LAFOLLETTE, TN (WLAF) – It was on the afternoon of Sunday, May 17, 1953, when WLAF AM 1450 first came on the air.

The studio was in the Piedmont Hotel/Fleet Oil Building, ground floor, in the corner offices next to Nevada Avenue.

Smith Rea, Jr. graduated from La Follette High School in 1950, and that was in the time when you could see the radio station (and tower) from the old high school on West Central Avenue. “Smitty” as he was nicknamed was on the WLAF staff on the station’s opening day.

Smith Rea, Jr.’s father, the general manager of LUB in the 1940s and 50s, told him the new radio station, WLAF, was hiring. He applied and was hired. This is a recent photo for the LHS Class of ’50 alum.

CLICK HERE to listen in on WLAF’s interview with Smith Rea, Jr. The visit was recorded in early 2021. One note about the conversation; the banjo player’s name Smitty could not recall is Carlos Henderson.

Smitty shares some stories that weren’t mentioned in the recorded interview.

THE “LIVE” FOOTBALL BROADCAST THAT WASN’T LIVE AT ALL – WLAF’s first live sportscast was a total bust. It was a Friday night in early fall of that first year (1953). The Owls were to take on Sevierville at Sevierville. Olen Morris was to do play-by-play with Marvin Paul (our engineer) along to hook everything up and do color. I had the simple job of riding the board (putting the game on the air at the studio). Of course, this had been hyped to Blue Heaven and back, so the whole county had ears cocked to AM 1450. The magic hour arrived. I dramatically introduced our “very first” lives sportscast, threw the switch and NOTHING HAPPENED. Just static. There was no two-way communication, so there was no way to let Olen and Marvin know. Frantic calls to Southern Bell led to runaround after runaround…all the time I’m sweating bullets and making that old “technical difficulties” spiel. Of course. the phone nearly exploded. Aftermath revealed the switching center in Knoxville had not made the proper connection.

This is Smitty’s senior class photo from 1950. He graduated from the La Follette High School that once stood next to First Baptist Church. He was in the Dramatics Club all four years of high school.

CAMPBELL COUNTY’S VERY FIRST (I guess) BIG TIME FIREWORKS SHOW – Jim McCloud, a local realtor, approached me in either 1955 or 1956 about doing a taped “tour” of a mountain property he had up Jellico Highway (now known as McCloud Mountain). He enlisted I accompany him. So up we went in a Jeep on the present road in it’s first, unpaved “rough” state. Boulders, potholes and drop offs everywhere. Mr. McCloud had snaked an old school bus to the top with a bulldozer pulling it. He had literally hundreds of pages of data which had been developed on-site by the University of Tennessee Geology Department. Anyway, he envisioned a 45-minute to one hour tour with a tape recorded program explaining this or that rock formation. We agreed on a script which I recorded, and he instilled on an old fashion box tape recorder on the front seat of the bus. He had signs on 25W advertising an “adventure mountain top ride.” Tourists would pay $10 to be “jeeped” up and ride the bus. Late, Mr. McCloud hired me to do an hour patriotic program with march music and short two and three essays about the glories of McCloud Mountain. He purchased an hour on WLAF on July 4th and put on a pretty extensive fireworks show from the mountain top while the program ran on the radio. Of course, this had been promoted, and there were several hundred cars along the highway at Fincastle. Jim McCloud was a visionary. He just lacked the capital necessary to achieve his dream.

ORIGNIAL ANNOUNCING STAFF – Olen Morris (up from WATO in Oak Ridge) a couple of times a week, Bob Lesh (one of those roving radio announcers hoping for the big time), Carl Smith (music teacher trying to form La Follette High School’s first true band) and me, Smith “Smitty” Rea, Jr. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 05/17/2021-6AM-REPUBLISHED – 05/17/2023-6AM)

5 Replies to “Smitty takes us back in time as WLAF celebrates its 70th year on the air”

  1. Jim, thanks for the interesting interview with Smitty. I lived at Hunters Branch in those first days of WLAF. Wee got good reception during the day but night it was spotty, but I would go to sleep with the radio on. At that time, I never dreamed of working there, but in my senior year at Jacksboro High School, I decided to go to radio school in Nashville and later worked at WLAF 1959-1960. There were three guys from LaFollette who also went to Tn. School of Broadcasting at the same time. Jack Miller, Jack W. Miller, and Tony Gross.Jack W. also worked at WLAF for a time. We stayed lifelong friends, like brothers. He passed away in February of this year. He owned WTAB in Tabor City, N.C. I noticed Smitty didn’t mention Pete Williams, who worked there in the 1950s and later went to a station in Maryville. Congratulations to you guys who have kept the station going all these years and as Smitty said for the tremendous job you do reporting the news. I go on your site every day to keep up with the news and obituaries in Campbell County

    1. So good, as always, hearing from you, George!

      Thank you for the memories!


  2. Happy Birthday to the best home radio station ever! Great Big Thank you to all the staff past and present at WALF for all you do and have done for our community. My day usually starts with a visit to your website. My first choice for the news of the day. Thankful for mine and my kids birthday dinners. You always be my favorite station.

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