Kelly Epperson is a man who understands his calling in life, who knows his place and is comfortable there.
Epperson, the father of three children and husband to Jennifer Epperson, is owner of radio station WPAQ. He and his family also own and manage Mount Airy’s WSYD and the company which operates WBRF in Galax, Va.
To understand Epperson, though, one has to get a feel for WPAQ and its place in history, and how four generations of the Epperson family have been caretakers, not only of the station but what it represents in the community.
Many people in this area know the story of WPAQ. It was founded by Ralph Epperson, Kelly Epperson’s father. It began broadcasting on Feb. 2, 1948, and the first sound local listeners heard from the station was a tune played on the fiddle by a young Benton Flippen — who was on his way to becoming one of the giants of old-time mountain music.
That part of the story of WPAQ and the Epperson family is not unusual — small, locally owned radio stations were popping up all across America during the post-World War II years.
What makes WPAQ, and the Epperson family, different is what happened in the decades afterward.
Ralph Epperson had an engineering degree, and worked for a number of years at the Naval Research Center in Washington, D.C. Upon returning to Mount Airy, he applied to the FCC for a license to operate a radio station.
The endeavor was certainly business-oriented from the beginning, with Epperson seeking sponsors and advertisers to pay the station’s bills and support himself and later his family. But to know the Epperson family is to understand Ralph Epperson’s motives were more than financial.
“He just thought the music was so special,” Kelly Epperson said of his dad’s affinity for old-time music. “He thought there just had to be a way to make it available to more people.”
So Ralph Epperson and his father, Harry, went to work, building the station from the ground up.
Harry, Kelly’s grandfather, was like many men of that era — self-sufficient, a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Kelly said his grandfather was a farmer in Ararat, Va., who had a variety of skills he used to support his family and make a living in the community. Of particular note was his ability as a wood crafter.
“He made all the coffins used in Ararat,” Kelly said as he recalled a bit of family history that brought a smile to his face. “He made them at his home, he would keep them in one room in the house,” and Kelly’s aunt, he recalled, would never go into that room because of the coffins.
The two Eppersons, father and son, along with some help from others in the community, constructed the building that houses the station, grooving the paneled walls, building the soundproof doors that still give entry and exit to the studios there.
Once the station was up and running, Ralph Epperson lived and breathed WPAQ, working on the air, selling ads, finding local talent to play live, doing repairs around the building, even sleeping on a cot at the station at times before his marriage to Earlene.
Kelly, now 51, said during his growing up years WPAQ was simply part of the family.
“Some of my fondest memories were when my daddy would bring me up to the station every night just to check on everything,” he said. “I would go sit at the control room board, play records, pretend I was a DJ. There was no doubt, I was going to be in radio.”
Even before he finished high school Kelly said he worked at the station. “I was so young I had to go get a worker’s permit. After school, a couple of hours each day, and longer on weekends, I would work here. I wanted to follow in my daddy’s footsteps.”
Those have proven to be big footsteps to fill. The elder Epperson believed it important to share his Christian faith, and he did so in part by ensuring a couple of hours of religious-oriented programming each day — including a free 15-minute block every day given to the local ministerial association — something generations of listeners have expressed their appreciation for.
He thought it important to offer alternative, relaxing programming to local families as each day wound into evening, thus the daily Sundown Serenade program featuring big band era performers.
But at the center of his life’s work was preserving and promoting that music he fell in love with early on in his life, old-time and bluegrass music. Tim Frye, a long-time DJ at the station who has been nominated five consecutive years for the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music’s DJ of the Year award, said folks in Nashville — big-name country and bluegrass stars and promoters — have often told him bluegrass music may have died without Epperson’s unwavering support.
Particularly critical was his refusal to change formats as rock music was born and began to dominate American airwaves. That, combined with growing popularity of modern country music, nearly ended the mountain music and bluegrass industry.
Except in Mount Airy, where WPAQ kept it alive and gradually moved, in public perception, from relic that refused to change to trendsetter others wanted to follow.
Filling Ralph Epperson’s footsteps also has meant often being known not as Kelly Epperson, but simply as “Ralph’s boy.”
“Aren’t you Ralph’s son?” Kelly quoted with a smile while talking about the station recently. “Wasn’t Ralph your father? I hear that a lot, and that’s fine. That’s the way it should be.”
And it is in that statement, perhaps, that Kelly Epperson best gives voice to his understanding of what he does today. During a recent conversation he used the term “caretaker” to describe his role at WPAQ, the word “trust” to define the relationship between the radio station and the community.
The Round Peak style of old-time music has been around for a century or so now, bluegrass and similar music has been echoing in the hollows and mountains of the Blue Ridge region for close to three centuries, since European settlers first claimed the land and began to build their own national and cultural identity.
That music has evolved over the years, the skills needed to perfect it sometimes passed from father to son, mother to daughter.
Ralph Epperson found something in the music that called to him, and while he was never able to perfect the playing of the music, he discovered his way to share was through radio. He and his father built the station, he managed it and taught his son how to continue that work, and now Kelly holds that trust for the next generation of listeners.
And for the next generations of Eppersons.
His son, Hal, has a broadcasting degree from Liberty University and works at the family’s station WBRF in Galax, Va., where Kelly’s sister, Debby Epperson Stringer, manages the station.
“He’s been right by my side, coming to the station, just like I did with my dad,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t sure if Hal was going to go into radio, but he has. He thought a lot of his granddaddy … I think he just wants to do things he thinks would please his granddaddy.”
His oldest daughter, Jill, is a student at N.C. State, pursuing a career in medicine, and his youngest, 6-year-old Abby, is still a little young to make career choices. But, Kelly said, she enjoys the radio station.
“She led her kindergarten class on a tour the other day, she claims that is her desk,” he said, pointing to a desk in the corner of the station lobby. “She talks about her grandfather all the time, even though she never knew him.”
Times haven’t always been easy at WPAQ.
Kelly Epperson said there was a period, shortly after his father’s death in 2006, that rumors of format changes began circulating around town.
“That didn’t happen,” he said. “That’ll never happen as long as an Epperson is running the station.”
One change he did make, in a nod to the changing times, was the initiation of live streaming the station’s programming at wpaq740.com, which started on April 5, 2007. Even that action was rife with connections to the station’s past. That date would have been Ralph Epperson’s 86th birthday, and the first music the world heard streamed onto the World Wide Web? A live performance of then-elder statesman of the musical world, Benton Flippen.
Flippen died in 2011, as have many of those who built bluegrass and mountain music. But their work, the musical pulse of a time long gone continues on, in large part because of WPAQ.
And Kelly is just fine keeping that tradition alive.