart (Ritner) had one of the first controversial talk shows with Open Line in the ‘70s. We had the first controversy based show where folks debated things on the air.”

Not all shows were controversial, though. The now-defunct Sportsline began in the mid 70s, Weekend Gardener continues after 20 years on air and Tom Kearney can still be heard interviewing guests nightly from 10 to 11 p.m.  None of the hosts shied away from controversy, but as Tom recalls, “When you do a talk show, you always wonder if folks are going to come and get you after your shift.”

Sports

The introduction of live radio sports delighted listeners who’d previously relied on twilight to make New York and Chicago stations available through the sky wave phenomena. As Stegall recalls, with NBC “there was national sports and the World Series. On the local side, we had the coach shows with coaches coming in for interviews from Duke, Carolina and NCSU for Sportsline, which aired two hours each night. Every New Year’s Day we ran three football games.”

On the local end of things, Raley recalls “Bill Jackson did play-by-play and Wally Ausley did color. Sportsline was an institution. It was started in the early 70s. Dick Herbert, the sports editor of the N&O came by regularly.”

WPTF was the flagship station for the NC State Wolfpack sports network for more than 40 years until Wolfpack Sports Marketing announced it had signed a ten-year deal to move its flagship to Capitol Broadcasting Company‘s WRAL-FM.

Sports can be controversial, but as a morning man, Maury usually left that to Dornburg.  Still, he remembers he raised the ire of Florida football fans. “While doing the morning show with Gary, I said, ‘It will be interesting when they enter the football game, they’ll have to say their name, their prison term and their ID number.’ I got a lot of flack about that from Florida state grads.”

He also remembers the day NCSU’s Willis Casey pulled the plug on the tailgate show. “I wanted the show on the speakers inside the stadium so early arrivals could hear the show. It lasted all of about 10 minutes. I played an interview Gary did with the head coach of NCSU. The head coach was talking about what a great team UNC had (they were to play UNC) and Willis ran up to the press box pulling cords to shut the audio off. He (Willis) was the athletic director at the time and we never got back on the PA again.”

Entertainment

As Storck notes, “The thing we did best was news, but we were like TV in that we also had other programs, like music and information.” Storck should know. He created and hosted “The WPTF Record Vault,” a popular music history program.

But most of that was recorded. Hosting live music is the exception today, but it was quite common in early radio. Blackman explains how radio stations got the acts. “The model was a sponsored singer would come through, play on a radio stations and then play clubs around the area that got the signal

Sometimes, the listeners were newsworthy. Mike Raley also recalls hosting a late-night program called Nightsong where listeners sent in dedications. “I got letters from Velma Barfield, the first female to be executed in North Carolina.  She would dedicate songs to a male prisoner in another prison unit.”

What’s Next?

Today, WPTF broadcasts in a crowded marketplace of other radio stations, but is still going strong. Arbitron’s Spring 2009 and Fall 2008  survey of the Raleigh-Durham area shows the stations garners 17,100 listeners every quarter hour with a daily total of 154,00 per day.  One thing unique about the station’s listeners is how long they stay tuned in. According to Arbitron, WPTF’s “average time spent listening” is an incredible 7 hours and 15 minutes.

By adding part of NCNN’s news talent and its 72 affiliates statewide, WPTF will boast the state’s largest radio news gathering and broadcasting facilities. Instead of just serving Raleigh, WPTF news will reach every corner of the state. As owner Don Curtis explains, “Most of these are small stations that would have difficulty getting state news and this will fill the gap.”

Curtis also sees changes ahead. Not just for WPTF, but in radio news in general. “As we air topics, the listener can go online and see what other callers’ opinions are. They can Twitter with them or e-mail them. Also, we can tell how big a topic is when we are discussing, say, the economy.  With wireless Internet and mobile devices such as iPhones, we can hear from eight to ten thousand people at a time. If they say it is boring, we’ll know to change. Or, it might be, ‘I like this, but I want to know more about that. We will have more instant feedback from the listener.”

This new style of reporting will also make the best use of the applicants that keep coming to WPTF. As Curtis explains, “The applicants are bright, especially the ones from schools of communication. They are of a breed where they know they need to be multifaceted. To write for radio and Internet and whatever else is out there. They no longer can specialize in one thing, but in a way it is an advantage because you can cover more. You can have sidebars, actually have pictures and still include all the things that only radio can do. It will also allow us to do more long form pieces. If we talk to Representative Bob Etheridge and get an hour on tape, that might be a 20 second news story, but we can put the whole thing on the Internet and folks can listen to all of it if they want.

Curtis also says he thinks radio will stay healthy in the future because it fits the way people multitask today. “If it is on a screen, it takes all their attention, but with audio, you can do one thing and listen and that is radio’s real strength. It is for people that can multitask, because we are in a multitasking world.  Everyone wants to do two things at once.”

Everything that came before shaped this city, which in turn shaped the station. The result was a station that, as Curtis describes, “reinvents itself. In the 30s, WPTF was the only show in town and with no TV, there was Jack Benny and soap operas. During war, that dominated our coverage. In the Fifties there was more music and then it (the station) evolved into talk shows.”

Even if many local talk shows have been replaced with national names like Limbaugh, Lumaye, and Hannity, some local flavor remains. Triangle Trader (an outgrowth of Ask Your Neighbor’s swap shop), Weekend Gardener with Mike Raley and Tom Kearney’s week night interview show survive. Station owner Don Curtis takes to the airwaves personally with a four-hour interview show each Sunday night.

After 85 years, the station has earned its legacy. When asked about the next 85 years, Curtis said,” I probably won’t make it the whole time. But anytime something is 85 years old, you look back at all the people who worked here. It helps you appreciate the folks who have been here and those who are yet to come.”

Happy birthday to the capital city’s longest running radio station, WPTF. Best wishes for at least another 85 happy returns.

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