WATM radio station served our area well

Published 6:51 pm Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I took a nostalgic trip Monday night at the Atmore Historical Society’s monthly meeting. I was there by invitation to speak about WATM radio. It was a renewal of long ago memories of how that former station played an important role in the lives of so many from here.

Recalling how Tom and Ernestine Miniard gave me that part time weekend and summer job which help put me through college was a pleasure beyond description. It was enjoyable to remember how that station, first located above the Sweet Shop Cafe and later finding a permanent home on East Craig Street, provided news and entertainment for the Atmore community and jobs for dozens of young men and women.

Recalling those who worked there during our “heyday” era flashed names like Jim Campbell, Sam Ford, Jimmy Cruise, Jean Strength, Paul Wood, Dan Locke (Bruce The Roost), Margaret Conn, Wayne Butts Billy McGill and Mike Roberts. Others who came later, I am sure, found pleasure beyond description during their tenure at the station.

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For me, it was extra special. It was during this weekend and summer work I gained the opportunity to secure a college education. It also gave me the opportunity to meet Ouida, who became my wife. Making those long weekend trips from Tuscaloosa and Hattiesburg seemed like no big ordeal then. In fact, the money I earned from work at the station, combined with the fees I received from my weekend riders to and from college and my ROTC monthly checks, provided me with all the necessary finances that I needed.

Even after finishing college and while teaching school, I continued working part-time as the sports reporter, broadcasting high school football games, Little League and Babe Ruth League tournament games.

A highlight of this era was broadcasting the Senior Little League Game from Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the early sixties. That was the first World Series for our Senior Little Leaguers. Atmore lost out in the early rounds of that tournament but it was a tremendous thrill just to be at that tournament. From where our game was played we looked across the way to another field where the world famous Little League World Series was played.

Tom and Ernestine managed that station highly successfully. They knew how to maintain a thrifty bottom line. Back then we had no competition.

Everyone listened to us. Countless “Mom and Pop” advertisers located on North and South Main Street and all over the town filled our broadcast logs, sometimes with as many as 30 ads per half-hour show.
On Sundays, dozens of singing groups and ministers filed into our studio to offer songs and words of faith. It was an ordeal in itself just to keep the flow of these groups in and out of the studio in a timely manner.

Civic groups, churches and politicians constantly took to the air seeking help for their causes. You see, we had no competition back then. Only WALA radio in Mobile sent a decent reception signal into our area. That station had all those great sounding announcers like Jim McNamara, Ross Smitherman, Al Holman, Vern Benson, Argy File and Atmore’s own Dewitt Allen. There was no social media, no Internet and very little TV. If a local merchant wanted to sell off merchandise, he would buy about two dozen 30 second ads and by the weekend the merchandise was gone from the shelves.

At Christmas time, it was always a pleasure to hear and watch the Jaycees conduct a live program through call-ins, where people donated to help under privileged children have a happy Christmas.

Some of our announcers did themselves well after leaving the station. Mike Roberts, for instance, came here from Nebraska to learn all the necessary aspects of radio. He eventually became the radio voice of The University of New Mexico Lobos.

Sam Ford, our business manager, went on to become a popular radio personality in New Orleans. In fact his second wife was Joyce Prima, the daughter of popular Big Band leader Louie Prima, who later teamed up with Keely Smith. That duo had a hit record called “That Old Black Magic.”

WATM afforded me the opportunity to meet some famous people back then. I remember the day that country artist Ferlin Husky came by promoting one of his recordings. I nearly laughed my head off when he gave us a Simon Crum takeoff of his version of the song “Dear John.”

Hackleburg, Alabama’s Sonny James, another country singer who later crossed over to the popular field of music, also paid us a visit back in the mid-50s, promoting one of his recordings. And The Blackwood Brothers Quartet gave us some pre-concert songs one Saturday afternoon prior to a big gospel singing at Byrne Field.

Two weeks later, two members of that singing group, Bill Lyles and R.W. Blackwood, perished when their new plane crashed in Clanton, Alabama. The quartet was on the program during that town’s Peach Festival. I became friends with Jack Marshall, the piano player for The Blackwoods. The Tuscaloosa native is currently the owner of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises for this area of Alabama.

WATM was not a powerful wattage station but it was strong enough to serve our town and surrounding counties. I think the real reason our station was so successful was because it identified with its listeners. We knew we had listeners because of the letters and phone calls we received.

Yes, it always whispers to me — those days of long ago. As said on the “I Remember Mama” radio program of the 40s and 50s, “…I remember it … I remember it well.”

Next week, I’ll have more news of people, places and events from days gone by.

You can email Lowell McGill at exam@frontiernet.net.