Remembering local radio’s very best
THE MAN BEHIND THE MIC – Ron Lane shown during his early years with WFWL and during the final broadcast for both Ron and WFWL on Dec. 1, 2021.
By Bobby Flash Melton
Since the death of Magic Valley radio personality Ron Lane earlier this month, many people have paid their respects to the longtime broadcaster with condolences to his family and friends and by posting numerous tributes that have appeared on a variety of social media and other public forums. After more than 60 years in public life, it is so hard to say farewell.
A resident of Big Sandy, Lane, 81, died on March 12 at Henry County Medical Center in Paris. He had been in declining health in recent years. His last broadcast came on Dec. 1, 2021, when he signed off the final broadcast of WFWL radio, which had been on the air in Benton County since Sept. 18, 1956. The broadcast was aired on both WFWL and WRJB radio and streamed live on Facebook.
“Ron was just an all-around great radio man and my friend,” said Terry Hudson last Wednesday on his WRJB program, “Blue Collar Americana.” Hudson related memories of working with Lane at the old WFWL studios on South Forrest Avenue in the 1970s and early 1980s and how their friendship continued after he left radio work for other employment opportunities.
“We would talk on the phone quite frequently about different things including the people we’d worked with and our mutual love for our favorite team, the New York Yankees,” Hudson said. “I knew that his health had not been good in recent months but to learn of his death last Sunday still came as a shock. He was someone who shaped my life and I like to think that I’m the person I am today because of Ron Lane.”
After Hudson’s comments he played two songs in memory of Lane which were “Jealous of the Angels” by Jenn Bostic and “Peace in the Valley” by Elvis Presley, who was Lane’s favorite singer.
Lane became affiliated with WFWL 1220 AM in the late 1950s when he phoned in school news as a senior at Big Sandy High School. The year 1959 marked his first part-time disc jockey position at WFWL and ultimately led to a lifetime career in local broadcasting, which lasted more than 60 years.
Over the years, Lane worked in all areas of radio including board shifts for playing records, news and sports reporting, advertising, promotions, marketing, and special event broadcasts. He eventually became general manager of both WFWL and WRJB and held that position until he retired in December 2021.
Although Lane was not one of the original 1956 WFWL staff, he was a link to Camden’s first broadcasters such as Mike Freeland, John Latham, and John Lashlee. His six decades in the business saw him hire and work with other notable radio figures such as Charlie Baylor, Hudson, Will Luther, Gary Powley, and Jim Stockdale. Lane’s final hires are Dylan Powley and Luke Crutchfield, who are continuing the tradition of local radio on WRJB.
One of Lane’s early mentors was Russell Gallimore, who became pastor of four Methodist churches in the Big Sandy area in June 1956 and a staff announcer for WFWL just a few months later. Gallimore had prior experience with radio in Jackson. Upon meeting Lane, he immediately knew Lane had potential for a career in broadcasting.
“What I remember most about Ron was his unwavering Christian faith, his dedicated servant role to his church and community, his integrity, and his overall positive outlook on life despite his physical limitations caused by childhood polio,” Gallimore said. “Ron never seemed to feel he was a victim and never sought sympathy or complained but instead flashed a winsome smile for all to see.”
Gallimore noted that when he was training Lane on the broadcast equipment and techniques of the 1950s, he never treated Lane as if he were handicapped. Instead, he always let Lane do what he could do without any assistance.
“We loved and respected each other and never had a disagreement. His spirit of determination was awesome, he loved a challenge, and the thrill of achievement,” Gallimore said. “I dare say he had the most recognized voice in the entire broadcast coverage area and will be remembered by all as the ‘Voice of the Magic Valley.’ May his sweet spirit forever live in our hearts.”
While many always have considered Benton County radio stations WRJB-FM and WFWL-AM as “one and the same,” both operating out of the same building at 117 Vicksburg Avenue, that wasn’t always the case. When it began in 1956, WFWL 1220 AM was located in the Lockhart Motel Cottages on South Forrest Avenue. It was the only radio station in town until WRJB-FM signed on the air in July 1976 under different ownership.
The two stations were competitors for about 10 years until the owners of WRJB purchased WFWL in the mid 1980s and moved its broadcast operations to the building on Vicksburg Ave. After the purchase was completed the WRJB owners named Lane as the general manager for the WFWL side of the facility.
“Ron and I had been friends since 1961. There was no doubt he would manage WFWL when we decided to buy it,” said Ray Smith, who co-owned WRJB at the time with Latham. “Ron was the most qualified person to serve as manager and always knew the right words to say on the air. Even though there was that 10-year period where WFWL and WRJB were competitors we were always friends. I was happy to work with him on programs of benefit to the community. He was a genuine and caring man who always put the needs of others first. He loved everybody and everybody loved him. We are all better because Ron Lane shared his time and talents with us. I miss him and pray for comfort and strength for his family and friends.”
Tributes to Lane also came last week from the networks that broadcast Titans games and UT sporting events. Larry Stone, former executive producer of Titans Radio, stated, “Mike Keith and I made our first affiliate call together pitching the Oilers Network to Ron in 1998. It started a friendship that lasted over two decades. Ron was truly one of the nicest people I have ever known, and we looked forward to talking broadcasting during our visits each year on the Titans Caravan. Ron truly cared about Benton County and used WFWL and WRJB to serve his community. His legacy of caring will live on. I think of him as a beacon for what local radio should be.”
During a break in last Thursday night’s NCAA first round basketball game between UT and University of Louisiana-Lafayette, Vol Network Announcer Bob Kesling commented, “Ron Lane was a legendary radio figure in Benton County and Tennessee. He recently retired from WRJB and WFWL in Camden after an amazing radio career spanning over 60 years.” Earlier last week Vol Network Executive Director Glenn Thackston made a personal call to WRJB to express his sympathy to Lane’s WRJB colleagues on his death.
Even with his many career accolades, Lane’s contributions to Benton County extended far beyond his radio work. He served on many boards and committees of civic groups and organizations through the years, including the Benton County School Board, the Benton County Board of Public Utilities, as an alderman for the Town of Big Sandy, and as Big Sandy mayor for nearly 20 years.
Lane emceed hundreds of events going back to the early 60s including variety shows, concerts, beauty pageants, school activities, and fair programs. He helped raise money with radio remotes for causes such as the American Cancer Society, United Way, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and Second Harvest Food Bank.
In addition to his civic work, Lane was an active member of Big Sandy United Methodist Church where he served in many positions. He also was a United Methodist certified lay speaker and would fill in at churches in West Tennessee when a guest speaker was needed.
Lane’s dedication and service was not only recognized locally by various clubs and groups but by state government officials. In 1997 he was recognized with a legislative proclamation sponsored by then State Senator Roy Herron and State Rep. John Tidwell. That same year he received a Tennessee Outstanding Achievement Award from then Governor Don Sundquist.
” Ron was a radio professional who knew every aspect of the business. He was a good boss and a good man to work for,” said current WRJB Manager Vicky Dodson. “He loved working in his home community and always cared for its people. His contributions will never be forgotten, and he touched many lives. He was a hard worker who had a voice we’ll never forget and left a legacy that will live on forever.”
When WFWL signed off the air for the last time on Dec. 1, 2021, Lane said these words which bear repeating as we bid farewell to Benton County radio’s all-time best broadcaster and manager:
“I want to thank my loyal listeners, sponsors, friends, and fellow employees of WFWL who’ve always been supportive of the station and its mission to serve the community. It’s been a wonderful experience with all the people I’ve met and come in contact with and I’m appreciative and thank you for that,” he said.
In that final broadcast, Lane also noted that even though WFWL had “gone dark,” local radio listeners would still have a strong local radio voice with WRJB that he hoped would continue for many years to come.
In 1956 when Freeland and his partners founded WFWL, he said a radio station should always be a “reflection of its community.” When Lane entered the local broadcast scene in 1959, he made sure those words were the hallmark for Benton County radio to follow for more than six decades. Every area citizen is indebted to Ron Lane for his years of service and for always working to make Benton County a better place for all of us. Farewell to the best of the best.