In 1972 a bright-eyed 16-year-old from State Road got what he thought would be the chance of a lifetime — the opportunity to be a part-time DJ on Elkin radio station WIFM. Little did he know taking a seat in the cramped control booth would end up leading to his life’s work.
At the end of this month, almost 50 years later, Ralph D. Shaw will be signing off as the regular morning DJ for Winston-Salem’s WTOB for the final time, closing out a career that began at WIFM.
“The time has come for me to step away from the microphone and the business I love and enjoy not having to rise at 2:45 a.m. in order to go to work,” Shaw said this week when announcing his retirement.
Shaw, who was a junior at Surry Central High School when he first signed on at WIFM, said the seeds for his broadcasting career were actually sewn much earlier. Growing up, he had planned to attend the University of North Carolina and become a pharmacist, but he was always fascinated by both music and DJs.
“I remember listening to late night radio, listening to stations out of Chicago,” he recalled of the days when it was common for many lower-power AM stations to go off the air at sundown, and some of the big city stations to amp up their power, transmitting their signals across hundreds of miles. “I remember hearing what sounded like the DJs having the time of their lives.”
Later, right on the cusp of his teen years, Shaw managed to win some records in a trivia contest at WIFM. When he went down to the station to pick up his prize, Shaw was awestruck by the DJ workspace.
“Seeing the DJ’s atmosphere, the control board, the headphones, the microphone, it was something that kind of put a face on what I was hearing. I starting thinking about that, listening to what the DJs were doing,” and just a few short years later he was sitting in that very chair, as a part-time DJ who was still attending high school.
Shaw went full time at the station after high school graduation, and the idea of pursuing a pharmacy degree quickly faded. Not long afterward his career took another turn when the station manager asked Shaw if he would be interested in doing the station’s news.
“I didn’t have any background in doing news, I didn’t even take journalism in high school,” but he gave it a shot and found he enjoyed the new work.
“News was doing a different thing each day, rather than playing the same records in a different order day after day.”
From there, his career soon took off as a news reporter and producer, aided by being in the right place at the right time.
When the Siloam Bridge collapsed into the Yadkin River in February 1975 — killing four people and disrupting the main route of transportation from Siloam to Yadkin County, he was on the scene, covering the tragedy, finding himself fielding calls from stations all over the state wanting him to supply a newsfeed to them.
“I was still just green as grass, trying to learn how to write a news story, produce a news story,” he said. When ABC News used his newsfeed for its national broadcast, Shaw began to think about pursuing news on a full time basis.
He began filing more stories, both with television stations and newspapers — earning an Associated Press award for his reporting in 1975 — when WXII in Winston-Salem called him in, asking if he would like to try out as a stringer for their broadcast news.
“They gave me a camera, said here’s two rolls of film, shoot what you can and we’ll take a look, see how you do,” Shaw said.
Again, Shaw was in the right place at the right time. NASCAR had a race that week at North Wilkesboro, and he spoke with Barry Hall, who was the main anchor for the Motor Racing Network — and a former broadcaster at WIFM.
Hall planted the idea of filming some of the race, so Shaw went to the track and put together a piece on the event.
In those days the only live coverage of NASCAR was on radio, with television stations either turning their nose up at the sport or, at best, giving a race a late-night tape-delay spot sometime during the week after a Sunday race.
Shaw filmed the race, put together his report, and took it to the television station that night. It was on air the following night and Shaw found himself summoned to the WXII offices — where they gave him a better camera and agreed he would become a regular stringer for the station.
Another disaster — flooding in Watauga County — found his footage being used by television stations across the nation and on NBC News, with his footage so solid the network used it unedited. In 1982, he won the first-ever Roy H. Hardee Award, one of the top newscaster awards given by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters. While Shaw has claimed numerous awards for his work over the years — more than 30, including additional Hardee awards — none tops that initial one.
“I felt really honored in that I was the first one to get that,” he said.
As is often the case in broadcasting and journalism, Shaw’s career was somewhat nomadic, with stops in Mount Airy at both WPAQ and WSYD, radio stations in West Virginia along with most of the major markets in North Carolina — both in television and radio. No matter where he went, though, Shaw generally found himself returning to the Piedmont Triad area, close to his Surry County roots. Among those was a four-year tenure as cohost of the Brad & Ralph Show on WKRR, Greensboro, from 1987-1991. That show, he said, gained a “widespread audience and was one of the highest rated shows in Piedmont Triad history.”
Nearly three years ago, shortly after his father’s passing, with his mother in declining health, Shaw and his wife, Daphne, decided to move back to the area, so he took the morning DJ slot at WTOB in Winston-Salem, where he’ll host his final shift on Sept. 30.
In looking back on a nearly 50-year career, Shaw said he’s had a blast and loves interacting with his listeners. Despite all he has done, Shaw said those early days in Elkin still stand out in his mind.
“Probably, the most fun job that I ever had was at WIFM when I was learning the business. I got to do a little bit of everything. I got a great education in broadcasting from those years at my hometown radio station,” he said.