A tribute to Chattanooga’s Great Jet-FLI: the soundtrack of a generation

UPDATE:  WFLI’s owner announced the station will sign off permanently March 31, 2017.

A press release from the station said, ” After more than 56 years of broadcasting, WFLI 1070 AM radio will go off the air on March 31, 2017. We sincerely appreciate our listeners, employees and clients for their support.”

Original story from 2013:

Some videos really don’t need an introduction.  So here it is, my tribute to the Great Jet-FLI, 1070 AM, WFLI, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

Although there was no introduction, I do have an explanation, and a story or two.  As you’ve heard,  life is short.  Most of us FLI guys aren’t getting any younger, and too many of us have already checked out and gone on to the Studio in the Sky.  In the past few years, as Chattanooga baby boomers have joined the ranks of the AARP, there has been renewed interest in the memories of our youth.  Heck, I did a book about it, which inspired me to create this blog.  I’ve seen how people react at the mention of WFLI.  The sound of the soaring jet and the echoing “Down…beat-beat-beat-beat” are imbedded in the heads of everyone who grew up in Chattanooga in the 60s and 70s.  I’ve seen grown men moved to tears upon meeting Tommy Jett.

What makes a radio station so special?  We’ve seen many of them come and go since WFLI hit the airwaves in 1961, but few have stuck in our collective psyche like this one.  Was it the music?  The voices?  The personalities?  The promotions?  The simple answer is “Yes,” to all of the above.

With a powerful transmitter carefully pieced together by owner/founder/engineer William “Billy” Benns, the station stood out from the beginning with a strong signal.  By the end of the 60s, it got even stronger at 50,000 watts, the maximum power granted to an AM station by the FCC.  “Mr. Benns,” as most of us called him, was brilliant and eccentric.  I think I speak for most WFLI jocks when I say I equally respected and feared him.  He was known to enjoy the good life with a drink now and then, but on payday he was never particularly in a good mood.  The rest of us were, but he had to sign the checks.

One Friday afternoon, as I was playing the hits, he made a rare appearance in the studio, accompanied by his large German Shepherd “King.” I was 18 or 19, living the carefree life of the rockin’ DJ.  One of our duties was to go to the transmitter room, just a few steps away, and write down the meter readings each hour.  It was an FCC requirement, and although I had never met an FCC inspector, you never knew when one might pay a visit.  I had adopted the habit of taking all my meter readings as soon as I went on the air at 2:00, just to get it out of the way.  I’d write down the 2:00 readings, the 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00.  They never seemed to change much anyway.  Who would ever notice?

You guessed it.  Mr. Benns and the dog came barging in, and he found the clipboard with the meter readings.  It’s 2:55.  I was busted.  He studies it for a few seconds, looks me right in the eye, and said, “Mr. Carroll.” (He addressed everyone as Mister.  I sort of liked it back then.  Now it makes me feel old.)  “Can you predict the future?  Do you have a crystal ball somewhere?”  Hoping he was joking, I awkwardly replied, “Well, not really, you know sort of sometimes I…”  He ignored my babbling and snapped, “How do you know what the meter readings will be at 3:00?  At 4:00?  At 5:00?  How could you possibly know that, Mr. Carroll?”  Lesson learned.  “It won’t happen again, Mr. Benns.”  I’ll skip past the rest of the conversation.  Let’s just say he wasn’t happy.  And….he was right.

Other than teaching me a thing or two about staying legal,  he was also responsible for assembling the finest group of guys I’ve ever known.  The “FLI guys” of the early 60s grew up together, under the leadership of station manager Johnny Eagle (who at the age of 25 was the elder statesman) and Mr. Benns.  Dale Anthony, Tommy Jett, Nick Smith, Ron Arnold and the other early voices provided the soundtrack of a generation.  In the pre-Beatles era, WFLI played what passed for rock and roll at the time, along with a heavy helping of country and soul.  After about a decade, the old guard was out, new guys came in, and modernized the sound to reflect the Woodstock generation, and even later, the disco beats that were sweeping the nation.  By the late 1970s, FM stereo music had blanketed the market, and WFLI spun its last rock and roll tune.  The big 1070 played country for a few years, eventually giving way to a gospel format that continues today.

So although WFLI hasn’t rocked for more than 30 years, the old gang still keeps in touch, reuniting annually to share old stories.  They talk about who got fired the most by Mr. Benns (he was known to fire deejays, who knew he’d forget it about the next day…so they would just show up for work like nothing happened…and indeed, nothing happened).  They talk about how hard it was to get their first-class radiotelephone operator license, which was a requirement to work at the powerful WFLI until sometime in the 1970s.  (I don’t know how or why that rule was changed, but I’m forever grateful.  I barely knew how to change a light bulb, and I could have never passed that test).  And they talk about how much fun radio was back in the seat-of-your-pants 1960s, when stations were locally owned, and creative minds like production genius Stanley Hall were allowed to have fun.  “Sure wish radio was like that today,” is a familiar refrain.

In February 2014, the old gang will get together to celebrate the 53rd anniversary of their alma mater, with a special broadcast from the legendary Tiftonia studio.  We’re all looking forward to it.  The YouTube tribute above includes some of the voices of WFLI, but not all.  We’re hoping new “old” tapes will turn up as folks clear out their junk drawers and attic boxes.  Until then, please replay the video, which highlights the station’s first 15 years.  Hopefully it will make you smile, again and again.  It’s my way of paying tribute to a special brotherhood of guys who miss radio.  But as my friend Jerry Pond would say, “Not as much as radio misses them.”

 

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

15 thoughts on “A tribute to Chattanooga’s Great Jet-FLI: the soundtrack of a generation

  1. JT Lemons

    Great job, David. Jim Pirkle, my first cousing was a FLI dj for many years and through that connection, I’ve had a career where I’ve never worked a day in my life. Pirk was helping Dale Anthony start a new station in Soddy-Daisy and I did some carpentry work there and one day Dale said they were running short of money and could I take my payment in trade at the Brainerd Army/Navy store. I replied “yes” and my life changed forever. I got two rafts and that was the beginning of Ocoee Outdoors. Thirty seven years later, I’m still at it and we’ve added a Hiwassee location and a zip line. I still miss Pirk and will always be grateful for my WFLI connections. Thanks. JT

    Reply
  2. Larry Sullivan

    I remember two of my high school (Kirkman) class mates were two of the early DJs on FLI. I used to drive over to the studio in Tiftonia and visit the station often. My two classmates, Bob Glenn and Ed Aslinger (aka Ed Gale) were very early involved in getting the station up and on the air.
    They both went on to be engineers at other media outlets in Chattanooga. FLI was THE station to listen to when I was growing up. Of course, don’t forget DXB that preceeded FLI.

    Reply
  3. C A Murray

    Awesome memories, but I didn’t see the late and great Ray Anderson aka “The Cleveland Indian”. He was awesome as was Cleve Wheeler who was a DJ there while still in high school! We all know the success Cleve achieved in radio as he went on to create the morning zoo format!

    Wow, I miss radio!! Loved you guys.

    Reply
  4. Jack Roland

    There was a real “Magic” about WFLI for sure. I thank Jim Pirkle, Machine Gun Green, & Marilyn Hickey for helping me get started at WFLI, and although just a part timer in 1976, it was there that started a lifelong career in radio. Thanks to DC for keeping the connections alive! Wish I could visit all of you in February! Blessing, Jack in Colorado!

    Reply
  5. Dianne Heinz

    I am old enough to remember when Tommy Jett was Thom Wayne. It was back in the 60’s. I also remember Del Anthoney who was Zolla Delanos Cantrell. Tommy was from Smithville. I dated for a while when I was in high school, Ron Arnold, who was known as Ron Dailey. They were all good guys and I have very special memories of all those guys, but guess I knew Ron the best, Tommy the longest and Jet Fli forever.

    Reply
  6. Robert T Davis

    David, tell Mrs. Benns that the Davis family from WSIM FM wishes her well and remind the rest of the family that we think of them fondly. Mom and Dad are gone, but we are still in the business as well in Alamo, TN WCTA AM.

    Reply
  7. Betty Smith

    all the fun I had, with my radio, & TJ, & all the rest!!! Thanks for the memories that came flooding back!

    Reply
  8. Rita

    The 70’s was my era loved to rock and roll with Jet fly on
    my way to Bradley Central High School. I can remember on morning there had been an accident on Chickamauga bridge. I do not recall who was the disc- jockey but he informed the public that the traffic was a mess on the damn bridge.I believe there was some back lash for the station.That is nothing to what is said and seen today. Loved Top 40 play

    Reply
  9. Deborah Poteet-Johnson

    David, thanks for posting the pics with Dad, especially the one with “Cousin J. Fred!” Often we would be out in public places, and he would be asked to “Move ’em out!”

    Reply
  10. Zollie D Cantrell, jr

    All,
    Over the years, my father, Dale Anthony (Zollie D Cantrell) has shared many stories about his experience at WFLI and the cast that surrounded him. Yes, he has told me the JT Lemons story and countless others, many times. As I like to say “a blend factual fiction and fictional facts” What a life.
    He called me when he read about WFLI signing off the air. He was on the verge of tears. I was sad for him. We talked for over 20 minutes about the station.
    David, several years ago you sent me two CDs with commercials, air checks, etc of my father and others. I have shared those with him and his grandchildren. All his WFLI and other station momentos, photos, etc were lost in a 2000 fire at a radio station he owned in Cleveland, TN. This is all I have of his time at WFLI. I will be forever thankful.

    Another well done story.

    Zollie D Cantrell, jr

    Reply
  11. Thomas Turrentine

    It’s always sad to tell an old friend goodbye, but all GOOD things come to an end, (so they say). This tribute just rattled some of my old bones with good memories of the 60’s and 70’s when WFLI was a main stay in my car and in school. From Copperhill to Knoxville, I will always remember the good times with WFLI in my ear. So Long guys you are truly an icon of the past good days of youth and innocence. Too bad we can’t bring those days forward to today for our children to experience but so is the Circle of Life. I shall cherish all those memories and every time I hear the music of the local Canteen or a Saturday night at the drive-in movies with a date parked in the moonlight listening to Jet-Fly, my old heart will be revitalized. All thanks to a group of DJ’s devoted to youth and the good times of our youthful days. Good Bye and thank you—– you will never be forgotten!!!

    Reply
  12. Lonna Hightower

    I was 9 in 1961, and listened to “Jet Fly” exclusively, on my “transistor” and clock/radio, during the rest of my formative years. At 16 or 17, I discovered that, late at night, I could pick up “WLS, in Chicago”. So then I could listen to WFLI all day, and, after it went off the air, WLS. What a life! LOL. It definitely shaped and influenced my entire life. Hadnt heard the station since I went away to college, so thought it had closed Great video, except one of our faves in the late ’60’s wasn’t included–“Chickamauga Charley”. I hope someone finds recordings of his antics.

    Reply
  13. Marilyn "Magic" Hickey

    One of the best and biggest parts of our lives. I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of people were affected by the sounds and voices of Jet Fly? About 20 years or more before I had the joined the Fly gang I remember standing in our yard with my parents and siblings watching that “Jet Fly Eye in the Sky” beam sweeping across the stars above. So many memories for so many of us…Magic…

    Reply
  14. Pingback: JET-FLI Radio takes off again! - David Carroll's Chattanooga Radio and TV

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