Back in the mid-1970s, Judy Dorsey was losing interest in the mainstream music that blasted from her radio. “I loved rock-and-roll,” she says, “but I was tired of hearing the same old songs. And I was interested in other kinds of music. I’d go to the library and check out albums from the past, just learn about the artists on my own.”
So imagine her excitement when she read in the paper about a new, independent radio station run by volunteers. “I was amazed that Memphis would have such a thing,” she laughs. “It was just too cool, like something you’d hear about in San Francisco or Los Angeles.” She lived outside the station’s broadcast range and could only pick it up in Midtown, but once she heard it and then met others connected to the station, she knew she wanted to get involved.
That station was WEVL — WeVoLunteer, 89.9 FM — and since 1976 it’s held firm to its mission: To entertain and inform its audience through diverse musical programming with an emphasis on Memphis and Southern culture. WEVL has operated in various buildings through the past 35 years — and Dorsey has been involved for 33 of them, starting out as a volunteer. Since 1986 she’s been the station manager, one of only two full-time paid positions at WEVL. Working with program director Brian Craig out of the station office on South Main, the two ensure that some 60 different programs — from blues to bluegrass, Irish to Western swing, Hawaiian guitar to Cajun, to name just a few featured genres — reach listeners 24 hours a day. Within WEVL’s “protected” range — which means no other station can interfere with its airwaves — is Memphis, Bartlett, Southaven, Millington, and Germantown, but it’s also picked up in neighboring counties.
Among the most popular programs, created, produced, and supported by 100 volunteers, are the bluegrass show, Bluff City Barn Dance, hosted by The Ridge Runner, which airs Saturday mornings; and Singing Down in Dixie on Sunday mornings, hosted by Charlie May. “He’s a pharmacy professor at [the University of Tennessee Health Science Center] and an expert on compounding medicine,” says Dorsey. “But every Sunday morning he’s here, putting out that Southern gospel quartet program.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Hitchhiker’s Dance Guide airing on Saturday evenings. “It’s electronic dance music,” explains Craig, “like you’d hear in clubs. It started in 1989 and is considered the oldest, continuously running show of its type in the country, so we’re considered pioneers in that.”
WEVL’s longest-running show was Cap’n Pete’s Blues Cruise, which aired for 26 years until its creator, Dee Henderson, was murdered by his grandson in 2008. “He was really a legend and everyone still misses him,” says Dorsey. A program featuring “the best” of Cap’n Pete airs on Friday nights.
Having a program accepted by WEVL requires completing an online application and sending a music demo. Craig and Dorsey determine if the program meets the station’s expectations — “that is, if it’s something that deserves a place on the radio dial in Memphis but for some reason isn’t being covered on commercial radio,” says Craig. “One of our greatest contributions is giving a voice to people who would never have been heard on the radio because they’re not slick, they don’t have managers, they’re just ordinary people who love music.”
To keep the station running, WEVL depends on twice-a-year pledge drives, its annual Blues on the Bluff event, mailings, and online pleas.” We have a 90 percent pledge collection rate,” says Craig, “and that’s excellent.” Probably the biggest chunks of the station’s $210,000 budget are rental space for the radio tower and maintaining the transmitter. “It has tubes that cost in the hundreds of dollars,” says Dorsey. “If we have one go bad, that’s a huge expense.”
Over the years, WEVL has weathered change. “In the old days,” says Craig, “the volunteer programmers had to lug their records in boxes upstairs or even on reel-to-reel tape, a dinosaur now. And today even CDs are old-fashioned. Some people still do it the older ways, but the 2011 volunteer just plugs in his laptop to our board and the program comes off their computer.”
But one aspect of WEVL remains firm: “Our mission,” says Craig, who started volunteering in 1981 when he was 15. “As we say during our pledge drives, we continue to bring the widest variety of music to listeners. And that variety gets broader all the time.”