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(The Original) WXRY FM / Educational Wonderland, 2400 Decker Boulevard: 1980s   23 comments

Posted at 3:31 am in business,entertainment

You may be familiar with WXRY FM as a new-ish non-commercial radio station in Columbia, a sort of WUSC for grownups. (And I know that at least one of their staff follows Columbia Closings: Thanks!).

What you might not know is that is not at all how WXRY started.

FM radio actually goes quite a ways back in US broadcast history, but the story is not straight-forward. In the beginning, FM was pioneered by Edwin Armstrong. He figured out a way to create radio networks using FM only links (a big deal at the time as other networks had to use expensive AT&T landline links). This brought him into conflict with David Sarnoff and his Radio Corporation of America. Showing the ever-present danger of political influence when government gets too entwined with business, Sarnoff pressured the new FCC to change the rules for FM, destroying Armstrong's network and driving him to suicide while leaving RCA's AM technology in the driver's seat. These shenanigans destroyed FM for several decades.

When FM started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, AM totally owned the pop market and FM stations felt they needed to do something different to create a market presence. Some used the higher fidelity and static-free nature of FM to broadcast classical music, others created the "album rock" concept, playing non-single cuts by popular groups that would never have otherwise been on the radio, but a large number of FM stations went the "beautiful music" route.

"Beautiful Music" (I'm not sure that was an "official" format name, but it seemed to be how these stations often described themselves) was what we would now call "muzak" (though that's actually a trademark) or "elevator music". If the names One Hundred and One Strings or Mantovani mean anything to you, then you understand the "Beautiful Music" format, and WXRY was Columbia's "Beautiful Music" station.

I think I've written before about how I came to rock music fairly late in life. My parents didn't hate rock or think that it was ruining society, they simply didn't care for it that much. We listened almost exclusively to WIS AM, which was mostly middle-of-the-road grownup pop. I was always into tinkering with radios though, and at some point I pulled an old bakelite FM-only radio off a neighboorhood trash heap. After testing the tubes at Liggett's and finding that there was a bad one, I convinced my parents to spring for a new tube. At that point the radio worked, but I found that the "off" switch built into the rheostat was broken. I never did master soldering, so I couldn't swap it out, but I could put a powerline switch in the power cord, which I did. The result was what I'm still convinced to this day was the best sounding radio I've ever heard. Sure it was mono, but somehow those transformers and tubes (and not having to support AM circuits, I suppose) gave it a really rich sound. I couldn't listen to WIS on it of course, so I poked around until I found WXRY and spend many hours listening to music that would have given other 12 year olds hives (and would give me hives now..). Eventually I took the radio to our beach house where I found another "Beautiful Music" station out of either Georgetown or Myrtle Beach and I'm sure gave my cousins hives. In the end the radio's tuning went out, though I've still got it stored away somewhere.

After I took the radio to the beach, I more or less lost track of WXRY. I do recall that in the 1970s, a guy in my scout troop knew someone who worked there and told the story about how the staff decided to get wild one day and slip John Denver's "Annie's Song" ("You fill up my senses like night in the forest..") into the lineup, and how they got phonecalls to stop playing that "hippie music".

Loopnet says the building currently at 2400 Decker was built in 1981. If that's correct, the original WXRY studio must have been torn down at some point. I don't know what happened to the station between its being "Beautiful Music" on Decker Boulevard and its current status as "The Independant Alternative" from high atop "The Historic Barringer Building" on Main Street, and whether it was on the air continuously during that whole period. I must admit I have not heard Mantovani on their current air.

UPDATE 2 March 2012: Just found out that at some point after WXRY, this building was a location of homeschooling store Educational Wonderland.

Written by ted on January 20th, 2010

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23 Responses to '(The Original) WXRY FM / Educational Wonderland, 2400 Decker Boulevard: 1980s'

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  1. Here's a link with some more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WXRY

    I remember it was still "beautiful music" as late as 1987. The late Mackie Quave of WOLO was an occassional dj there.

    Tom

    20 Jan 10 at 9:07 am

  2. Frank Ward, a long time DJ in Atlanta, founded the original WXRY 93.5. It's original antenna location and studio were on Covenant Road. I believe the studios may have moved to Decker soon after. Frank later sold to Cosmos Broadcasting, the owners of WIS AM/TV, and the studios moved to 56 Radio Lane at some point in the late 1970's. WIS AM had been there since the early 1960's, to make room for TV at 1111 Bull.

    Cosmos decided to get out of radio in the 1980's and WIS and 93.5 WXRY were sold to Ridgeley Communications out of Baltimore. Upon the sale, Cosmos retained the WIS call letters. Soon thereafter, WIS became WVOC and WXRY became WCEZ.

    By 1989, a garbage truck snagged the guy wire at the Covenant Road site and pulled the 93.5 tower down. 93.5 began broadcasting from a temporary site on the 1111 Bull Street tower and was eventually relocated to Capitol Center (AT&T) building. Ridgeley entered bankruptcy and WVOC/WCEZ were bought by entrepreneurs who bought, fixed up, and sold stations.

    The 93.5 calls were changed in 1990 from WCEZ to WAAS. In September 1992, the calls changed to WARQ, which have been in place 18 years.

    Steve

    20 Jan 10 at 9:53 am

  3. Wow guys, thanks for the history! Today I listen to WXRY 99.3 on a regular basis and had totally forgotten that I should have recognized the call letters. If I had been like most kids my age at that time, I would have puked at the thought of enjoying the stuff a parent was listening to, especially something called "easy listening," and would not have a reason to remember the station. All you really needed to hate the music coming out of the earlier WXRY was the fact that it was what you heard when you visited the dentist. Forget elevators, the association between easy-listening and the shrill sound of a drill spinning at very high r.p.m. is all you needed to absolutely loathe that music. But because I listened to EVERYTHING growing up, I sincerely enjoyed the soothing effect that Mantovani had on my nerves from time to time on the earlier incarnation of WXRY; I just never mentioned it to my Frank Zappa & Captain Beefheart buddies, I would have been teased beyond teasing.

    Nearly 40 years later, I'll tell you what, every third song in the WXRY 99.3 playlist is one I wish I had written. I know it's a cyclical thing taking place in pop music at any given time, but it's the most excited I've been about songwriting in years. You know what though, ask the kids about WXRY, and it may as well be the current easy-listening station as far as they are concerned, because that's the one their parents are listening to. The full-circle thing definitely applies to me on this one.

    By the way Steve, I'm trying to place the Covenant Road studios, but I'm having a blank on where that would have been. Do you have the address on that location?

    Michael Taylor

    20 Jan 10 at 5:45 pm

  4. WXRY was located in one of the strip malls on Decker Blvd. for a while and then moved into the old Timmerman School building in Forest Acres. It was at this location when the call sign changed to WCEZ.

    Frank Ward moved to Florida and owned (or operated) a "Music of Your Life" format station somewhere down there.

    Steve, are you the same Steve that worked there in the early 80's?

    Lou B

    20 Jan 10 at 9:24 pm

  5. Thanks Lou, that makes sense. What else hasn't been in that old Timmerman School building over the years? The Forest Acres Police Department comes to mind. Oddly enough, my mother's church met there in the late-60's to early-70's while they were building an official church building, so I suppose I stopped paying attention to what was there after the church was built.

    From an antennae standpoint, that has to be the worst place to put one because it's at the bottom of a hill from all directions. On the other hand, you can stand on the top of Quinine Hill - a few hundred yards to the southwest as that famous crow flies from the radio station tower - and you used to be able see the back of the "pink house" on Shakespeare Road in the winter when all the leaves had fallen. Remember the pink stucco house on Shakespeare Road?

    Speaking of Shakespeare Road, that area is just about as elevated as you're going to find in the Midlands of South Carolina. It's down hill in all directions, and that's where I would want to have an antennae in a perfect world.

    Michael Taylor

    21 Jan 10 at 5:11 pm

  6. I'll have to do some research on the Covenant Road address. I remember seeing a picture of the building somewhere, but darned if I can remember when and where I saw it.

    Some of what I wrote was what Dave Rogers related to me back in the day. I didn't come along until the beginning of 1989, when Ridgeley was already in bankruptcy.

    The Radio Lane studios are looking sad. They are overgrown and a lot of the windows are broken. The building is essentially now just a transmitter shed for AM 56.

    Shakespeare is still a good site for city coverage and there are a lot of two-way and paging services still on Shakespeare Road. There are a lot of factors that go into antenna siting, including how far you are away from other stations and, most importantly, how much it is going to cost to rent the space on the tower.

    All the TV stations are now out in Pontiac with 2,000+ foot tall towers. In the Northeast, Hardscrabble Road is also a good site. ETV is on Hardscrabble near "Chasers" and from there you can look down into downtown. WNOK is on Hardscrabble East of Clemson Road near the back of The Summit.

    Steve

    22 Jan 10 at 12:06 pm

  7. Steve (Mr. V., I presume?) - Yeah, in reality Hardscrabble Road is the only logical location based on a combination of elevation, earlier real estate values, and earlier population densities. But I would imagine a radio station entity would have to pay a small fortune for a chunk of land out there now days. I worked near the Summit briefly last year, and it was easily the first time I've been on Hardscrabble in 25 years. The last time, I was on a bicycle thinking it was in the middle of bum-freak Egypt. On the other hand, wouldn't it be sweet to own a couple hundred acres because your grandfather bought it really cheap when you couldn't pay people to live on Hardscrabble Road.

    From a technical standpoint based on elevation alone, Roof Street (immediately adjacent to Columbia Place Mall off Shakespeare Road) is the highest elevation in the Midlands. Not very practical from a commercial antenna standpoint though, but I would imagine a long, simple dipole for a wide-band transceiver would give you more signal than you could shake a stick at. If I lived on Roof Street, my Drake SW8 would no doubt need the attenuator turned on for the first time if I had an inverted-V dipole about 80 feet off the deck. This location is so elevated that years ago before Columbia Place Mall, people would hang-glide down from Roof Street and land about where the parking lots start. It was one of those red-clay canyons that resemble the Grand Canyon in extreme miniature. Trenholm Park was an even more miniature version before it was a park. But as usual, I digress.

    Dave Rogers, yes indeed, I was trying to remember his name in my previous comment. If I had been born with the voice he was born with, I would be in broadcasting as we speak and my life would be complete. Is he still around and broadcasting, I never hear him anymore?

    And Steve, if you are Mr V., I want to thank-you for being bold and taking a chance. I really dig it. If you're not Mr. V., I still dig it, can you dig it? Great station history regardless, thanks.

    Michael Taylor

    22 Jan 10 at 4:59 pm

  8. Dave is doing well, from what I have heard through the grapevine. He is getting on in years, but still hanging tough.

    The trick with broadcast antenna placement is to try to place it where you get the best coverage for the least cost in an area that meets all the distance requirements. In some instances that means building up, or finding a high spot and building a shorter structure... or renting someone elses.

    Steve

    23 Jan 10 at 1:15 am

  9. I'm pretty sure WOLO's transmitter was on Shakespear Road, at least pre-digital-conversion, haven't driven by recently..

    ted

    23 Jan 10 at 2:00 am

  10. The tower was on Shakespeare road. I'm pretty sure the studio was in a quonset hut almost under the tower. If my old memory serves me, the tower iced up following an unusually bad ice storm. When it started to thaw, chunks would fall and hit the roof and could be heard during the newscast that day.

    Lou B

    23 Jan 10 at 8:59 am

  11. Here's a story about the current WOLO tower, which has moved from Shakespeare Road to the 1-20/Camden corridor.

    I remember going to the Shakespeare Road studios for a Labor Day telethon with a buddy in the early-70's when I first started drinking beer, and we hung out in that quonset-hut studio half-lit and had a blast. I think Gary Collins was the celebrity co-host that year, but I could have hallucinated that. When we left, as soon as we hit Shakespeare Road a Richland County deputy pulled us over, probably alerted to by WOLO security. I'll admit that we were acting pretty goofy, but we weren't plastered or anything. Instead of focusing on our obvious drinking, he found a package of crushed saltine crackers in a zip-lock bag and thought it was heroin. We almost got busted on the spot for a bag of saltine crackers, but this was in the days before field drug-testing kits. They had to finally break down and actually taste the highly crumbled crackers, and then let us go in disgust when they didn't have a couple of junkies. Half-drunk teenagers driving off, hey, what the hell. My one and only WOLO story.

    Michael Taylor

    23 Jan 10 at 8:30 pm

  12. While I was in college at UNC-CH, I worked at the campus educational/classical radio station, and was interested in "easy listening" radio. After I got out of the Army at Ft. Jackson, I applied for a job at WXRY-FM. They had moved into the strip mall behind the building you show, and were already pretty well completely automated, in late 1972. Some years later while as a Revenue Officer with IRS, I was assigned WXRY as one of my collection cases. Their tax problems helped lead to their eventual demise. Frank Ward died in Florida in the late 80's or early 90's, if I remember correctly. Good radio man, not a good businessman.

    As to Dave Rogers (whom I called "Dave Rumbles"), my favorite moment of his on WIS-TV was his voice-over once in a commercial for "Whinny-baggo" motor homes.

    ray l

    24 Feb 10 at 11:35 pm

  13. The Covenant Rd. site was at 3737 Covenant Rd. It is at the corner of Covenant and Bethel Church Rds. It now appears to be a pre-school. It was originally Timmerman School, and then Forest Acres City Hall for a while. The tower was on the left side of the building if looking from Covenant. The concrete base of the tower is still there, and I'm sure there are still guy wires back in the woods. I don't know why that location was chosen for a tower...it was down in a valley and had to be 385 feet above ground to properly cover the area. I know the transmitter moved from behind Providence Hospital (near Benedict College's new stadium) to Covenant Rd. It was located on WZLD's tower.

    Andy

    6 May 10 at 1:45 pm

  14. Just to give you a heads-up...Dave Rogers died Yesterday (11-23-2010). I also worked at WXRY at the Decker Blvd site. Frank Ward always reminded us he put a window in the studio so we can SEE what the weather was outdoors instead of relying on other sources. I had the overnight shift and always got a call from some bored housewife wanting to talk "dirty." It was a time I learned never to trust the Associated Press newswire (it was written for the print media) and I always rewrote my news copy. I think every DJ and news person in the city once worked for the station. They were fun times.

    Jerry

    25 Nov 10 at 12:18 am

  15. Well I am sorry to hear that!

    ted

    25 Nov 10 at 12:30 am

  16. Interesting blog....I programmed WCOS there in Columbia back in the late 80's, 87, 88, 89 and even worked for Frank Ward at WROD, in Daytona Beach before that back in 1982.

    It was just before I was getting married, and was staying with a friend of mine in Daytona Beach so I worked part-time for Frank at night and sent out tapes during the day.

    He had some interesting stories. I just looked at the old WROD studios on Google's Street-view and they look exactly as they did back in 1982...

    It all worked out well...Enjoyed your blog...

    Gerry

    21 Nov 11 at 4:39 pm

  17. Thanks Gerry!

    There's pages for WIS and WZLD too if you remember those call letters..

    ted

    22 Nov 11 at 12:38 am

  18. Those were the days...WXRY 93.5 Beautiful music for beautiful people. The station was located in the strip mall on Decker Blvd, adjacent to the Food Lion store that was there then and still there. I met Frank and Linda while working at Food Lion during high school. I went to work for them as a part-time receptionist in the afternoons. Mrs. Jean was the station secretary. Our DJs were John Kirby, Dave McIntosh and Dave Skinner. One of our account execs was Frank Baker. Linda Jackson was the sales manager. Frank and Linda were both forward thinking, brilliant people. I remember those days fondly.

    Mindy

    20 Jun 12 at 5:47 am

  19. So the station was actually in the main strip with the grocery, and not the outbuilding I have pictured? All I had to go on was the street address..

    ted

    20 Jun 12 at 12:05 pm

  20. That outbuilding had a ski shop in the early 90's. I forget the name. Someone mentioned Muzak in an earlier comment. Did you know that Muzak started in Columbia? Their HQ is/was on Gervais St., across and down a bit from WIS-TV. They're on Butler St. in the Millwood Ave. area now.

    Mike

    20 Jun 12 at 3:18 pm

  21. I remember a DOS program called Muzak back in the 90s and Mike's comment makes me wonder if there is a connection between the two

    Andrew

    20 Jun 12 at 11:04 pm

  22. I only wish the easy listening format was around today on FM. Maybe it is on Sirius or XM. Pretty much just combine qualifying easy listening vocals and instrumentals, line them up on a computer folder, or download them to my cell phone today.

    tomseay

    6 Jul 13 at 7:18 pm

  23. I worked for Frank Ward and Linda Jackson for about 4 years. She later became Linda Ward after living with Frank for a long time. They each had one son from previous marriages, I believe. Frank once flew me to his ex-wife's house in Atlanta to help her move furniture. A staff of about 3-4 sales people, including Linda Jackson, Frank Baker and Big Band fan Buster White. White didn't like the automated programming on giant Scully reel to reels (we had maybe 10 of them) because you knew all the songs that were coming. To show his distaste, when one song would start playing, he began whistling a tune in that 4 song Bonneville Music group that had not begun yet so Frank could hear it. We all worked in a long, rectangular two room section, just a 6 desk office and studio (also small bathroom) sandwiched between a grocery store and a karate dojo and barbershop. It was all one, contiguous building with a drugstore on the other end in this mini strip mall. The tower was on Covenant Rd. Frank, who told me he was a "Champion Goldbricker," meaning, very lazy, had a goal of installing a studio at his home so he could broadcast in his pajamas. His erstwhile engineers Milton Holiday and Weat Mathis wondered how to do that. When he was offered the opportunity of selling his Decker Blvd. studios for a million dollars to Limetree Bay he had a private meeting with me to ask me if I was OK with that--if he should "sell out." I was floored. I told him, "you've worked your whole life in radio to get to this point. This is every announcer's dream. Take the money!" He hurriedly got his new studios at that old school fixed up and now the tower was above us, like most radio stations, which I think also killed all the plants in Station Manager Robert W. Simpkin's office. Frank passed away in the late '80's, maybe in his 50's. I say that because around 1987 at his favorite Columbia Shoney's one day over breakfast, he told me he was amazed an Atlanta station wanted to bring him in as a consultant for six figures. He thought he was too old for consideration since he was "in his 50's." I told him it wasn't about his age, it was about his knowledge. The stories he could tell. For those people looking for the Bonneville format-- one like it is still out there. Only now, you can get it streaming over your computer. Best wishes to all on this blog.

    Mike

    15 Sep 13 at 6:14 pm

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