It’s no secret that radio means a lot to me. It’s right up there with baseball, hot ‘n gooey Krystal cheeseburgers, and Coca Cola in small bottles. All of them grabbed me when I was a kid, and they’ve never let go.
My older sisters always had the radio on. That was my first exposure to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Supremes. Living 30 miles from Chattanooga, the static-ridden, tiny AM transistor radios didn’t deliver much clarity, but they still packed a punch. All the hit-making producers of that era had mono speakers in mind when they put those records together. That’s why “Surfin USA,” “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch,” and “Baby Love” sounded so full, so complete. We remember where we were, and what we were doing when we heard them for the very first time. Once wasn’t enough, we had to hear them again!
That’s where WFLI came in. I’ve written before about Chattanooga’s “Great Jet-FLI,” the 50,000 watt AM station that is such a big part of my life. Other radio stations up and down the dial played those same songs. But none have had the lasting impact, and have earned the iconic status of WFLI. As local baby-boomers age into their 50s, 60s and 70s, some have difficulty remembering the names of their grandchildren, or where they left their keys. But if you start rattling off names and phrases like Tommy Jett, “Down-beat-beat-beat,” or “Jet-FLI Spectacular,” their faces light up.
Here’s the other beautiful thing about WFLI. Unlike most other radio stations, the core group of guys (and a few ladies) who worked there 40-50 years ago are still close friends. Whatever workplace drama that existed (and you know it did) has long been erased by the passage of time. Those who survive aren’t young, thin rock ‘n rollers any more. They move a little slower. You’ve got to speak up, because that loud music didn’t help anyone’s hearing. Almost everyone smoked back then in a tiny enclosed control room, so it’s a wonder any of them have functional lungs today. Plus I can vouch that the cloud of smoke that enveloped the station’s Tiftonia studio was not always from cigarettes, if you get my drift.
Yet somehow, several aging deejays, including myself, are still able to gather once or twice a year to repeat oft-told stories that just get better with time. It’s a tight-knit fraternity. We’ve lost a few of those memorable voices over the years. From teenage wonder boy “Fast Jimmy” Byrd, to comic/musical genius “Young Stanley” Hall, to the fun loving 1970s morning man Jim Pirkle. The guys who put the station on the air, like owner Billy Benns, and the ones who kept the giant transmitter humming, engineers Joe Poteet and Bud Bell are long gone. But their names live on in story after story, told by those who worked with them and loved them.
I’ve worked at a few radio and TV stations since I joined WFLI in 1975. For about 18 months, this Sand Mountain teen got a crash course in the world of fast-talking, faster-living deejays. I’m surely alive today because of a deal I made with my Dad. He knew how much that job meant to me, and he figured out a way to keep me straight. “Son, I’ll make sure you have a car to get you there and back (a 70-mile round trip each night), but if you get in trouble, I’ll take away the keys.” Obviously that meant no drinking, no drugs, or anything else that might put me on the wrong side of the law. So while my co-workers who lived five minutes from work were experimenting with just about everything, this Alabama kid toed the line.
It all turned out well. I lived to tell about it, and have made a living behind a microphone ever since. Through all the different control rooms and studios, my friendships with my fellow FLI guys are among the strongest in my life. It wasn’t high school, but it sure was an education. These days, when we all get together, a one-hour lunch becomes a three-hour marathon, and my face hurts from smiling. There are still some good radio stations around, but few are staffed around the clock, 24/7 like WFLI was in its prime. Not many deejays go to school together, live together and share everything (EVERYTHING), like Dale Anthony and Tommy Jett did, or like Jimmy Byrd and Billy “Dex” Poindexter. I hope today’s radio personalities can get together and tell stories about their careers forty or fifty years from now. But I doubt there’ll never be another Jet-FLI. Some things only happen once in a lifetime.
Now, a gift to you from fellow FLI-guy and radio fanatic Ben Cagle. Along with Johnny Eagle, who ran the place back in the 60s, and Betty Benns, daughter of the man who started it all, Ben helped organize a reunion in February 2014 that was the biggest one yet. The highlights are three YouTube videos (linked below), about an hour each, documenting the history of WFLI in the 1960s. Ben spent months putting these together. They include music, memories, stories and laughs, plus a lot of pictures. Next time you need a nice, long smile break, check out Ben’s wonderful production. Like the FLI guys used to say, “It’s swingin’ man, it’s what’s happening.” Watch, share, and enjoy!
“The History of WFLI”