One man’s trailer is a radio treasure
A friend had told me about the radio station, but I had to see it for myself. That’s why, last December, I was driving through a snowstorm in the Cumberland Mountains. About 40 miles outside Knoxville, Tennessee, I ejected my Loretta tape and began scanning the lower end of the FM dial. After passing over a classical station, some static and a farm report, I found 89.9, WDVX. To my delight, they were playing Bill Monroe’s “Goin’ Up Caney”, which carried me down the mountain, past the snow-covered trees.
As I drove east, the signal got stronger, and I was treated to Gram Parsons, Iris DeMent, Steve Earle, Johnny Cash, Alison Krauss & Union Station, J.D. Crowe & The New South, and other bluegrass pickers. After six or seven songs, a polished but friendly DJ offered details about the music and occasionally read a weather report. Following the directions I’d been given, I drove to Clinton (pop. 8,972) and turned down a gravel road leading to the Fox Inn Campground, where I spotted the station’s headquarters: a 16-foot camper with a WDVX banner hanging on the side.
I parked near the campground’s office and walked across an icy field to the white trailer. Inside, I was greeted by DJ/program director Tony Lawson. The interior looked like a regular camper, with some key alterations. In place of a refrigerator was a tall stack of high-tech broadcast equipment. The kitchen cabinets were filled with CDs. Mounted into the side wall was a car stereo, used to monitor the station’s signal.
While a Greg Brown song played, Lawson gave me a tour of the single room, which contains three “studios.” Studio A, where the DJ stands — there’s no room to sit — contains a microphone, sound board, CD jukebox and headphones. Studio B is a dining booth rigged with two clip-on mikes for on-air interviews. Studio C has a bench and a 1950s RCA omnidirectional mike for live performances. There’s also a tiny bathroom, which Lawson said serves as “the general manager’s office, storage space, engineering facility, and site for our focus groups.”
The nonprofit WDVX is a dream come true for Lawson, who spent 20 years working in commercial radio. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lawson bounced around the Southeast, spinning country, pop and oldies at various stations before landing a gig with an established Knoxville rock station. Playing pre-programmed classic rock paid his rent, but at a cost to his soul. His taste in music runs more along the lines of Doc Watson. Around 1990, at the annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Lawson had an idea. Why not start a radio station whose format reflected the same mixture of bluegrass, country, acoustic blues, and folk singer-songwriters that audiences see at Merlefest?
Lawson had the programming experience to start a radio station, but he desperately needed financial backing and technical expertise. He teamed up with people around Knoxville, and in 1991 the WDVX board of directors was assembled. It includes engineers, a grass-roots organizer, an attorney and a businessman. Lawson says that the station never would have gotten off the ground without engineer Don Burggraf. “As a programmer, it’s great to work with an engineer who has a tremendous passion for the music,” Lawson says. “Don hates radio consultants even more than I do.”
A camper may seem like humble quarters, but it’s an improvement over the station’s original location, which was a back porch. Last fall, the campground offered to let WDVX use the camper for free, which fit the station’s shoestring budget. The board is now considering various offers from entrepreneurs who’d like to give WDVX a more permanent home.
The station currently has three DJs, all of whom volunteer. There are no advertisements, but business sponsors are announced several times each hour. WDVX also raises money by selling T-shirts and conducting fund-raisers.
The station has tapped into its audience’s regional pride about mountain music. Three of the most popular shows are “Cumberland Sunday Morning” (gospel bluegrass), “Something Old, Something New” (featuring an entire classic album followed by an entire contemporary release), and “Soppin’ the Gravy” (a 4-hour block of bluegrass). WDVX may be playing more bluegrass in a 24-hour period than any station in the country.
Musicians are some of the station’s most avid listeners. Members of The V-Roys, Blue Highway and the Lonesome River Band have all performed live in Studio C. On two separate occasions when Jim Lauderdale was driving through the region, he called WDVX from a pay phone just to say how much he loved listening.
As I was leaving the station, I noticed a cot tucked in a corner. Lawson explained that he can’t afford an apartment, so he sleeps at a relative’s home, his girlfriend’s house, and occasionally there in the camper. Since the bathroom is non-functional, I asked Lawson how he copes. He replied, “I either walk over to the campground’s office, or I use a country crock chamber pot.” Now there’s a man who’s truly in it for the music.