WSJS Station History
WSJS was the vision of Owen Moon who owned the city’s two newspapers-The Winston Salem Journal and its afternoon sister The Twin City Sentinel. It was standard at that time for radio station call letters to have a meaning thus Winston-Salem Journal Sentinel became WSJS.
THE FIRST BROADCAST
The station made the first official radio broadcast on Good Friday, April 17, 1930 at 7:15 PM with these words:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening. This is the voice of radio station WSJS in Winston-Salem, N.C. We are operation on a frequency of 228.9 meters by authority of the Federal Radio Commission. WSJS is owned and operated by the Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel. The studios and transmitter are located in the Journal Building, 416 N. Marshall St. This is the dedicatory program. Your announcer is George Cross.”
Cross was a minister of the Christian Church. He was followed by Moravian Bishop Rondthaler offering a dedicatory prayer. Sanford Martin, then editor of the Journal and Sentinel, spoke. Mayor George Coan expressed his pride in the city’s acquiring a new voice and Norris O’Neil, the station’s general manager, answered the question, “What is radio?”
With the formalities out of the way the musicians took over. WSJS was only a 100 watt operation with a staff of 22. Sixteen of those were musicians: Vincent Kay and his WSJS Concert Orchestra. Kay and his orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner, accompanied by soprano Jose Bledso and tenor Howard Conrad. They were followed by the Winston-Salem Harmonica Band and the Mocksville Stringed Band. The highlight of the evening must have been when Jack Hawkins played “By the Waters of the Minnetonka” on a musical saw.
The station did not broadcast the next day, but at dawn on Easter Sunday, it broadcast the Easter Sunrise Service from God's Acre in Old Salem. That broadcast has continued every year since, and is believed to be the longest continuously aired special program in radio history.
Radio was only ten years old when WSJS went on the air, but there were already some 600 radio stations across the United States including stations in Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro and Asheville. Journal-Sentinel President Owen Moon had hoped to have the station on the air by December 25th “as a Christmas present for Winston-Salem.” There were delays said Doug Lee, whose fascination with electronics and badgering had actually pushed Moon to get into the radio business.
Lee said, “We ordered the transmitting and studio equipment from RCA. Then we discovered that the equipment we ordered hadn’t even been built. When it was built and we hooked it up here, it wouldn’t work. We finally discovered that every tube they sent us was bad.”
By scrambling day and night, Lee installed the transmitter on the fourth floor of the three year old Journal and Sentinel building on Marshall St. The two studios were located in the back of the newsroom on the second floor.
Initially, Lee had estimated that it would cost about $20,000 to put WSJS on the air. The final cost—transmitters, studio equipment and two towers acquired from the Signal Corps and placed on top of the Journal and Sentinel building and the Carolina Hotel with an antenna wire strung between them—came to almost $22,000. The station broadcast from 10 to 11 AM, noon to 1 PM and 5 to 10 PM, at 1310 on the AM dial.
THE EARLY YEARS
Under the best of circumstances, a 100 watt station would be hard pressed to support a staff of 22. In the depression year of 1930, it was impossible. So in June, the staff was cut to six: Manager O’Neill, a bookkeeper, two engineers and two announcers, Jack Neff and Alvin Ealy. Vincent Kay and the members of the orchestra were unemployed. The staffs of the two newspapers, working just outside the studio door, were on the air on radio daily, reading the news.
A month and a half later, WSJS had its first network program and affiliated with the Mutual News Network. Most of the airtime was taken up with local talent. Renowned artist Earline Heath King was a favorite as she sang along with big band records.
As did many early radio stations around the south, WSJS featured southern old-time string band groups. Musicians from all over the Northwest Piedmont came to play on the radio—groups such as the Swingbillies, the Walkertown Merrymakers, the Stokes Mountaineers, the Thomasville Jack Rabbits, the Cooleemee String Band, the Stanleyville String Band and the Lexington String Band. Mainly, they played for free. Shuttled into the one studio in 15 minute increments, five or six other bands warmed up…..picking and yodeling in the newsroom. Newspaper men marveled that they ever got a paper out. Then on Saturday morning, it was Betty Ward’s Kiddy Party, on WSJS.
On June 30, 1933, WSJS affiliated with CBS. It was one of only three 100 watt stations in the US with network affiliation. Its first national program was the Camel Caravan. This was the Golden Age of Radio when families sat down and listed to the radio just as they watch television today.
The networks (WSJS switched to NBC’s red network on June 26, 1940) offered comedy such as Fibber McGee and Molly; Bob Hope and Jack Benny featuring his "gang" of Mary, Dennis, Phil, Don, and Rochester (one of the first regular black radio performers), at 7 PM Sundays; and Amos and Andy, syndicated nationally using transcription records of shows mailed to radio stations, at 7-7:15 PM, 5 nights per week.
Newscasters like H.V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow, soap operas (Portia Faces Life was a town favorite) and music from world-renowned orchestras, including the NBC Symphony, were all part of the WSJS daily programming.
In 1937, Moon sold the newspapers and the radio station to Gordon Gray, a local attorney whose family had been prominent in Winston-Salem since its founding. Gray served as Secretary of the Army and was a founder of the School of Radio-TV- Motion Pictures at UNC. The company name was changed to Piedmont Publishing.
The transmitter wire strung from the newspaper building to the roof of the Carolina Hotel was replaced by a new transmitter on Liberia Street in March of 1939. On May 16, 1939, power was increased to 250 watts. This allowed for full time operation. The station now signed on at 5 AM and off at midnight. In November 1940, the FCC granted a 1,000 watt signal on 600 kilocycles.
May, 1941 was moving time when WSJS relocated to a new building on Spruce Street behind the Journal-Sentinel newspaper offices. The facility included a master control room, two studios, a client’s lounge and offices. All the equipment and furniture was brand new. Red was the company color. The new furniture and even the announcers’ required blazers reflected the theme. The transmitter site was moved to Minorcas Creek near Bethabara in April of 1943 and power was increased to 5,000 watts.
Hear former general manager Dick Baron talk about the “new facility.” [Baron interview 09:42-11:38]
“Meet The Press” which still is broadcast on Sunday on WSJS, began in 1945 .By 1950, WSJS had a staff of 36, including two employees who had been with the station since it signed on in 1930.
In the earliest days of radio broadcasting, the airwaves of the Northwest Piedmont were not open to local African American artists and their newly emerging sounds. By the 40s African-American Gospel groups were a staple of WSJS programming. The Gospel Harmonizers led by funeral home director Carl Russell, were heard regularly as was “Camp Meetin’ Time”, featuring the Southland Singers. Late in 1951, a local gospel group known as The Royal Sons Quintet celebrated their signing on the Apollo label in New York on the strength of a recording of "It's Going to Rain", cut at WSJS.
Since WSJS went on the air during the great depression, it was inevitable that money was tight. The first announcers were paid 100 dollars per month but salaries were soon cut to 18 dollars per week.
Merchants were slow to buy into radio. In 1930, the station charged $5 for a daytime announcement and $10 for one a night. By 1934 the rate was $2 and $3. In 1940, rates had bounced back to $5 per day and $7.50 at night. By 1966 the rate was $10 per commercial, day or night.
Weather has always been an important component of WSJS programming. The following is excerpted from a 1945 article in the National Weather Service newsletter, The Breeze: “Mr. Wiley K. Sims and his all-girl Weather Bureau in Winston-Salem, N.C., are attracting no little attention in that area by reason of their weather broadcasts over a local radio station. Four broadcasts are made daily except Sunday, when one is omitted; all broadcasts originate from the Weather Bureau Office. Mr. Sims gives about half of the weather reports, and the three girls, Wenona Long, Penelope Grice and Jessie Davis, give the rest. Though Winston-Salem is one of the few places where women are doing this kind of work, it has been found that no more special training is required for the girls than for men.
Prerequisites for any weather broadcaster are a clear, pleasing voice, good enunciation, good diction, and the ability to think and act quickly. To make the weather broadcast interesting, he must avoid dry facts and figures. He should employ catchy phrases, descriptive adjectives, rather than stereotyped sentences. Technical terms are to be used very sparingly. A conversational tone is desired. The voice should have expression and be vibrant with interest.
The nature of radio broadcasting demands a certain amount of order, a formal approach. In the Winston-Salem weather broadcasts the following elements are given as time permits: a greeting, current local temperature, forecast for the city and vicinity, summary of weather conditions over the United States with special emphasis on the Southeast, past records when appropriate, total rainfall during a rainy period, rainfall at other stations when heavy, maximum and minimum temperatures in Winston-Salem and elsewhere when unusually high or low. A severe storm, a cold wave, or a hurricane is picked up and followed through until it is no longer news. Sometimes a little instruction in meteorology or debunking of fallacies about the weather is included in an attempt to educate the public so that there will be a more informed listening audience.
The Winston-Salem Weather Bureau staff feel that they are offering their best service through their radio broadcasts. Farmers are perhaps the most benefited by frequent and up to the minute forecasts and weather information.
For that reason one of the broadcasts is on the Piedmont Farm Program. The program consists of farm news, market reports, music, farm announcements, programs by the different Granges, talks by county agents, and leaders in farm club work. The program originates in the studio of WSJS, on occasion it emanates from a place where a dairy and cattle show is being held. The weather broadcast heads the program, lasts from three to five minutes, and is given from the Weather Bureau Office. Farmers are interested mostly in the trends of weather, that is whether or not there will be several good days for outside activities, or when the next rainy spell will strike and about how long it will last. Many farmers have written telling how much they appreciate the weather reports.
But not only farmers listen to and are aided in their planning by the weather broadcasts. Painters, transportation companies, contractors, construction engineers, school children, travelers, and many others have listened and profited by planning their activities according to what they heard about weather conditions and prospects.
Almost every day some favorable comment has been made about the helpful service rendered by the Winston-Salem Weather Bureau’s broadcasts. WSJS, to whom the Weather Bureau is indebted for the opportunity to render this service, says that the weather broadcasts are one of their most popular local programs, that many people tune in that station just to get the weather.
Simms, an employee of the National Weather Service, was very much a part of WSJS programming. Much like today when the daily chat with Accu-Weather remains one of the station’s most popular features.
In 1942, Piedmont Publishing also owned the first FM radio station in the southeast. It was identified as 44.1 W41MM-FM and changed to 97.3 WMIT in 1948, when the modern FM band was adopted. Done in cooperation with General Electric, WMIT was an experiment in building a station that would reach the entire Southeast, from Nashville to Richmond, Atlanta to Roanoke. They built the tower on Clingman's Peak next to Mount Mitchell and broadcast the WSJS signal with 350,000 watts using multiple generators. The Station format was classical music. The only way to send the programming from the studio in Winston-Salem to Mount Mitchell was by placing a broadcast STL atop the Reynolds Building, then the tallest building in the Carolinas.
WMIT was too expensive and required too much technical work to keep the multi-state radio station going. Storms and technical problems that took a long time to fix angered Winston-Salem residents who wanted a signal closer to home for local news during World War II. By the late 1940s and early ‘50s people in the other cities along the 70,000 square mile listening area were starting to get new local FM signals of their own around that time and stopped listening to the Winston-Salem news and NBC radio broadcasts to enjoy local news and programming in their own cities. In 1958, Billy Graham bought it and relicensed it from Winston-Salem to Black Mountain as a religious station. He changed the frequency to 106.9 and he still owns it. 97.3 was still allocated to Winston-Salem and still had a huge grandfathered coverage area, but was moved and dropped to sign on as 97.3 WKBC in North Wilkesboro.
WSJS-FM began operation from a transmitter near Kernersville on December 1, 1947. On August 8, 1953 WSJS-FM was temporarily discontinued to make room for TV construction at the Kernersville site. The FM operation was moved to the Bethabara site on February 8, 1954.
On July 31, 1961, WSJS-AM began broadcasting from a new transmitter site on Robin Hood Road at Muddy Creek ,where it remains today. The FM signal was moved to the TV tower on Sauratown Mountain in Stokes County on September 8, 1961.
On September 30, 1953, WSJS Television was added as a NBC affiliate. The fledging TV station operated from the basement of the radio building on Spruce St. It is the third oldest surviving station in North Carolina. The first broadcast was of the first game of the World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Longtime WSJS radio morning man Wally Williams was the first TV weather man. Wally was not a tall person and in order to get him in the picture with his meteorological charts it was necessary to stand him on a soft drink crate.
When Piedmont Publishing was sold to Media General in 1968, Gordon Gray held onto WSJS-AM-FM-TV as Triangle Broadcasting. The broadcast facilities had moved to Coliseum Drive in 1966. Gray also received the franchise for the city's cable system. Many of the familiar radio personalities were also seen on WSJS-TV…especially the newsmen such as Bob Estes and Wayne Willard. Gene Overby did sports on both. The Shell Weatherman, beginning in 1969, was a former local disc jockey named Glenn Scott.
However, the FCC ruled that TV stations could not also own the cable systems in their markets. Gray was thus forced to sell WSJS-TV in 1972 to Multimedia Inc., who renamed the station WXII-TV.
After the sale was complete, the new owners gave the radio component a year to move out of the Coliseum Drive location. Initially, plans were to move the radio station to what once had been a garage on the Graylyn estate. They couldn’t make it fit. So a building recently vacated by IBM at 875 West 5th St. was considered. It was bought for $375,000 and radio and the new cable TV operation moved in the spring of 1973. The new company name “Summit Communications” was taken from the name of the street on the side of the building.
With the sale of the TV station, some of the staff who had done dual duty chose radio. Long time TV news anchors Wayne Willard and Bob Estes, and Sports Director Gene Overby both left television for radio. Willard and Estes would both retire from WSJS. Overby died of cancer in 1991.
WSJS had remained the top rated radio station through the heyday of AM radio. It weathered the forces of rock ‘n roll in Winston-Salem and for the most part stayed number one as Winston-Salem’s music and information station until the advent of FM stations and the merging of the Winston-Salem market into the triad market including Greensboro, High Point, and eventually Burlington and Alamance County.
WSJS had always had a strong commitment to news, so it was inevitable that in 1984, the station would follow the trend of many AM stations and switched to a news/talk format. Several national and local programs were tried with some day parts still playing music until 1990 when the station stopped all music programs.
The WSJS FM signal had been classical or “beautiful music” format. The station was fully automated. Board operators were required to change the FM music reels at the appropriate time, but there was no responsibility for monitoring the signal. Once, the station was not broadcasting for three days…and no one noticed.
With 26,000 watts of power, FM was an unknown at the time and in 1969 had a mere 16% penetration in the market. The station was so unsuccessful that the owners considered giving it to the city of Winston-Salem. The format was changed to country in October, 1973 and took as its call letters WTQR. Initially, WTQR was fully automated also. WTQR advertisers gave away FM receivers provided by the station so that listeners could hear the station. Within a year, WTQR was number one in the ratings, and within two years was outbilling her sister station, WSJS.
Hear former general manager Dick Baron talk about the birth of the new FM station [Dick Baron interview 14:4-15:48, 16:40-18:40 out cue “live”]
With its affiliation with NBC to bring national sports to the city, WSJS has always featured local sports events live. Sending its announcers and engineers to Chapel Hill, WSJS broadcast the complete 1941 home schedule of the University of North Carolina football team; local high school football activities have filled our microphones, as well. “The world largest basketball tournament played under one roof,” the Journal and Sentinel Northwest Basketball Tournament is an annual broadcast for WSJS; last year 120 teams competed. The games of the Winston-Salem member of the Piedmont Baseball League have been aired for a number of years. In addition, there have been blow-by-blow, groan-by-groan, stroke-by-stroke and step-by-step narrations of boxing, wrestling, tennis, golf, and even turtle racing contests.
Through the 1980's WSJS was the flagship station for Wake Forest sports and today continues a strong local and state sports commitment.
WSJS began “On the Scene” news reporting in the early 1940s with a 100 watt short wave transmitter and a two watt portable backpack unit, in a mobile news unit. News units were used extensively.
In 1978, WSJS committed one of the mobile units for traffic reports in Winston-Salem. The service went aerial in April, 1981 when J.R. Snider was hired as the airborne traffic reporter to cover incidents in Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point on a daily basis. Originally, the service was to be airborne for only six months while a major resurfacing of I-40 through downtown Winston-Salem took place. The fixed wing aircraft, Cessna 172's and 182's were leased by the station and the service continued as the only traffic full time service in the Triad for the next 10 years.
Now a profitable commodity, WSJS-WTQR joined thousands of other local radio stations across the county in becoming part of media conglomerates. The two stations, along with stations in Memphis, Sarasota and Oklahoma City that had been acquired by Gray, were sold to New Market Communications in 1986 (Summit kept the cable component); then to Fairfield Communications in 1994; and to Clear Channel Communications in 1997. Clear Channel sold its three local AM stations, WSJS, WSML and WMFR to CBS Radio (then called Infinity Broadcasting) in 2001. The studios remained in Winston-Salem and were joined there by WMFR which took over the former WTQR studio. WSJS simulcast its signal on WSML to reach the entire Triad.
CBS sold the stations to Curtis Media Group in February of 2007. Curtis programmers immediately began a “face lift” of the sound of WSJS. Longtime morning show host Glenn Scott retired. New features and promotions throughout the day were aimed at a younger listening audience while still providing up to the minute news and weather information which were the station’s legacy.
The future of WSJS is bright. With the advent of iPods, smart phones, and more, people get their music from more sources than traditional music radio formats, making news/talk more important today than ever before. Advertisers can rely on an attentive audience for their commercial messages. Listeners appreciate the station’s commitment to local news, a station that cares about the community and its attention to local affairs.
With over 80 years of service and the same call letters for all those years – the station’s commitment to its community and its audience remain strong.
Winston-Salem Journal newspaper articles