When the late Don Crosthwaite bought a license for an FM radio station 50 years ago, AM stations were the prominent mode of audio communication.
“They got the license because they thought it may eventually take off, but just to keep it going they put music on it with no commercials and they played it in businesses just for background until it kind of picked up, took off and they started doing something with it,” said Kevin Day, general manager of WTCW and WXKQ The Bulldog. “No one thought it would last, but they kept the license just in case.”
Crosthwaite chose the call letters WXKQ because he liked the way the combination of letters sounded.
“There is no meaning to them whatsoever,” said Day. “He just picked some letters out and they were available.”
After a few years of playing elevator music, FM radio began to evolve in the 1960s.
“It went away from the radio theater type things and went to more of a music style with the disc jockeys,” said Day. “(Crosthwaite) brought in guys from Lexington, Louisville, bigger markets to come to Whitesburg to be on the radio. It really took off at that point.”
One of the most popular morning show announcers was Jimmy Branham of Middlesboro who worked for Crosthwaite in the 1960s.
“He had a rooster (sound effect) that crowed when he came on that people still talk about to this day,” said Day. “He used it quite a bit in his morning show. He was a real personable guy. People seem to remember him quite a bit.”
Day said WXKQ became a radio station where people wanted to work and one that other stations wanted to be like.
“Don had a special touch,” he said. “Don was a people person. He believed in causes. He wasn’t about the dollar or making money. It was about serving the community.”
Joe Walters, former owner of Superior Food Market in Whitesburg, said Crosthwaite was an active member of the Whitesburg Rotary Club and was a part of several fundraisers for different organizations.
“He was community minded,” said Walters. “He was always eager to help the community.”
Crosthwaite talked Walters into doing voiceovers for his grocery store commercials.
“That way people would identify my voice with the store,” said Walters. “Turned out what he told me was right.”
Once a week for many years Walters would go to the station at Mayking and record a new commercial advertising sale items.
“He (Crosthwaite) was a stickler for wanting things to go right,” he said. “He was very methodical about the schedules. I think that is why it did as well as it did.”
Walters said Crosthwaite was visible and did a lot of live remotes throughout the county.
“The community felt like it was their station,” said Walters. “The community felt like they were a part of it.”
Don Crosthwaite came to Letcher County from Paducah a few years after his brother Ken Crosthwaite and two other investors, Trivette and Webb, started WTCW, which signed on Feb. 23, 1953.
“WTCW was one of the first AM stations in the mountains and brought excitement to the community,” said Day.
Grand Ole Opry stars Hank Snow and Ernest Tubb became part owners of WTCW.
“Via that pipeline from Nashville, many country music stars were brought to Whitesburg to perform,” said Day.
Ken Crosthwaite convinced Don Crosthwaite, who was a gospel singer under the name Don Cross, to become the sales manager for WTCW.
Ken Crosthwaite, Snow and Tubb quickly lost interest in the radio business and sold the station to Don Crosthwaite for a small amount of money.
“I always heard it was a dollar,” said Day. “They sold the station to Don probably in ‘55 or ‘56. Don was there and he wanted the station.”
Don Crosthwaite was the owner and operator of WTCW/WXKQ for about 30 years.
“Under his leadership it became a well respected, well known radio station not only in eastern Kentucky, but across the region,” said Day. “He was one of the first to do local news and swap shop type shows. ‘Swap Shop’ for many years was just a 15-minute segment where people would write in to buy, sell swap or trade.” During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s people could call in and talk about what they had to sell live on the radio.
“It gave it to the people because they got to hear their friends and neighbors on the air and it gave them a chance to be on the radio,” said Day. “You get the flavor of the various individuals in your community. It made it more fun.”
Day said swap shop programs are becoming rare today.
“Because of Facebook, other social media sites, Craigslist and all of that, it is not as common or as popular as it once was,” he said. “We still average about 35 to 40 calls a day and probably that many or more mailbag items from the website.”
“Letters to Santa” is another program that Don Crosthwaite started on WTCW that is now aired on WXKQ.
Starting each year after Thanksgiving children write letters telling Santa Claus what they want for Christmas and year after year Santa’s helpers, who are radio station employees and members of the community, read these letters live on the radio each afternoon. It has become a longtime Christmas tradition.
Instead of elves, brownies sing Christmas songs during the program.
“I don’t know how that came about,” said Day. “Don Crosthwaite was an imaginative man. Elves belong to Santa Claus so he wanted his own version. It may have some significance in that.”
The Scotia mine disaster of 1976 occurred during Crosthwaite’s tenure at the radio station.
“The CBS Radio network came into TCW and set up their network operations for that disaster at the radio station,” said Day. “Some of the well known radio newsmen of that time were here in Whitesburg covering that event. The station was kind of the flagship of the network coverage of the Scotia mine disaster. That kind of put it on the national scene.”
Don Crosthwaite sold WXKQ and WTCW in 1985 to Terry Forcht, owner of Forcht Broadcasting. Crosthwaite moved back to Paducah.
Gregg Yaden was the general manager from 1972 until 2000.
“He was on the air for a long time,” said Day. “He was a big part of the station’s growth.”
In the early 1990s, WXKQ played light rock and Yaden decided to switch to country music. He came up with the slogan “backto back country favorites” and used the bulldog emblem from Mack trucks to go along with it. The “Back to Back Mack” mascot attended live remotes.
In 1986, Day and his best friend, the late Mark Cooper, started doing an afternoon shift at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, the not-for-profit station which mostly uses community volunteers for its announcers. Yaden called Jim Webb, then WMMT’s program director, and asked if the station had anyone that would be a promising part-time employee. Webb recommended Day, who was hired by Yaden as a senior in high school on January 15, 1988.
“I did a live shift on the AM until signoff, which was at dark back then,” said Day. “Then I would just babysit the equipment until we signed off at 1 a.m. And I would sign it off at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. I did that for about a year and then I would do fill-ins if they needed somebody to run UK games or high school games.”
When a full-time position came open, Day took it and began working the evening shift.
“Through the process of people leaving and jobs coming open and changes being made, I worked my way into the morning show,” said Day.
Yaden left WXKQ/WTCW in 2000. Day became general manager in 2002.
“I started part time and I have worked every shift that there is,” he said.
Early in Day’s radio career, the original WTCW building at Mayking burned down.
“Actually I was still taking some college classes at Southeast and was in class when it happened,” said Day. “I came out of the college and the radio was off. It was kind of odd, but that stuff happens. So I went on home because I wasn’t primarily responsible for that at that time. (I) got home and someone called me and said the station was a total loss.”
Part of a pop machine, a metal stool, a safe and the shell of a large automation system that took up a room were all that was found after the fire.
“There was an oil bulk plant next door and a guy was putting oil or taking oil out of the ground and a spark happened and caught his truck on fire and it ran the line to the truck,” said Day. “The truck blew up. He ran and hollered at everyone at the radio station to get out. He ran, got away in time but the back end of the truck blew off. They found the back end of it where Sears is now. It traveled that far.”
Miraculously, nobody was hurt.
“It was in December, but it was a warmer evening and they had the front door open at the radio station,” said Day. “Just had one girl there. When he ran by he hollered at her to get out, so they took off together and they got away in time and nobody got hurt.”
Day said the fire jumped the fence and destroyed the station building.
“Several of the area broadcasters heard about our situation and gave us some of their extra equipment and we were back on the air,” said Day. “The towers weren’t affected. We were back on the air with the FM in about a week from a rented trailer where Mountain Instant Care is now at Pine Mountain Junction.”
The AM side didn’t come on until the station relocated to Thornton in 1993 and a tower was put behind the building.
One of the things viewers missed after the fire was the “Swap Shop” jingle, which Crosthwaite had purchased years before.
About a year after the fire, Day found a cassette tape on which he had recorded some of his live broadcasts, which included the original Swap Shop jingle. Listeners were thrilled to have the jingle back on the air, Day said.
Three full-time employees now work at the station’s Thornton offices — Day, Bob Adams and Lisa Elkins.
Day remembers when 12 employees were on staff in 1988 including a full-time news and sports person, part-time employees, full-time employees, salespeople, a secretary and a general manager.
“Radio has changed because at one time radio was it,” said Day. “Then TV came along and even then people still depended on radio for information and entertainment. Somewhere along the way, along with technology, it split. You have so many options now with Internet, Pandora, Spotify and then the AM and FM bands of radio. It just changed.”
Day says people in small areas such as Letcher County still depend on radio stations to provide local information.
“Our stations are not just jukeboxes or nationally programmed stations,” he said. “We serve our communities. We’ve always taken pride in that — hometown, live and local.”
Day says listenership increases at times when people are trying to find out if school is closed on snow days.
“We try to do road reports and all of the information needed to have a safer commuter,” said Day. “They rely on that and people tell me that. I know the listenership goes up.”
Radio personnel must remem- ber to get a password from those who inform the station that school has been canceled.
“I remember one time in 1990/91 we still had our fulltime news guy. It was about 5 till 7 and one of those mornings where they didn’t know if they were going to have it or not,” said Day. “He took the call in the other room and he was coming in to do his newscast at the top of the hour. He passed off to me that school had been canceled.”
The newsman didn’t ask the caller for the password and Day assumed he had.
“I went on the air with it,” said Day. “They had not called school off. It was still on. And the buses were on the roads at that point and it was a mass chaos. As much as we apologized after we found out it was still out there, one time you say it, it is out there.”
Day and his staff carry on Crosthwaite’s tradition by working hand in hand with a community groups and civic organizations to promote their causes by hosting radio auctions and radio-thons.
“In a small town we all benefit from helping each other,” he said. “If there is a worthwhile cause such as the band trip or something that comes to our attention, we try to jump in and help out.”
Day described the station as a connector of the community.
“We play the middle man role as to making sure the public knows what is going on with organizations, businesses and things in our community that they need to be aware of or take part in or attend,” said Day. “Even to this day, even with a staff of three, we do as much live and local programming as we possibly can because it is vital to our existence, especially local sports and our live morning show.”
Day wakes up each weekday morning at 2:35 a.m. and is at the station by 4:15 a.m. After he gathers morning news information, he is on air from 6 to 10 a.m. Then he concentrates on sales, management and programming for the remainder of his 13-hour shift. If he covers a sporting event, the workday is longer.
Day began calling high school sports in 1989 until Bo Daniels covered sports for about five years. Day then started doing play-byplay announcing again. His father-in-law, Larry Hatton, has served as the color commentator for football and basketball games for 11 years.
And with live radio, unpredictable moments are inevitably going to happen.
During Day’s tenure, he said one of the strangest experiences during “Swap Shop” was when a man poisoned meat at Superior Food Market and then called the “Swap Shop” confessing to the crime.
“The day after the story broke that there was poisoned meat at the supermarket, this guy calls the ‘Swap Shop’ and says ‘I poisoned the meat yesterday and I’m going to poison it again today’ and he hung up,” said Day. “We just happened to be recording that and we gave that tape to the police. They were able to recognize the voice from the phone call. I don’t know if that is exactly what led to charges but that gave them a lead to who was involved.”
Day said over the years he has had many prank calls to “Swap Shop,” usually people put items up for sale and giving someone else’s phone number.
“These guys who work on a strip job will say they have four goats to give away or something that is expensive to give away and give their buddy’s cell phone number so he is aggravated all day with these phone calls,” he said. “But you don’t know. They call in with something and they sound serious. They go to great lengths to do this.”
A few months ago Day was tricked by national radio personality Howard Stern.
“I do not like him and I never will,” said Day.
Sal Governale, a writer for the Howard Stern Show, calls different swap shops across the country to try to get a reaction from the announcers.
“They record it, put it together, go on the show with Howard and they all sit and heehaw about it and make fun of everybody,” said Day.
Governale and a fellow worker from Stern’s show called the “Swap Shop” and said they had an electric train set for sale.
“( One of them) said ‘Uncle Sal, you want to give them a demonstration of it’ and in the background he went ‘woo woo, woo woo,’” said Day. “Then they kept calling back and they would say it over and over, that woo woo sound. I kind of took it in stride.”
Day said it was edited to sound worse than it really was.
“They put their own spin on it,” he said. “I had a feeling that I had been had when it was over and done, but I didn’t know that it was Howard Stern. It was crazy.”
Day is one of seven finalists nominated for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) Radio Ink Radio Wayne Awards for General Manager of the Year.
“It’s a very prestigious award,” said Day. “It means a lot that my peers and company nominated me.”
A write-up about Day and the radio stations recently appeared in Radio Ink magazine.
“That wouldn’t be possible without the community and the wonderful listeners because they get all of the credit,” said Day.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of WTCW and the 50th anniversary of WXKQ, a birthday bash will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 2, at River Park in Whitesburg.
Former disc jockeys and employees of the radio station are planning to be at the event, which will include live music, games, inflatables and a corn hole tournament. Mountain Shrine Club will cook and sell food.
“We’re going to have several things to give away,” said Day. “The big giveaway is a trip to Las Vegas. We’re going to be unveiling some new T-shirts that we are going to be giving away.”
Registration for the trip give-away will take place at the event. Opening ceremonies will begin at 4 p.m. near the stage area.
“It’s something for us to celebrate with the community,” said Day. “We want them to be there to show us what this radio station means to them. Without them, we wouldn’t exist.”