One of the ten oldest radio stations in the United States, WNOX in Knoxville played a significant role in showcasing major talents in the burgeoning hillbilly–or country–music field from the 1930s through the 1950s. The station went on the air in 1921 as station WNAV, owned by the First Baptist Church of Knoxville. Later owners included the People’s Telephone Company, the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, and the current owners, Dick Broadcasting, which is headquartered in Knoxville.
The programmers at the station made an early commitment to live radio performances and utilized such local talent as Mac and Bob, Hugh Cross, Otis Elder, and the Smoky Mountain Ramblers. Sterchi Brothers Furniture, located on Gay Street, was an important sponsor of these early country music programs. In 1929-30 the station hosted the town’s first commercial recording sessions, featuring the diverse, lively music that had characterized the Knoxville club scene of the 1920s.
Emerging media chain Scripps-Howard purchased the station in 1935; the following year, in 1936, the station launched its most popular program, the influential Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round, a live noontime performance show which highlighted hillbilly music artists. Beginning at the WNOX Studios located in the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street, Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round later moved to its own six-hundred-seat auditorium, also on Gay Street. After the station boosted its signal in 1937, allowing it to dominate the airwaves through the region, Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round became a noontime institution for a generation of East Tennesseans. Hosted by Lowell Blanchard, the program proved to be a launching pad for the careers of Roy Acuff, Archie Campbell, Kitty Wells, Chet Atkins, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, Pee Wee King, Martha Carson, Don Gibson, and the Louvin Brothers. Blanchard also hosted a Saturday night program of country music titled The Tennessee Barndance, which was broadcast from the city’s Lyric Theater. Both live radio programs remained on the air until the early 1960s.
WNOX remains a Knoxville institution, but not for live music. It now features a news/talk/sports format. In 1999 the station won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow for Overall Excellence Award as the best medium market radio news department in the United States.