By Jessica Pace
From left, Tom Lawrence, Jim Hayes and Darrell Williams
In its early days, Elvis used to drop by WAKM’s tiny studio on Mallory Station Road. A couple of decades later, a pair of women from Williamson County visited on Friday mornings to strum guitars and harmonize. One was a nurse, always in uniform. The other, her 16-year-old daughter, Wynonna, was a student at Franklin High School located a couple of miles southwest.
When WAKM first hit the airwaves 60 years ago last week, its modest studio stood out against a horizon that was otherwise dominated by crops and rolling hills. By those standards, the same building and broadcast tower is becoming crowded by Cool Springs from the east and a boom of residential growth in the general area.
Before it was WAKM, there was WAGG, founded in 1953 by Bill Ormes, who passed away in December 2008. The station prided itself on cultivating strong relationships with its listeners, which was considerably more practical in the 1950s when the community as we know it could hardly have been conceived. To wit, the city of Brentwood would not incorporate for another 19 years.
Though WAKM’s 5,000-watt signal today reaches most of Middle Tennessee, the station’s longstanding cadre of caregivers still focuses its broadcasting on Franklin and Williamson County primarily, trying to keep things as personal as possible. Happy birthday wishes are commonplace – as many as 50 per day. Talking to callers – many of whom have been phoning in since the time of rotary phones – is a staple. Then there’s the swap-and-shop program, “Trade Time Live,” which attempts to connect people who have something they don’t want any more with people who want it, either by trade, sale or outright giveaway.
Tom Lawrence, a managing partner at WAKM for 31 years, said the station’s strength comes from its deliberate effort to listen to the community as much as the community listens to it.
“That is a local approach,” he said.
WAKM also provides local news at the top of each hour. For more than 45 years, that news was delivered by Charles Dibrell who recently retired in November of 2012, but remains as one of the owners of the station.
Debbie Hunter joined the WAKM family as his replacement earlier this year and is not shy about admitting she has very big shoes to fill.
Prior to WAKM, Lawrence and most of the WAKM staff had worked together at Franklin AM station WIZO. When the company was sold to an Alabama-based corporation more interested in a regional approach (read: less horse trading, more programmed content), Lawrence and his partners decided to buy the station rather than fight the rising tide of radio conglomerates.
“We went to the bank, borrowed the money and bought WAGG,” he said. “That was in 1982.”
The hyperlocal station stayed true to its roots, and managed to garner new listeners, even in an industry so radically shaped by satellite broadcasts that its over-the-airwaves medium is now called “terrestrial radio.”
“Community service. Local news every hour on the hour. If there is a tornado bearing down on a community in Williamson County, we tell them about it that very second,” he said. “We tell people every morning what school bus is late. We tell people every day what time Aunt Sally’s funeral is. We started a community event that we still do – the Veteran’s Day Parade.”
Hyperlocal doesn’t include Washington. Even the going-ons at the state capitol, only 15 miles to the north mind you, seem to scuff the station’s homegrown patina a bit.
“We don’t cover the U.S. Congress,” he said. “There are others who do that very well. We cover the legislature because what they do affects us. What local people want, that’s what we specialize in.”
Lawrence does not know how many people tune in to WAKM, because the station does not subscribe to costly listener surveys. Rather than “play the ratings game,” as he calls it, the station gauges its listeners with expediency, if not pinpoint accuracy, by the number of callers on “Trade Time” each Tuesday at 12:15 p.m.
In 2009, Lawrence took a year-long hiatus from radio to teach English as a second language in central China, an experience that he said changed his life, and made him that much more grateful for WAKM and the relationship he has with the community he calls home.
“I’ve been in Franklin radio for 48 years now,” he said. “I can’t go anywhere without being approached by people who think that I know them [laughs]. When people approach me at the grocery store or on the street, they come up and talk to me like I’ve had breakfast with them in their kitchen. I love that. I wish I could have breakfast with them in their kitchen. I think that goes for everyone on our staff. Daryl Williams is continually shocked by the number of people that come up and talk to him about what he said on ‘Trade Time.’”
The station itself is a small and unassuming house, announcing its name in large red letters on its gray, wood-slatted sides. It sits on an uncluttered strip of road, just past the railroad tracks near Mallory Lane. Inside, the station is comfortable, if nondescript; it wears its age well. Relatively new computers clash with the vintage-looking broadcast equipment with knobs and switches, and needles that bounce when the volume spikes. It’s not hard to imagine Elvis sipping coffee in the station in the mid-’50s, or Sissy Spacek portraying a young Loretta Lynn pitching songs in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Today is Tuesday and its noon, which means ‘Trade Time Live’ is about to begin.
“‘Trade Time’ is a hoot,” Lawrence said of Middle Tennessee’s longest running radio swap shop program, which first aired in 1953. “It’s as much humor as a swap and shop. It provides a service to the community, but at the same time it’s just downright funny.”
For the next hour, partner and program director Darrell Williams takes calls with Stormy Mitchell and John Slaughter. All the focus-group-tested deejays and shock-jocks who crowd the radio dial during the morning drive time cannot synthesize the banter that seems to come effortlessly to the “Trade Time” crew. Not to mention the callers, whose impromptu participation fuels the fire, some selling household appliances, others advertising fresh eggs, baby chicks, ducks and rabbits. Today there was a nanny goat and an electric wheelchair on the trading block.
“We cut up, even if we’re in a bad mood,” said Mitchell, who hosts programs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and is a high school sports broadcaster.
“I first visited the station in 2002, promoting Franklin on the Fourth,” Mitchell said. “And I brought them a key lime pie.”
There is some debate between Mitchell and Williams over whether he was invited back or simply kept showing up, but he has been there since.
Slaughter, a State Farm agent, says he began sitting in on “Trade Time” once a week 11 years ago, to bring in business, but soon began coming twice a week.
“I look forward to Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he said. “Here, we make people laugh.”
Posted on: 3/28/2013