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Paducah Radio History — Magic on the Ether

Paducah Radio History — Magic on the Ether

J.T. Crawford

If you were around Paducah before the 1970s, you probably remember listening to WPAD. From the soaps and comedies of the 30s and 40s to the wacky DJs such as Jim Youngblood in the 50s and 60s, many reflect on WPAD when they think of Paducah radio history. Although WPAD is Paducah’s oldest surviving radio station, few remember the station that went on the air eight years before WPAD debuted.

WIAR was experimental, short-lived, and dynamic. It helped partly establish how radio would work in Paducah and gave the town a taste of what was to come.

In the early 1920’s, a technological innovation advanced quickly across the United States. Radio established itself quickly in the cities and farmlands as operators formed a trade and curious listeners tuned in to hear the magic of the ether. Radio held the great possibility of tying the nation together and exposing Americans to entertainment and information outside of their local communities. No network of radio programming existed, so radio operators relied upon their own talents along with those of the local community for programming. Soon, however, radio grew into an industry, and the economic reality of running a radio station hit many operators hard. National network programming emerged, and stations who were paid by the networks found it to be more cost-effective to run syndicated and network content. World War II proved radio to be a treasured, national asset as reporters brought news of the war back to America. Virtually everyone in the nation could tune in and hear the same reports at the same time. The homogenization of America’s radio sound began. At the same time, however, the government created the FCC, an organization that would oversee the radio industry and set some stringent along with some vague rules. The FCC called for radio stations to serve their communities by providing local content that would be beneficial to listeners. Many stations would remain committed to their listeners by retaining a sound unique to their area, while others would follow the homogenized sound, and, once the FCC loosened their public service requirements, switch completely to syndicated content. Therefore, the shift toward a homogenized sound across the United States was a product of the economy of local radio stations along with the deregulation of the industry by the FCC.

Early radio in Paducah, Kentucky followed some of the same ebbs and flows as most radio stations. Its citizenry created the content in the early days. Many of the people who graced the mikes of Paducah radio along with station management were true locals whose desire to see their stations succeed financially was tempered with the goal of offering the people of the Western Kentucky region community-oriented content. Programming was delivered with a sense of local pride that continues to mark those who live in the Paducah area. Radio announcers became local celebrities. They served Paducah and the surrounding communities. It was inevitable, though, that early Paducah radio would change as FCC regulation and then deregulation occurred, and the economic realities of radio emerged as competition for advertising dollars became more intense.

The first two radio stations in Paducah set a standard for balancing local content with the national programming listeners wanted. They etched a pattern for stations to come, and successors would find strength in the economical sense of national programming tempered with a concern for the local community; a concern that could be heard loud and clear.

Early Paducah Radio

Paducah entered radio early, and the first station owner was concerned with pure promotion. The Commerce Department issued Kentucky’s second radio license to J.A. Rudy & Sons at 115 South Third St. in Paducah in July 1922, less than two years after KDKA in Pittsburgh made its groundbreaking broadcast of the 1920 Presidential election returns. WIAR became a promotional arm of Mr. Rudy’s retail establishment. While much of the content of the station’s programming during its early days is now a lost memory due to the station’s sporadic transmissions, the continuous promo line “It’s at Rudy’s” established itself well enough in the minds of listeners to outlast the store itself. The station operated about half a year before it was sold to the Paducah Evening Sun, a daily newspaper that was owned by Paducah’s Paxton family.

WIAR enjoyed a brief, but dynamic run through the first half of 1923 under the Sun’s lead. The newspaper cross-promoted the station heavily beginning in early January. The daily rag would run front-page stories ad nauseam, promoting that evenings programming among the hard news. Headlines such as “Concerts Continue to Bring Praises for Sun Station,” “Impressive are Music Programs by Sun’s Radio,” and “Artists Keep Up Splendid Quality of WIAR Concerts” were common front-page fare. The paper, which had only run stories about radio sparingly before hand, now had features about the station and radio in general several times throughout each day’s edition. Many articles were very technical in nature. A series appeared on new radio receiving circuits including detailed instructions on how the reader could build their own set. The series was accompanied with schematics. One article detailed how a Paducah man received a WIAR signal by wrapping a lead pencil in wire, attaching it to a doorknob and a crystal, and then grounding it. The radio station even boasted its ability to beat the weather. A storm hit the city on March 12, and most telegraph lines were down. The paper’s two dedicated AP telegraph lines were inoperable. The Sun tried to use WIAR to pick up news messages, but station workers were only able to receive entertainment programs or “vacant” air. A separate article sported the headline “WIAR Laughs at Elements, Music on Time Tonight” in a jab to the telegraph industry. “Wires may come and wires may go,” the article stated, “but radio laughs at all the efforts of the elements to stop communication between mortals.”

The local flavor of Paducah radio emerged early. Programming was live and the station depended on local talent to come to the studio and perform. On January 9, 1923, for instance, the paper reported, “Tonight’s concert will feature Mrs. Emma Greer Horn, of the Palmer Chocolate Shop.” Radio broadcasting was truly a community event. The newspaper started running detailed set lists from the previous night’s broadcasting. The station generally broadcast programming from 7-8pm Monday through Saturday and would oftentimes present an afternoon sports broadcast. Jazz bands, Rotary Club performers, singers, and violinists performed in the WIAR studios. An African-American choir, billed as “Negro Harmonists” performed a set of “sacred songs” in the early days of the station under the Sun’s ownership. Paducah resident Joe Allen, who was known as an “expert imitator of animals and birds” presented a program called “Kentucky Possum Hunt.” The program featured Allen playing every character including the dogs and the coon. The Sun also asked local residents to notify them when talented friends or family visited from out of town. WIAR was constantly on the lookout for people to sing, play instruments, and perform for listeners. Alben Barkley, then United States Congressman from Paducah and future Vice-President once broadcast from WIAR as did Paducah native and humorist Irvin Cobb. Cobb would later go on to perform on network radio, using his unique brand of southern humor to entertain listeners

In the middle of January, the station went off the air for a day in order to make improvements. The paper reported that technology was changing and the Sun station wanted to provide listeners the best possible experience. According to the Sun, the walls were padded to “intensify the sound” and improve quality. One radio historian reported that the walls were draped with old World War I army blankets. In addition, the studio became a closed set when most of the transmitting equipment was moved out, and artists were the only ones permitted in during broadcasts. The station moved quickly during those early days to grab the attention of radio enthusiasts.

It was about this time that the Sun started printing portions of listeners’ letters in the paper. The national appeal and reach of radio was seen in letters from listeners both nearby and from areas such as Texas, Minnesota, and California. The paper later bragged about letters and telegraphs of praise from as far away as Canada. The Sun also showed its enthusiasm for radio by running a full-page list of all the known radio stations in the United States in early 1923. Radio was not only a local event; it was a national phenomenon. The uniqueness of radio was in the ability of Americans to tune in to a station and grab a slice of life from virtually anywhere in the United States. The programming consisted of local citizens, therefore each station had a sound that was exclusive to its region. A Sun story reported that Mike Danaher, a Paducah businessman, went to the home office of his company in Colorado Springs and was able to hear a program from his hometown at a listening station. The paper in Colorado Springs reported that listeners “heard concerts from Paducah, KY, and Fort Worth, Tex

The power of radio as a national phenomenon, as well as a local one, was then evident. The pride of Paducah was something to be displayed. In March of 1923, Fred G. Neuman, author of “The Story of Paducah” and “Paducahans in History” presented a program about the city as a type of public relations move to provide the nation with information on “that gem in diadem of American cities…” The script of the show was re-printed in the Sun. The station reasoned that letters were pouring in from distant locations, and listeners would probably be interested in the city that produced such entertaining programming. Those at the Sun must have beamed with pride as their station took the story of Paducah to residents across the eastern United States and even parts of Canada. But just as listeners from far away were tuning in to hear Paducah stations, some local radio fans were tuning in to hear stations from outside the Paducah area. Radio was a hobby to many, and tracking stations from points afar was entertainment itself. At the beginning of March 1923, the station announced that it would stop broadcasting on Saturday nights. WIAR, along with other stations in broadcasting range, had agreed to be silent one night a week so listeners could try to receive long-distance signals. While there was support for local programming, this was an indication that local listeners also wanted to hear programs from other areas.

The fans of radio came together to form a club in February. Charter members set Edwin J. Paxton, owner of WIAR, as the president, and the club had 130 members within two weeks. The club said it represented about ten percent of the radio station owners in Paducah, which the paper estimated to be about 1,000. The radio club held meetings at the car barns of the Paducah Railway Company at Fourteenth and Broadway and would occasionally have control of WIAR during the evening broadcast hour. In March, the club called for people who could “moan to the bones” to play “craps by radio.” While the details were sketchy and the call was riddled with the slang of the day, the club made it known that those to the west and north of the station would be appreciative of “southern songs, games, and pastimes, and a real ‘OONTZ’ party would create no end of interest.” Twenty-three years later in 1946, the Sun reflected on WIAR and the playing of craps on the air. According to the Sun article, four “colored performers” were given two dollars in nickels, a pair of dice, and then invited into the studio. After getting over a bit of stage fright, the program was reportedly “a riot,” and letters came in asking for more programs of its type.

In addition to the rich, local programming, a sense of service to the community was present from the beginning. The Paducah radio club, along with WIAR and The Paducah Evening Sun, started a fundraiser to purchase a radio for Paducah’s orphanage, then known as the Home of the Friendless. Radio fans wanted to share the new world of radio with the children and reasoned that the new innovation was meant to instruct as well as entertain. According to one plea in the Sun:

Possessing a radio set, the children of the Home can tune in each day and evening, and the simple process of tuning in will open up to them a new world rich in charm and mystery. The infinite happiness they may attain from such a gift will repay whatever sum may be expended in its purchase, a million fold.

Early in the campaign, the Paducah Exchange club held a radio-broadcasting banquet at the station, a live radio event that boasted fourteen acts of entertainment. Children from the Home of the Friendless listened to the broadcast at the car barns in the rail yard where the radio club held meetings.
In addition to providing a radio for orphans, several Paducah businesses and businessmen raised funds to give local firemen a radio for the central station. The firemen had been tinkering with homemade sets, but the new set included an antenna wire that was 100-feet in length and stretched from the fire station to the flagpole on city hall. Radio was already a community project, and service to citizens was evident. Later, the FCC would seek to regulate a public service commitment aspect of radio, yet those at WIAR started the station with those thoughts in mind.

In April, the Sun announced that the station would close for the summer season and end regular evening broadcasts until the fall. The paper stated that the studio, which was heavily padded, would be very uncomfortable for performers during the summer months. The Sun indicated that afternoon broadcasts of baseball news would begin and remain throughout the summer. Unfortunately, the station’s programming never returned. The fall Paducah Sun papers did not mention the station again. One historian stated that the station did not have a licensed radio operator by mid-1923 and that constant equipment problems may have also played a role in the station’s demise. The 1946 Sun article stated that operations were expensive, and this was at a time when an advertiser-supported model of business had not been established in radio. Two or three tubes would burn out everyday at a cost of seven dollars apiece. One of the last entertainment performances was fittingly the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

What made WIAR so amazing was the dynamic way it affected the community in only a four-month life span. Fundraisers were held, a club had formed, readers built their own sets, and a daily recruitment of local talent gave listeners across the eastern United States a taste of Paducah. One could only imagine, however, the difficulty in maintaining such a service of recruiting local talent to perform nightly. Eventually, the radio industry would find strength in network programming in order to relieve that stress.

The equipment was sold before the end of 1923 to Acme Flour Mill in Hopkinsville, a Louisville owned company. Even though WIAR’s run was short, it established a standard of local broadcasting in Paducah. Local citizens proudly provided broadcasting content. Paducah listeners would be introduced to the national networks later, yet the fact that network programming was not available in the early days built within radio a bond between itself and the communities it served.

WPAD

In spite of the Great Depression, radio came back to Paducah in August of 1930 when the Lackey family opened WPAD, a 100-watt station at 1420 kHz under the corporate title of the Paducah Broadcasting Company. The transmitter and antenna were on top of the Ritz Hotel. In a time before antennas were placed on top of gigantic towers, the station was able to brag that it could broadcast a full six stories above Broadway, the main drag on which the hotel was located. Pierce Lackey, son of former Paducah mayor, Ernest Lackey, billed WPAD as the “Voice of Western Kentucky,” except for a brief time in 1931 when it was known as the “Nehi Beverage Station.” The station would later move to larger studios at Ninth and Terrell streets in 1934 and switch to 1450 kHz and 250 watts in 1941

Lackey encouraged Paducah residents to provide programming for WPAD and many did by singing or playing instruments live. Paducah native Hoyt Hawkins sung with his family’s quartet in the 1930’s. He would later go on to join the Jordanaires and enjoy a long singing career with icons such as Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley. Adron Doran, former Kentucky House speaker and 23 year president of Morehead State University, helped pay his college tuition expenses by singing in the Doran Quartet on Paducah radio. Ray Mofield, another community-minded broadcaster, started working at WPAD in 1945. He would go on to teach in the Department of Journalism and Radio-TV at nearby Murray State University. His commitment to localism led him to help the Jackson Purchase Historical Society collect oral histories from residents of Marshall County, Kentucky and broadcast them through WCBL in Benton in the 1980’s. Such an interest in the people and history of Western Kentucky by broadcasters like Mofield was evident on the radio. Mofield was even carried nationally by CBS when he broadcast live from the dedication of Kentucky Dam.

Radio stations of the 1920’s and 1930’s such as WPAD went through changes that defined how the radio industry functioned and what type of programming listeners heard. Two distinct forces marked early radio content: first, the creation of the Federal Radio Commission, which would later become the FCC, and network programming. The FRC’s first goal was to eliminate the chaos that resulted from multiple stations attempting to broadcast on the same frequencies. The federal government solved the problem by declaring that the airwaves were public property, and no radio station could own a frequency. The FRC then reserved the right to control the radio spectrum and allocate frequencies to broadcasters under its own rules. While such a move to clean up the clutter was necessary, anti-monopolists in Congress saw an opportunity to exert a certain amount of control over the radio industry by conferring upon stations a public trustee status that carried with it the mandate to operate in the public interest. This vague rule, which would never be fully defined by the FRC or the FCC, urged stations to be balanced and air programming of community concern. In essence, radio was not getting the same amount of protection afforded to the print media by the First Amendment. This took place in an environment where many in Congress were concerned over the possibility of propaganda use in the United States. In addition, the prevailing view of the media was that it was powerful and could exert great control over those subjected to its content.


While the FCC sought to foster rich local programming, they did not foresee the realities of the radio industry. The network system of radio stations who relied on national providers for content was much more economical for many small operators. By not having to create local content and sell the advertising for all its day parts, a radio station could make money by simply becoming a repeater of national programming. As with Paducah’s first station, WIAR, the economics of running a station with complete local programming was simply unrealistic. The FCC would struggle with this issue for a long time. By the end of the 1940’s, the FCC required balanced programming from stations, and held the vague idea of operating in the public interest above the heads of stations like the Sword of Damocles when it came to license renewals. Jane Blaine, Pierce Lackey’s daughter, said FCC license renewal time was a very serious issue. There were many forms to complete, and most had to be duplicated six times. Blaine said that Lackey would have to take the train to Washington D.C. and hand deliver the paperwork.

The FCC also established ownership restrictions in order to discourage chain-broadcasting. Operators could not own multiple radio stations, especially if they were in the same area. The idea was that a variety of ownership would produce a variety of programming. Lackey, who had started radio stations in Hopkinsville and Henderson, sold all the stations except WPAD to family members to circumvent the FCC’s ownership rules. The seriousness of the law came back home to Paducah on August 11, 1976 when Sarah McKinney-Smith, owner of Paducah’s WDXR-AM and widow of E. Weaks McKinney-Smith, the station’s founder, married Shelby McCallum, station operator in nearby Benton, KY. Since the signals of the two stations overlapped, the couple had to seek FCC approval for their marriage. It is the only known case of the FCC having to sanction a marriage. One stipulation was that the couple was to never discuss the radio business. The reality of the “diversity of programming,” however, was that networks such as CBS and NBC controlled many of the affiliate stations, and the affiliates were more than happy to run network programming and receive network money.

The Network Days

For Pierce Lackey, deciding between network and local programming must have been a delicate challenge. Paducah radio had started with a bevy of local talent, and the pride that enveloped many Paducahans in regards to their city was evidenced in radio. Local residents created much of the programming. Lackey employed a station pianist, wrote programming, did some announcing, and even sang on the air. At a WPAD 70th anniversary party, Jane Blaine, Lackey’s daughter recalled, “He used to sing ‘The Monkey Wrapped His Tail Around the Flagpole.’” She went on to add, “I think Dad’s ultimate success probably stemmed from his early drive and belief that he had in radio.” Church services, local political meetings, and even dance marathons were broadcast locally from WPAD. The studio was often full of performers, and local residents would gather around the studio windows to watch the radio programs first hand. Yet, according to John Stewart, long time Paducah radio broadcaster and educator, the networks had its toll on the local sound of Paducah radio. “The networks paid the stations,” said Stewart. The stations ultimately profited more by running network programming.

WPAD joined the CBS network later than many other stations when it affiliated with the network in 1943. The affiliation provided the citizens of Paducah valuable information on World War II through regular news updates and CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow. It was during this time that radio grew up according to Blaine. WPAD tried to balance popular network programming such as The Shadow, which started airing in 1942, with four daily news broadcasts from The Paducah Sun-Democrat, an afternoon news program by Ray Mofield, and some of the very first remote broadcasts. Gene Peak, WPAD program director and salesman, along with Pierce Lackey, oversaw many of the roaming newsman broadcasts. The remote antenna was located on a white Buick, and broadcasters filed stories from various locations including trains and airplanes. The very presence of strong community personalities at WPAD helped the station retain its local flavor. Both Peak and Lackey would later become mayors of Paducah, another indication of the strong ties between Paducah broadcasters and the community they served.

According to Jane Blaine, Pierce Lackey’s daughter, network programming was very popular, but some of the most in-demand programs were local. Gene Peak performed a show called Friendly Philosopher. Blaine described the show as having a Paul Harvey quality. Peak would read heart-warming stories, something that generated a great deal of positive feedback from the community. Blaine also added that the announcers never lost a sense of humor. Once, she saw Peak making silly faces and doing calisthenics during the show, while at the same time maintaining his serious, on-air tone. Another local show that was popular, especially among women in Paducah, was Evelyn Stahl’s “Let’s Talk it Over,” a program that was billed as “newsy, intimate chats with the lady listeners.” According to Blaine, local programming was very important in the morning and evening hours when the station did not run network content. Blaine also added that Lackey was aware of his commitment as stated by the FCC. Lackey made sure the schedule was tempered with programming that served public interest such as a Veteran’s Administration broadcast, a Social Security program, and a Marine Recruiting program.

In an odd programming twist, WPAD may have actually displayed the first example of interactive, electronic gaming. The station presented a series of radio bridge games in 1931 where each of the four players would participate from different cities across the United States. A commentator facilitated the games, and a full run down and analysis of the broadcast was printed in the next day’s paper.

The ability of WPAD to interact closely with the community was of great importance during the 1937 flood of the Ohio River. Stations up and down the river were called upon to relay vital messages in order to save residents trapped by the rising waters. The floodwaters reached the first floor of the WPAD studios when the Army Corps of Engineers moved the entire operation to what was known as Avondale Heights, now mid-town Paducah. The station was set up in the garage at Ernest Lackey’s home. Lackey’s closest brush with the FCC occurred during the 1937 flood. A roving reporter was providing live updates from a remote unit. The reporter, in his excitement over the quickly rising floodwaters, announced that part of city was being ‘excavated’ instead of evacuated. Lackey, whose microphone was still on in the studio, yelled, “That’s evacuated you dumbass!” The FCC caught wind of Lackey’s mistake, and, after some gentle explanation, did not hand down an official reprimand.

WPAD remained Paducah’s only radio station for many years. In addition, it stayed under the control of Pierce Lackey and the Lackey Family for 37 years until Lackey’s death in 1967. What made WPAD unique was the enduring, constant ownership and control by a Paducah native. WFIW, the Hopkinsville station owned by Acme Flour Mill and started with equipment from the first Paducah station WIAR, had already been a target of a buyout by a Chicago radio executive in the early 1930’s. Lackey, known to his family as “The Kingfish,” left an indelible impression on the city of Paducah. He was able to give citizens the national programming they desired along with local content that was popular, entertaining, and informative. Through WPAD, he reflected the flavor of Paducah life and helped create a unique sense of community.
WPAD eventually fell prey to the decline of AM radio. The station had survived the change from network programming to a music format with the creative energies of local DJs like Jim Youngblood. What WPAD did not survive, however, was the rise of FM. Today, Bristol Broadcasting, a media conglomerate from Virginia, owns WPAD. It carries EPSN satellite programming, but still manages to retain some local programming appeal by carrying play-by-play action from local sporting events

Paducah radio started with a bevy of local programming, the only content available at the time. Network programming alleviated the strain on Paducah radio by providing shows and financial support. WPAD used network content, yet still maintained a public service attitude toward Paducah by providing local broadcasts that the city could be proud of. This attitude was inherent in Paducah radio and began in the early days of WIAR. FCC regulation was present, yet early radio operators in Paducah would have provided content of local concern without it. This was evident in the early days of WIAR and WPAD. WIAR broadcast local content, yet was silent at times so listeners could pick up other national stations. WPAD had the benefit of the network, yet Lackey and other community oriented individuals maintained a roster of local programming. Station economics along with audience demand created a mix of programming, both national and local. This mix can sometimes be a precarious one, yet it worked for both the stations and the audience. The most successful stations in modern Paducah radio still find success in a programming model similar to the one established by Lackey. Paducah radio is alive and well and built on a bedrock of radio history from stations like WIAR and WPAD

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