Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

WMLT

WMLT AND THE EARLY DAYS
 OF RADIO IN
DUBLIN, GEORGIA
                               
Radio first came to Dublin in the early 1920's.  WSB came on the air in 1922 as Georgia's first commercial radio station.  In the early days of radio,  stations more than 500 miles away were heard in Dublin.  H.J. Braddy and his son established the first radio station in Dublin in the summer of 1921.  The station, located in the Braddy home on North Franklin Street,  was a rebroadcast station which could rebroadcast signals over a short range.  The Grand Ole Opry became a local favorite in the late twenties.  The first Georgia Bulldog game heard in Dublin was the Yale game in October  928.  Throughout the thirties WSB, WMAZ, KDKA, WSM, WLS, and WLW were among the local favorites for drama, comedy and news programs.

In 1944, Dublin businessman George T. Morris sought out and obtained permission to establish a radio station in Dublin.  Morris saw that Dublin was a growing community and he knew that the coming of the U.S. Navy Hospital would ignite a growth in Dublin that had not been seen in more than 30 years.  Morris also saw that Dublin's trade area would be able to enjoy the music and programs and more importantly, hear the commercials.

The station was built on the southwest corner of East Moore Street and North Franklin Street.  Many of the early stations were owned by insurance companies and other corporations and their call letters were abbreviations  for the company slogan. WSB in Atlanta is said to have been an abbreviation for Welcome South Brother! WMAZ radio, which began at Mercer University, was an abbreviation for Watch Mercer Attain Zenith.  

George T. Morris was joined by two partners in this venture. They were Lanier Thompson and Newton Thompson.  Thus the call letters were M (Morris), L (Lanier), and T (Thompson), with the W designating that the station was east of the Mississippi River.  By the end of 1944, the station was preparing to go onto the air.  The signals of a test broadcast on January 8, 1945 were heard by M.S. Lamont in New Zealand, more than six thousand miles away.  Depending on weather conditions, the station's signal could be heard in nineteen states and Canada.

The station had an initial frequency of 1340 kilocycles with a power output of 250 watts and was one of thirty-four stations in the state.  By today’s standards, the power output would be obliterated by radio interference, but in 1945, the station’s broadcast could be heard over a moderate range.  Amazingly, there were five other stations in Georgia (WGAU - Athens, WGAC - Cedartown, WDAK - Columbus,WSAV - Savannah and WWGS - Tifton) which broadcasted on the same frequency as WMLT.   Did you know there was another WMLT?  Yes, a college television station at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia, uses the same call letters as our own local radio station.  Today, WMLT  broadcasts at 1330 kilocycles along with two other stations, WLBB in Carrollton and WBBQ in Augusta.

At one o’clock p.m. on January 16, 1945, WMLT began broadcasting from a remote studio in the dining room of the Fred Roberts Hotel with a program dedicating the new station.  The first program was the news from the station’s network, the Mutual Broadcasting Network, which was established in 1934.   Al Robinson was the first station manager.  The first day’s programming schedule featured Superman, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Count Basie, Lawrence Welk and Sammy Kaye, along with local entertainment.  The Lanier High School Band traveled from Macon to play a mid-afternoon concert.  From the station’s two studios, Studio A and Studio B, local pianists Fred Kea, Nell Tyre and Mae Hightower played timeless classics and popular tunes of the day.    The station signed on around sunup and signed off the air around 11:00 in the evening.    Because a television in every home was at least a decade away, radio programs remained popular after World War II.

Among the more popular radio programs in the early days of WMLT were “The Jack Benny Show,” “Fibber McGee and Molly” and Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians.  Throughout the day, local, state and national news programs kept the public informed.  The station’s first newscasters were  Jean Brigham (Pat Evans) and Betty Page.   Misses Page and Brigham  were two of the first women to broadcast the news on a Georgia radio station.

Pat Evans hosted “Stars on the Horizon,” featuring the news of Hollywood, which came into the station over a teletype machine.  A graduate of Shorter College with a degree in speech and drama, Pat Evans, now Mrs. Jean B. Bennett, said “helping Al Robinson put this new station on the air was very exciting as well as being my first job out of college.”  Mrs. Bennett remembered that all of the employees had to go to Atlanta to take a simple test to get approval from the FCC to be allowed to broadcast their voices over the airwaves.  One of the biggest thrills  of her career in Dublin came when she interviewed cowboy and western star Smiley Burnette. Burnette, most well known as Gene Autry’s sidekick and the train engineer in“Petticoat Junction,” was in town doing a performance at the Martin Theater.

Betty Page hosted “Talk of the Town,” a local news program.  “Most of the news items were phoned into the station,” said Miss Page.  “My mother often helped me gather the news for my show,” Betty remembered.  One of the most difficult tasks that Betty and the other on-air personalities had to endure was the announcement of the deaths of Laurens County’s young men in World War II, which  accelerated in the Allied Army’s final push into Germany in the Winter of 1945.   Donald Hull was the first sportscaster for WMLT.   Hull also hosted “The 1340 Club,” which aired listeners favorite songs.   Another young employee of WMLT in its early days was Louis Parker, who later followed in the footsteps of his father and went on to a long career in the dairy business in Dublin.  Among the other favorite local programs were “Record Shop,” which featured popular tunes of the day and “Birthday Club,” which announced birthdays of local citizens.   Every radio station had a quiz show.

WMLT broadcast “It’s Up To You,” which featured contestants on the stage of the Martin Theater.    T.E.Vassey,of Augusta, became the station’s general manager in 1946.


WMLT featured original programming with local artists performing gospel and country music.  One of the more popular performers was Glenn Watkins and his “Dixie Playboy Band.”   Watkins, a native of Kite, Ga., began playing on the radio at the age of 17 in Greenville, S.C.    While trying to establish himself in the country music business, Glenn opened for Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Pee Wee King and Minnie Pearl.  The “Dixie Playboys” were formed just for WMLT and were popular favorites.  Along with Watkins, Smitty Pope and Skeeter Harralson are all members of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame.   Glenn left the band in 1949 to join another band, The Trail Riders, before opening a successful insurance business in Albany, Georgia.

Another WMLT employee to move on to other successful ventures in Albany was Grady Shadburn.  Shadburn worked at WMLT in the early 1950s before joining the Army in 1954.  In 1958, Grady joined the staff of WALB-TV.  He worked at the station for nearly forty years and was known to a generation of baby boomers as “Captain Mercury.”  He also performed the role of “Ringo” in the western show “The Lazy A Ranch Party.”  Shadburn also served as the station’s weatherman for decades.






On the station’s 71st anniversary, we look back to some of the station’s most well known personalities, both on and off the air.  Ed Hilliard and Dick Killebrew (left) were icons at the station in the third quarter of this century.  Programs like “Party Line” and “Swap and Shop” drew many listeners.  On “Party Line” listeners would try and guess the name of the song being played on the radio. “Swap and Shop”allowed listeners to buy and sell almost anything of value.    In the 1970s and 1980s, Bucky Tarpley and Bo Whaley became two of the station’s most popular morning personalities.  Behind the scenes of any successful radio station are the women who keep the programs running and perform the daily business of the radio station.  The best in the business were Jo Ann DiFazio and Anne M. Everly, who stills works at the station after forty years of service.

Today WMLT broadcasts gospel music programming at 5000 watts at twenty times its original power.  There are no microphones, no turntables and no music youcan dance to.  But to everyone who ever tuned their radio to 1330 or 1340, cherish the memories of the songs that touched your heart, made you dance and reminded you of when you first fell in love.


Johnny Warren, Disc Jockey

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