WHOP Radio celebrated its 80th anniversary on air Wednesday, complete with an open house and a special anniversary broadcast of the "Early Bird Show" by soon-to-retire general manager Mike Chadwell and program manager Jeff Sisk.
Local officials and listeners stopped by the studio on Dink Embry Buttermilk Hill Road to say hey to their favorite broadcasters and to enjoy a slice of commemorative cake.
Chadwell, who has worked at the station for 43 years, shared audio throughout the morning from past broadcasts that included some popular voices of WHOP's past — Hal King, Jim Love, Dink Embry and the New Era's beloved journalist Mary D. Ferguson, who started her career at WHOP in 1958.
"Most people think of Mary D. as Kentucky New Era — as she was for decades writing columns and news there — but she was the news director at WHOP in the 1950s," he said. "I guarantee there weren't many women news directors in the world in the 1950s."
Eighteen years before Mary D. arrived, WHOP made its first broadcast shortly after 5:45 p.m. Jan. 8, 1940. The station was originally owned by the Lackey family — one brother, Dutch Lackey, later went on to be mayor.
The station became a CBS Radio News affiliate in 1943 and has been called on for reports whenever major news happens at Fort Campbell. Chadwell said he vividly remembers coming into work the morning of Dec. 12, 1985.
"I really didn't know what was going on that morning, although I could tell that Jim Love was flustered," Chadwell recalled. "He was trying to get information and work the Early Bird Show at the same time. ... That (Gander crash) was really horrific for this community, Clarksville and Fort Campbell."
Wednesday, Chadwell played a clip from the report Love did for CBS about the crash: after he reported the news, Love shared that 248 Maple trees were delivered to a makeshift memorial from the people of Gander, Newfoundland. TAPS played softly in the background as he signed off.
"Very few people could do a story like Jim Love could, and that one was just a great example," Chadwell said.
Sisk, who has worked at WHOP for 37 years, recalled some of his fondest memories at the station.
"I started out running boards for games," Sisk said. "I've worked evenings, middays and mornings — I've pretty much done everything — sports play-by-play, read the news in the morning, a little bit of everything and whatever they need."
Chadwell, who also started in sports, said the radio station rarely has turnover and employees usually stay for years.
"That's how I like it," he said, noting that he hadn't planned on staying his entire career.
Before being named general manager, he did a mixture of sales and sports reporting from 1981 to 2001.
"Those were my best years," he said. "I got to make a little bit of money in sales and have a little fun in sports."
When thinking about how the industry has evolved through the years, Chadwell said that's exactly why he's retiring at the end of March.
"The business is totally different," he said. "The way we do things, going from the days of tape recordings and records to everything on hard drives. That's one of the reasons I'm going to be retiring here soon. I'm just an old radio guy, and it's time for others with more knowledge to move on in here."
Sisk said he will miss sitting on the opposite side of the glass as Chadwell. The two have worked across from each other for many years and ran Wednesday's broadcast like a well-oiled machine.
"I told him one of the big things I'm going to miss is being able to talk to him every day," Sisk said. "We're all family here."
He chalked much of that up to good people and good ownership, saying "they treat us well, and to me, it's a fun place to work."
In 1999, the station was sold to Forcht Broadcasting, a branch of a family-owned business operation where management made very little change in the format of WHOP.
Forcht Broadcasting President/CEO Mike Tarter said Wednesday that aside from a new tower the company installed in 2005, the ownership let the team do what they do.
"I wasn't here at that time, but you had this extremely well-oiled machine with rich history, and it's one of those things where you don't mess it up," Tarter said. "We just encouraged them to keep doing what they do to keep it successful."
Chadwell said working with the Forcht group of Kentucky has been "tremendous," and the station maintains nine employees at the Hopkinsville studio.
"There were 18 full-timers when I started here," he said. "We still have people who work with us, but they are elsewhere."
Although bittersweet, Chadwell said he knows the radio station will continue to be successful long after he's gone. He recalled a reality check he received from former co-owner/general manager Roger Jeffers many years ago.
"I was feeling the cheerios just a little bit, and he said, 'Mike, WHOP was here a long time before you got here, and it's going to be here along time after you're gone, so don't be feeling too big' — and that's right. We'll all be gone, but this radio station will be moving on."
Chadwell's last day is March 27 and he said a new general manager has not yet been named.
"I hope I'm doing the right thing," he said of retirement. "I get choked up every time I start talking about it, but working with all the people I've had the honor to be around through the years has truly been great."
Reach Zirconia Alleyne at 270-887-3243 or firstname.lastname@example.org