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Greensboro radio legend Dusty Dunn: Still talkin’ after 40 years on the airwaves

by Lee Adams

Today at 7 a.m., Dusty Dunn takes to the airwaves on WGOS, AM 1070 like he has every weekday with few exceptions for the last 40 years. The next three hours will be filled with news, sports, and interviews from city and county officials with the latest on what’s going on around Greensboro and High Point. Occasionally Dunn will take a phone call from a listener and just talk about whatever’s on their mind.

Last week one such caller was John Grove , CEO of Spring Air Mattress Co. As the AM station buzzed away in monophonic drone the two chatted for nearly 20 minutes about Spring Air, about Grove’s venture in stock car racing and about his past as an employee with NASA. In what sounded like a good ol’ boy conversation the two hemmed and hawed about aerospace technology, the recent space probe was crashed into a meteor and the future flight of the Space Shuttle, all in laymen’s terms.

Dunn started the radio program three years ago with station owner Simon Ritchy, and runs the show from a small office located up a flight of stairs next to Ellenburg and Shaffer Stained Glass Co. on South Elm Street. In the lobby of the tiny business complex that is shared with a few other small businesses sits a coffee table and couch for guests while they wait their turn on the air. Two antique radios also sit in the lobby, non-functional and slightly dusty.

Inside Dunn’s office-turned-radio-station a cart with fresh coffee sits just to the right; a stack of Styrofoam cups awaits morning guests. A desk sits in the back right corner and a table with microphones, headphones and transmitting gear takes up the left side of the room.

Dunn’s business cards sit in a small holder on his desk and proclaim him as ‘“Radio Announcer Extraordinaire.’” Under this title he lists such qualities about himself as ‘“world traveler,’” ‘“connoisseur of old rare wines,’” ‘“international lover,’” ‘“rifleman,’” and ‘“grenadier.’” He also claims to specialize in ‘“civil wars,’” ‘“smuggling,’” ‘“bootlegging’” and ‘“saki sipping’” among others.

His dark brown eyes and graying moustache combined with his radio headphones give him the look of a mysterious biplane aviator that makes the claims on his card seem somewhat believable. And he has had quite a journey throughout his career as a radio professional.

While in high school at Southeast, during the mid-’60s when the Beatles were all the rage, the Greensboro native began helping out at WGBG radio running errands. It was on a Sunday afternoon when Dunn got his first chance on air and, as he says, he was baptized with fire with that first experience.

‘“The Billy Graham Hour of Decision’” played every Sunday at noon, and all Dunn had to do was announce the pre-recorded show and play the tape.

‘“’”I said, ‘Good afternoon, it’s 12 o’clock. WGBG Greensboro. It’s time now for Billy Graham and the Hour of Decision,”” Dunn says. ‘“I hit the button’…and nothing happened. And I said, ‘What in the hell is going on now?””

‘“What happened is the tape fell off the reel and it didn’t start,’” he says.

He continues, ‘“Of course the phones lit up because I’d used an expletive on the air. So for the next two or three hours we had to deal with phones and people complaining about using profanity right before Billy Graham.’”

After high school Dunn moved to Wilmington to work at a station there, then back to Greensboro after about a year to work at WGBG again. Soon afterwards he went to WCOG, first working nights and later moving to an afternoon show. He stayed there for seven years.

During those years each county had three or four radio stations, Dunn says. WGBG was a combination of country western, easy listening and some rock and roll, WCOG was rock, WBIG was news and information and WEAL was rhythm and blues. All were AM stations, when FM was used just for background music.

WCOG was the highest-rated station of its time, Dunn says, with between 50 and 60 percent of area listeners. Nowadays there are so many stations available that rating percentages are much smaller.

‘“This market, it’s like 120 or 130 radio stations,’” Dunn says. ‘“This market has as big a radio penetration as New York does. That’s how big it is.’”

The market is so saturated now, he says, that there aren’t any stations that claim huge percentages like in the past. Dunn says WTQR is the current number one station in the Triad with seven or eight percent ratings.

While working with WCOG Dunn had the opportunity to go to Cincinnati to help with a station there. But after another year he was back in Greensboro again, this time due to military obligations. After service in the Army he came back to WCOG for a short time and then on to his first FM station, WRQK.

‘“They were the first FM radio station here to get into a rock and roll, rhythm and blues type format,’” Dunn says.

In fact, WRQK was one of the first FM radio stations in the state of North Carolina to pursue the format, he says.

During his four years at WRQK Dunn auditioned for a job at WBT, a premier radio station with 50,000 watts and a coverage area from Nova Scotia to Cuba. But as time dragged on Dunn didn’t get the firm answer he was looking for. The buzz all over the Southeast was over who was going to land the job, Dunn says, but as weeks turned to months there was still no answer.

Then a fellow worker informed Dunn that he and not Dunn had been chosen for the job, so Dunn figured he was out of the running. Dunn had recently married and so he and his wife bought a house and decided to settle down.

Then one day the program director and general manager came to Greensboro, took Dunn to lunch and offered him the job. He learned that nobody else had been offered the job and it was free for his taking. But it was too late. He’d already bought the house and had commitments he could not break.

‘“That was my shot at the big time I guess,’” Dunn says.

The music format at WRQK soon became boring to Dunn who’d decided he liked talk format better. When out in public folks would ask why he kept playing certain songs that they didn’t like. They just didn’t understand that it was all pre-planned and had nothing to do with his own personal decisions.

So it was on to the CBS network station WBIG, owned by Jefferson Pilot. A morning radio personality who’d been at the station for over 20 years passed away and Dunn took his position. There was a combination of news, sports, talk and music on the station, which was fully staffed with news and weather professionals and where Dunn had lots of opportunities to interview guests during his morning show. Dunn was in his element for 10 years until the station was taken off the air. The property it was located on, where Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse now stands on Battleground Avenue, had become worth more than the station itself. The station went dark and was no more.

Dunn went to an FM country station for a couple months, a job he hated but one that helped get him by until he could find another, this time at WKEW, a middle-of-the road station with a combination of music and talk. Dunn went to work in the morning slot once again and stayed there another 10 years.

While there the manager decided to cut the music from Dunn’s morning show and make it all talk. It was the first full talk format he’d ever done ‘— music had always been at least a small part of his format in the past. And it was a surprise to begin with.

‘“I went in one Friday morning when I got off the air and the guy that runs the station, his name’s Bill Mitchell, and he said ‘Monday I want you to do all talk.””

‘“I said, ‘Huh?’ and he said, ‘All talk.’ I said ‘What am I going to talk about for four hours?’ He says, ‘Well you got all weekend.’”’”

And so his full-time talk career had begun.

‘“The Monday show was fine,’” Dunn says, ‘“but it’s Tuesday when you wake up and realize you’ve got to do it all over again.’”

He compares it to jumping out of an airplane, like he did during his stint in the Army. The first jump you’re all keyed up for, he says, but on the second you start really thinking about what you’re doing.

But it wasn’t long until he’d found his true element and today’s show at WGOS is a hybrid of what he did over the years at WKEW.

Of his current guests, he says, he has people on his show with a political agenda but the program itself doesn’t contain a political agenda. He talks to county commissioners, people in the community or just callers who are looking to chat. He books different guests every week depending on what he finds to be interesting or what may be happening in local government. There are some regulars like sports commentator Jim Modlin, who also owns the local gym Fitness Today. And then there are set shows throughout the week with sheriff BJ Barnes, Terry Neil of the Cooperative Extension Program, local attorney Don Vaughn, and Rhinoceros Times editor John Hammer who talks about local politics and community events every Friday morning at 9:30.

Hammer, a favorite guest of WGOS, keeps listeners and city politicians on their toes. This morning he and Dunn talk about the 41 percent raise that Guilford County commissioners voted themselves, making them the highest paid commissioners in the state of North Carolina. City councilman Robbie Perkins calls in the second half-hour of the show and talks with Hammer about the city’s budget, city garbage and landfill plans and his past twelve years as a councilman.

As far as running AM station in the midst of an FM world, Dunn says it’s one of the best times of his career. He has the help of his son, Richard, and daughter, Robin, who help out with advertising sales, booking guests and office management, keeping his family close. It’s not as easy for the little guy as it is for some of the larger stations with corporate money behind them, he says, but they’re making it and it’s all been worthwhile.

‘“This is one of the best situations I’ve been in,’” Dunn says. ‘“I’ve been fortunate.’”

Tune in sometime as 59-year old Dunn plugs away at the craft he’s practiced since he swore before the Billy Graham hour. His name might be Dusty but he’s more polished now than he’s ever been.

To comment on this story, e-mail Lee Adams at lee@yesweekly.com.

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