WPTF – A Retrospective
[This article originally appeared in The Raleigh Public Record, a now-defunct, hyperlocal, online news source, in September 2009.]
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 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 in 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 NW corner of the building.”
Today, WPTF’s on-air studios are located off Capital Boulevard in the Smoketree Towers office complex, 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.”
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 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, who owned Durham Life Broadcasting, 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; 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 why 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. They told us what they liked and did not so what we did in large measure reflected what people liked and did not like.”
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. We also had a woman’s editor on staff to provide programs that would interest the ladies that could be home demonstrations or interviews with important women of the day.”
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!”
Storck described 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 her) 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.”
Long-time WPTF reporter Mike Raley agrees. “PTF gave Raleigh a sense of family. Even when I first started and the last 34 years, I can’t count the times they (listeners) said they considered the announcers as family. We gave them someone to depend on at times of disaster. We (the staff) are from all kinds of places. Folks wake to us, sleep to us and we keep them informed. We are like an old friend. It’s how they feel when they meet and talk with you.”
Not all the conversations were happy, though. Charles Stegall recalls the time WPTF “brought in a morning show once, called Adam & Bob, they were from Moline, Illinois, I think. They were a comedy team, which was a big change for PTF. They did one promotion where they asked listeners to send in a self addressed stamped envelope and in return they would get a free chicken dinner. Envelopes came in, and were sent back with a few grains of corn inside. Man, were our listeners upset and let us know it. We got lots of phone calls!”
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 sprit, 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.” Tony recalls they station archives hold a photo of PTF mic and a big collection barrel in downtown Raleigh from the early 40s.
Over time, the service and programming created such a sense of credibility that Maury O’Dell, who now produces a music show for CMG-owned WDOX recalls many listeners thought, “If PTF says it is gotta be the truth.” WPTF provided many things, but news was always the station’s foundation.
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.”
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 60s, 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 called” Doings 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. We were there to keep the city and central part of state informed about what was happening in government and in their everyday (non governmental) lives. If PTF had not been there, many would not have known as much as they did know, whether they wanted to know it or not, they listened and were exposed to the information.”
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 Co 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 50 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 (cities) 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 5am to 6am and then again from 12noon to 1 pm. We had guests regularly from the state agriculture agency. In fact, Commissioner Graham used to talk with us about three times a week. We’d air that at about 5:50am live. He was up then.” 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 1:00 pm to1:30pm. NBC gave us continuous coverage from 2pm thru midnight Friday, and on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 6am 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 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.”
The Hurricane Station
Before hurricane warning systems were invented, Hurricane Hazel devastated North Carolina in 1954 and WPTF were the first to bring the news from the coast. Mike Blackman recalls, “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 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 (24-hour) 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. 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, Bart 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 working 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 6am. 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 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 120 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 am. I could not leave! I was drawn into it and these people just sounded so lost and so desperate. We were this voice in the dark trying to give them information. I could not abandon them or the situation. It was an incredibly moving experience that was probably the pinnacle of my broadcast career. It exemplifies what broadcast is or is supposed to be – the public service part. We were serving the public in a desperate time, giving them information and we were the only people who could do that. I later heard a Jacksonville FL station could be heard there, but we, PTF had a very strong signal down there. You can reach more people on TV but they are at home, watching. On radio, they are in their car, huddled in basement, when the power goes out, there’s more radio and more opportunity to reach people with radio than television. “
Thompson’s work that night did not escape notice. Dick Storck 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 7am 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 (for safety) 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 19??, 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.”
But this was just one example of staff going above and beyond to get the job done, get the story or get the news out. Raley recalls one of his saddest moments involved Hap Hansen trying to get to work. “He worked on nights and I was working the board for an NC State basketball game. We had an ice storm that night and Hap was supposed to the last part of the board op. As Hap drove in, his truck slid and a car hit him and cut the truck in half he hit so hard. I got a call saying Hap was in the hospital and in terrible shape. That was tough. (I recall )one of the first things he said on waking up… he was supposed to bring me biscuits from his wife, and one of his first questions was ‘Where are Mike’s biscuits?’ They were strewn all over old Stage Road.”
Bad weather also led to one of Raley’s proudest moments, during Hurricane Fran. “I came out (of the house) at 2 a.m. and my neighbors asked my wife, ‘Is your husband going to work in this?’ It took me an hour to get in – it usually takes 15 minutes – because of blocked roads. When I got to the station, Rigsbee is out there capturing sound to feed to CBS radio. It was also a low point, you had to continue on, but your house has trees on it, family may be in danger, but you knew the public needed help too. We were all in the same boat and it was our job to provide information.”
Tony Rigsbee recalls, “The only time I felt I was in physical danger covering sports was at the aftermath of the 1983 NCSU basketball championship, covering it on campus.” Apparently the students were so out of control they were rocking news vans on the street and burning all sorts of stuff. Both he and Gary Dornburg decided they could cover the event from a safer distance and took off.
When asked if it was true that WPTF’s hosting North Carolina’s EBS made it a first-strike priority during the Cold War, Storck replied that he was “not sure, but it make sense. Actually something called CONELRAD predated EBS and we did that, too. The signal actually moved back and forth between frequencies 640 to 1240AM to prevent the enemy from triangulating on the towers by tracking the signal. Now, QDR FM is primary and WDCG is the secondary for the state’s EBS (system).
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. “They (NBC) broadcast from 10am to 12 noon, 2 pm to 4 pm and I think 8p-10p, so the rest was local. Then, NBC started to trim back so we needed programming. I think our first talk show ever ran from 3p-4p and it was about birds. I think a bird watching society sponsored it.”
Other show soon followed. As 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 pm. 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.”
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 from 7-9p. 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. He was pals with Bill Jackson the morning man. He came in once a week or so and did the show with Dorny (Gary Dornburg). Woody Durham played a role, too. From 1977 through 1981, he served as Sports and Sports Development at WPTF-TV, but often made the trip “upstairs” to the radio studios.
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 to football came, 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!”
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.” Kearney recalls some acts included Martha White (Flour) sponsored acts, Chet Atkins, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Sonny James and local talent Homer Briarhopper. Kearney also recalls the live organ performances where, “We played for a live audience and had a live broadcast at the same time.”
Sometimes, the listeners were newsworthy. Mike Raley also recalls hosting a late night 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.
Surprisingly, some great entertainment came listeners’ way through WPTF sports announcer, Gary Dornburg. As Mike Raley remembers Dornburg’s Duke Children’s Classic coverage brought access to Perry Como and Buddy Hackett among others.
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 on line 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 sees radio health 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.” Curtis also stated WPTF will continue to devote coverage to natural disasters as it has always done. “In fact,” he stated, “we can serve more areas now through our affiliates.
But that is on the listener side. On the staff side, we can only hope Curtis gets more applicants who fit the mold of a young Tony Rigsbee, who knew that “I did not want to work in radio; I wanted to work for PTF. To spend 25 years there it was dream come true. Working at PTF gave you a connection to everything that had come before.”
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. Open Line was one that started at night and then went to afternoons. The station always reinvented itself.
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.