Later this month, WLIL-AM will celebrate 64 years on air, welcomed into homes across the region with classic country music, the Marshal Andy Show and other talk shows and the ever-popular Trading Post segment, which is East Tennessee’s longest-running radio feature, according to station officials.
From 9-10:30 a.m. each weekday, callers from across the region are live on the Trading Post, telling other listeners about items they have for sale or trade, asking for items or announcing upcoming community events, such as yard sales or church functions.
Even though WLIL is an AM station, general manager Glenn McNish said it consistently ranks in the top five most-listened stations in Loudon, Blount, Monroe, Roane and Anderson counties.
What seems to be their secret to longevity? Consistency, McNish said.
“People know what to expect when they turn it on,” he said. “You either like classic country music or you don’t.”
McNish is a familiar voice in local sports, as he can be heard announcing play-by-play for games at Lenoir City High School. He gives the station the longest running play-by-play sportscast in the history of the state with one person announcing for the same team on the same station for 48 consecutive years.
Program director Cindy Joe Brown, a newcomer, said the station is not only a Lenoir City mainstay but an East Tennessee tradition.
“Covering the football games and stuff, I guess that makes us home for Lenoir City and Loudon County, but we’ve got too many listeners in other places to forget them,” Brown said. “It amazes me every day how far our signal gets and who listens to us. You’d be surprised.”
In 1950, WLIL was established by Lenoir City businessman Arthur Wilkerson, who had numerous businesses in Lenoir City, owned five radio stations across the state and even ran a casino in the basement of one of his restaurants near the high school.
McNish said Wilkerson started the local station after seeing another in Louisville, Ky., while he was in town for construction work.
“He said from his hotel window he could look straight across the street into the studio of a radio station, and then everything was done live,” McNish said as an upbeat oldie blared from the speakers in the quaint station building. “They invited people to come in and sit in the audience and watch them do the live shows on the radio. I’m not talking about music shows. I’m talking about like drama shows and plays.”
The Trading Post, which consistently ranks as the No. 1 show in about four counties during its time slot, has been a daily WLIL tradition from the beginning. Brown, who will be with the station one year in June, said she enjoys interacting with callers.
“See, I like junk and when they call in with their junk, I want to hear what kind of junk they’ve got,” Brown said, adding that listeners also regularly give advice on home remedies.
“On that show you will have people sell anything from $2 chickens to $150,000 motor homes and boats. I mean they call in everything. You’ll have people call in that sound like they’re right out on the farm,” McNish said.
“You can hear the chickens in background,” Brown interjected.
“Crowing, trying to catch their chickens, and then you’ll have other people who call in who sound real dignified,” McNish said.
“It doesn’t matter what class they’re from that listens to that show. I don’t think anyone buys new lawn mowers anymore as many as we’ve had on the show,” Brown said with a laugh.
While the station has fielded some unique calls, one in particular stuck out in Brown’s mind.
“He called in and he said, ‘I’m looking for a stripper.’ And I thought, ‘Does he know where he called?’” Brown said, adding that the station does not screen calls before guests go on air. “He goes, ‘I have an old rocking chair that I’m trying to refinish, and I need to see if anybody has any stripper left over.’ And I thought, ‘Geez, these people.’”
McNish recalled a time when a woman advertised her chickens.
“A little old lady, she said, ‘I’ve got 12 chickens out here running around in the yard’,” McNish said, imitating the woman. “They got loose. If you can catch them I’ll sell them for $2 apiece, but there could be only 11 chickens because I think one of them might be a duck. I just don’t see too good anymore.
“You can’t help but laugh,” McNish added with an open smile.
WLIL is reportedly the oldest station that is part of the Vol Network, broadcasting Tennessee football and basketball games since its beginning, and is the Knoxville metro market voice of the Atlanta Braves. This is the station’s 29th year broadcasting Braves baseball.
McNish, who began his broadcasting career at age 14, has been with the station for 49 years. McNish has a long family history of music appreciation. His father crafted instruments for music legends like Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell, and his brother played with Merle Haggard.
“You are a lot more interesting than I thought you were,” Brown said with a laugh.
“Everybody in my family played musical instruments except for me, so I played the radio,” McNish said. He has been inducted into National Football Foundation Hall of Fame, Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame and Lenoir City Sports Hall of Fame.
Though the station broadcasts syndicated programming, “Knoxville’s Cowboy” Marshal Andy recently began a radio show on WLIL with McNish at 10:30 a.m. Fridays, and the show replays at noon Saturdays. Andy is featured in the East Tennessee Public Broadcasting Service 30-year staple “Riders of the Silver Screen” each Saturday morning on PBS.
The station plays classic country music from 1944 to about 2000, which McNish also attributes to maintaining his loyal audience.
“The other day I had a truck driver who called and he said, ‘I travel all over the United States and I have satellite radio and I listen to the classic country channels.’ And he said, ‘They don’t have none of the stuff you guys have got’,” McNish said, adding that the Marshal Andy Show will feature Freida Parton, Dolly Parton’s sister, as a guest in the coming weeks.
The station is also unique in that it’s a Clear Channel Communications station and as such, only 14 channels are allowed to operate on the 730-AM frequency.
“There is nothing else on that frequency which means you can just hear it as far as it will go until the signal just falls out which is usually ... 75 radius miles in all directions,” McNish said.
The station streams online at http://wlilcountry.com/.