Tony Lawson and the Birth of Country Music Museum
As you will read, Tony Lawson has been in the radio business for a number of years. His experience and passion for good radio carries on with his latest endeavor in Bristol, Tennessee.
Bill Frater: Where and when did you start in radio, and what other stations have you worked at?
Tony Lawson: The first station I loved was a “progressive” station. Remember the ’60s and ’70s, before the homogenized AOR format? It was a huge influence on me growing up in the Cumberland Mountains of East Tennessee. I could barely pick up the radio station WQUT, 100,000 watts out of Johnson City, Tennessee. [That’s where I] first heard John Prine, Frank Zappa, John Hartford, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, David Bromberg, Bonnie Raitt, Yes, Pink Floyd, and a ton more. I moved to Johnson City to attend college at ETSU and study broadcasting so I could hopefully work at that station. In September 1978 I did my first airshift there … [I] started [my] career with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.”
The general manager of that station unfortunately passed away in 1980 and things changed — my first hard lesson in radio. The station was very popular but found a way to implode after the manager’s death. Most of the airstaff went to a smaller station in the market and started our own music paradise until the backers went backrupt the following year. Another lesson.
In 1982 I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, as music director of a 100,000-watt rock and roll station consulted by Burkhardt, Abrams, Michaels, Douglass. I really liked Lee Michaels and his radio philosophy. Too bad we lost him too soon.
I programmed a rock-and-roll AM and easy listening FM station in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1985. Had some good times with the Blasters on the Montgomery riverboat. We would take concert cruisers to Atlanta to see shows from time to time and I got to listen to the big country station in Montgomery. They were doing some interesting things then with country, rock and roll, and classic [tunes] from the Everlys, Buddy Holly, and more.
I moved back home to East Tennessee in 1986 and began programming a station in LaFollette, Tennessee, just north of Knoxville. This was a good time for country music: [there were] new artists and first albums from the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart, Steve Earle, Keith Whitley, Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, plus new albums from Trio, Texas Tornados, Vern Gosdin, Desert Rose Band, and many more. This, combined with the Eagles, Everlys, and others from the folk-rock genre, led me to name the format “All American Music.” I believe this is where we began doing Americana.
Then, guess what — the station changed owners and I began looking for a new job, although the radio station had begun showing up in the Knoxville ratings and had started generating some good press.
In 1988 I began working Jacor Communications at WMYU (U102) in Knoxville. My corporate PD was Randy Michaels. My job was to program music for all the shifts during the day (Adult AC format) and do a free-form oldies show at night. We put five to seven calls an hour on the air with requests, contests, and stuff. I would walk out of the control room cooked every night after a five-hour shift. Drove 54 miles one way back to the hills where we were living at the time. This was a very successful time for our station. Jacor was going through some financial times and made some adjustments with a huge investor and later became Clear Channel. It was a bit of a crazy environment, in a good way.
I worked there five years. After the third year I began searching inside for something else that was speaking to me. WNCW just signed on the air and I loved what they were doing. It reminded me of the station I used to listen to growing up in the mountains. I began looking in to what it would take to start a station similar [to that]. I began working on what would become WDVX. I did not realize at the time what it would take to bring on such a project from scratch. [It was a] life-changing decision. This was 1991.
In 1993, I thought the WDVX project was done. I began working middays for classic rock WIMZ in Knoxville. One day in 1996, I received a call on the request line from an engineer friend of mine asking if I had heard WDVX. I told him he had to be kidding. He wasn’t. They asked, “Do you want to do this thing?” They had saved the station from losing its construction permit on the last day. It was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The station could be heard and it was time to build.
I worked with WDVX as manager, program director, music director, on-air [talent], development, underwriting and sales, producer — anything it took, we did. We were in a 14-foot camper during our first five years. In 2005, we moved to downtown Knoxville and began doing the midday live radio show “The Blue Plate Special.”
In March 2015 I left WDVX to move to Bristol and begin a new chapter at the Birthplace of Country Music. We have been working hard on WBCM Radio Bristol — a low power FM at 100.1 locally and worldwide through our app and website. We stream online with three channels. Our local channel is WBCM, our Americana channel is Radio Bristol Americana, and our classic channel is Radio Bristol Classic. We are also in the midst of launching our video channel online and soon through other platforms. This is a very creative and dynamic project. The WBCM Radio Bristol App upgrade should be launching soon … like this week, I hope.
Where do you work now?
I program Radio Bristol at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee. We feature three audio program channels:
(1) Our local broadcast on WBCM-LP at 100.1FM features live programming from our studios at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, including live Radio Bristol Sessions and other live performance programs from our 100-seat performance theater.
(2) Radio Bristol Classic features recordings from the earliest sessions of the 1920s through the classic years of bluegrass and classic country.
(3) Radio Bristol Americana features a more modern mix of Americana music, blending in classics from as far back as the mid-’60s.
Our radio station is a very unique situation as part of the Birthplace of Country Music. Our company operates the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Radio Bristol, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Music Festival. This makes for a lot of synergy, with opportunities that cross-promote and strengthen each part of the organization.
I am on the air 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern, weekday afternoons. I do a feature called “The Four Fifteen” — live in-studio performances are mostly featured.
We play a good portion of new music. We will be playing more new music as we continue to build our playlist and programs. Our station is less than a year old. We have launched a new WBCM Radio Bristol app for listeners to enjoy all three streams. We will be upgrading our app soon to provide videos, music calendar information, podcasts, and more. We are also in the midst of launching a video channel on our website. To log in to our website, go to Listenradiobristol.org.
What was the first artist or album that turned you on to roots music?
I guess my first roots music experience was early on. My favorite song was “Raunchy” by Bill Justis when I was three.
How do you define Americana music?
I have an expanded view of Americana — one I would say that has a big umbrella. I believe Americana is a wonderful niche format that plays well regionally. It is a format that should be about the region in where it is at. We lean heavily on Appalachian-influenced music for a lot of our programming.
There are many artists that have contributed to the definition of our format. It is good to see artists bred from this format that are beginning to get the recognition they deserve. With their appeal and “realness,” we are hopefully seeing a greater appreciation for the work, love, and commitment to roots music by folks in our business. It is not to say we can conquer the world, but we can exist and help create a better quality of place and life where we reside.
What recent albums or artists are you excited about?
New music I have been digging a lot includes the Cactus Blossoms, Dori Freeman, Malpass Brothers, and a bunch more. I always tell my staff that it doesn’t matter what they or I like, what matters is what works. We try to stay objective with our presentation, but sometimes you can’t help a little personal flavor getting in to the mix.