Ralph Deward Epperson, 85, owner and founder of radio station WPAQ 740 AM in Mount Airy, passed away on May 31, as the result of injuries sustained in a fall. He was on the air with his regular Saturday program, “Blue Ridge Spotlight,” less than a week before.
Ralph Epperson built his station in Mt. Airy, using bricks and locally hewn beams. When WPAQ went on the air in 1948, broadcasting at 10,000-watts, Epperson pledged to feature local talent and to preserve local music. He never broke that pledge. Epperson was a true pioneer in radio and made many lasting contributions in the promotion, broadcasting, and preservation of old-time and bluegrass music. Over the years, he received several awards, including induction into the N.C. Association of Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1991.
His archives are catalogued, preserved, and stored at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to ensure public access forever. Some of Epperson’s archived recordings are being restored at UNC-Chapel Hill, and a CD of WPAQ’s music from 1947-1950 was released in 1999 under the name WPAQ: Voice of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Today, WPAQ continues broadcasting the traditional music of its community and local news.
Ralph Epperson translated his love of mountain music into a focal point for community life: a radio station. He had an early understanding of what he wanted to do, and he pretty much stuck to his vision for more than five decades. That alone would be worthy of notice. But he loved not just mountain music in general. He loved specifically the music of his own community. He wanted to promote it, reflect it, and preserve it. His love of the music sprang not just from what he found to be its distinctive, alluring sounds. It also grew from his fondness for the people around him. Because he understood his community’s uniqueness, the world received the phenomenon called WPAQ. It also received a priceless collection of recordings.
Working for Ralph was memorable to say the least. I quickly discovered that the station moved on what could be called Ralph time. Some of us young people wanted things to move more quickly. We wanted more aggressive marketing of what WPAQ was doing. Still others (not me) wanted a more modern approach to programming, featuring more country music. But Ralph had been in business for quite awhile. He’d been through ups and downs, and through many employees. He was a southern gentleman. In his quiet, good-humored and gentlemanly way, he would hear us—and keep doing what he had been doing since 1948, at a speed that was comfortable to him.
He wanted people to have the chance to hear the Gospel. He believed in news coverage. He wanted to keep local musicians in the spotlight as much as possible. And so that’s what WPAQ did.
Ralph was also a packrat and an obsessive recordist. He recorded as many local musicians as he could. He asked that we tape all the live Saturday morning Merry-Go-Round programs featuring local and area talent. We taped large numbers of remote events such as fiddlers’ conventions as well. And he sent staff members out onto the grounds of conventions, where we would record jam sessions and interview musicians. Then we would play selections from all these adventures on the air.
Keep in mind, all of this was at a commercial radio station. It was distinctly out of the ordinary in the modern broadcasting environment. There was a certain heady feeling to it in particular during the 1980s when interest in the music, including among relatively young people, was still strong. I recall feeling excited and incredibly fortunate.
Working for Ralph also had an oddly dreamlike quality. It gave the sense of being in the past and present at once, which it was. It had the feeling of mission, because the station had missions. No matter that the pay was low and the equipment often old and sometimes balky. The situation was by and large a good thing, because for those of us who were open to the idea of community service through radio, Ralph demonstrated the possibilities. And it was simply very cool to be doing what we were doing, watching Ralph’s example of belief in his missions, and seeing and hearing the community respond.
Where Ralph was concerned, the more layers one peeled back, the more one would find. He was a massively knowledgeable radio engineer, a deep thinker, an explainer, and an enthusiast. He tirelessly encouraged musicians, young and old. And he gave us a place to play. He transformed his beliefs and his visions into reality that benefited all of us. The radio world—and the world at large—could use many more such people.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.