History on the air

Wednesday, June 7, 2017
Jeff and Missie Haislip in their WJJM-FM studio, along with their dog, Layla, recently celebrated WJJM’s birthday.
Alexis Marshall

WJJM celebrates 70th birthday with historic landmark status

Years ago, a little girl sat at the kitchen counter as her mother, a bank teller, got ready for work. The radio buzzed, and her mother listened intently to the obituaries and birthdays at the beginning of the news cast. She asked her mother why they had to listen to it every morning, and her mother responded that it was a part of her job to know when customers walk in the door whether to wish them a happy birthday or to offer condolences.

The little girl, now in her fifties and a bank teller herself still listens to WJJM as a part of her morning routine, but the ritual isn’t the only thing that has transcended generations: so has WJJM. On May 15, WJJM celebrated 70 years of broadcasting, and since its inception it has been owned and operated by the same family.

WJJM, named after its late founder Jimmie Joe Murray, was built on the 46 acres of Murray farm in 1946. After the World War II, rural radio stations began appearing all over the country, and Murray wanted WJJM to be a commercial radio station for Marshall County. Only weeks before WJJM hit the airwaves, Murray auctioned off a horse on a nation-wide radio broadcast through another station. According to an article from the Tennessean, it sold for $6,000, a figure that translates to more than $60,000 today, and the highest price for any horse ever sold at auction at the time.

The station has applied to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, acknowledgement of the station’s importance to Marshall County over the last seven decades. According to the narrative sent in support of the station’s efforts to receive the distinction, Murray was a forward-thinking individual who wanted to bring the best and the newest technology to the Marshall County. He contracted the construction of the stone-work radio station with that purpose in mind, creating the studio on the ground floor with apartments for radio personalities above. It was because of this foresight that WJJM, unlike many of its peers, has never changed locations.

Missie Haislip, now the co-owner and operator of her family’s station with her husband Jeff, said that Murray always had other intentions as well: to serve his community. Murray was a state representative and part of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “He wanted to put Marshall County on the map. And he thought, what better way to do it than to bring the most modern thing in communications to this town?” Missie said.

WJJM has been housed at this Church Street location since the station went on the air in 1947. The station recently celebrated 70 years of operation.
Photo by Alexis Marshall

Murray never got the chance to see his plans come to fruition. He died of a massive heart attack only weeks before WJJM was set to go on the air, but in a eulogy given by O.E. Vancleave, Murray is described as “generous, thoughtful, considerate, and loyal.” These are principles that the family continues to practice in honoring Murray’s legacy.

Although the radio station is a business, Missie and Jeff are most proud of the ways the station serves their community. “I guess we make a living doing something that we’re passionate about, and we enjoy it, but we also want to follow Jimmie Joe’s footsteps. We want to give back more than we take.”

After Murray’s death in 1947, WJJM was willed to his sister Emma Izora Murray Bush. During her tenure as owner, the station hosted an on-air auction to raise money for the March of Dimes, which at that time was still focused on eradicating polio.

According to Missie, a young woman with polio had crocheted a blanket to auction, and the first buyer got it for $10. However, after receiving it, the man donated it back to auction again. The same thing happened a dozen times, raising $120 before the final buyer bought a bouquet of roses, and gave the blanket and flowers back to the girl who had crocheted it.

When remembering that story, Missie said, “it made us proud to be a part of it.”

When the Haislips bought the radio station from Missie’s grandmother in 2003, they received feedback from Marshall County soldiers and their families that they wished they could hear WJJM while they were stationed overseas. “We started streaming because we had so many soldiers in Afghanistan, and they wanted to be able to connect to home.”

Continuing in its family tradition of service to others, WJJM still has school sports teams come to the studio to do fundraisers and record advertisements. The station also streamed the graduation ceremony for Marshall County High School this year. Missie said that each student was given a limited number of tickets for family and friends, so students with extended families were unable to have everybody attend. Instead they were able to stream the event to a television and watch in the comfort of their own homes.

Jeff and Missie said that something unique to small radio is that they can give back through interaction with listeners. “There are many people out there that are elderly, living alone, and we may be the only person that they interact with all day long,” Jeff said.

Missie echoed that sentiment. “There are people who are home-bound that don’t have friends, don’t have family, don’t have people checking on them. When they turn on the radio, they feel like we’re their friends in their house.”

“We have people who call us every day who we’ve never met—never laid eyes on them. But they call us by first name. They know when our birthdays are. We know when their birthdays are. We are something happy and hopeful in their lives every day… It gives us great joy,” Missie said.

A majority of what WJJM does, whether awarding lunch for two at Suzie’s Diner or following local athletes into their collegiate careers, is unique to Marshall County, including the obituaries.

When Missie’s grandfather, Louis Lingner, owned WJJM in the 1950s, a man of distinction in Lewisburg died, so the station read his obituary. Later that week, Lingner received a call from a young woman whose grandfather had passed away. The woman told the station at the time, “he may not have been a somebody to everybody else, but he was a somebody to me.”

From that day forward, obituaries on WJJM were free, Missie said. “If you’re a dirt digger and a farmer and a papaw to somebody, your name is on the air just as if you were a state representative.”

Missie said that many ask—especially young people ‘why do you read the dead people on the radio?’ It’s the same reason a bank teller needs to know everyone who walks in the door. Missie said, “Everybody is a somebody in a little town.”

Alexis Marshall is journalism major at Middle Tennessee State University. She is one of several students who recently spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.