Apr 8, 2022 - Music

As WBT turns 100, here’s the story of how Charlotte could’ve been Nashville

Old Radio Microphone

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A century ago this week, three Charlotte men named Fred, Earle and Frank moved their amateur radio station out of Fred’s chicken coop and started the first fully licensed station in the South: WBT.

Why it matters: That station, with the prestigious three-letter call sign, has endured countless changes in the local media landscape — among them: I’m guessing Fred, Earle and Frank wouldn’t have predicted you’d be reading about them in Axios Charlotte on your phone right now — and maintains a prominent status here.

  • The station (1110 AM and 99.3 FM) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this weekend, first with a Hall of Fame induction ceremony at CPCC’s Halton Theater on Saturday — (tickets here).
  • Also, the city and county have declared Sunday, April 10, “WBT Day.”
  • Descendants of Earle Gluck and Frank Bunker will take part in the weekend — as will Leslie Crutchfield Thompkins, daughter of former announcer and program executive Charles Crutchfield.

Today, WBT stands out as a conservative talk radio station in a mostly liberal city. But its audiences stretch well outside Charlotte’s borders — the station still boasts a 50,000-watt AM signal (1110) that at night allows it to be heard from “Cuba to Canada” as its longtime saying goes.

  • Of note: That slogan carried extra meaning in the 1960s when, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. government built a fallout shelter underneath WBT’s transmitter off Nations Ford Road.

The big picture: The station’s story is intertwined with Charlotte’s. In its early days it appealed to mill workers and working-class people who’d moved from the country to the city for employment.

  • It helped “stitch together this whole region,” Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett tells me. “It was more than a hometown radio station when it started out because there are so few other radio stations. It covered most of North and South Carolina.
  • “WBT worked really hard at celebrating country traditions; celebrating the farmer. You heard the egg prices on the air, the county extension agent.”
  • Over the years, it racked up names you’ve seen around town, including Grady Cole, one of the most popular Southern radio personalities of the late 20th century.

For all the ways the station shaped our culture, though, one of its most lasting contributions was an opportunity it didn’t seize upon.

Think about this: WBT was a country music radio station with variety shows founded three years before Nashville’s WSM came onto the scene.

  • In the 1930s, a big Chicago-based advertiser asked Charles Crutchfield if WBT had any “hillbilly band,” according to Our State magazine.
  • Crutchfield lied and said yes, then asked for volunteers. That’s how the band The Briarhoppers started, and they became one of the most famous acts in the state.
  • Later, WBT brought on Arthur Smith, a Charlotte music legend who wrote “Dueling Banjos,” a bluegrass tune made famous by the movie Deliverance. Smith later hosted The Arthur Smith Show, a popular variety program that aired on WBTV from 1951 to 1982.

But Crutchfield and WBT were hesitant to go all in on country music. They thought it was a fad. Later in life, Crutchfield told a newspaper that Charlotte could have been Nashville “if I just had the foresight to see its potential.”

  • He wasn’t alone alone in that opinion.
  • Musician Cecil Campbell once told historian John Rumble that, “With a bit more effort and a bit more luck … Charlotte might have pre-empted Nashville’s later claim to the title ‘Music City, U.S.A.'”

The bottom line: Ah, well.

What’s next: The station offers more news and opinion than banjo and harmony these days. But in the mornings it still has a more neutral, newsy feel with a hometown voice in Bo Thompson’s show.

  • Thompson is a Myers Park High grad who started working at the station in 1990 when he was 16.
  • He has led the anniversary celebrations over recent weeks and months, and last summer told me he felt like “the keeper of the flame.”
  • Thompson’s show added a new co-host last week — veteran television anchor and former congressional candidate Beth Troutman.

About 18 months ago, when Urban One — the country’s largest Black-owned media company targeting Black audiences — acquired WBT, one of the first things it did was sign Thompson to a longer-term contract.

  • It was a sign, the owners and Thompson told me, that the new owners planned to “let BT be what BT is.”

And part of what “BT is,” is a place that cares deeply about its history.

WBT program director Mike Schaefer, who came here a few years ago from a Los Angeles station that was also formed in 1922, says the buildup to the anniversary has been special.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Schaefer told me. “I came from 2018 to one 97-year old station to another 97-year-old station and I thought I knew what history was. The team here takes it to heart, and lives it in their daily performance on the air.”

Go deeper: Read “Charlotte Country: A Sixty-Year Tradition,” produced in the 1980s and still on Hanchett’s “History South” website.

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