ABOVE PHOTOS: Willie Walls is the manager and program director of WVOE-AM, the oldest black-owned radio station in the south. It first signed in in 1962. Staff photo by Cinday Burnham
For such a small blip on the dial, WVOE-AM holds a large space in radio history.
Folks barreling along Interstate 95 in air-conditioned comfort through the sticky lowlands of North Carolina have likely never heard the 1,000-watt outpost about 20 miles to the south.
Even if people know where on the dial to look for WVOE, 1590 AM, they’ll hear only a few fleeting minutes of gospel, perhaps Miss Annie Mae Williamson’s “Woman’s World Program” or death notices punctuated with, “He was a good man” or “She will be missed.”
Then, static or the annoying mishmash of other stations bleeding into the signal.
No one accuses the little daytime-only station of being a giant among broadcasters.
But as the first, and longest-running, radio station in the South to be founded by blacks, WVOE remains a voice of a community that can still remember when it had no voice at all.
And, as minority-owned stations across the country have been forced to either shut down, abandon their formats or lease their channels, WVOE remains what its founders intended in April 1962: The Voice of Ebony.
“There have been some lean years,” says station manager and program director Willie Walls. “Lean? Let’s make that some pitiful years. Nobody’s getting rich here.
“But that’s all right. This is our community. This is our family. And that’s why this station was created in the first place.”
Walls, a thin, wiry ball of energy at age 85, didn’t grow up dreaming of running a radio station. In fact, none of the longtime staffers at WVOE came to the station with radio experience.
“I was a teacher of agriculture at the Chadbourn Negro School when Mr. Reynolds asked me to have lunch with him,” Walls recalls.
Mr. Reynolds was T.M. Reynolds, a Chadbourn businessman with a vision. He wanted to create an electronic voice to serve the minority population of southeastern North Carolina. At the time, there were several other stations in the region, but, Walls notes, “None of them were set up by the people we would be serving.”
Which isn’t surprising. Although hundreds of Southern stations in the 1950s aimed their format at black audiences, the number actually owned by minorities could be counted on one hand. The best known, such as WERD in Atlanta and WDIA in Memphis, had large urban populations to draw from, and both were purchased from white owners.
No black-owned station had ever been built from the ground up until Reynolds and a handful of local investors set up shop in a small converted home along U.S. 74 just north of town.
The living room was made into a business office and the bedrooms, into DJ booths.
The format was simple: Gospel music, some blues and jazz, and a lot of community news. On weekends, local choirs would cram into the studio to perform live for folks who couldn’t get to church.
And every evening, as the sun was setting, WVOE would go dark.
To develop local content, Reynolds sought the help of Annie Mae Williamson.
“Mr. Reynolds came to my house and asked me to help,” Williamson recalls.
“I didn’t know anything about radio, but he said he wanted a person like me just to talk and share the local news. He wanted a show that the women would like.”
Fifty years later, everything else seems to have changed. Even U.S. 74, once a lifeline that ran through Chadbourn to Wilmington, now skirts about a half mile to the west.
But every morning, right at 11 AM, Williamson is still settled in her chair for the “Woman’s World Program.”
It’s more of a chat than a program as she keeps listeners updated about who’s doing what around town, who passed away and what’s coming up.
“When you’re shut in, you miss out on a lot,” she says. “If I’m ever feeling poorly, I think of those people and next thing you know, I’m back here, ready to go.”
On the other side of the studio glass, show engineer Roger Brace casually flips through a collection of dog-eared LPs, searching for the perfect song to close Williamson’s program. WVOE has modern equipment, but most of its music is still on vinyl, and the old twin turntable studio gets a workout.
It’s the same studio where Elder Ronald Johnson, now studio sales manager, was pressed into emergency duty 42 years ago.
“I came to work as a salesman,” he says, grinning at the memory. “One day, the guy working on-air came to work a little bit tipsy.
“I was asked to fill in, and I guess I did OK. At least they didn’t chase me off the air.”
More than 40 years later, he still takes a spin as a station DJ.
“This is a fun group of people, like a family sort of,” he says. “I don’t know what I’d do if we weren’t all here.”
That, Walls says, isn’t going to happen — not while he’s around, anyway. Competition and changes in ownership requirements have whittled the number of independent minority-owned stations in America to fewer than 200. Pioneer stations like Atlanta’s WERD were sold, often to radio chains that changed their formats.
The Federal Communications Commission released a study showing that national advertisers were reluctant to purchase time on such stations, often insisting on major “minority discounts” to do so.
“Thank the Lord, we’re still here,” Walls said. “We’re not fancy, and a lot of people do a little bit extra to get us by, but we’re still here.
“At the end of the day, we look back on one more day of service to the community, and that’s a good day.
“The next morning, we’re here to do it again.”