Len Robinson’s first day on the job at WPAX was not what he expected at all. It was much more — an exhilarating experience and quite a step up from sweeping floors.
The year was 1956. Robinson was 15. He was looking for a summer job.
The teen was standing in front the old Belk store in the 100 block of South Broad Street, when he looked across the street and saw the WPAX sign. He decided to inquire about a radio station job. Maybe someone was needed to sweep the floor.
“I wandered in,” Robinson said, adding that he told J. Ansel Dekle, the announcer on duty, he could do anything.
It was time for Dekle to go to lunch. He placed Robinson in the announcer’s seat and told him to segue from one record to another.
“That’s the first time I heard ‘segue,’ “ Robinson explained. He had no idea what the word meant, but pulled off announcer duty alone and segued successfully.
The pay was $60 a week, a virtual fortune for a summer job 58 years ago. Robinson did not realize the pay involved duty from 3 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Nevertheless, he was “thrilled beyond anything.” He performed as an announcer that summer and dreaded school starting.
Today, Robinson owns WPAX, heard on 1240 AM and 103.7 FM, and WTUF, an FM station heard at 106.3.
WPAX, Georgia’s third-oldest radio station, founded by the late Hoyt Wimpy, went on the air Dec. 22, 1922, with call letters provided by the U.S. government.
Wimpy owned a business on Broad Street, where he built radio receivers and sold them for up to $50 apiece, a lot of money 92 years ago. His motivation for putting WPAX on the air was to sell receivers he was building.
Jack Kelly, former Times-Enterprise co-owner, told Robinson that if he did not get emotionally involved with the radio station and would work hard, he could sell WPAX for a lot of money in five years.
“Here I am at 73 years old, and I don’t want to turn loose,” Robinson said. He still loves what he does for a living.
“Now, I don’t wish I worked as regularly as I do,” he added.
Robinson wants to ensure the person who purchases WPAX next “has the fire in his belly I do for this business.”
Robinson worked at the technical school as a teacher, then as an administrator, for 14 years. “It was not fulfilling for me,” he said, in reference to the administrative work.
At 43, with a wife and four children, Robinson was in a quandary, when he went to WPAX with a public-service announcement. He learned the station manager had resigned and wondered if the owner was interested in selling.
“That’s how it started,” Robinson, the station’s fourth owner, said. He believes some things are “God-directed,” including his radio station acquisition.
Everything seemed to fall into place. Robinson borrowed money from his parents and Commercial Bank to purchase the station in 1985.
“I was rolling the dice and rolling them all on ‘PAX. I really was,” he said.
Believed to be the 20th-oldest radio station in the country, WSB in Atlanta and WMAZ in Macon are the only Georgia radio stations older than WPAX.
The late Frank Neel’s Electricity Comes to Thomasville —1889-1987 — 98 Years of Vision and Foresight, says that because of WPAX’s early beginning, Thomasville was allocated a low-band television frequency, which were channels 2 through 6.
Neel wrote that it is obvious why WCTV, channel 6, is licensed in Thomasville: It was the best available frequency in the area the TV station owner wanted to serve. Tallahassee, Fla., meanwhile, had only high-number allocations.
In 1988, Robinson bought the right to construct the WTUF frequency in Boston. He was not eager to own another station, but trying to beat the competition to the frequency.
“So I went back to Commercial Bank and borrowed some money,” he explained.
The old days of radio offered entertainment for everyone. Individual stations broadcast programming aimed at specific markets.
Bands and orchestras played live at radio stations. In the 1920s and ‘30s, there was no recorded music. “Any music that was broadcast was live music,” Robinson sad.
Stations in big cities employed full-time musicians who reported to work at the stations daily. The orchestras provided musical interludes and accompaniment for other programming.
Small stations were on the air only a couple of hours a day. “(Hoyt) Wimpy would invite people to come sing on his station, local folks,” Robinson said.
He explained, “When records came along, that did away with hiring full-time orchestras and singers. They played records.”
During Robinson’s first stint at the station, the announcer also was the sportscaster and newscaster, who retrieved news stories on yellow paper off the Associated Press wire. There was no time to read the news before filling 15-minute slots with the information.
Block programming was the radio rule in the mid-1950s. Early morning programs were geared to farmers, followed by pop tunes to appeal to youngsters going to school. From 9 a.m. to noon, easy-listening music was played for ladies, who in those days stayed at home.
Programing for farmers returned at noon, when farmers returned home for the midday meal and listened to the radio. More pop music and easy listening were broadcast afternoons at appropriate times.
From 8 to 10 p.m., listeners called in record requests. A 15-minute show, “Deep South Platter Party,” offered black gospel music.
All-night gospel sings featuring big-name gospel groups were conducted monthly at the city auditorium. “As quartets came into town on Saturday, they would come by the radio station and sing 15 to 20 minutes promoting their show that night at the auditorium,” Robinson recalled.
Radio folks were “scared to death” of television. Radio advertising does not equal that reaped by television, but, Robinson said, there is always a place for local radio that caters to that community.
Wallace Goodman, Pebble Hill Plantation director and former Times-Enterprise publisher, said a prosperous community needs a good newspaper, a good radio station and a good chamber of commerce.
“A radio station can be instantaneous,” Goodman said. “For instance, in times of bad weather, a radio station can inform a community in an instant. Any other type of news that must be disseminated quickly can go out over the radio waves.”
Also, Goodman said, radio stations are generally community supporters and “look for what is right about a community, not what is wrong, much the same way a newspaper operates.”
Chris Hurst, WPAX news director, considers it a privilege to work at such an historic radio station.
Hurst’s beginning mimicked Robinson’s hiring as a teen. Hurst had no radio or news experience when he joined the ‘PAX staff four years ago.
“It’s really fun to be around something that’s been here since 1922,” Hurst said. “It’s been a huge honor to be part of this.”
Radio is all about music. Many people today, including young people, appreciate Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Robinson said.
“Few people realize the impact on pop music Sinatra had. He was the Elvis of his generation. He had the girls screaming and fainting,” Robinson said.
Young people listened to rhythm and blues in the early 1950s. Elvis electrified the music scene in 1956. Robinson explained, “He was a white man singing the black sound.”
The British Invasion took place in the 1960s, and Elvis took a back seat in the music world.
In Robinson’s’ lifetime, Sinatra, Elvis and the most affected music and the public’s listening habits.
Despite the many music delivery systems available today, Robinson is confident radio is here to stay.
“Do I think radio will go the way of the buggy whip? No, I do not,” he said.
Radio emits music that toys with the human mind, senses and emotions, satiates the quest for information and stimulates the imagination.
“Radio is the theater of the mind,” Robinson opined, adding, “I stole that from somewhere.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of a celebration of the Times-Enterprise’s 125th year, this is the 14th in a year-long series of Sunday stories about important people, places and things in the area. The next one will be published on July 27.