In the Beginning
The cities of Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill—collectively known as the Research Triangle area—are well known for the three major universities that call them home. North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Durham’s Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill form the points of the Triangle and have produced many world renowned innovations. It was on one of these campuses that local radio was born. On October 16th, 1922, WLAC signed on from Winston Hall on the campus of North Carolina State University, known in those days as North Carolina College. Heard at 500 meters (stations of this time didn’t give their dial positions by frequency), equal to 600 on the AM dial, WLAC was only the second broadcast station in North Carolina, the first being Charlotte's WBT. The station was founded by students and faculty of the school’s communications department. The guest speaker for the new station’s inaugural broadcast was Josephus Daniels, US Naval Secretary during the Wilson administration and the owner and publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer. During his speech, Daniels made an ironic prediction: "Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected
blow on our Pacific possessions...radio makes surprises impossible." Financial
difficulties forced WLAC from the local airwaves one year later.
Here to Stay
On September 22, 1924, Wynne Radio Company owner William A. Wynne brought local radio back to the area when the 50-watt WFBQ 1190 began broadcasting. Wynne later changed the call letters to WRCO, representing the name of his business. WRCO was purchased by Durham Life Insurance Company in 1927, which again changed the call letters to reflect their ownership. Their company slogan was
“We Protect The Family", so WRCO became WPTF. The early transmitter for the station was atop the Sir Walter Hotel. WPTF later moved to 1380 and then 560 before landing at it’s now-familiar 680 spot on the dial in 1931. In Durham, an unlicensed broadcaster named Felix M. Whitaker surprised local radio listeners when he began broadcasting from his home at 316 Wilkerson Avenue, according to a report in the October 25th, 1925, Durham Morning Herald. Whitaker told the paper of his intentions to secure a radio license, but he was apparently unsuccessful in his efforts. Two years later it was the newspaper making radio waves. WKBG began broadcasting from the Pickwick Theater in Chapel Hill on July 3rd, 1927, airing a program of sacred music performed from the theater. The station’s “aerial” was on the roof and the newspaper account alluded to some connection with the University of North Carolina. It was also reported that WKBG could be heard by those outside the theater on “telephone 350”, likely a reference to the station’s wavelength (a 350 meter wavelength would have roughly equaled 850-860 on the AM dial). Very little information exists about the fate of WKBG, but it was, no doubt, very short-lived. Durham’s first licensed radio station signed on in 1934. Mayor W.F. Carr and other civic leaders wanted the Bull City, North Carolina’s third-most populous at that time, to have a radio station all its own. The group bought Wilmington, North Carolina’s WRAM, 1370 AM. Within an hour of permanently signing off in the Port City, WRAM’s broadcasting equipment was loaded onto a truck headed for Durham. On the top floor of the Washington Duke Hotel downtown, a radio studio was set up and a strand antenna was strung between two
steel towers built on the hotel's roof. On April 9th, 1934, WDNC signed on with 100 watts at 1500 AM. On March 20th, 1939, Raleigh attorney Alfred J. Fletcher put Raleigh’s second radio station, WRAL, on the air with 250 watts at 1210 on the dial. Fletcher’s new station became the building block of his Capitol Broadcasting Company. WPTF boosted their power to 50,000 watts in 1941, greatly expanding the reach of their signal into other parts of North Carolina and beyond. That same year, the
Federal Communications Commission enacted the North American Radio Broadcasting Act . Referred to as NARBA, this act was developed to provide Mexico and Canada with clear channel frequencies and to expand the band from 1500 to 1600 kilocycles. This act, which went into affect on March 29th, 1941, involved a massive shuffling of the AM broadcast band. WPTF, by virtue of its 680 dial position, just missed being affected by NARBA. WRAL and WDNC, however, had to change their dial positions. WRAL moved three spaces forward to1240 AM and WDNC dropped back one spot to 1490 AM. Less than six months after NARBA, Josephus Daniels’ prediction of long ago proved tragically untrue. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (in the then-territory of Hawaii), and America went to war. As a result, a freeze was put on all radio station applications.
Local Radio Grows
In addition to WPTF, WRAL and WDNC, there were other stations across the region that signed on prior to the World War II freeze on new applications. These included such stations at Burlington’s WBBB, 920 AM and Goldsboro’s WGBR, 1400 AM. However, the war’s end in 1945 brought about a tidal wave of applications winning FCC approval. During this period, Durham saw a big growth in its number of stations. Harmon Duncan signed on WDUK at 1310 AM on June 10th,1946. Floyd Fletcher, the son of WRAL radio founder Alfred J. Fletcher, signed on WTIK at 730 on the dial on Independence Day of that same year. Before 1946 was over, a third station, Harold Toms' WHHT, 1580 AM (later 1590), hit the ever-crowding Bull City airwaves. In 1947, WRAL signed on the area's first FM station, WRAL-FM, at 95.3. The Raleigh News and Observer’s WNAO, 850 AM, signed on that year as well. On Leap Day, 1948, WDNC increased its power to 5,000 watts daytime, switched frequencies to 620 and debuted WDNC-FM at 105.1. That same day; Tom Sawyer's WSSB signed on, assuming the 1490 frequency vacated by WDNC. In 1949, WPTF-FM, then at 94.5 had also signed on, along with WNAO-FM at 96.1.
The sleeping giants of radio, these early FM stations were largely unprofitable and overlooked due to the lack of receivers and listeners. These two factors, coupled with the impending birth of television would keep FM on the back burner until the 1970s. Programming during this time mainly came from one of four national networks, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the now-defunct Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS). These networks provided dramas, comedies, series and news, in addition to live musical performances. In late 1948, Raleigh's WPTF was affiliated with NBC, WNAO with ABC and WRAL with MBS; Durham's WDNC was CBS, WDUK was ABC and WHHT with MBS. There was also plenty of local programming to be found as well, including local news, talk and music performances. In the late 1940s, Jesse Helms, who would go on to serve five terms as a United States Senator from North Carolina, worked in the news department of WRAL radio where he pioneered the use of actualities, or sound bites, during news broadcasts. Another well-known WRAL personality was the late Fred Fletcher, another son of founder A.J. Fletcher, well known for his children’s programming and warnings to motorists of known spots where the Raleigh Police were checking for speeders. In Durham, WDNC personality Norfley Whitted was the first black radio announcer in the South and one of only four in the nation at the time. While Whitted was breaking the color barrier, WDNC’s Frances Jarman was shattering the “glass ceiling”. Jarman was known as the “First Lady of North Carolina Radio” and also helped to pioneer spot news coverage as WRAL’s Helms had done before her. As the 1940s came to a close and the 1950s began, Durham bid farewell to two of its radio stations. On November 19th, 1949, WHHT, by this time a 5,000-watt station at 1590 AM, ceased operations and was dissolved into WSSB. The next year, WTIK and WDUK merged their operations, with WTIK surrendering its 730 dial position for WDUK's 1310 facility.
New Challenges: The Birth of Television
In 1953, The Raleigh News and Observer founded the area's first television station,
WNAO-TV. An Ultra High Frequency (UHF) station seen on channel 28, WNAO-TV’s signal left much to be desired, due to the station’s lack of sufficient broadcast power and the caliber of transmission and receiving equipment which existed at the time. The principles of WTIK, Floyd Fletcher and Harmon Duncan were partially involved in putting the area's first Very High Frequency (VHF) and oldest continuous TV station,
Durham's WTVD, channel 11, on the air September 2nd, 1954. The University of North Carolina put WUNC-TV, channel 4, on-air January 8, 1955. Capitol Broadcasting's WRAL and
Durham Life's WPTF competed for Raleigh’s VHF channel 5 allotment in a
David-and-Goliath battle, with the smaller Capitol Broadcasting the victor. WRAL-TV signed on December 15th, 1956. Many years later, in 1977, Durham Life Broadcasting did get a television station when they bought Durham’s WRDU-TV, which assumed the UHF channel 28 that was vacant since WNAO-TV went out of business in 1959. As mentioned in the last section,
radio was network-programmed up to this point, using block-programming found on today's TV--soap operas, plays, news broadcasts, shows
and even musical elements abounded, with radio
stations known best by their network affiliations than the type of music they played. Much more suitable to a visual medium, block programming migrated to
television during the fifties. Radio adapted in a way more compatible with the
medium's mobility and appeal to the sense of sound; it began programming music and talk programming, thus laying the groundwork for format programming.
The New Golden Age of Radio
The period before WWII when live bands
and radio theater prevailed on American radio has often been called the "Golden
Age of Radio". In the fifties, sixties and seventies, radio experienced another
"Golden Era" with the birth of Top 40. This started when Texas broadcaster
Gordon MacLendon programmed two radio stations he owned with a tight rotation of
the 40 most-purchased songs on local jukeboxes. Thus was born
the "Top 40" format, now referred to as "CHR" or Contemporary Hit Radio, also
included larger-than-life personalities who talked fast, downplayed news
elements and prominently featured call signs/dial positions, often heard in musical “jingles”. Locally, Durham's WSSB embraced the format. However, the year 1958 brought about a
true local "giant" in Top 40 radio. This was the year WNAO and WNAO-FM was sold to the late Hugh Holder, who redubbed them WKIX and WKIX-FM. "The Giant of the South" spun the hits all the way from the early days of rock and roll through the British invasion on up
to the pop music of the seventies, a time when music genres began to splinter and radio
formats became more focused. "Kix" had a loyal following throughout
the Triangle and points beyond, spawning numerous careers. Chapel Hill’s WCHL, which signed on in 1953, was also a Top 40 station during this era.
The Sleeping Giant Slowly Awakens
As mentioned earlier, WRAL-FM was the area’s first, and North Carolina’s second, FM station when it signed on in 1947. It was soon joined by more FM stations across the area through the 1950s and 1960s, though AM radio and the popular new medium of television reigned supreme.
FM stations during this time day were either college-owned, non-commercial operations such as WUNC (1952), NC State’s WKNC (1966) or Shaw's WSHA (1968), were still rebroadcasting their AM parent stations or were
featuring background/beautiful music. Many commercial FM stations during this time still shared the same call letters as their AM half, with the “-FM” as a suffix. WPTF-FM aired classical music along with some sports, while
WRAL-FM 101.5 aired some easy listening, background music, but concentrated on its Dixie Farm Network, providing extensive agricultural reports. By late
1971, eight FM stations, three of them in the non-commercial dial, were on-air in the Triangle area. However, the local airwaves were still dominated by AM stations such as WPTF, with its full service format of adult contemporary, local/state news and neighborly talk, and WKIX with its still-popular Top 40 format. However, FM's superior fidelity, the development of stereophonic broadcasting in the early sixties and an increase in the number of FM receivers--they were standard equipment in American automobiles by the eighties--began to forever change these AM powerhouses. Duke University purchased WSRC-FM, in 1971. The call letters were changed to WDBS and a free-form format of folk and underground rock, popular on many independent FMs of that day, was instituted. In January of 1972, WPTF-FM, on the advice of Durham Life staffer Carl Venters, nixed the classical music and developed a new format called album rock as WQDR. The station quickly developed a loyal following that would garner some very impressive ratings. The very next year, an adult contemporary format debuted on WRAL “Stereo 101”. The following year, WDNC-FM branched out on its own and decided to give country music a shot at FM as WDCG "Durham's Country Giant". The country format didn’t last, but the WDCG call letters stuck around, through several rock formats and finally a Top 40 outlet named "G-105", which continues today as the market’s most recognizable radio brand. In the world of non-commercial radio, North Carolina Central University signed on WAFR, the nation's first black public radio station, in 1971; however, the landmark public radio station left the airwaves in 1975. Formerly student-run WUNC signed on again April 3, 1976, this time as a professionally-run public radio station. In 1978, Raleigh's WCPE signed on under the stewardship of several recent graduates of NC State University, with a 50% easy listening/ 50% classical format.
The Big StickThe eighties saw different, more defined formats making their way to radio, in lieu of the more loosely defined, mass appeal formats of earlier decades. It was also during this time the FCC relaxed their rules and regulations, allowing FM stations in smaller towns to boost their power and move their antennae closer to more populous cities and towns. Tall radio towers, termed “big sticks” rose 1,000 feet or more from the surrounding countryside to give these move-ins adequate antenna height needed for effective FM line-of-sight broadcasts. Students of FCC protocol know that with commercial FM (92-108 MHz), the Commission assigns channels to different communities by means of a table of allotments. In addition to dictating which channels are available to which towns, the table also assigns a "class" (maximum power and antenna height) at which a given allotment may operate to prevent interfering with stations in close proximity on the dial . Before this relaxation of FCC policy occurred, there were only five commercial FM allotments in the two core cities of the radio market, three in Raleigh and two in Durham. (Raleigh’s fourth commercial allotment, a class “A” allotment for 102.9 FM, was added in the late 1980s). Of these five allotments, only four--94.7, 96.1, 101.5 in Raleigh and 105.1 in Durham--were class "C" stations, allowing them regional coverage with 100,000-watt signals from one of these “big sticks”. Durham's 107.1 was a class "A" station, limiting it to only 3,000 watts (now 6,000 watts) at about 325 feet. All the while, many outlying FM stations had desirable class "C" allotments, but they didn't operate at their maximum facilities. The first of these stations to be purchased and upgraded to serve the Triangle area was Burlington's WBAG-FM in 1983. Chapel Hill-based Village Companies, the owners of WCHL, bought the station, at 93.9 FM, built a tall tower at the Chatham County Antenna Farm at Terrel's Mountain (immediately southwest of Chapel Hill) and boosted the station's power to 100,000 watts. Soon after, WBAG-FM was reborn as WZZU "94-Z" with a Top 40 format going up against "G-105". In 1984, Carl Venters' (the man who took WQDR album rock twelve years prior while an employee of Durham Life Broadcasting) Voyager Communications bought a Wilson station,
WXYY, 106.1 FM, and moved it in to Raleigh as WRDU, picking up the album rock format
recently jettisoned from WQDR in favor of country music. Then came a Rocky Mount station, WFMA, 100.7 FM.
which became WTRG and toyed with several formats before going oldies. In 1987, WJLC, 97.5 FM, a South Boston, Virginia station, made the move across the state line to become 100,000-watt urban contemporary WQOK "97OK”. The year 1990 brought WAZO, 104.3 FM, from Tarboro as adult contemporary WCAS "Class 104". In late 2004, Capitol Broadcasting bought Chase City, Virginia's WFXQ, 99.9 FM, which had won approval from the FCC to move south as a Creedmoor, NC-licensed station, pending changes at several other stations across the region. In October of 2005, WFXQ signed on as WCMC "99.9 Genuine Country", a country outlet
Corporate RadioFor many years, a company was allowed to own
one AM and one FM per market. Some stations operated other stations on the same band through local marketing agreements (LMAs), where one owner programmed and sold airtime for another station. Locally, WFXC "Foxy 107" was the first to do this when they entered into an LMA with WCAS "Class 104" in 1992 to expand their signal's reach. However, the two parties in an LMA were still separately owned. This changed quickly in the early nineties with the easing of FCC
ownership restrictions. Owners were now allowed two stations per band for a total of four commonly-owned stations in one market, allowing them to buy and sell access to specific demographics, cut down on capital by sharing staff and studio space and even "buy out" long-time competitors. Corporate radio owners began shopping for radio properties across the nation and smaller owners were eager to sell while the prices were good, generally upwards of $5 million. Dallas-firm
Hicks Muse bought Voyager's WRDU and Tom Joyner's WTRG in 1994. They soon began running them jointly from WTRG's Smoketree Tower studio in north Raleigh's Highwoods Office Park. Very shortly thereafter, Arizona-based Prizm Broadcasting bought The Village Company's WZZU. The Durham Herald-Sun, eager to concentrate solely on newspapers, began shopping their two long-time radio properties, WDCG "G-105" and WDNC. Prism picked up "G-105"; WDNC was run under Local Marketing Agreements with first Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting and later Curtis Media Group, with Curtis buying the station outright for just under $450,000 in 2000. With the Telecommunications Bill of 1996, ownership caps were relaxed even more, allowing common ownership of eight stations in this market with a maximum of five per band. SFX Broadcasting, through mergers and
buyouts, ended up with Prism's WDCG and WZZU, plus Hicks Muse's WRDU and WTRG. All later ended up in the Smoketree Towers studios. The most noticeable change to the public was now-classic rock WZZU becoming
a soft adult contemporary station as not to compete with new sister station WRDU. SFX merged into Capstar, which merged into AMFM. Don Curtis' Curtis Media Group, owner of WPTF and WQDR since 1991, began buying up additional local stations. Curtis bought 96.1 FM, which was again WKIX-FM, only this time with a hot country format
giving WQDR some stiff competition. Curtis already owned two outlying country signals, WKTC in Goldsboro and WPCM in
Burlington. Curtis also bought several AMs including Chapel Hill's WCHL and Raleigh religious outlets WRDT and WCLY. Curtis also signed on Raleigh's last remaining vacant commercial FM allotment, 102.9 FM, in 1998 as WWND. With a few exceptions all of the Curtis stations moved into the company's studios at 3012 Highwoods Boulevard.
San Antonio-based Clear Channel, now the nation's largest radio station owner, entered the market in 1996 with the purchase of WQOK and Fuquay-Varina-licensed smooth jazz station WNND. Clear Channel would later buy WFXC, WFXK and WDUR from Pinnacle Broadcasting, in effect allowing them to control the market's top radio outlets targeting the area’s sizeable black audience. In 2000, AMFM was bought out by Clear Channel, which meant the radio giant now owned the former’s four FM stations in addition to their own portfolio of four FM and one AM. Ownership caps forced Clear Channel to divest at least three FM stations. The company opted to keep WDUR and AMFM's four FM properties, selling WQOK, WFXC, WFXK and WNNL to urban broadcaster Radio One (Clear Channel sold WDUR in 2005). Both Clear Channel and Curtis Media's headquarters, located along Highwood Boulevard in North Raleigh, concentrate the studios for eleven local radio stations (roughly 1/3 of all area radio stations) on the same city block. Radio One's stations are located in another North Raleigh studio on Creedmoor Road.
For more details on individual stations in the Triangle area, visit our AM and FM pages.