Listening To Music in the Country
Old Chevy Car Radio
by H. Jerome Chapman
Your kids probably don’t know:
- Music has not always been portable
- Radio was once the ONLY way to hear music in the car. And even that wasn’t always possible.
If this picture is the entertainment system you had in your first car, then you are older than you claim!!!
So much of what we take for granted today was not even around in 1958. Such simple things as listening to music in the car while driving was not always possible. Car and Driver Magazine did an article a few years back on the history of the car radio and it can be seen at:
How you listened to music, news, or old time radio shows depended on geography. If you lived in Atlanta, Macon, Columbus or even Fort Valley, there was at least one radio station that you could listen to in your car and some you could listen to at night. As far as music, that was the only way to do it for the most of us unless you carried around a Martin guitar. But, if you lived in Roberta, Reynolds, Butler, Musella, Moran, or Sandy Point, that was another story. All you might hear there was static!
Car and Driver points out that the first car radio was developed in 1930 and the name Motorola was born. Car radios were an option and they were AM only in most cars because there were few FM stations around. No one had ever heard of satellite radio, blue tooth, or a tape player, disc player, or MP3.
Car radios gave you a “buzz” when you turned them on in the old days because they all had a “vibrator” to make them functional. It made a humming or buzzing sound and most car owners learned how to replace them as they burned out frequently.
If you were lucky enough to live in a town of any size, they probably had one or more low power, 1000 watt AM radio stations that could be heard locally but their range was low, especially at night. A lot of stations were daylight only stations.
Most stations that could be heard during the day had to reduce their power at night to prevent interfering with stations on the same frequency in other areas due to “bounce” or “skip”. Many stations used the same frequency across the country and conflict was managed by controlling the power and using directional antennas and, in some cases, having stations go silent after dark.
WMAZ in Macon was 940 on the dial and was 50,000 watts during the day. It could be heard over a wide area during the daylight but at night, the 5 antennas were phased and the power was reduced to 5,000 watts and you could barely hear it in Lizella. But you could get the news at 5:00 PM sponsored by the Dunlap Roofing Company. They changed their power at sunset and were gone to listeners west of Macon.
None of the several other stations could be heard outside of town. WBML, WNEX, and WIBB come to mind. No one listened to FM radio in those days as there was little FM programming and most people did not have one anyway. Sandy Point did not have a radio station: imagine that!
So if you were out in Sandy Point, and you wanted to hear Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Jimmy Reed or Muddy Waters, what did you do?
Well, you started spinning the dial over at the far end around 550 Kilocycles( now referred to as Kilohertz in honor of Mr. Hertz ) and you might find WLAC in Nashville, Tenn. coming in that night. It would be a “Jumping John R” night with rhythm and blues and you would hear songs like “Big Boss Man”. John R was a white guy that had learned the language of the black community and was the forerunner of such radio personalities across the country as “Wolfman Jack”. Was there any hope?
There is a great tribute to John R., who was on WLAC Radio in the late 50’s. If you are under 50, you’ve probably never heard anything like it! Check it out at:
Coming on across the dial was 650, WSM, clear channel radio in Nashville. Now there you would find your “hillbilly”, now called country music: Eddie Arnold and Hank Snow, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb. And, the Grand Ole Opry which is the longest running radio show ever.
There were a number of possibilities, depending on weather, etc. There was WWL in New Orleans which catered to truck drivers. WGN and WLS in Chicago, WOWO in Indiana, WCKY in Cincinnati just in case you wanted to hear country music and order some Rhode Island Red chickens! WLW was there too. But you could not hear the Macon stations 25 miles away.
There was WHO in Des Moines and WBT in Charlotte. These big 50,000 watt stations, and others spread across the country, were the nighttime source of music and news for the rural areas. And, on a given night, you listened to what you could pick up.
Then there was XERF in Del Rio, Texas that had its 100,000 watt transmitter sitting in Mexico and it blanked the Southwest and could be heard frequently at night in Georgia. It was finally forced to reduce power by international agreement.
For farm news, it was WSB 750 in Atlanta every day at noon. Prices on beef cattle, hogs, chickens and eggs. Corn, wheat, and cotton. Soybeans were just coming into favor as an alternative crop. But here you heard the farm report and knew all about pork bellies!
They tried a few things to get recorded music into use in cars including Mr. Lear’s (yes this was the same guy that invented Lear Jets) 8 track tapes that were not too reliable but it wasn’t until the cassette tape player was invented in the 70’s that portable, on demand music became a routine thing and cars were soon strewn from front seat to back with tapes!
The world has not been the same since! The Sony Walkman and Car Cassette players started showing up everywhere. People have been walking around with earplugs ever since as well as driving around with radios blaring at all hours, even in Lee Pope and Zenith at midnight!
Today, it is Satellite and Blue Tooth. Ipods and Smartphones. All synced up and playing away! And, I suppose, the folks at “WCKY, Cincinnati 1, Ohio” and “WLAC, Nashville, Tennessee” are probably out of the chicken business!! And, you haven’t been able to find any peace and quiet since!