Knoxville’s Radio WDVX, branded as East Tennessee’s Own, is far from being the oldest radio station that favors bluegrass, Americana, and gives support for local musicians, but the way it started back in November 1997 shows how WDVX stands out from the pack.
It’s not the first radio station to have a book written about it, but that is with what General Manager Linda Billman decided would be a good way to mark the radio station’s 20th anniversary.
Billman asked Wayne Bledsoe, an original board member and presenter of two shows on the station, as well as a writer at the Knoxville News Sentinel for 36 years, to head up the writing and editing of the book with Jay Clark. Clark is an adjunct professor in the Biology Department at Maryville College and a long-time musician who is a staple in the East Tennessee music scene for more than 20 years.
The story of WDVX begins in unusual, if not unique, circumstances. Bledsoe remembers …
“Tony Lawson, a veteran DJ, came up with the idea for WDVX in the early 1990s. Tony is the person most-associated with the station, and is a beloved figure both in town and in the Americana music scene. A somewhat unsung (and very modest) hero of the station is engineer Don Burggraf, who actually put his house up for collateral for a needed loan when the station was first getting started. He’s still the chief engineer for WDVX and huge part of the station’s success.”
WDVX actually began test-broadcasting from the back porch of a private home in 1997, and the first on-air live performance was by Chris Jones and Jesse Brock from the family’s back yard, would you believe? Later that year, the station moved to the camper.
It is the camper that has a firm grip on the imagination. The trailer was situated just off interstate I-75 in Anderson County, between Chestnut Ridge and Rocky Top, north-east of Knoxville. Bledsoe continues ….
“People loved it so much they’d pull in off the interstate and toss money through the door of the camper! They’d donate everything from food to flowers from their businesses just because they loved it. Artists who didn’t get much airplay on other stations, but had strong followings, including Jim Lauderdale, John Hartford, Blue Highway (and ALL manner of bluegrass acts), all got behind it. WDVX played all of those artists and more.”
Tim Stafford of Blue Highway remembers very vividly …..
“Absolutely, Blue Highway definitely was there at the beginning of WDVX, and it wasn’t long after the band started. I remember pulling up in the campground in Clinton. I believe Mike Kelly, who was doing some deejay work at the station and was a friend of ours from the beginning of the band, set this up for us. He’d really talked it up, so it was a bit of a surprise when we pulled up to see one small camper along the side of the road.
We went inside and met Tony Lawson who was the founder. The radio equipment was set up on one end of the camper and he had us sit down at the dinette, which he called “Studio B”. We immediately found Tony to be a knowledgeable and friendly host and had a wonderful time doing the first interview. So, it didn’t really surprised me when WDVX became a regional and eventually national sensation.
Over the next few years, WDVX either put on or helped sponsor numerous shows that we played at, places like the Bijou and the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville and [they] were very important in the early history of our group.
And, of course, they played us on their various radio programs, including young Alex Leach’s show, Mike Kelly’s Sunday morning Gospel show and on Tony’s regular show. All of this helped build a strong regional following for us in the Knoxville area [and] that still exists.”
The book was made possible because a long-time supporter gave the station a grant to help celebrate the station’s 20 years. Bledsoe remembers with pride ….
“WDVX has some amazing supporters who have really helped keep it going.
We rely on public funding and grants to survive. As one of the people quoted in the book said, ‘you can’t go anywhere in town without seeing a WDVX bumper sticker or license plate.’ I’ve lived in Knoxville all my life and written about music for 36 years, and I’ve never seen a station where the listeners felt such a sense of ownership. It filled a huge gap in the Knoxville music scene and helped bring live music back to the airwaves.”
When the station moved to downtown Knoxville it really became the institution that Tim Stafford describes.
Bledsoe elaborates ….
“The station has always broadcast at 89.9, from a tower on Cross Mountain in rural Campbell County, but later got relay signals at 102.9 and 93.9 to reach areas where the 89.9 signal couldn’t reach due to mountains and ridges. The main signal only broadcasts at 200 watts (a major station can be up to 100,000 watts), but due to the height of the tower on Cross Mountain it can reach to the Kentucky border to the north, to nearly Chattanooga to the south. The listening area hasn’t changed that much, but it has become clearer and more reliable as the station has upgraded equipment. And, due to the simulcast over the Internet, the station has listeners all over the world, including England, Spain and Israel.”
Blue Plate Special, the live performance radio show, is known world-wide, even to those who haven’t heard it.
The book contains both a narrative story of how the station came to be and where it hopes to go, along with breakout pages of stories and testimonials from artists, DJs, fans and supporters.
The paperback, coffee table-style book, 20 Years of East Tennessee’s Own, has 100 pages featuring behind-the-scene stories and is full of color photographs (size: 8.5″ x 10.5″). It can be purchased direct from the WDVX shop.
The price, $35.00, includes shipping in USA (There is an additional charge for international shipping).
Congratulations WDVX for 20 years of independent radio!