Today is National Radio Day, the perfect time to reflect back on the creation of our radio station, WBCM Radio Bristol. Radio Bristol is an active radio station with ongoing live programming in the museum, but this growing branch of our organization started as an exhibit about radio history.
When the museum’s team of content researchers, scholars, and writers who shaped the core exhibits of our museum came together to interpret and present the importance of early radio, we discussed ways to make radio history more engaging than the original plan: a static exhibit on radio displayed in a mock studio. We considered how we could make the studio interactive instead, and from these early conversations and after much thoughtful consideration, BCM staff and board decided that a working radio station would highlight that history much better and so we applied to the FCC for a low power FM license. A team of advisers from the radio industry helped shape that application and the subsequent launch of Radio Bristol.
What better way to make radio history interactive than through an actual radio station?
One of the most important steps was fitting out the radio studio space. Radio Bristol’s equipment isn’t just stock equipment. The station uses vintage equipment from Bristol radio stations, refurbished and repurposed for today. Sourced from local radio buff and collector William Mountjoy, a Raytheon console from 1940s WCYB Radio was painstakingly rebuilt by engineer Jim Gilmore, retired engineer from TNN. You can read Gilmore’s piece about his work on the console – “Rework of a Classic” – in the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame September 2014 newsletter. Gilmore, along with colleagues Ron Worrell, Tom King, and Mike Flood, worked hard to help outfit our station with period equipment that performs in the kinds of ways our radio team needed, with the grace of a 1940s radio station and the innovation of the digital. We call it high-tech vintage.
King (of Kintronics Labs) and George DeVault (of Holston Valley Broadcasting), both industry leaders, worked with BCM Technical Director Josh Littleton to install and test equipment. Our antenna, transmitter, and other equipment were donated. This work – which grew far beyond normal museum content curation – really was a labor of love for the radio community who came together on the project. Most importantly, the end result showcases both local radio history and an ongoing commitment to community through the innovation of Radio Bristol.
Radio Bristol, which officially launched with music 24/7 in 2015, has grown out of much effort and the cooperation and expertise of many advisers, and it stands as an example that cultural institutions like ours can harness media and technology to share history and engage community. With Radio Bristol you’ll find far more great music and video content than you can possibly consume. But Radio Bristol isn’t just a great station. It’s also a living part of our museum, broadcasting out of an exhibit space that provides context for our visitors with information on early live radio performances such as Border Radio, The Grand Ole Opry, National Barn Dance, and Bristol’s original Farm and Fun Time. And the station is engaging our museum visitors and radio listeners with historic content and contemporary, often live performances every day. And when radio staff and artists are in this space, as they often are, it gives our visitors a direct window into the working of the station, making what they’ve learned about radio history even more relevant.
Producer Kris Truelsen works tirelessly to ensure broadly diverse programming that digs deeply into music from this area; these are shared across the station’s different music and video channels. Live programs throughout the week feature music ranging from regional roots music (old-time and many other styles) to contemporary Americana. Radio Bristol DJs come from a variety of music backgrounds – many are musicians themselves – and all steeped in local music practices and communities of our region. It’s rich listening.
One of Radio Bristol’s signature programs, Farm and Fun Time, draws on the historic 1940s—1950s radio program on WCYB in Bristol and has been featured on this blog several times. Radio Bristol’s Farm and Fun Time is a monthly live radio program introducing and familiarizing listeners with regional music and contemporary Appalachian culture. While music sets the foundation of the show, farming and food culture play an important role too. With the inclusion of various segments related to food access and responsible and sustainable farming, Farm and Fun Time showcases the region and its people, honoring the past, the present, and the place simultaneously through an incredible live program.
And in addition to the polished programming and live music sessions Radio Bristol produces, the museum taps into the radio station as an interactive tool for education as part of our programming. We often have students in the studio and in production spaces, such as with our annual Pick Along summer camps or special outreach programs with local youth organizations.
Early on, when we first started this journey, some people wondered why start a radio station when streaming online is cheap and music sources saturate the Internet? These folks argued that building a NEW radio station is a risky investment using an old-school platform. But Radio Bristol is anything but old-school, and it is unique in its focus on local community and the diversity of this region’s music. It is deep and engaging, just as the museum curators hoped it could be. At the Birthplace of Country Music, we took a gamble a few years ago when we began work to develop Radio Bristol. Now just two years after the station launched, Radio Bristol has recently been honored with several nominations from the International Bluegrass Music Association for its innovation and leadership – IBMA’s Momentum Awards for Producer Kris Truelsen, the Farm and Fun Time show, and Farm and Fun Time’s house band Bill and the Belles, and IBMA’s Special Award nomination of Broadcaster of the Year for Producer Kris Truelsen.
We congratulate our team for the recognition of their efforts and continue to be amazed at how this station has exceeded our expectations. And so today, on National Radio Day, we honor the history and innovation of radio in America, and we also honor the way radio platforms focused on community make those communities more vibrant and engaging.
If you haven’t listened to Radio Bristol, stop reading and get to it. I challenge you to choose just one favorite program!
Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.