Monday, April 3, 2017

The death of a 50,000 watt station

This is not totally about KAAY.  It’s about another 50,000-watt former rock’n’roll audience giant that just went dark, a station that meant a lot to me just as KAAY has. 

WFLI(AM)-1070, Lookout Mountain/Chattanooga TN, went off the air for good last Friday evening March 31, after 56 years of broadcasting.  Like KAAY, they dared to go fulltime rock’n’roll in the early 1960’s, rose to top ratings and stayed there for years.  The combination of their power, their personalities, the promotions, and the music, turned them into a legend known as “The Great Jet ‘FLI”.  They were huge, seemingly unstoppable.  I was a DJ there from 1975-76, just a blip in their long top 40 history.  And now, they’re gone. 

Sure, there were differences between WFLI and KAAY.  WFLI dropped power to 1,000 watts at night, so it didn’t have the clear-channel impact and reputation that KAAY had.  WFLI was family-owned for its entire life by the Brennan-Benns family of engineers  ( ).  They knew how to keep a used, monster-sized Western Electric 50kw transmitter alive, and how to provide their audience with homespun local talent.  In contrast, KAAY was owned by a series of corporations, with more money to spend and access to some of the best technical engineering consultants, and brought a big-city sound to a smaller market.

But eventually, both WFLI and KAAY were swept up by the same changes in audience tastes, technology, and in how to maintain profitability on AM.  WFLI’s rock audience drifted to FM, resulting in a change to a country format in 1979.  Only a few years later, the Benns family threw in the towel on trying to compete in the secular radio world, and went to a Southern Gospel and paid religion format that required only a small staff.   KAAY’s new corporate owners made a similar switch to Southern Gospel radio in 1985.  Over the next 30 years, both stations went downhill.  They saw declines in audience, let their technical facilities degrade with age, saw profitability slip, all while listeners gradually gave up on AM.  In Chattanooga, Nielsen market #88, the only AM station currently rated in the top 17 is in 10th place and it’s not WFLI.  In Little Rock, market #83, there are no AM stations in the top 13.   Details of KAAY’s technical decline are noted elsewhere on this Blog.  WFLI looks like a radio museum with its 60’s/70’s-era equipment, except for a relatively new 50kw Harris transmitter that replaced the old Western Electric beast. 

I posted the sad news about WFLI’s demise on a Facebook AM radio group and comments flooded in.  Some people were amazed that a 50kw station just couldn’t make it anymore.  Others suggested creative ways to save the station.  And then other people berated the save-the-station folks, told them to face reality about the state of AM radio, and said the owners shouldn’t be blamed for wanting to shut it down, sell the equipment, and enjoy their retirement.  In short -- celebrate WFLI’s former glory days, but it’s time to let it go. 

I bring all of this up just to raise the possibility that, perhaps someday, the owners of KAAY may also decide it’s not financially worth it anymore, and pull the plug on the formerly Mighty-1090.  That would have been unthinkable several decades ago, maybe even just one decade ago!  But, look what has happened to WFLI, where the march of time, technical neglect, and just the nature of change eventually caught up with them.

Greg Barman

Photos by Greg Barman and David Carroll


  1. I would like to comment about the nature of change, KAAY is currently undergoing a transformation to bring the old signal back, work on rebuilding the ground system is scheduled to start this month. Its probably costing more than twice the stations yearly billing to get this work done. A majority of the stations money used to be made off the nighttime skywave hours. The rates were higher during those hours and around the early 2000's from my understanding a power plant was built about a mile from the transmitter site right in the directional signals path. KAAY had to cut down on the directional signal by about 2/3rd's and after that happened virtually all the prime skywave revenue went away. In more recent years more revenue went away when the station was off the air for nearly a month two different times.
    Now the question is what is the company going to do with KAAY after the signal is restored? Some suggestions would be to move their sports talk station there or bring the 60's and 70's music back to KAAY and run the religious programs they have left in the late night and overnight hours. The ministries that left KAAY years ago have long since moved on and aren't coming back. Your typical dollar a holler radio minister is a dying breed and more modern ministries aren't buying radio time either. It would take at least three years for the company to get their money back that they're spending on the station to restore it in my estimation if NO changes are to be made in programming.

  2. KAAY was dead and gone the day after Pat Walsh left. You just haven't buried her yet.

  3. New phasing equipment arrives shortly as does a new 50 kW transmitter. The old Harris MW50 continues to be obstinate to the end.