Radio Power: After 15 Years, Knoxville’s WDVX Celebrates its Unlikely Success Story

WDVX program director Tony Lawson.

Photo by David Luttrell

WDVX program director Tony Lawson.

WDVX’s Grace Toensing, aka DJ Grace.

Photo by David Luttrell

WDVX’s Grace Toensing, aka DJ Grace.

Veteran morning jock Freddy Smith (below)

Photo by David Luttrell

Veteran morning jock Freddy Smith (below)

Daily host of the live Blueplate Special series, Red Hickey.

Photo by David Luttrell

Daily host of the live Blueplate Special series, Red Hickey.

Colorado’s Burning Angel play the Blue Plate Special at WDVX’s stage at the Knoxville Visitor Center.

Photo by David Luttrell

Colorado’s Burning Angel play the Blue Plate Special at WDVX’s stage at the Knoxville Visitor Center.

Just one of WDVX’s seven Bluegrass Station of the Year awards.

Photo by David Luttrell

Just one of WDVX’s seven Bluegrass Station of the Year awards.

WDVX general manager Linda Billman previously worked on WBIR’s The Heartland Series.

Photo by David Luttrell

WDVX general manager Linda Billman previously worked on WBIR’s The Heartland Series.

It’s 11:30 on a weekday morning at the WDVX studio, and DJ Grace, aka Grace Toensing, is running around like a jitterbug, in and out of the studio and the adjacent storage room, pulling faxes and choosing CDs, answering phones while an especially lengthy music selection keeps the airwaves full.

“I swear I think that woman called me ‘sir’,” she laughs. Toensing is one of those people who brings to her job a very real and singular enthusiasm, an effervescent joi de vivre that seems to defy proscriptions against perpetual motion.

That sort of indefatigable spirit is useful at WDVX, an Americana station with the almost unheard-of policy—in today’s era—of allowing its DJs to operate with no playlist, pulling songs track by track from a wall of CDs in the abutting room. With no computer bank to fall back on, there’s an awful lot of to-and-fro going on.

“‘Anger’, as in ‘mad as hell.’” She’s back on the phone, talking to someone who’s inquired about a track by bluegrass fiddler Darol Anger. Then she’s on the air again, back-announcing three songs, rattling off details of upcoming Americana shows with bell-tone confidence. “John Hiatt coming up on East Tennessee’s W-D-V-X.

“Gol-ly; wah-wah-wah-wah-way,” she goofs once the music is playing and her mic is off. “It gets a little crazy in here sometimes.”

Then she’s off again. But Toensing wasn’t always a DJ dynamo. Upon first coming to WDVX some 15 years ago, she says, “I didn’t know Bill Monroe from a hole in the ground.”

She was also scared stiff at the prospect of saying more that a few words at a time on the air. “You could have wrote down everything I said,” says Toensing. “But I fell in love with the place,” Toensing say. “It’s been more fun than you can shake a stick at. It’s been a blessing to be part of it all.”

Like Toensing, WDVX has persevered. In 2011, the station won its seventh Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association award for Bluegrass Station of the Year. Having begun webcasting in the late 1990s, it has pockets of fans in unexpected places the world over. And it’s been featured on ABC’s World News, PBS NewsHour, the BBC, No Depression, and in a slew of other domestic and foreign outlets.

And now it’s celebrating its unlikely 15th anniversary, with a Nov. 9 concert at the Bijou Theatre featuring Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, the Shawn Camp Band, Jay Clark, Robinella, and the Naughty Knots.

But when station svengali and program director Tony Lawson accounts for that 15 years, he starts when WDVX took to its first “permanent” digs—the infamous Anderson County camper where the station took root in 1997 and remained until 2005, when it moved to the Knoxville Visitor Center on Gay Street. “Nov. 5 and the camper—I consider that our real birthday,” he says.

Which is fine, since for so long, the nutty rumor of “that radio station in the camper” both defined WDVX and served as a linchpin of local lore. But it gives short shrift to all the misadventure that laid the foundation years before.

And maybe it makes people forget that today’s WDVX is a pretty spiffy outfit—roots programming and local accent notwithstanding—with expansive downtown digs, a considerable online presence, and 30-plus live music performances a month. And Lawson says that combination of modernization and localization is where WDVX is finding its niche. “Being able to maintain and progress in the face of today’s media is a challenge,” he says. “But I think we’re rising to it.”

***

Reclining amid the fabulous clutter of the WDVX studio, its azure walls covered with concert promos and Yee-Haw prints, stuffed chickens and hillbilly dolls and artifacts, Lawson remembers twisting the radio dial in his room from his home in Campbell County—teen-aged, rock ’n’ roll-obsessed, and first hearing strains of WQUT, Johnson City, in 1972. “They were playing ‘Loves Me Like a Rock’ by Paul Simon, and I like that song,” he remembers. He’s a broad fellow with a broad face and an easy smile, a gentle voice and a full head of hair turned wintry before its time.

“But then I hung on and didn’t know the next four or five songs. I got turned on to John Prine, the Red Clay Ramblers, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Black Sabbath, all of this stuff coming out of one station.”

That early FM station had a profound effect on the voraciously musical coal miner’s kid. When recruiters from Johnson City’s East Tennessee State University came to school during his senior year, Lawson signed on. Two years later, he was filling in at WQUT, working on-air with a guy named Worm. “He first turned me on to a lot of the music that is now considered classic Americana, which has been a great influence on WDVX.”

Lawson went on to a long and varied career in Knoxville radio—during which he would meet fellow WDVX founder and now station broadcast technical specialist Don Burggraf. Now a 60-ish grandfather of two, Burggraf is an old hand in Knoxville TV and radio, having logged time at television’s WBIR and WSJK, as well as radio stations WIMZ, WUOT, WUTK, and WNOX, where he first met Lawson in 1985.

But the memory of the free-wheeling, free-thinking station that gave Lawson his start in the halcyon days of FM rock radio remained. So when he first heard WNCW, the Americana station founded in Spindale, N.C., with a Knox-area translator, in 1989, something clicked.

“WNCW had been on the air a year or so; I’d listen to them on the way to work, thinking, god, this is awesome,” he says. “We could do that here in Knoxville. We could. What do I need to get there?

“So I came to terms with myself one day. I was in the hospital. And I told my doctor, you know, I want to do something different. And I told him about this station I’d love to have. And before I got out, he wrote me a hundred-dollar check and said, I’d really love to hear that radio station. And I said, Oh my god, Now I’ve gotta build this thing.”

In pursuing his new dream, one of the kindred spirits he found was fellow local radio lifer Benny Smith, now station manager at the University of Tennessee’s WUTK. But that time he was fresh off his first stint at WUTK, and Smith, a Greeneville native, remembered WQUT.

Smith and local DJ Shane Timon were both working at the old Record Bar music store in West Town Mall; they landed Lawson a job there, too. And when the WDVX concept didn’t gain quick traction, the trio decided to launch a version of it in miniature, in the guise of “Soppin’ the Gravy,” a bluegrass radio show they pitched to LaFollette’s WQLA.

“People ate it up,” Smith laughs. “The phone was ringing off the hook. And it was great fun. We’d pile into whoever’s car was in the best shape that week, drive up there, eat, play music, and laugh until our ribs hurt.

“But what it was about was, let’s go do this somewhere else. Let’s build support, get our name out, make connections. It was sort of a petri dish for WDVX. And it worked. It really laid a foundation.”

Smith continued as a WDVX organizer, fund-raiser, and, later, on-air personality until 1998. Yet even with that early success, it was an arduous road that led from inspiration to functioning station.

***

The station was very much on again, off again,” says Burggraf. “There were lots of great ideas for getting on the air, but also lots of impractical ones. I think there’s an old adage about getting a committee to design a mule. It’s a mess.”

In phases, the WDVX group got a license, a frequency, a transmitter. What was still missing was a studio. Says Burggraf, “We had a construction permit, but that was no good with no money.”

So two days before the permit was set to expire, Burggraf and board member Joe Chastain navigated the rocky passes of 3,500-foot Cross Mountain to the tower for local station WOKI. WOKI management allowed the two men to put WDVX on the air via a CD player and four discs on random play, set up on the fly in the station’s snakeskin-carpeted transmitter room.

Lawson was pulling a shift on local rock station WIMZ. “I got a call on the request line, and it was Don, saying, go out to your truck, turn it on and see if you can get WDVX. Then I come back and he says, ‘Are you ready to do this?’”

The station’s first full operational board came together—Lawson, Burggraf, Chastain, John Bunnell, and Marie Cirillo—and for the next several months, “if a CD got stuck, we had to drive all the way to the top of the mountain to unstick it,” Lawson says.

“The roads were beat up like crazy. There’s a deep mine up there, and you had to watch out for coal trucks. Used to be cows up there, too. It was a freakish thing—go up there and cows were grazing in the snow. But it was a great place to watch the Hale-Bopp Comet. Don and I would stand out with our thumbs out, like we were hitching a ride.”

That lasted until the FCC caught wind of their half-baked operation and sent a polite letter of warning to the newbie station. “They said, guys, you gotta do this right or get off the air,” Lawson says. “Fortunately we found a place to park for a while, on a back porch right off the Clinch River.”

The porch belonged to a friend of Burggraf; it was a multi-generational home near Clinton, and radio personnel had to enter through the family’s living room to reach the broadcast area. “That proved to be pretty impractical,” Burggraf says.

Yet the station still managed its first live performance there. “It was one August night in the backyard, and you could still hear the crickets,” Lawson recalls. “We had Fish Jones and Jessie Brock, and our own RCA 44 mic set up, and we went live.”

Later live feeds were moved to the home’s basement, where, Lawson says, “we had some troubles; it was real primitive.” Old Crow Medicine Show played the cellar, as did former Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon. And there was the notorious instance of Jim Lauderdale and country rock/zydeco outfit Donna the Buffalo having to play in standing water after a flood.

But the station’s home couch-surfing days were quickly coming to a close, and there were still no funds to purchase quarters of its own. Until one day, as Lawson was driving through Norris, the words of an old friend came back to him: “Tony, why don’t you put that thing in a camper?”

“So I went down to the campground where I’d worked with this guy, Bob Moore, when we did ‘Soppin’ the Gravy.’

“I asked him, have you ever thought about having a radio station in your campground? Then I called Don and said, what do you think about putting this thing in a camper? He said, are you crazy? And I said, no, because you already put a radio station in a train caboose when we worked together in the ’80s at WNOX, so I know you can do it.”

That evening, Lawson and Burggraf put a CD player and microphone in the camper. Then they set out for Cross Mountain, made adjustments at the transmitter site, and dialed Moore, at which point he became the first person to broadcast from the WDVX camper, announcing the call letters on Nov. 5, 1997. He then played Seldom Scene’s Live at the Cellar Door in its entirety, giving Lawson and Burggraf 70 minutes to get back before the next break.

***

In the middle of his late-afternoon shift at the visitor center, Lawson is sitting in-studio with none other than the Human Cannonball himself, Webb Wilder, who at the moment is looking distinctly un-Webb Wilder-like, what with his baseball cap, untucked and casually buttoned plain shirt, and—most glaring—absence of horn-rimmed specs, the very specs he encouraged so many of his followers to wear, if they needed ’em.

Sporting an acoustic guitar, Wilder picks a nimble country blues, far removed from his Chuck Berry-esque electric fare. For 30 minutes or more, he and Lawson chat, then play. Station music director Nelson Gullett waits patiently for his segment in the next room with three milk crates full of CDs toted from the trunk of his car. The discs are new releases, by unknown and established artists alike, and Gullett and Lawson devote a little time each week to spinning tracks from the new records.

“I keep these in my car at all times, under the illusion that I’m going to get around to listening to them all,” Gullett jokes.

“I like to introduce new music, not just throw it on,” Lawson admits. As for the rest of the music in the station’s collection of perhaps 5,000 CDs, though, all bets are off.

“I used to have a flow sheet with different categories, but over the past years, I’ve trusted everyone to have fun and put together something good,” he says. “For the most part, I’ve left it to them, and they enjoy that.”

Around 40 percent of the music station’s stock comes from one place: veteran morning jock Freddy Smith, an unassuming construction contractor and lifetime fan of “old country music.”

Smith came aboard when WDVX, safely ensconced in its camper, was still lacking in on-air talent. And with scrap in the way of funding, Lawson looked to volunteers.

On a whim, Smith, a 50-ish fellow with scrupulously parted hair, called to volunteer for the station’s fall fund drive. When he came in for his volunteer phone shift, he told Lawson about his acquaintance with a couple of DJs on country station WIVK.

“Tony said, would you like to volunteer for a couple of air shifts?” Smith remembers a sheepish grin crossing his soft face. “I told him, now, I’m no DJ. He said, it don’t matter, I’ll train you.

“He took me in, said here’s the CD players, here’s the buttons, here’s the microphone, that’s all there is to it. Then he laid on the couch while I played songs, and every four or five, I’d say, ‘WDVX, Clinton.’ Well, after 30 minutes, he says, I’m going to run some errands, I’ll be back. I gave him that deer-in-the-headlights look. ‘You can’t leave me here. But what he was doing was going to see how I sounded on radio.”

Which, Smith concludes now, was terrible. “Gaahh!,” he says, clutching his forehead. “I’m so afraid someone will come up and say, here’s a tape of your early shows.”

But he persevered, got better. He’s since emceed festivals, met several of his country music and bluegrass heroes.

“I get paid now,” says Smith. “But it’s like getting paid to fish. I’m still just a construction worker with a love for music.”

Toensing was sitting in her home some 15 years ago, laid up by foot surgery, when “My husband at the time told me I wasn’t going to sit around the house listening to rock ‘n’ roll music all day, that I needed to get myself a job.

“So I told my neighbor Basil—I’d always had a hankering for weird jobs—I told him I wanted a job in radio. He told me about this station that just moved into a camper.

“But I’d never used a CD player in my life. I was scared to death I would push the wrong button and blow something up.”

But Toensing got more venturesome behind the mic, as well as more technically astute. She also proved to be a magnet for some king-hell weirdness through the years, like the night a man called the camper at 3 a.m. insisting aliens had landed on Norris Lake. Or the afternoon she looked out one of the camper windows to see a llama, staring curiously back at her through the glass.

Others early volunteers still with WDVX include Friday night bluesman Johnny Mack; bluegrass-gospel man Mike Kelly; "Hillbilly Fever" host Nita Dunn; and Alex Leach, now a touring musician who still DJs when he’s in town. His first work at the station came at age 9. “He was some kind of little character. He came up to me at the Tennessee Theatre during a Ricky Skaggs show,” Lawson says. “But the kid had it. Right from the start.”

It was in 1999, during one of Smith’s shifts, that Red Hickey made her first, brief on-air appearance, during a fund drive. Lawson was listening elsewhere. “She definitely caught my ear,” he remembers.

A Knoxville native, Hickey lived in Atlanta for a time, where friends introduced her to a club scene that hosted the likes of Jim Lauderdale, the Derailers, BR549, and Southern Culture on the Skids.

“I had already seen the bands and heard them play,” says Hickey, seated next to the stage where she hosts the Blue Plate Special six days a week. With her flaming hair, freckles, and puckish smile, she is now the station’s most recognized public figure.

“It was hard to tell my family how I was going to quit a good job with a good salary and a 401(k) to go work in a camper with no bathroom doing a job I had no experience in.”

Hickey tells one of the most oft-repeated stories of WDVX camper lore, of finding songs long enough to permit a pell-mell bolt to the campground restroom across the way—Smith called it “the outhouse dash.” One of the choice selections was “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins (or, as one station old-timer remembers, “El Pisso”).

“The camper years were great, and they were important to WDVX’s identity,” says Hickey. But the station board always had bigger things in mind, from the moment the Burggraf first flipped a switch on Cross Mountain.

***

In 1998, Lawson was approached by an Internet service provider that wanted to put WDVX online. The station started streaming their broadcasts, using a Blaupunkt car stereo Burggraf had purchased to install in his 1966 Dodge, which connected the station computer with the ISP antenna. Streaming increased WDVX’s profile not only nationally, but internationally, too, as evidenced both by the e-mails coming into the station—Israel, Australia, New Zealand, even a bluegrass-loving nuclear physicist from Russia—and by the proliferation of far-flung states with WDVX bumper stickers at music festivals.

It was around 2001 that ABC recognized WDVX with a feature on its World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.

And so it was in the early 2000s that the station had recognition, wherewithal, actual employees; and Lawson says WDVX marketing director Roger Harb got a tip to approach the Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corp., which was buying a building on Gay Street, the makings of a new visitor center.

“We wanted a place where we could do live broadcasts, but as a live-performance venue,” Lawson says. “And we wanted autonomy. They ended up letting us be part of designing the floor, so we had our fingerprints on it from day one.”

Lawson says the agreement with Knox Tourism evolved “over a period of time.” In the meantime, the station won the first of its seven Bluegrass Station of the Year awards in 2003, while still camper-bound.

But he says there proved to be “a world of synergy” once the station made its move downtown in 2005. That same year, The Oxford American magazine declared WDVX “probably the best radio station in the world.”

One of the first orders of business, after the dust settled, says Lawson, was making live music an integral part of programming: not just live radio, but live radio with a live audience. The station hosted live music once a week at first, then moved to a five-day schedule. And though early shows were sometimes poorly attended, everyone persevered. Now the six-days-a-week Blue Plate boasts a past history of performers that includes local and international favorites alike: David Grisman, Marty Stuart, R.B. Morris, Bela Fleck, Todd Steed, Del McCoury.

And sparse attendance is rarely an issue now. Says Hickey, “We have regular people who come several times a week. The Blue Plate has become a daily habit here in Knoxville.”

A second, weekly live show was added in 2008, in the form of Tennessee Shines, the germination of which began with the station’s 10-year anniversary celebration, hosted by Jim Lauderdale. After a hiatus, it continues now Mondays at 7 p.m., with combined lineups of authors and musicians, hosted by Paige Travis and Bob Deck.

WDVX has grown organizationally, too. Somewhere in the 2000s, local TV veteran Linda Billman—a 12-year survivor of WBIR’s award-winning The Heartland Series—became a WDVX board member, then interim general manager, and then full-time GM, taking over the role from Lawson. “For a while, Tony was wearing every hat except business manager,” she says, seated in her curiously appointed basement office—a mandolin in one corner, a guitar fashioned out of license plates on the wall, a stuffed owl perched behind her desk.

“If there was a problem, it’s that we were successful, and we needed a business model to support that. There’s tons of things you have to do as a radio station, from FCC compliance to underwriting. And what we really needed was one person as GM, so we could get it moving in one direction.”

Lawson says the station’s finances are strong now, even in a weak economy. He estimates WDVX’s annual budget at somewhere around $700,000. The revenues derive from a combination of Knoxville and Knox County grants; funds from other foundations; underwriting; station-sponsored fund drives and events; merchandise sales; and grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for which WDVX became eligible in 1997.

Those steady, if limited revenues have allowed the station to make gradual upgrades in equipment, programming, and personnel, to make the move downtown in ’05, and to purchase a new transmitter, antenna, and other equipment in recent years.

***

What seemingly separates WDVX from just about every other extant radio station or aural entertainment medium is its combination of niche-market freedoms—an absence of playlists, a boggling variety of specialty shows (rockabilly, banjo, Scots-Irish, blues, gospel)—and its local flavor, its roots in, and connection to, the community it serves.

Now Lawson says he has new ideas to keep the station’s online presence vital, to differentiate it from the plethora of media options that listeners consider in a post-social media world. “We’re going to redesign our website, do some brand new things,” he says. “It’s going to become more interactive. A lot of our show hosts have incredible minds. They have wonderful knowledge of music. I want to see them do blogs, interactive playlists.

“I want to be able to say, I just caught this band last week in Nashville, their new record is whatever. I can do that online, then I can do it live and people will know what I’m talking about, to encourage conversations, interactions. Which is much different from satellite radio and all that, different from Spotify, Pandora. It’s more engaging. It’s more online-community oriented. That’s one of the things I’m really excited about.”

It’s worth noting that Lawson is a man who, in his own cheerful but carefully measured way, gets excited about a good many things these days, whether it be his station’s prospects; spinning the new Van Morrison with Gullett; or watching his beloved San Francisco Giants win a World Series.

But now, WDVX having come from nothing to its present, plush downtown digs, lauded internationally and set in solid straits financially, maybe Lawson’s excitement, a sense of optimism that carries over to a devoted veteran staff, only makes sense.

“With the creativity that walks in here every day, this place just opens the door to having fun,” Lawson says. “It takes you to such interesting places.”

© 2012 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.