On November 16, 2016, Broadcast: A Man and his Dream was screened before a noon-time audience at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. This was the first international presentation of the film. Broadcast was shown under the auspices of folkwaysAlive! (fA) which is a folklore research unit at the University. The raison d’être of fA connects in interesting ways with Ralph Epperson’s life’s work at WPAQ.
folkwaysAlive! was founded 15 years ago. It is centered around the work of Moses (Moe) Asch, who founded Folkways Records in New York City in the late 1940s. Folkways was a remarkable label. Its varied and eclectic catalogue contains music that is off the beaten track. It released field recordings of American folk music, spoken word albums, sound effects records, and the like. The catalogue contains recordings from all over the world, long before the term ‘world music’ was in vogue. In time, folk luminaries such as a Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Jean Ritchie recorded with Folkways. Moe Asch had one child, a son Michael, who spent most of his professional career as an anthropologist at the University of Alberta. In the 1980s, Professor Asch arranged for his parents to donate virtually all of the Folkways catalogue to the University. At that point, Folkways had released more than 2,100 albums over a 40 year period.
Ralph Epperson and Moe Asch were in some respects very different men. Born in Warsaw at the beginning of the 20th century, Asch spent most of his formative years in New York City. His father, Sholem, was a celebrated Jewish author and playwright, whose work was known in Europe and the United States. Ralph Epperson, as Broadcast chronicles, grew up in the hardscabble hill-country of south-western Virginia.
However, both Epperson and Asch shared a fascination with electronics and broadcasting. Both studied electronics after high school. For both, an interest in the technical aspects of the field developed into an appreciation of the communicative power of radio and recording. Folkways Records, Asch’s third attempt to establish a viable recording business, was founded in 1948, the same year that WPAQ went on the air. Like Epperson, Asch’s mission was to provide a voice for those musicians and others operating outside of the mainstream commercial realm. I would be very surprised if the record library at WPAQ did not contain a healthy number of Folkways recordings. As Folkways’ reputation grew, artists of all kinds found their way to Asch’s cramped office in Manhattan, just as many southern performers would find a welcoming musical home in the studios at WPAQ. Each man became inextricably associated with their chosen passion: Ralph Epperson was WPAQ, just as Moe Asch was Folkways.
Both Folkways and WPAQ live on. As Asch’s health began to deteriorate in the 1980s, he sought ways to continue the company. It is now owned by the Smithsonian, and operates under the name Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. SFR continues to issue new releases. And true to Asch’s mission, the catalogue in its entirety is available for purchase. As Broadcast notes, Epperson’s WPAQ has spawned dozens of other stations over the years. Moreover, it remains on the air, as important as ever to the people of Mt Airy and environs. And it now streams on the internet. In fact, as I complete this post, I am listening to WPAQ while scrolling through the online Smithsonian Folkways catalogue. Pure bliss.
Bruce Ziff Professor of Law, University of Alberta former Associate Director, FolkwaysAlive!
Special thanks to Bruce Ziff for sharing about Moses Asch and his work to record and preserve the music of world cultures through Folkways Records. We appreciate Bruce’s commitment to not only promoting but playing and teaching traditional string music. Our gratitude is extended to him and folkwaysAlive! for bringing Ralph Epperson’s story to our first international audience.
Special thanks to Mary Lee Epperson King for sharing these words about her mother, Lula Watson Epperson and her father, Harry Arnold Epperson, Sr. Mary Lee is pictured in her father’s arms beside her oldest brother Ralph along with three of her four other siblings.
We lived among our aunts and uncles on both sides of the family in Ararat, Virginia. All we knew while growing up on a farm was real hard back breaking work from about 4 a.m. to dark. Feeding mules, chickens, pigs; milking cows; cutting trees and clearing new ground; hoeing, chopping, topping corn and tobacco. On Sundays we looked forward to going to church and other gatherings for relaxation.
My parents were a good team. They encouraged us to be educated. They both were spiritual and believed the Lord would lead us. We prayed a lot and read the scriptures at every meal. We carried our Bibles with us to the fields. Prayer and hard work helped us to find our place in the world .
My mother wanted Ralph to be a preacher. Ralph said Ma I’m not called be a preacher but how would it do if I had preaching on the station. And she said that would do. That was probably the beginning of Christian broadcasting in our family. Ralph was the beginning. He was instrumental in getting a lot of people interested in radio. He was a good example for the rest of us.
Mary Lee, who worked at WPAQ in the early years, went on to teach in the Mount Airy City Schools for thirty five years. She continues to stay active through substitute teaching and volunteering.
A special thank you to Deborah Epperson Stringer for sharing these reflections about her father Ralph Epperson on the anniversary of his 94th birthday today.
A Tribute to my Daddy, Ralph Epperson, on his Birthday
So many wonderful images and memories come to my mind when I think about my Daddy, Ralph Epperson. He was the kindest, humblest, and most intelligent man that I have ever known. My brother, Kelly, and I were truly blessed with two of the best parents ever!
My Daddy was a huge influence in my life from the time that I was born. I guess you would say that I grew up at WPAQ Radio Station in Mount Airy. It was truly a family affair, with my Mama, and Daddy, and other family members playing an integral part of the daily operations of the Station.
I observed how much my Daddy loved what he did and his passion for all types of Music, especially the Bluegrass and Old Time String Music of the Region. Not only did he love Music, Electronics, and Radio Engineering, he also loved studying Astronomy, History, the Bible, and many other things. He emphasized the importance of learning and of getting a good education.
Because I admired my Daddy and what he was doing in both his business and personal life, I wanted to follow in his footsteps from a very young age. He allowed both my brother and myself to have part time jobs at WPAQ. He emphasized the importance of doing everything we could to help the Community that we served. My Daddy ingrained in me the importance of providing things to our listeners that the other Stations were not providing. He said, “If 12 Stations are all doing the same thing, why would we want to be Number 13 !!??” Many of the things that my Dad taught me about Radio and Broadcasting are still relevant and extremely helpful to this very day. My Daddy was a true Genius, and has to be the smartest man that I have every known!
One of the most important things that my Daddy did to help me to achieve my dreams in broadcasting, was to build my confidence level up. He did this by letting me know that he had confidence in my abilities and in what I was doing. He was my biggest cheerleader, cheering me on to success and victory! Daddy always encouraged me to follow my dreams. I always knew that I could come to him and discuss any problem or troublesome life event. He was there for me offering love, support, and his wise advice. He always reassured me that everything would be alright.
My Daddy had a gift for making people feel special. It didn’t matter whether or not it was a homeless person or the President of the United States, my Daddy was nice and kind to everyone. By their example, my Parents taught me that every human being is of value. I learned to respect everyone. My Daddy and Mama were both Christians, who not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. They lived good, clean, moral lives, and were a great example to us. The support and prayers of my Dad and my Mom gave me the courage to go through difficult things, and never give up. In fact, I NEVER STOP DREAMING, because, as we have seen, dreams really do come true!
Although my Daddy is not just a phone call away, like he used to be, his memory and influence live on in my brother and myself, and our children. And, his dream to promote and preserve the great Music of our Area and Region also lives on, as we strive to do the same at WPAQ 740 AM, where Kelly is General Manager, and WBRF 98.1 FM, where I am the General Manager!
A few days before Daddy went away to his Heavenly home to be with Jesus, my Daddy said some words to me that I will always remember and cherish…I had just hugged him and told him Good Bye. As I turned to walk away, my Daddy called to me and asked me to come back to where he was for a minute. I did come back and that is when he said to me, ” Dibber Dabber, don’t ever forget, that no matter what happens, Daddy loves you and you will always be my little girl”.
Deborah, who graduated from Wake Forest University cum laude with Honors in Speech Communications and Theatre Arts, specializing in Broadcasting, lives in Galax, Virginia, with her husband John Stringer where she is the General Manager of radio station WBRF 98.1 FM.
We are grateful to Paul Brown, former NPR News morning anchor and old-time musician, for sharing about his special bond with Ralph Epperson.
Through his example of running a station devoted to reflecting the community’s life back upon itself, Ralph helped me understand the positive power of media. WPAQ affirmed its community’s life, values, and art, and thereby strengthened the community it reflected. That understanding prompted me to continue with radio and guided my entire career. Also Ralph, simply through his example, was constantly asking the question of others, “What are you doing to help make our world better?” Through what he was doing, he reminded me every day of what I came to consider an obligation to try to improve the lives and potential of those around me. I’m sure I fall short as frequently as I succeed in that, but I suppose the effort counts for something at least.
Photo by Paul Friedman