On Friday March 31st, Chattanooga’s AM 1070 radio station WFLI will sign off for one last time, ending a 56-year run. For those of us who grew up with the Beatles, Supremes and Four Seasons blasting out of our transistor radios, it’s the end of an era.
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 the Chattanooga area in the 60s and 70s. I’ve seen grown men moved to tears upon meeting Tommy Jett.
What makes a radio station so special? Was it the music? The voices? The personalities? The promotions? The simple answer is “Yes,” to all of the above. I was fortunate enough to work there early in my career.
With a powerful transmitter carefully pieced together by owner 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 deejays when I say we 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.
He was also responsible for assembling the finest group of radio announcers I’ve ever known. The “FLI guys” of the early 60s grew up together, under the leadership of station manager Johnny Eagle and Mr. Benns. Dale Anthony, Tommy Jett, and the other early voices guided us through a turbulent decade with their upbeat chatter. In the pre-Beatles era, WFLI played rock and roll along with a heavy helping of country and soul. After about a decade, the station modernized its 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.
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 FCC 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 were allowed to have fun. “I sure wish radio was like that today,” is a familiar refrain.
Plus, who can forget the superstar concerts? Ask any baby boomer who grew up in Chattanooga about the Jet-FLI Spectaculars at Memorial Auditorium, and they will tell you some stories. On any given night, more than half of the acts in Billboard’s Top Ten would be in our little town, on the same stage, one right after another. Tickets ranged from $2.50 to $3.50.
If you missed Paul Revere and the Raiders this year, they just might be back next year. Same goes for Herman’s Hermits, Kenny Rogers and other repeat visitors.
Ticket prices were low, according to Johnny Eagle, to allow as many people as possible to come. “It wasn’t meant to be a money-maker,” he said. “We just wanted to promote the radio station, and boy did it ever work!” The first Spectacular was staged on March 19, 1965, and for the next six years, the twice-yearly shows were enormously popular. The deejays would promote about five acts for a few weeks, and then just before the show, a “surprise special guest” would be added. With great fanfare, they would tell us that Johnny Rivers or Bobby Sherman or some other big name “has just been added…you’d better get your tickets now!”
Much like other beloved memories from the 20th century, AM radio is quietly fading into oblivion. WFLI’s owners say the station just isn’t profitable any more. As it leaves the airwaves, we fondly remember a radio station that provided the soundtrack of our youth.