Monday, August 31, 2015

Memories from Brian Stevens..."Rock of Knox"~

You might remember that I grew up in Greenfield, IN -- home of early 70's Vols basketball great Mike Edwards. Somewhere in elementary school or junior high, my Dad coached Mike. So when Ray Mears recruited "the Greenfield Gunner" to Knoxville, the several times a season road trips from Greenfield to Knoxville were inevitable. 

Now I loved radio. Ate, slept, dreamed radio. I always had a transistor AM radio with me. Even on those early 1970s road trips. I soon learned that WNOX was the first Knoxville station I could pick up heading south on I-75. We'd top that ridge between Jellico and Caryville and through the ever lessening static I'd hear American Top 40 Saturday afternoons on WNOX. 

Once in town, I'd tune by WKGN or WETE or WJBE, but WNOX was my station. Obviously. WNOX was home to John Ward and the Vol Basketball Network. Who else would I listen to? My Dad loved Opera. My Mom loves Big Band. They hated the top 40 that WNOX played in those days. So I'd listen through one of those awful plastic ear pieces. The sound was painful, but I didn't care. It was WNOX.

From that first road trip of Mike's 1970-1971 Sophomore season (remember that Frosh couldn't play varsity in those days), WNOX was always the first thing I'd listen to approaching Caryville. The tradition lasted long after Mike had graduated. Through the 70s and most of the 1980s, the radio always landed on 990 first. 

As the 80s passed, adulthood and work meant I almost never dialed into WNOX from Indiana. I was working at an FM AC in Indianapolis and spent less and less time tracking what was happening at 'NOX or with country music radio. I listened when they changed to country when Mack Sanders bought them. I knew that they'd struggled through different owners since then. 

But what I didn't know was that 990 had gone off the air when I made a vacation trip to the Smokeys in July 1988. Approaching Caryville, it was nothing but static. Lake City, static. Norris, still static. I stopped at what I think was an old Smokey Mountain Market on Emory Road and called from the pay phone. Someone from the FM picked up. That's when I'd discovered that 990 had been off the air for several months. The call letters now on an FM in Jefferson City. 

There are those moments in life that are passage points. Transitions where you know things will never be the same. Reluctantly, I got back in the car and clicked over to Brother Clay on WOKI. For me, at 29 years old, WNOX not being there as I approached Knoxville was one of the last of those discovery moments when something else of your childhood is gone.

I'd been in Gatlinburg for a couple of days. But I kept thinking about what had happened to WNOX. Now in September 1981, I'd dropped off a tape and resume for John E. Douglas. But I never went beyond the lobby that day. I knew the FM was still on from Whittle Springs. I wondered if I might get someone to give me a tour of the old place. 

I called. The PD said yes. I've since forgotten his name. I hopped in the car and drove back to Knoxville. Got there to find the front door wide open. No one in the lobby. The building was dark. But the sound of Whitney Houston's "Love Will Save the Day" was coming from the FM studio down the hall. I headed that direction. 

It was 90 degrees that day. There was no AC on in the building It was like a sauna. I could hear the sound of an oscillating fan as I approached the one room with lights on. The FM air studio. The jock was startled as I knocked on the door to make myself known. I remember that FM studio looking very temporary, like they were planning to move soon. 

The jock called the PD. He met me. We walked around the building. He used a Coleman camping lantern to light the way through parts of the building. I seem to remember that the walls of the darkened auditorium appeared a pale blue in the harsh lantern light. Even then it smelled of mold and dust. I doubt if it had been used in years. 

Eventually we worked our way back to the studios and news room. I wish I'd had a camera. You could tell that Scripps spared no expense. Carpet on the walls to help acoustics were common then. But WNOX had taken it one step further. The old 70s WNOX logo was cut into the carpet. Impressive.

The gear in production was still functional. I'm thinking it was an Auditronics board, circa 1978 or so. ITC Triple Play and a recorder. A pair of old Scully reel to horses built like a wood sided tank or battleship. Great gear. And I was wondering what the air studio would look like. 

Disappointment. Who ever the last owner was had sold the gear from the air studio. All that remained was the dust covered studio furniture. Holes where the board and turntables once sat. A couple of booms with cable but no mics. You could tell where the cart machines once were. Just the wall mounted cart racks remained. 

The faint scent of stale cigarette smoke and burned coffee remained. I stood where the jocks would have. Thought of guys like Eddy Roy and Dick Winstead who'd once stood there. I could imagine the sound of that hot nighttime skywave signal playing from where those monitors once were. Those Pams' "Rock of Knox" jingles and that legal ID voiced by Ron Ashburn..."WNOX Knoxville. This will be our finest hour." 

I succeeded in not showing my true emotion. But it was heartbreaking. For me, WNOX would have been a dream job. I loved that station that much. And here I was. Standing where it once was. Now just a shell. I looked at the cart rack. Just one cart remained. The closer cart from the 1988 season of UT basketball broadcasts. Looking back, I should have pocketed it. But I left it where it was. Something of a last memorial to the WNOX I'd loved and what first introduced me to it, John Ward and the Vol Basketball Network. 

I probably didn't stand there for a minute. But it seemed like hours. All the memories that were rushing back. I looked toward the window between the studio and the news room. I thought of the old news guys like Ashburn and Colvin Idol. Even the younger guys like Jim Fairchild and H. J. Booker. 

But I kept going back to the days of Eddy Roy. Thinking about Roy in the Morning. And thinking about Paul Oscar Anderson railing on the politicians, questioning ideas like a World's Fair, and doing all those endorsement spots in the newscast. And I realized that as long as we held onto those memories, that empty and dusty old studio in a small way lives on. And will live on, long after the Whittle Springs building is gone. 

All that to lead to this. Your website is part of how we hold onto those memories. It's a resource. It's a treasure. And George, allow me to end this far too long e-mail with a simple "thank you."