Hundreds of friends, family, musicians and lovers of old-time music turned out to the Earl Theater Saturday to honor the late Ralph Epperson, founder of WPAQ, and honor his life and legacy.
The event, held on what would have been Epperson’s 93 birthday, also featured the premier of “Broadcast — A Man and His Dream,” a documentary on his life and the vision he had of making old-time music available over the airways.
Fittingly, the opening frames of the documentary, which was often funny and had the audience laughing, featured the sounds of old-time music.
Unlike other documentaries that use stuffy musical experts and slick, but sanitized, narrators to tell their stories, the documentary relied exclusively on scores of interviews with real folks who will be readily familiar to most local residents.
They include family members of Epperson, who died in 2006; numerous musicians who played at WPAQ as part of its signature live performances, including some on hand when the station debuted in February 1948; former disc jockeys; listeners from the station’s early days; and even Epperson himself, who was interviewed by Director Jordan Nance six weeks before his death.
The event was a chance for old friends to meet on stage once more, according to Lefty Hall, 92, and one of the pioneers of the station’s list of famous and not-so-famous musicians.
“This was a wonderful chance to come back home and play with old friends,” he said, noting that he performed on WPAQ for nearly a decade “a long, long time ago.”
“(Epperson) was very important to me,” Hall added. “He gave me the chance to be heard.”
For Gladys Henson of Mount Airy, she wanted to watch the documentary to learn more about a friend.
“I just wanted to learn more about him,” she said. “I knew him for years through church, but then again I really didn’t know all that much about him and what a fascinating person he was.”
Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran said Epperson left an indelible mark on his community.
“He served the community by pledging to reflect the spiritual, cultural and musical values of the people in the community,” she said. “He is sorely missed, but his spirit lives on in the community, and through WPAQ his voice is still with us.”
Former station news director Paul Brown, who went on to serve as an anchor and reporter for National Public Radio, said his experience at the station shaped his career.
“Ralph’s vision of what radio can do for a community, how it can help and honor a community, was an inspriation to me and made a mark on me that shaped my life and career,” he said.
Prior to the screening, musicians filled the stage, performing old-time music to the enjoyment of the crowd.
And as always, WPAQ was broadcasting the area’s old-time music live, both over the air and online to the world.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.