Like many people my age, we grew up watching television shows like The Andy Griffith Show. My wife and I have been watching every episode on Netflix before turning off the lights and going to sleep. We’re currently in season seven.
While there never was a town in North Carolina named “Mayberry,” Andy Griffith’s home town of Mount Airy, NC embraces the spirit of Mayberry to this very day. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to find any kind of collectible that says “Mount Airy,” but you will have no trouble finding lots of things with Mayberry on them.
We recently took the short drive from our home in Virginia to Mount Airy to visit the Andy Griffith Museum. It did not disappoint.
Historic Earle Theatre
Included with your museum admission, is admission to the Historic Earle Theatre located on Main Street in Mount Airy. Upon entering the theater, the first thing that caught my eye was an “ON AIR” light by the stage and pictures of radio station WPAQ.
The theatre even runs a video presentation about this radio institution, founded by its original owner Ralph Epperson, on Groundhog Day in 1948.
This year’s annual birthday celebration marked the station’s 72nd year of service to its listening area, which always includes a free concert at the Earle Theatre for its loyal listeners.
The first thing I Googled on my iPhone when I saw the call letters WPAQ was to find out what they stood for, as I could not imagine what they had to do with Mount Airy or North Carolina. Turns out, they really don’t stand for anything (much like America’s first commercially licensed radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh).
In fact, Ralph Epperson said the station actually ran a listener contest to try and give the station a name that went with the call letters WPAQ, but nothing ever really seemed to fit. One listener suggested that they stood for “We Piddle Around Quietly,” but Epperson said that wasn’t what they were looking for.
I think that listener got the idea from the disparaging nickname given to FDR’s Works Progress Administration (renamed Work Projects Administration; WPA). Some people felt Roosevelt’s New Deal program was a waste of money. They assailed this program that employed millions of unemployed people to carry out works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, along with employing musicians, artists, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literary projects.
The WPA spent $13.4 billion during the Great Depression but detractors of FDR’s get America back to work program said WPA stood for “We Piddle Around.”
So, you can see why Mr. Epperson didn’t adopt this suggestion, as he was a man of progress and forward thinking, he was never one to “piddle around,” let alone quietly.
The Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains
While Mount Airy always embraced its role as the model for its native son Andy Griffith’s popular television program, WPAQ likewise always promoted and worked to preserve North Carolina’s mountain music heritage as the Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
WPAQ is the source for local news, old-time bluegrass and gospel music, religious services and the broadcast of local obituaries. I truthfully can’t remember the last time I heard obituaries on the radio until I started listening to WPAQ. However, I remember writing many obituaries in my early radio days when I did news at WBRK in Pittsfield, Massachusetts back in the 70s.
The Saturday Merry-Go-Round Show
WPAQ broadcasts live from the Historic Earle Theatre every Saturday from 11am to 1:30pm on a program called the Merry-Go-Round. It’s the second longest continuously broadcast live radio show of its kind in America, second only to WSM’s broadcast of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
WPAQ’s program used to be the third oldest, until WWVA gave up its weekly broadcast of Jamboree USA with then station owner iHeartMedia who moved the program from WWVA to WKKX before ending the weekly broadcasts in 2008. Jamboree USA returned to the air in 2014 on a non-commercial low-power FM in Wheeling.
Mount Airy residents and tourists alike believe live radio music is part of the charm of the area.
Ralph Epperson always said he wanted his radio station to be different, saying “Why should we be like everyone else?”
Ralph Epperson passed away in 2006, but his son Kelly, along with Kelly’s wife Jennifer, co-own and manage the radio station exactly as Ralph envisioned. With one possible exception…
No Static at All
WPAQ was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to broadcast on 740 KC with a daytime power of 10,000-watts, 1,000-watts one and half hours before both sunrise and sunset and 7-watts at night.
On August 6, 2020, WPAQ signed on its brand new FM translator at 106.7 delivering the stations programs in stereo. The station also broadcasts its programming online at https://www.wpaq740.com/listen-online/ .
During a recent evening walk around my neighborhood, I heard the sound of a fretless, five string banjo coming from a neighbor’s porch. When my neighbor finished his song, my wife and I applauded the performance and commented that he sounded like the music on WPAQ. He responded by telling us that he streams WPAQ on his iPhone and makes regular trips to Mount Airy for the blue grass/mountain music festivals.
In these times of uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that radio stations like WPAQ are keeping family values, traditions and the roots of both this type of music and this type of radio broadcasting alive.
Proving that providing live, local and unique programming never goes out-of-style.
(This article was originally published on November 15, 2020)