Saying goodbye to WFLI

Update: May 16, 2017:  Evan Stone and Marshall Bandy have reached an agreement with longtime WFLI owner Ying Benns to return the station to the airwaves, pending FCC approval, which usually requires about 60 days.  Details of the station’s format are yet to be announced.  Welcome back, WFLI!

Previous story from March 24, 2017:

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.

Johnny Eagle in 1961

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.

WFLI owner Billy Benns in the 1970s

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.

Dale Anthony introducing the Jet-FLI Spectacular, 1965

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!”

WFLI jocks preparing to play the Harlem Globetrotters in 1970

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.

 

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.

21 thoughts on “Saying goodbye to WFLI

  1. Parks Hall

    Another great Chattanooga station bites the dust. I fear that WDOD and WFLI will not be the only local AMs to go off the air in the near future. Thank you for the nice article and the fond memories. Maybe you will take pictures of whats left of the old transmitters and share them with us old radio guys.

    Parks Hall

    Reply
    1. Raymond Howell

      Three AM Stations Went Off The Air In The Last 19 Years WSDT AM 1240, WDOD AM 1310, And Now WFLI AM 1070. Other Signals Have Changed But, Are Still Broadcasting. AM 980 Is Now WDYN , AM1450 IS NOW WLMR. AM 1490 is Now WJOC.

      Reply
  2. Donald W. Woollard

    Helped take “Jet-FLI’s” first transmitter apart and move it from WTOP
    Washington D C to Lookout Mountain while I worked for the “Brennans” at WAPE in Jacksonville, FL. Always enjoyed Billy, He was a creator of great yarns himself. As were all the members of the Brennan/Benns radio crowd in the 50’s and 60’s.

    Reply
  3. George McCumber

    I remember driving from Washington, DC to Ohio (Columbus, I believe) in late 1969 with a couple of friends. It was night so we were looking for music on the radio when I said my favorite radio station at home was at 1070 AM. As I tuned the radio to that frequency, lo and behold, the WFLI soaring jet sound came out! We held onto WFLI for about 10 minutes before it faded out. It was good to hear the sound of “home” even for that short a period. WFLI will be missed, along with the deejays.

    Reply
  4. Wayne DeYampert

    In my opinion there are enough older people in Chattanooga to support an oldies station playing 50’s & 60’s era music instead of catering to the younger generations & talk radio. I think that’s why AM radio has died & I think it is a great disgrace

    Reply
  5. Jayne

    sorry to hear another piece of history bites the dus! Fond memories of spending several evenings on O’Grady drive answering the phone taking requests and dedications for “T.J”. So much fun for a bunch of 16 year olds in 1965! Long live Rock and Roll!

    Reply
  6. Debra Cooper

    Thanks for the fond memories. I do hate to see another icon go away, but I’ll always remember listening to good old Rock and Roll and the WFLI Deejays!

    Reply
  7. Robert Martin

    Central High, The Cotton Patch, The Rebel, Shoney’s in Rossville all gone and now WFLI- 1070 fades into history. Never will be good times like those we had. Thanks for the memories. Hay Now .

    Reply
  8. Robert Martin

    Central High, The Cotton Patch, The Rebel, Shoney’s all gone and now WFLI-1070 fades into history. Never again will there be great times like those we had during this time. Thanks for the memories. Hay Now.

    Reply
  9. Jeanette,Joyce,Joan,Johnny,Sandy

    WFLI was the background music of our lives. We were a houseful of rockin’ kiddos. Mama and Daddy were always shouting “Turn that racket down.”I really enjoyed listening to the tribute today. JET-FLI WFLI sssswwwwww. When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie ….. (wiping a tear away)

    Reply
  10. Tony Tucker

    Great story David. Had the WFLI bumber sticker with the jet and contrails underneath on my first car. Remember well WFLI, WDXB, and of course Super Go. Bittersweet day.

    Reply
  11. Marilyn "Magic" Hickey

    My eyes are so misty, I wrote “Fly” instead of “Fli”…..actually an easy mistake, considering how Fli always made me feel like I was flying on good vibes… boy, we’re gonna miss it.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Ridge

      Thank you for paving the way for the rest of us women on radio! It wasn’t easy getting a job as a DJ back then!

      Reply
  12. Diane McBryar Nichols

    I will miss the great music WFLI played. I grew up in Lookout Valley and saw the station almost everyday. I remember one day Rone Benedict’s car setting out front, so exciting. I also won my first album from Jet-Fly. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  13. Mark Withers

    Having grown up in the era when AM radio was king, I guess I am lucky I live in an area where AM radio is hanging on by either switching to other language formats or sports & talk. With all the available methods available today for people to listen & watch, I am not surprised that stations are going by the wayside! Recently CBS is selling off it’s still profitable radio stations because the profit is on the decline.

    Reply
  14. Gene Parrott, Jr.

    The station will be missed in Chattanooga, I worked there (WFLI TV / AM 1070) for 17 yrs. I loved hearing the story’s from the DJ’s that I got to know over the years, because I started in 1990, and their Jet Fli ride started in the 60’s. One of the best tales told was ( Did he land the plane on 24 )

    Reply
  15. Tim Mitchell

    Sorry to see Chattanooga history fade away. Having work there in the late 70s with Jim Pirkel,
    Brian Page and Max O Brian. Fired several time by Mr. Benz, took several days off then came back on Monday.

    I have several pictures of Pirkle, Richardson and others.
    Please contact me.

    Reply
  16. Lisa Ridge

    Oh Tim! I would so love to have copies of those pictures!! I’m the one that married Jimmy Byrd. I was there for about 3 years doing gopher work, lol! It’s good to hear from you. I went by my maiden name Lisa Steele.

    Reply
    1. Tim Mitchell

      Hi Lisa,
      Great to hear from you after all these years. Hope life has been good to you. As I recall you were a good On Air person as well.
      I will gladley share the pictures with you.
      I will ask David to share my E-mail addreess with you

      Reply
  17. Carl Sampieri

    I’m sorry but the failure of AM radio is the lack of support and creativity from management. WFLI could easily run a 50-60’s from automation with a small staff and provide a definite service for the Boomers that Radio has forgotten. Gospel is a very tiny niche that isn’t accepted by everyone. Music you grew up with will always cross the timelines of generations. today’s generation is re-discovering the great music of their parents but Big Corp Radio thinks it has to be all new and they are killing Radio. They are wrong. Have a study done to see what the daytime non-directional power could be and reduce the expense of 50 KW. The Sellers can’t sell the footprint of the 50 KW but better be able to sell 20-25 KW. I was there on 3/31 to see the transmitters and was amazed to see the equipment hadn’t been updated in decades. The engineer kept it going but the sound reflected the non-competitive atmosphere of the Great WFLI. After 50 years of this business it breaks my heart to see things like this happen when it could have been avoided.

    Reply

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