ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Finally this hour, a remembrance of a radio man who helped keep the sound of live bluegrass, old time gospel and mountain music on the air in North Carolina. Ralph Epperson died yesterday at the age of 85. The station he owned was WPAQ and when he built it and put it on the air in 1948, he made a pledge to feature local talent and preserve local music and he never broke the pledge.
NPR's Paul Brown worked for Epperson and WPAQ in the early- and mid-1980s and he offers this appreciation:
Mr. RALPH EPPERSON (Radio Station WPAQ): You're listening to the Blues Spotlight, coming to you from radio station WPAQ, Mt. Airy, North Carolina. And now we've got a number by J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers, Write a Letter to Mother.
(Soundbite of music)
PAUL BROWN reporting:
I was working at a truck stop overnight, filling up semis and checking their oil. I was a WPAQ listener. I was hanging out with old mountain musicians during the day to learn more about playing my banjo and fiddle. My friend Verlin Clifton told me I should call Ralph Epperson and get a job at WPAQ. He said he thought Mr. Epperson would want to talk to someone young who loved old-time mountain music.
So I called him up. He gave me a job right away doing the local news. On my first day, I was writing news. The next minute - what! I was thrown onto the air. It turned out to be a pivot point in my life. It was 1983, and I was in a time warp. WPAQ had hardly changed since 1948, with its heavy wood beams, aging equipment and studios where local musicians from North Carolina and Virginia played live on the air.
Now I was calling Mr. Epperson Ralph and listening ever more intently to him and his Saturday Blue Ridge Spotlight program featuring music ranging back to the 1920s.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWN: Not only did we play local music, we aired local preachers. We read the obituaries. It was my job to present the daily tobacco price update for our farmers. And I came to understand quiet Ralph as one of those people with incredible, obsessive focus, someone who believed in service and believed very deeply in the community of people around him. He also believed in uniqueness, his own and the uniqueness of the musicians he loved. He told me how that related to WPAQ and he said the exact thing once to NPR.
Mr. EPPERSON: My own personal feeling is that if something is being done, especially if it's being done in great abundance, then just to come along and do a little more of it when I'll actually be serving the people. If it's coming out already 25 places on the dial, why should I become place number 26?
BROWN: Well, Ralph Epperson never was like anybody else. And his station sure wasn't number 26. After decades pumping out local music on the AM dial, WPAQ is a favorite of musicians around the world, even those who can't hear it. And its community loves it to this day.
And as for Ralph, he demonstrated to me that you could really perform community service with radio. You really could do it. Everyone who worked with him understood that. I was hooked. I'm still hooked. Here's Mississippi Sawyer, one of the thousands of tunes Ralph Epperson recorded by local musicians right there at WPAQ.
(Soundbite of Mississippi Sawyer)
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Paul Brown. You can hear songs by the musicians so loved by Epperson and who loved him right back. The songs are at our web site, NPR.org.
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