No groundhog was spotted at the Municipal Building, nor any shadows of that creature, but its special day in February took center stage when attention was given to a local radio station by city officials.
“What an appropriate time to say ‘thank you’ to such a longstanding business,” Mayor Jon Cawley said Thursday night when WPAQ was honored on its 75th birthday during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Cawley was referring to the fact that the AM station on Springs Road first hit the airwaves on Feb. 2, 1948 — exactly 75 years before on Groundhog Day.
“I don’t know if the groundhog saw his shadow in 1948, but he heard a new radio station,” Kelly Epperson, son of its late founder, Ralph Epperson, said Thursday night when receiving a city proclamation commemorating that anniversary.
“I am accepting this award, or proclamation, tonight because of my dad,” added the younger Epperson, now the station owner, who was accompanied at a council chamber podium by his wife and station co-owner Jennifer. Meanwhile, several WPAQ employees watched from the audience.
The municipal proclamation cites Ralph Epperson’s vision of wanting to present and preserve the traditional string music of the Blue Ridge region while also highlighting local talent in the old-time, bluegrass and gospel realms.
It still maintains that format today and other longtime features such as live broadcasts of local sports and reading news and obituaries over the air.
“Which is not too removed from the original 1948 offerings,” the city government document further states, also including two hours of Christian programs in WPAQ’s morning lineup and big band music for three hours in the evening.
The proclamation mentions that WPAQ continues to reflect its 1948 values while also becoming available live online and adding 106.7 FM and wpaq740.com as modern elements.
Ralph Epperson’s intent was to give the community something it “could enjoy and embrace,” Kelly said Thursday night.
“I am so thankful,” his son said of being able to carry on that mission today.
Special activities today
Along with the city government recognition Thursday night, a WPAQ 75th-birthday event is scheduled today at the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy, which is free to the public.
Doors will open at 4 p.m., with a free screening of the documentary “Broadcast: A Man and His Dream,” directed by Jordan Nance, to begin at 4:30 p.m. It details the story of the late radio pioneer and WPAQ, including an interview with Ralph Epperson just weeks before his death.
Then at 5:45 p.m., live music will begin at the Earle by several featured groups including Travis Frye and Blue Mountain, The Country Boys, The Slate Mountain Ramblers, The Nunn Brothers and Harrison Ridge.
The free concert to be offered today has a link to WPAQ’s maiden broadcast, which featured a group called The Green Valley Boys, according to historical information from the station.
After receiving the proclamation Thursday night, Kelly Epperson recalled key events in the life of his dad, who died in 2006, which laid the groundwork for WPAQ’s long success.
While growing up in Ararat, Virginia, during the 1920s and 1930s, Ralph developed a love for transmitting messages and information over the air as he listened to early radio broadcasts in his family’s home.
Around that period, in 1940, he heard an on-air appeal from the president of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, inviting prospective students to attend and work while learning. This tapped into Epperson’s desire to seek a career in broadcasting.
“It was not easy to go from Ararat, Virginia, to the northwest corner of Arkansas,” Kelly Epperson told Thursday night’s audience, which is a distance of about 1,000 miles.
“So my dad had to hitchhike and he learned fun ways to attract attention from prospective drivers, because there were a lot of people hitchhiking back in that day,” he related. The hard work and dream that Ralph demonstrated then were manifested in the development of WPAQ, his son added.
After graduating from John Brown University and serving at the Naval Research Laboratory during World War II, Ralph returned to Ararat and began to perfect his skills out of his parents’ home with weekend broadcasts of music and preaching.
It wasn’t long before he turned his attention southward to a community a short distance away.
“He selected Mount Airy to be the site of WPAQ radio station,” Kelly recounted. Its construction began in early 1947 and the rest is history.
Kelly said he asked Ralph late in life what he considered his greatest accomplishment, among such accolades as receiving the Hall of Fame Award from the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters and entry into a religious broadcasting organization’s Hall of Honor.
“And he said it would have to be in the field of hitchhiking,” Kelly advised, drawing laughter from the council chamber audience.
City officials’ comments
Thursday’s proclamation program included members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners expressing thanks for WPAQ’s longtime presence here.
“I could talk forever about the impact the Eppersons have had on this community,” said Commissioner Deborah Cochran, a former radio personality locally.
“Congratulations to WPAQ for 75 strong years,” fellow board member Marie Wood said.
Commissioner Phil Thacker is thankful for Ralph Epperson’s vision in creating a legacy still being built upon.
“What an accomplishment they’ve had over 75 years,” Thacker said of WPAQ.
While Ralph Epperson gets much of the credit for its success, Mayor Cawley complimented the founder’s son for exhibiting many of the same traits that motivated his father.
“He (Kelly) loves this community and wants it to succeed,” Cawley said of the present owner’s support of Mount Airy business and civic life that also includes announcing Mount Airy High School games from near and far.
“I can see the acorn did not fall far from the tree.”
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