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For the past 70 years, WPAQ out of Mount Airy, North Carolina — population 10,000 — has broadcast bluegrass and old-time string music.
But music isn’t all you’ll hear on WPAQ.
"If folks call in and say they've lost an animal or they've found an animal, we will be happy to announce that," says Brack Llewellyn, a part-time announcer who’s worked on and off at the station since the ’80s.
When we spoke recently, Brack had just finished reading the local obituaries — something WPAQ announcers do two to three times every day.
On Sundays, you'll hear programs like "Half Hour with Jesus" and "Bear Trail Baptist Church."
"We’ve had a lot of preachers," says Kelly Epperson, WPAQ's owner and general manager. "They come in live on Sundays."
And then there are Friday nights.
"Friday night is big for our radio station," Kelly says.
On those nights, WPAQ — “Your home for the best bluegrass and old-time string music” — transforms into the home of the Mount Airy Bears high school football team.
"We have people that actually didn't intend on becoming fans of Bears football that listen from out of town, that have become interested because they hear it all the time," Kelly says.
You might think this is just a story about a 10,000-watt radio station that’s converting fans of bluegrass into supporters of the football team at a 550-student high school. But it’s more than that, partly because of Mount Airy’s own history — and mostly because of something that Kelly Epperson recently discovered.
WPAQ's Time Capsule
Kelly Epperson took over WPAQ from his father, Ralph Epperson, who died in 2006. A few weeks ago Kelly was digging around his father's old office.
"My dad, he held onto everything — it drove my mom crazy," Kelly says. "And actually in the corner, I saw a box that was sort of halfway open. And I kinda kicked at it a little bit — just to make sure there were no snakes around, ‘cause we have a lot of black snakes up here. But anyway — it was heavy. And I opened up the lid. There were some records in there. And I looked at the label and I couldn't believe it. It said: 'Mount Airy vs. Laurinburg. Football. Nov. 25, 1948.' "
It was the state championship game, held on Thanksgiving Day.
Kelly didn’t have the equipment at WPAQ to play the records — they’re old lacquer discs — but he took them to a woman who did.
"And I remember the very first moment when she put the needle down on one of the records," Kelly says. "And I just could not believe my ears."
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Mount Airy High School football band has just left the field. Proceedings are underway here to open this State Class A Championship Game."
"And I just looked down watching this spin around, these records spin around, listening to this, thinking, ‘This is amazing,’ " Kelly says.
The History Of WPAQ And Mount Airy
The fact that this recording was from 1948 isn’t a coincidence. That was the year Mount Airy, North Carolina, got its first radio station.
Mount Airy is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, right on the Virginia border. Ralph Epperson — that’s Kelly’s father — grew up on a tobacco farm about 10 miles away in Ararat, Virginia.
Ralph liked two things: the bluegrass and string music native to the area — and radio.
"He just thought it would be great if we could have a radio station," Kelly says. "So his father backed him on it. And they actually went to the First National Bank in Mount Airy and got a $38,000 loan."
Ralph and his father built the station themselves. (Ralph’s dad was well qualified for the job — he also made coffins.)
On Feb. 2, 1948, WPAQ went on the air. Thirteen years later, in 1961, Kelly was born.
"They changed my diaper here in the radio station, many many times," Kelly says.
Back then, there was a lot of industry around Mount Airy: textile mills, furniture factories, a granite quarry.
"I remember hearing those loud whistles from the various factories letting folks know it was time to come to work at 7 a.m.," Kelly says. "And every day at 12 noon, you'd hear those whistles go off again for lunch."
"There were so many jobs available that if you got angry at your boss where you were, you could quit your job, literally, drive across town and get another job before the day was out," Brack says.
"That is true," Kelly says.
Brack says that, during the boom times, Mount Airy’s three-and-a-half-block downtown had four different pharmacies and three or four different shoe stores.
But he says in the late ’80s and ’90s, that started to change.
'Everything Was Going To Change'
"Kind of one by one, over a fairly short period of time, you began to see the local mills being acquired by other companies," Brack says. "Almost every time, the new owners would come in, and the first thing they would do is reassure everyone that nothing was going to change. That almost meant, certainly, that everything was going to change."
Brack says the textile mills started moving out of state or out of the country.
"It was like watching a dam burst," he says. "I mean, you just couldn't stop it."
But while the jobs were going away, some things stayed the same.
"There was still this great want and need and love for this kind of music," Kelly says. "That never went away."
"I think maybe we brought some comfort to folks," Brack says.
And there was still Mount Airy High School football.
"There were factories that were in sight of the football stadium closing down," Brack says. "But for that few hours on Friday night, you’d think everything was just exactly as it should be."
Brack and Kelly say the economy has come a long way since those down times. There’s now a tourist industry built around the fact that Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, the setting for “The Andy Griffith Show.”
People in Mount Airy may no longer need WPAQ or the football team in quite the same way they used to. But when Kelly Epperson discovered those old lacquer discs in the corner of his dad’s office, he knew he’d found something that mattered to the community.
"And I had announcers — and Brack was one of them — that encouraged me to do something about this," Kelly says. "You know, you got this history. You've got to share this with your audience."
A Blast From The Past
The 2018 Mount Airy Bears had a bye week coming up. There was a Friday night open on WPAQ’s calendar.
So on Sept. 28 at 7:30, when residents of Mount Airy, North Carolina, turned to 740 on their AM dials, they heard this.
"N.W. Quick — co-captain and right tackle of the Laurinburg Scots from Scotland County — the Fighting Scots they’re called — will be kicking off for Laurinburg on the 40-yard line."
"I don't want to give away what all happens during this broadcast," Kelly says. "But I'll tell you — there were moments that my emotions were just coming out. I mean, I was laughing at some of the expressions."
"It’s a pass, it’s a long pass. It’s a sleeper! And he misses it!"
"And he’s going for it. Appreciable gain!"
"No, he’s tackled from behind by a host of Mount Airy ball tacklers. Four of them, to be exact."
"The field, by the way, the condition of this field is very sloppy. Muddy. Muddy and miry."
Kelly and Brack say they started hearing from listeners right away.
"We went about as viral as you can in this area with our broadcast," Brack laughs.
"And I’m trying to concentrate — I was running the board — and I was getting all these messages," Kelly says. "They were blowing up my phone. I couldn't handle it. Saying, ‘This is unbelievable! I’m hearing my dad play. I never thought I could ever do this. My dad is playing a football game.’ "
Brack says he heard from one friend who grew up in Laurinburg and recognized the name of a player on the Scots roster.
"And the player whose name he heard grew up to be the doctor who delivered him," Brack says.
One curious listener even showed up at the station.
"And scared me to death," Kelly says.
Brief scares notwithstanding, Kelly says the night was joyful — and that his father would he pleased.
"He’d say, ‘fascinating,’ " Kelly says. "That’s one of his words. ‘That’s fascinating.’ And he would be overwhelmed with bliss."
"Those of us that work here feel like Ralph is still with us," Brack says. "And when Kelly said he discovered these records with this game on it — it crossed my mind — I thought, ‘Ralph had a hand in this. He led Kelly to that box.’ "
I’d tell you how the game ends, but I don’t want to spoil it — because you’re going to get another chance to listen. WPAQ is rebroadcasting the game one more time, this Thanksgiving Day at 2 p.m. ET.
"So who wants to watch the Detroit Lions when they can hear the 1948 North Carolina 1A State championship game?" Kelly laughs.
You can tune into WPAQ out of Mount Airy, North Carolina, via an online live stream. Click here to listen!
This segment aired on November 17, 2018.
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