Upland Chronicles: WSEV has been broadcasting since 1955

Oct. 26, 2013 @ 11:23 PM

In 1955, William “Bill” Burchfiel Jr. approached several individuals with the idea of forming a local radio station. He thought a radio station would be beneficial to the growing community.

Some people had reservations. Jimmie Temple was reminded by his father, John Temple, that television was overtaking the radio market. Taking his father’s advice, Jimmie declined the offer to purchase stock in the venture.

Burchfiel convinced nine businessmen to purchase stock to form the station. Besides Burchfiel, the other original owners were Norman Burchfiel, Fred C. Atchley, A.J. King, James McAfee, Gene Robertson Sr., Gene Robertson Jr., Leo Sharp, W.R. Mize and Clifford Frost. The call sign chosen was WSEV, meaning SEVier County.

The site selected for the studio on Middle Creek Road was acquired from Norman Burchfiel, and a tower was erected in a pasture behind the building. Several years later, a second tower was placed on Bluff Mountain. Clay Cline was hired as the first station manager. A.T Henderson was the engineer, and his expertise was invaluable to the new station.

The Federal Communication Commission regulated the hours of operation at full frequency to the time between sunrise and sunset. When WSEV signed on the air before daylight, it operated at a reduced frequency until sunrise. This prevented signal interference with WZB in Boston, Mass. A “bonnet” was used during the hours of darkness to buffer the signal. When the sun came up, a switch was pulled, and the station operated at full frequency until sunset.

Although Jimmie Temple passed up the offer to buy stock, Burchfiel persuaded him to sponsor and host an early morning show three days a week from 6:30 to 6:45 am. The show was so popular that Temple remained on the air until 2004.

Playing a guitar fashioned from an old mandolin and two bass guitar strings, 9-year-old Dolly Parton made her radio debut on WSEV during the station’s first year of operation.

Two years later, James McAfee bought out the other stockholders. When Clay Cline decided to move back to North Carolina, McAfee hired Hugh “Skip” Trotter as station manager. Truett Frazier soon joined the staff as well.

Sponsored by Robertson Brothers Hardware, Gene Robertson hosted the mid-day “Farm and Home Hour.” The program featured reports on crops, livestock and other items of interest to farmers. Gospel music was played between dialogues.

Another popular program was “The Trading Post,” sponsored by Cash Hardware. Owner Bon Hicks Jr. served as host. One morning Hicks was late, and Skip Trotter had no choice but fill in until he showed up. When Hicks arrived he apologized, saying he was late because he’d been caught in traffic.

This was long before Sevierville experienced traffic problems, especially on a normal weekday morning. When Al Schmutzer, Sr. heard Hicks broadcast his excuse on the air, he picked up the phone and called Skip Trotter at the radio station and asked him how he could possibly avoid the traffic jam to get to work at the Sevierville Hardware on Court Avenue.

WSEV offered numerous community service announcements. “We always hated for it to snow,” said George Myers, who worked for the station three different times between 1957 and 1972. “Every time snow began to fall the station was bombarded with calls from people wanting to know if the schools would be closed the following day. All three lines would light up at the same time.”

The station made the announcement as soon as the superintendent of schools called, but the public was impatient.

When Sevier County Hospital opened in 1965, the station began reporting the admissions. One Sunday morning the report included the name Jimmie Temple. However, it was not the Jimmie Temple who operated Temple Milling Company and hosted a morning program on the station, but a visitor who happened to have the same name.

Jimmie Temple of Sevierville heard the report and went to the hospital after church to visit the man with whom he shared the same name. When Jimmie Temple of Sevierville introduced himself, Jimmie Temple from out of town declared, “So that’s the reason I’ve been getting so many knocks on my door and phone calls.”

Every time the fire alarm sounded, residents tuned in to WSEV to hear the announcement of the location of the fire. A designated volunteer fireman called the station promptly to give the announcer the location of the fire.

Skip Trotter announced Sevier County High School football games. In the early years, the games were recorded and broadcast the following day due to the daylight-only regulation. Held in the afternoon, the Little Smoky Bowl and its preceding parade could be broadcast live.

Auctioneer C.B. McCarter frequently entertained audiences with live, folksy segments advertising his upcoming auction sales. The station aired an afternoon remote broadcast from Gatlinburg during the summer tourist season. One day a young man named Bill Anderson stopped by the Gatlinburg location pitching a song he’d recorded. The song later became Anderson’s first big hit.

Al Schmutzer Jr. worked at the station during the summer while he was in high school and college. He remembers a day when he was the only one around to sign off the air. When he placed the 45rpm record on the turntable to play the national anthem, Schmutzer inadvertently played the wrong side. “I signed off to John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ instead of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’” said Schmutzer.

Mary Sue Poe served as secretary for many years. Her responsibilities exceeded the usual duties of a secretary. In fact, many of her associates felt as if she “ran the place.” Vicki (Compton) Murrell was hired as office manager in 1976. When she discovered a severely past-due account, Vicki sent a letter using the customary, stern “past due” format she had been taught in business school. A few days later, she found a dozen roses on her desk from Skip Trotter. He told her the station had been trying to collect the account for years with no luck.

Teddy Murrell worked there at the same time as a sports announcer. Later, after they married, the subject of salaries came up. Much to Teddy’s chagrin, Vicki had been paid more as office manager than he earned as sports announcer.

Frank and Jayne Anne Woods owned the station for a few years. They sold it to a group of investors who included Chuck Ketron, Truett Frazier, Conrad Jett, and G.B. Whitlock. In 1990, Dolly Parton purchased the station and moved the studios to Dollywood. During the Dollywood years, WSEV and its FM sister 105.5 WDLY (now WSEV again) simulcast a country music format. Some years later the station was sold to East Tennessee Broadcasting Group.

Others too numerous to mention have played a role in the history of the station. Today the studio of WSEV-FM-AM 105.5 is located at 196 West Dumplin Valley Road in a historic building that was originally Oak Grove United Methodist Church. Listeners are entertained by the dynamic duo Jay Adams, the Redneck, and Steve Hartford, the Redcoat, in the morning and Dr. John in the afternoon. They are making history for future generations.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com