Memories of AM radio and WHLN days

Published 10:20 pm Friday, December 27, 2019

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There was no XM Radio or satellite television. There was no Internet or even ESPN.

My entertainment of choice through much of the 1970s was supplied by AM radio, usually sitting in my dad’s truck in the driveway where the reception was much better. FM barely existed at the time, at least in our part of the country, but AM provided a geography lesson just about every night in the summer. The Cleveland Indians could be heard clearly on 1100, and when the Indians weren’t playing there was Pete Franklin and his sports talk show. The Detroit Tigers and Ernie Harwell were on 760. The Atlanta Braves were on 750. The St. Louis Cardinals were on 1120. The Chicago Cubs were on 720, and the Cincinnati Reds were on 700. If the weather was right, I could pick up the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers, even though I can’t remember exactly where they were located on the dial. During the winter months, you could find college games or the NBA or just listen to the music. WOWO, out of Fort Wayne, Ind., came in clearly every night, even on the radio in my room when it was just too cold outside.

During the day, however, all those channels were static. Music and information were supplied by WHLN, our local AM station. If I wanted to hear a baseball score from the night before, I made sure to listen to the Birthday Club, where Jim Morgan and “True Doug” Stallard would go over them during a sports break. During the school year, unless you were at the game, you didn’t know how the Trojans, Dragons, Redskins, Wildcats or Bulldogs did until WHLN told you the next morning. If you missed the scores, you waited until the Enterprise arrived in the afternoon to provide more details.

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Radio become much more real for me a few years later after college when my first job took me to WHLN as the news/sports director where I worked under Morgan and his father, the late “Big Jim” Morgan. It was more than a little intimidating at first, especially if you knew the station’s history, which included the prestigious Peabody Award for the station’s flood coverage in 1977. It was a crash course in journalism, almost like a master’s degree in the seventh months of 1985 I was there before moving on to the Enterprise. There were so many lessons learned in a relatively short time that still help me today and cemented my beliefs.

Until I actually worked in radio, I imagined WKRP in Cincinnati was an exaggeration of how much fun it was. It wasn’t. Working the morning shift with Robb Lee is still the best time I’ve ever had in an actual job. There were so many other personalities I will never forget, including Phil Bishop and his Johnny Fever background that included working at numerous stations around the dial before landing in Harlan. Todd Blevins and Tracy Turner helped with news and sports, and there were several talented young disc jockeys, including Dan Lee, Tony Saragas and John Crisologo, who helped make the experience of radio something I will never forget.

Tony Turner and Neil Middleton supplied very formidable competition at WFSR at that time before going on to television fame in the early days of WYMT in Hazard. Middleton made a stop at WHLN before starting in television and talked with me about his days in radio when we were at the WYMT Mountain Classic a couple of weeks back. He mentioned covering fiscal court meetings in his early radio days beside Big Jim Morgan and former Enterprise editor/publisher Ewell Balltrip, both legends in the field of Kentucky journalism.

These radio memories came back to me last week when I visited Jim Morgan on the day before his retirement. The studios are in a different location than when I worked at the Hendrickson Building in 1985, but the layout is much the same and it still feels familiar even if radio has changed quite a bit. My connection with Jim in a way connects me to the glory days of AM radio, and I can only imagine what it was like for him to live in that world for decades. It’s a place I still like to visit in my memory, and I’m grateful I was able to spend some time there learning from a Kentucky broadcasting legend.