PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — Time seems to slow -- and maybe drift backward a little — when you walk through the creaking, decades-old door of the Mini-Outlet store home of WUAT Radio. Joyce Bownds, the 78-year-old disc jockey and owner of 1110 AM in Pikeville, Tenn., describes what she sees and what listeners need to know from her storefront studio in a quiet, smalltown Main Street.
Billy goats for sale. Who got arrested and who died. And whatever is bothering Bownds today.
Though WUAT has worldwide reach thanks to the Internet, the twangy old speaker tacked to the outside wall of the Mini-Outlet can be readily heard by sidewalk passers-by. That's a good indication where most of WUAT's listeners are.
"It's a hometown station. We're not New York. We don't have to be slick," Bownds said. "People don't mind a Texas accent, don't mind it's homespun."
And homespun it is.
She stumbles through some material and delivers some perfectly, or almost. Sometimes there's dead air, and she occasionally forgets who she queued up as the next artist.
If she messes up, someone will call to tell her about it or tease her a bit. She laughs with them.
But there's something comforting about the unpolished delivery of all of WUAT's on-air voices. It's warm, friendly, homey, like an old, fading Polaroid photograph come to life.
Rising at 4 a.m. to work the 6 a.m.-to-noon shift, Bownds takes calls for birthday and anniversary announcements, plays old country, new country, bluegrass and gospel music, and delivers live, personal commercials for her advertisers.
As she leans in close to the microphone, hands can be seen waving from inside cars stopping at the corner of Main and Cumberland out front.
She might see them or not, depending on the demands of broadcasting from the 10-by-10 wooden platform her husband, Dr. Charles Bownds, and their son, Charlie, built for her back in 1995. That's when the couple acquired the station, the physician-turned-radio studio-builder said.
Joyce Bownds said she had them put the studio in the storefront so "people will know that there's a radio station here and that they can come in and tell me what's happening."
After 18 years, the little studio has grown only about five feet toward the rear of the store filled with antiques, collectibles, greeting cards and novelty items.
Bownds' equipment sits atop a countertop mounted to a collection of cabinets filled with old radio stuff and items to give away for contests. Her microphone is just a few feet from the plate-glass window that looks out onto the street across from the Bledsoe County Courthouse.
"When you hear the best, you know you're listening to WUAT in downtown Pikeville. This is the joyous voice of Joyce," Bownds says into the mike, a playful gleam in her blue eyes.
"That's debatable," she laughs slyly as she clicks off the mike.
The early years held many lessons, she said.
Bownds would report on the arrivals of courthouse workers in the mornings -- noting when they were on time or running late -- until they started parking around back to avoid notice, she said, laughing.
She once forgot to turn off her mike when she made a comment about a local person that "wasn't exactly complimentary," and she sat waiting for the phone call and anticipated chewing-out.
She never got the call, but "oh, they heard it. They just didn't comment on it."
That lesson is recalled in the adage, "'If you don't have anything nice to say, keep your mouth shut,'" she said.
WUAT broadcasts across most of the picturesque Sequatchie Valley around Pikeville, and reaches up the mountains on each side but not much farther. The signal is streamed live over the Internet, too, giving the tiny station a worldwide audience for people who can find it.
Bownds corresponded once with a listener she was shocked to find out was in Australia.
"Just think of us as a great, big Texas," the listener told her of his love for country music and WUAT.
The station's morning lineup, beginning at the top of the hour, starts with local news by long-timer Mel Matthews, who leads off with "booking sheets" from the Bledsoe County Jail, and a rundown on the court schedule for the day. He wraps up with a weather forecast aimed at Pikeville, Fall Creek Falls and Dayton Mountain.
Segments for birthdays, anniversaries and obituaries -- the necessary news for the community -- are followed by the Trading Post show.
Billy goats are for sale, someone wants a "friendly cat," one has free bobtail kittens, and another wants to sell a Rototiller. There's a free male "wiener" dog, and one local resident has a custom-made dog house billed as the "former home of a golden retriever." Another has 50- to 60-pound pigs for sale.
On Thursday, Bownds could be heard shuffling papers, clicking buttons and opening compact disc cases as she eased her listeners into the sunrise with Eddy Arnold's "Bouquet of Roses," followed by Johnny Cash's crooning bass on "I Saw a Man."
She breaks in to add some late additions to the list for the Trading Post, speaking as if her listeners are sitting with her in the Mini-Outlet storefront while she complains about her equipment and notes when "something in the air" is bothering her.
The Houston, Texas, couple landed in Pikeville around 1980 when Dr. Bownds was looking for a place to practice. He had set his sights on Nashville, but this small town's charm drew them in, they said, and Dr. Bownds treated patients at the Pikeville Clinic across the street until a few years ago.
Now in retirement, Dr. Bownds often can be found sitting at a table in the back of the Mini-Outlet eating breakfast, a sandwich or a whole pizza. He occasionally doles out information to visiting tourists headed for the scenic surrounding area.
But WUAT is all about Pikeville and its people.
"A lot of my listeners are older. Radio is important to people who have vision problems," Joyce Bownds said. "It helps them keep up with what's happening."
Bownds understands since she struggles with macular degeneration and has a number of pieces of equipment to help her read advertising lists, song titles and the like. She appears to do a lot of what's needed without looking.
Outside, lifelong local resident Kim Gibson and 5-year-old Rayline Tabor walk past on the sidewalk on Main Street.
"I listen to old country and stuff, and they play a lot of that," Gibson said after peeking in the storefront. Gibson said the station is a family favorite because of the music lineup and morning news.
Bownds says she is probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest, radio DJ around who's still pulling a six-hour daily shift.
She's sticking around because she doesn't want the station to change its purpose. An honest, hometown tone "gives me a little creative edge," she said.
Daily listener Greg Anderson, general manager of Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative two blocks away, says Bownds feels responsible for keeping Pikeville informed.
"I think she does what she does out of a sense of service to the community," Anderson said. "We'd really miss her if it was gone."
Bownds, characteristically, minimizes her role.
"I'm better than nothing," she said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
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