Apples and peaches may have secured Crozet’s place on the map, but it took the efforts of gentleman George Cory from the Old Dominion’s Tidewater region to put the village on the air.
In 1946, Crozet’s new Hilltop Street development dead-ended at a wooden farm gate. Beyond that gate was a 12-acre hayfield where the Lamb brothers of old Hilltop days once sent aloft box kites on southern breezes. In the 1960s, this writer took early morning shortcuts across that field before school to feed his father’s livestock pastured on the former Emmett Gentry farm located behind Morton Frozen Foods. On snowy winter evenings, the neighborhood gang would trek through the field to Gentry’s to build a warming bonfire and sled down that farm’s steepest hill.
George G. Cory, in November 1967, applied to the FCC for a permit to operate a “daytime-only commercial radio station [transmitting 250 watts] to be located at Crozet, Virginia.” The Commission’s approval to build the station arrived by telegram in October ’68. The 12-acre hayfield at the foot of Hilltop Street was purchased, and a solid concrete foundation was set into its southwest corner. Across the field, plans were drawn for the erection of an FCC-approved 225-foot steel antenna complete with a blinking red beacon on top and the tower’s wide array of anchoring guy-wires.
The wheels of guv’mint offices can turn excruciatingly slow. With occasional pieces of red tape thrown in to further gum up the works, it wasn’t until the spring of 1970 that country music began to fill the local airwaves. A newspaper ad the week prior announced, “Coming March 16th, The Piedmont ‘Country’ Sound, Modern Country Music, 810 On Your Radio Dial, Serving the Solid Central Virginia Area, WPED Radio, Crozet, Virginia.”
The town soon realized that there was much more to being a radio host than just playing one’s favorite tunes over the radio. Crozet was awash in the benefits of this far-reaching business that was an ornament and promoter of the town. WPED announcers were local celebrities, whether spinning listeners’ favorite songs on the air or appearing at numerous local functions off the air. Their news spots promoted local fundraisers and special events. They served as Master of Ceremony for beauty pageants and business celebrations, rode atop their own festive float in parades, did remote broadcasts on-site at the Crozet Fire Department’s Fourth of July carnival, as well as from car lots and sidewalk bake sales.
The station sponsored a number of country music shows at Crozet Park, featuring reigning and rising stars—including one of the infamous no-shows by singer George Jones. WPED announcers emceed a bluegrass and country music festival as part of Nelson County Day. Other recording artists slipped quietly into town to do in-person interviews in the studio at the end of Hilltop Street.
The John Philip Sousa Award was established by the station to honor a deserving member of the Joseph T. Henley Jr. Junior High School Band. Staff from the station presented this award in person during the band’s final concert performance of the school year. The station broadcast programs produced by students from Crozet Elementary School and Henley Junior High School. Regular Sunday morning church services were rebroadcast for those unable to attend church in person.
WPED received public accolades for being on-air during the “terrifying conditions” spawned by Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. At least one local traveler who was attempting to navigate dangerous road conditions between her job in Staunton and her home in Crozet thanked the station’s employees, numbered them among her “guardian angels,” and stated that, without their radio presence and guidance across the mountain, “I would have been much more tense and fearful during this most trying period.”
Their door was open to the public during regular business hours. During the station’s early years, one would have been welcomed inside by Crozet resident and Business Manager Dianne Van Fossen. Visitors might have seen Hilltop Street resident and mother of two Joanne Spencer James recording advertisements. Inside the actual broadcast studio were the aforementioned celebrities, known to the public mainly by their on-air personae including Bobby Jo, Denny Dee, Pappy Joachim, Square Bear, Big John, and a host of others equally revered. “I used to like watching the announcers stroll outside,” recalled Mrs. Van Fossen, “look at the sky, go in the studio, put on their radio voice and give you the weather.”
Station owner George Cory and his wife Myra made their home in Crozet, and were familiar figures in the community and within their local church. In late 1974, he sold the station to W. Edward McClenahan, president and general manager of McClenahan Broadcasting Corporation. Cory’s voluntary assignment of his FCC license was finalized two days before Christmas.
Five years nearly to the day after Cory’s WPED went on the air, McClenahan Broadcasting, in March 1975, applied to the FCC for a construction permit “to increase daytime power from 250 watts to 500 watts.” That request was granted in September, thus paving the way for WPED AM 810’s reach into even more homes, businesses and automobile radios.
In December 1978, McClenahan filed with the FCC for a construction permit to operate a 3000-watts [FM] Radio Station with a frequency of 102.3 MHz, its “transmitter to be located on Little Yellow Mountain, 2 miles W.N.W. of Crozet, VA.” WCMZ-FM served as a sister station with WPED-AM, operating from the WPED studios on Hilltop Street.
WCMZ-FM 102.3 went on the air in September 1980, with simultaneous programming over WPED-AM. This allowed western Albemarle County its first dependable local FM nighttime (until 1 a.m.) radio service. It also enabled live broadcasts of Western Albemarle High School basketball and football games.
McClenahan Broadcasting sold its “country twins” radio stations WPED & WCMZ in October 1981, to John Elting of Elting Enterprises. Inc. This and subsequent sales and mergers eventually led to the closing of Crozet’s beloved Hilltop Street studios and the end of a warm romance between yet another small-town radio station and its loyal neighborhood of listeners.
A number of those fans gathered online to reminisce about the WPED-days in old Crozet: “Gosh, the memories of our little town, now all grown up… A lot of fond memories at that little station… Mr. and Mrs. Cory were great folks… My dad loved WPED… It was so neat to just walk in and watch them on-air and go back home and hear the station playing when I went through the door… The old jingle, ‘Get going with the Piedmont Country Sound! W-P-E-D, at eight one oh!’”
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