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Front Page - Friday, May 26, 2017

Jenkins perspective: 50,000 watts can’t be silenced; WFLI roars back

Former WFLI deejay Johnny Eagle makes a phone call from the WFLI Prize Van, circa 1961.  This photo (sadly, not the van) will be part of the new Top 40 Museum that will be part of the revived WFLI studios just outside of Chattanooga. - Photograph courtesy David Carroll

The much-mourned demise of Chattanooga radio giant WFLI, once considered the Mid-South’s most powerful AM station, turned out to be short-lived.

WFLI, which dominated Chattanooga’s airways in its rock and roll glory days, was scheduled to “go dark” permanently on March 31, taking with it a history worthy of a museum dedicated to Top 40 music.

And, in fact, a Top 40 history museum is scheduled to be part of the new set-up once the new owners, Evan Stone and Marshall Bandy, take full control.

The sale, which is rumored to be for between $1-2 million, awaits final FCC approval. But that is expected to be no problem because both men have a long history with local radio.

Stone, 52, is the owner and on-air morning host of a news-talk station in his hometown of Trenton, Georgia, WKWN, as well as the editor of the county’s online newspaper. But small-town American entrepreneurs always have more than one gig, so Stone also is a funeral director at Moore Funeral Home in Trenton.

Bandy has been a practicing personal injury and bankruptcy attorney in his hometown of Ringgold, Georgia, since 1975, but also has a long history in local radio. Beginning in 1986 and throughout the 90s, Bandy was the owner of the highly popular LiteMix 105 in Chattanooga. For the last decade, he has been the owner of a low-power, nonprofit FM station in Ringgold, WAAK, 94.7.

Bandy was quickly convinced by Stone that there was an opportunity when it was first known that the station was for sale.

Stone and Bandy were awarded the station by Ying Benns, the widow of longtime owner/operator Billy Benns. It had been on the market for several years, but at a price that made any sale unlikely. Stone and Bandy had been in talks with the widow for a number of months, and ultimately made a novel pitch that won the day.

The unique aspect of the WFLI compound – which encompasses some nine acres in Tiftonia – is the retro look of the station. Largely untouched since its ‘60s heyday, Bandy and Stone saw much more than just a studio. As a result, the site will be opened to the public sometime in the near future as a Top 40 Radio Museum, dedicated to everything and anything during those glory days.

“There’s plenty of room right there,” Bandy adds. “It will take some time to acquire some donations. But we’re looking at opening (the museum) by spring of next year.”

Ironically, Bandy’s current station, WAAK, serves as the station that hosts a weekly show by Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame deejay Tommy Jett – whose long career took off as a member of an elite lineup of on-air talent at WFLI.

Local newsman and Chattanooga radio/TV historian David Carroll, who will be on the museum board, detailed much of WFLI’s history for an article on his web site when the station’s closing was first announced in March.

“I’ve seen how people react at the mention of WFLI,” Carroll writes. “The sound of the soaring jet and the echoing “Down...beat-beat-beat,” are embedded in the heads of everyone who grew up in the Chattanooga area in the 60s and 70s. I’ve seen grown men moved to tears upon meeting (top station deejay) Tommy Jett.

“What makes a radio station so special?” Carroll continues. “Was it the music? The voices? The personalities? The promotions? The simple answer is, ‘Yes,’ to all of the above.”

WFLI initially signed on as a 10,000-watt station in February of 1961, but became a Southeastern landmark in 1967 with its growth to a rare 50,000-watt signal that was the by-product of a unique water-cooled transmitter that is still in use today.

The station, known to the public as “JetFli,” was a hot Top 40 station through most of the 60s and into the 70s, but the advent of FM stereo radio caused a radical shift in listeners’ preferences and formats.

The growth of the local FM rock market led WFLI to switch to a country music format in 1980 after dabbling in disco, and then to gospel in 1982. It remained an outlet for local preachers and their music until the decision to go dark on March 31 of this year.

Bandy confirms that WFLI will assume a news talk format largely copying the lineup on Stone’s FM station.

He is hopeful that Stone’s lineup of Rick and Bubba in the morning, financial planner Dave Ramsey in the early afternoon and controversial sports commentator Paul Finebaum will hold down the drive time.

Additionally, Bandy is hopeful of returning popular conservative host Sean Hannity to Chattanooga airwaves.

He has been absent locally since being dropped by WGOW-AM, which now figures to be the new WFLI’s chief competition.

There might even be a chance that a time slot would be made available for Jett to return to his old stomping grounds.

“You cannot separate Tommy Jett from WFLI,” Bandy explains. “He might even announce it back onto the air.”

Carroll himself is counted as one of the station’s on-air alums.

In that gone-but-not-forgotten era of amazing local radio – the days before FM took over – WFLI dominated for many years, but hardly had a monopoly on what people were listening to.

For whatever reason, my Class of 1975, especially in the lower grades, all flocked to the “other” AM rock station on the dial, WDXB. At 1490, it was far removed from WFLI spot on the dial and few ever made to the mistake of listening to the other by accident.

“Dixbie” had a lesser signal, but it was an underdog station with glorious delusions of grandeur that captured the imagination of a 15-year-old rock music aficionado.

First of all, WDXB took a back seat to no one with local legends on the radio.

In the mornings, Chickamauga Charlie was spirited away from his base at WGOW, while Johnnie Walker was the perfect entertainment for a kid just getting home from school during “drive time.”

While WDXB was a pioneer in Chattanooga radio right alongside WFLI, WDEF and a few others, its glory days ended abruptly in 1990. The station was sold, the call letters changed to WJOC and Chattanooga, albeit briefly, had an ahead-of-its-time all-sports station. That lasted less than two years, but WJOC motors on to this day at 1490 AM as a gospel station.

But the battle for the ears of rocking Chattanooga was a three-headed monster. WGOW, 1150-AM, was owned initially by former McCallie School student-turned-media mogul Ted Turner.

His big gun was a morning host Chickamauga Charlie, who briefly challenged Luther for morning superiority (or so it seemed).

His time in town was limited to only three years, and it was some 37 years after he left that he returned to find, to his amazement, that his name and memory endured.

But he was in Chattanooga long enough to be part of a talent war and was hired away to WDXB in 1971 when “Dixbie” switched back to rock and roll from “adult contemporary.”

But what secured my loyalty was WDXB being host to the Atlanta Braves during that early period of success – the Hank Aaron-Rico Carty years. Following the games, Walker did what was billed as an all-request show.

And a big plus for me at the time – something I always appreciated – is that WDXB played the full-length album cut of a song, not a truncated 45 that was a staple at most AM Top 40 or rock stations.

But part of that heralded return to rock led to some promotions unlike anything Chattanooga had ever seen before or since.

I don’t even know if it had a proper name, but each day another outlandish prize was announced – his and her cars, his and her boats, exotic trips, rooms full of furniture, what seemed to be millions of dollars in prizes.

The catch, of course, is that there was to be only one winner and the odds were in favor of those offering the prizes.

The day of the call-in for the prize of prizes was a guarded secret, and when it finally came the winner would be the 50th caller. The contest began in the expected frenzy and, thanks to early 70s technology, the entire phone system crashed and I’m not sure anything was ever given away.

When they next returned to the air, the contest was abandoned in favor of something called “Future Rock,” which was, even to a teenager, as clear signal that the big contest was a goner. Soon after, I discovered the wonder that was FM stereo radio and, except to catch a ballgame, my AM days were over.