Raised On The Radio—a Little Ditty about Jim and Joe Berry of WLOC-FM in Munfordville, KY.
It’s my hope that by publishing this story to No Depression that all of you that know your music was played on WLOC-FM while Jim Berry was the station manager will read this and leave a note of thanks to Joey Berry. If you played the Chitlin Show, then leave your story here for us to share. If that station or some other great terrestrial station provided the soundtrack to your life…plug it here. And in the immortal words of Ronnie Van Zandt… “Turn it up”……
What plays on the soundtrack of your youth? Is there a radio ID in there somewhere? What was on the bumper of your first vehicle? Was there a sticker screaming the call letters of your favorite radio station? Do you tell your children you were raised on radio…not an MP3 player or an iPhone. Do you still judge the success of a musical artist by their radio play?
No matter what, you can’t get away from the concept of radio. The lady might have changed her haircut, and her dress, and re-soled her shoes, but she’s still strutting her influence around us every day. There’s internet radio. There’s satellite radio. There’s even radio through television cable service. Radio still is, for most of us, one of the builders that put our music foundation stones together.
I have lived around South Central Kentucky a while now. On my own life soundtrack is the rasping voice of Tom Petty singing, “Speedball said, ‘Forget it. Can I have an outside line?’” as the Knobs of US 31-W slide by to my left. The other scenes include listening to the layers of ‘Roundabout’ as I stood in awe of the beauty of the view off Joppa Ridge and Park Mammoth. There is a huge catalog of songs that refresh my memories of my visits to this region.
To be honest I just never knew it was in fact WLOC-FM Munfordville that had provided that soundtrack. Then I tripped across Joe Berry and his absolutely insane sense of humor. My first in length discussion of who Joe Berry was and what he had done for the music in this region came from Ned Hill, of Ned Van Go, a native of the South Central Kentucky region. There was loud click in my head. The radio came on….and I tuned it in.
Ned ended that information with his own homage: Joe Berry is the man. I cannot even tell you how many people have repeated that very same sentiment. I was at a concert recently. Joe was sitting in the audience. Someone yelled out, “Joe Berry is the man!”
He is indeed, and Jim Berry, his dad, raised him ON THE RADIO. Like, “Come here son and sit on my lap and cue this record for me. Hurry before the ‘On the Air’ sign comes on.”
The story of Joe Berry starts in 1960 with his dad, Jim Berry, landing the job as the General Manager of WLOC-FM in Munfordville, Kentucky. The family moved from Elizbethton, TN where Jim had been working in radio already. Joe, or Joey, as I have heard most of his friend’s call him was born here in the Bluegrass. From the get-go Joey was at the station nearly daily. Joey can remember being maybe three years old or so and being on his father’s lap and his father giving him the hand signal to start a record. By eight, he was cueing records—yeah turning them backwards so they started right on the mark. By fourteen he was ‘on the air’ himself, which was the Sunday morning radio ministries and the Red’s. So in 1974, while I was on the second step of turning into the oddball I am today Joey Berry was on the air, mere inches away from making musically history.
In the mid 70’s, my dad, in his 1966 Thunderbird, traveled repeatedly between Indy and Memphis. No doubt he listened to a Red’s game or kept time to Cinnamon Girl while the dial was on WLOC-FM. So he developed this love for this middle of nowhere radio station, WLOC-Munfordville, KY. If we were traveling through the area, my dad had control of the radio.
Chances are Joey Berry was at the controls.
Joey will tell you that his dad’s taste in music was broad and Jim transferred that love to Joey. Others will tell you that it was Joey that started playing music that was new but found its roots in traditional styles and the rest is history. Regardless of where it started or who started it WLOC made its mark for 30 plus years on more than just my dad as the masses streamed along I-65. There are countless stories, and Joe told me a bunch, but the one that stuck out because I’m sure it happened more than once was the story of a nationally known band traveling through the region. They stopped at Drother’s, which was a greasy spoon located at the I-65 interchange near Munfordville, for a bite to eat. The diner had their radio tuned to WLOC. There was no format or formula to what was played at the station. If the D-Jay on duty thought it was good and it meet FCC standards, it got played. Richard Young of the Kentucky Headhunters made the statement that WLOC-FM played “Everything from Led Zeppelin to Hank Williams…” and that is pretty accurate. So these guys are sitting in this diner listening to this string of music that makes no rhyme or reason by any known radio standard of the time and they are completely blown away. They asked the folks in Drother’s for directions to the station. This band shows up at the station, hands Jim their record and asks if he would play it, because ‘this is the best radio station we’ve ever heard.’ …and it’s in the middle of nowhere Kentucky.
Jim Berry wasn’t really swayed by all that though. Ad rates weren’t jacked up. The non-existent formula of what got played and what didn’t was never re-calculated into a working equation. The only thing that was ever considered was who was listening, meaning the guy throwing hay to the guy at Mike’s Rock Shop selling souvenirs to passing tourists and through to the preacher’s daughter. Jim Berry’s formula was to run the station at a profit and for it to be listened to and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Those were the fixed variables and the rest was wide open.
One of the best known contributions that WLOC and Joey Berry made to the regional music scene, and would eventually impact the national music scene, was the Chitlin Show. So I went and asked a Headhunter, A Kentucky Headhunter, about it.
Franne J: How did you come to know Joe? Was it through music or something else or someone else?
Greg Martin: We loved WLOC, Joe was the master mind behind the programming there. You could hear Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, The Beat Farmers, Steve Earl, Rolling Stones and The Beatles back to back. It was amazing. Joe used to come to band rehearsals in the 80’s, and we just got to be friends. I visited WLOC often; I would take him music. My earliest memories of Joe are of him hanging out at band rehearsals in Glasgow around 1980.
Franne J: Joey tells the story that you all hit upon the idea of doing a live show in the studio and then asked Jim. Jim said sure as long as it didn’t cost him any money. So exactly how did the idea appear on the horizon? What did you all do for sponsors or was that an issue?
Greg Martin: I’ve always been fascinated with radio; in 1986 I was reading a book called “Deep Blues” by Robert Palmer. There was a section in the book where we got The Headhunters’ name, borrowed it from Muddy Waters. After reading the book, I got interested in doing a Blues Radio show, and in the spring on 1986 I started co-hosting “Blue Monday” on WLOC with Jeff Dennison. After doing “Blue Monday” for a few weeks, I approached Joe Berry about doing a ‘live’ radio show at WLOC. Richard & I set up in one of the rooms, Joe taped us playing, and we decided we could do the show there.
We had a couple sponsors, revenue was never an issue. Jim was great; he liked us doing the show.
Franne J: And the name of the show? Tell the truth now.
Greg Martin: “The Chitlin Show” was named after the Chitlin Circuit Blues & R&B performers played in the 50’s. We never ate any Chitlins. :)”
The show was an immediate success. The first one brought in maybe fifty people to the station. By show # 10 there were hundreds of people packed into the station, outside in the parking lot, and even sitting in their cars in near-by parking lots. And though the show had been something to promote the Headhunters in the beginning, it quickly yielded to other talents. The acts that got air time via the Chitlin Show included Goose Creek Symphony, Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane, Steve Ferguson, and countless more. The theme song for the show, “It’s Chitlin Time” was pinned sometime after the success of the show was filling up Munfordville on Tuesday nights.
Richard openly admitted that The Kentucky Headhunters ‘may have not gotten off the ground if it weren’t for the Chitlin Show’. The had suffered the failure of one record deal that went no where for no reason on their part, but were signed to Polygram shortly after the success of the Chitlin show started making headlines across the nation,
When I asked Greg Martin to comment about the influence that Jim Berry had on him he said:
“Jim Berry was good man; I thought a great deal of him. When we approached Joe about doing the show, Jim was all for it. Jim loved music. He loved the community, and he played a big role in our early maturation as musicians, performers and writers. He and the Berry family are very dear to our hearts.”
In 1989 the Courier-Journal was just one of many national publications that were watching what was going on at WLOC. The article featured the top 10 independent stations in KY, most being college stations. Under the headline, “Rad Radio; The Stations May Not Get Rich, But Alternative Radio Loves to Showcase the Unusual”
The lead into the story was, “You could call it radio freed from conventions:”
“The Chitlin Show,” a monthly live show on Munfordville’s WLOC-FM (102.3) that has as hosts the Kentucky Headhunters, was instrumental in the development of that hot country-rock group. Before the group signed its contract with Polygram Records, many of Nashville’s royalty — Ronnie McDowell, Alabama manager Harold Shedd — drove their limousines up to the tiny, white station building to watch the Headhunters play on the radio.”
When I wrote to Anthony Kenney, former member of the Kentucky Headhunters, and asked him about Jim, Joey and WLOC-FM he replied with:
Anthony K: “Keep in mind I was not in The Headhunters during the period of The Chitlin Show at WLOC. But I engineered and mixed all those shows. So I do have some insight. What has always impressed me about Joey is he was never a puppet of commercial radio music. He knew what he liked and what he wanted to play. He always had an eclectic variety of tunes he played, lots of which would be totally ignored by most radio programmers. He turned a lot of folks on to music they never would have even heard. They took a big chance on the Heads doing the live Chitlin show and I truly think it had an affect on them getting signed to Mercury/Polygram records.”
Every great station yields what Richard Young, of the Kentucky Headhunters, calls ‘an unsung hero with a true love of music’, which is how he described Joey Berry to me. Nashville’s WDKF-FM had Carl P Mayfield. Dallas has Brett Dillon of KHYI-FM, known also as the last great American DJ. Well maybe. I’m sure there is one in every state.
When Jim Berry passed away, the radio station was bought from the folks that Jim had worked for all those years. They tried different formats but it eventually settled on the one it has now.
These days Joe Berry is still on the air waves but on 99.1 WHSX ‘The Hoss’. I shoot through and see Joe as often as I can as I hang posters for shows I’ve booked or I am promoting. Ned said it best, “Joe Berry is an American radio treasure; a throwback on radio that is probably more important today than ever before.”
Check out this tribute page on Facebook. WLOC 102.3 FM
Joe Berry continues to influence the musicians and music lovers in the region, from Johnny Thompson, of the Scottsville Conservatory, to Mark Hayes of Looking for Lewis and Clark, to me, just living and working by the light of the humpback moon.
Originally published in the Amplifier