Coleman Walker's been chatting up his hometown for over 50 years
The first time he walked into WCOR Radio station at the age of 9, Coleman Walker knew what he wanted to do with his life, but he had no clue he would spend more than half a century behind the microphone, and in the process become "The Voice" of Lebanon radio.
"I first visited the station with my Daddy in 1949 because my uncle J.C. Walker preached on WCOR on Sunday mornings. I was fascinated," said the professional talker. "Later on I thought it would be the coolest thing to be a deejay and play records you liked all day long."
Walker first went on the air Feb. 12, 1961. He was 21 years old. Since that date it has been a rare day his voice didn't connect with local listeners. His current venture, "Coleman & Company," which runs 7-8 a.m. weekdays on WCOR (1490 AM) and debuted in the fall of 1993, has pretty much transformed him into the Johnny Carson of Wilson County as he has interviewed thousands of local guests as well as numerous politicos and visitors from beyond Mt. Juliet, Watertown and Lebanon.
"How scared I was," reflected Walker on his initial broadcast. "Microphones can be very intimidating, but a mike doesn't scare me anymore. The biggest thing was having to learn the control board. Once you learn the board, it's just like driving a car."
For the old pro it's become a role he can pretty much fulfill blind-folded.
'Coleman & Company' a local fixture
Every weekday morn a few minutes before seven a.m., he sits in a chair at a round table in the station's Studio B. Three other chairs and four microphones stake their places. Walker will have one to three guests ready for his questions.
The radio host's lips perch three to four inches away from his microphone. In front of him sits a Styrofoam cup of coffee, his pen and glasses and a yellow notepad. His eyes continually dart to a sign and once it lights up with ON THE AIR, his mind and mouth shift into high gear as he begins another live episode of the community affairs and events talk show that bears his name.
He describes the program, which runs concurrently on WANT-FM (98.9), as "live, spontaneous and unrehearsed. I don't do a lot of preparation. It's pretty laidback and relaxed."
Walker has probably done every job that can be done at a radio station. For his show he books the guests, which feature a steady stream of local and state officials, representatives of charitable organizations and other community and business leaders. Across the span of a year, he will host live and special events and provide his strong and recognizable voice to on-air recorded announcements and commercial messages, which by now must number in the thousands.
Local roots to local radio
It's been quite a good run, a span of over 55 years, for the farm boy born the first child of Sam and Nellie (Norton) Walker in the Smith County community of Riddleton. At six months of age he and his folks moved to Centerville about halfway between Lebanon and Hartsville where he grew up with a brother and five sisters.
A 1958 graduate of Lebanon High School, Walker held his first public works job when he was a sophomore, sacking groceries at Moser's Supermarket on South Maple. He met his wife Helen (Ashworth) of Watertown on a blind date. Married for 53 years, they have three sons: Clark, Brian and Mike; and seven grandchildren.
Walker admits his career in radio began through a strange series of events that took place after Elvis Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army. (This is radio where bizarre can be the norm.)
"Hugh Jarrett, who sang with Elvis' back-up group The Jordanaires, was at WHIN in Gallatin. He quit The Jordanaires after Elvis went into the Army. There was a vacancy in Gallatin, and John Branham, here at WCOR (still an AM station), took Hugh's place over there which created a vacancy here," Walker explained.
"My Daddy (an electrician for Middle Tennessee Electric) happened to be here that Friday morning, and the engineer told him they were having auditions to fill John's place. He called me, and I came out and read a little news. I didn't get the job, but they had a vacancy on Sunday morning."
Thus, Walker got the Sunday morning gig of introducing the lineup of local preachers who came on the air. He also cut his teeth reading live commercials. He soon got the Saturday afternoon shift and became a deejay playing top 40 records from noon until signoff at sundown.
His break came a year and a half later when WCOR-FM hit the airwaves running on Aug. 31, 1962, and station owners Ted Ezzell and Jack Hendrickson gave him a full time job.
"I was the first to sign the Lebanon FM station on the air. I went on at about 7:30 p.m. and played a little music. Then we went live to the Lebanon High School football game," he recalls of the historic event.
Station manager to starting Wilson World
From then on he held an 8½-hour shift three days a week and continued in his Saturday and Sunday time slots. The popular disc jockey had an offer to work with a Gallatin radio station but the opportunity to get into sales in 1963 kept him at his home base. He remembers some of his early accounts being with McClain and Smith, Barbara's, Cato TV and the Burger Boy restaurant.
In the early 1970s he was named manager of WCOR-AM, and he continued his career at WCOR until November 1978 when he departed to help start The Wilson World newspaper, forerunner of The Wilson Post, as general manager. Eight months later he returned to the local radio station but by that time Hendrickson had sold the FM and AM channels.
"In the '80s FM came on strong and AM was on the downslopes," Walker said. "We had a new owner who made the FM 100,000 watts and wanted to be the No. 1 country station in Nashville. He had problems and had to sell the FM, and we were left here with just AM in July 1982 from sunup to sundown."
Career takes a turn in '80s
Carrying a heavy load as station manager, he obtained his insurance license.
"In May 1986 I said, 'I'm out of here.' I kept working my accounts while I was getting into insurance. I stayed till the end of March 1989. By then the AM was sold to someone in Massachusetts.
"When I left I wanted to forget everything I had ever known about radio. I was burned out. With the problems absentee ownership brought on and the decline of AM radio in the 1980s, it was all we could do to just survive. I had had enough, and my wife and family needed more of my time than I was giving them.
"Fortunately for me there was a future in insurance. It turned out to be much more rewarding financially than I could have ever hoped for in radio."
Walker left for full-time insurance sales, eventually started his own company, Walker and Phillips Insurance. WCOR went off the air in 1991.
WANT born, WCOR resurrected
Then in late spring of 1993, he got a phone call from Lebanon businesswoman Susie James who was establishing a new Lebanon FM station, WANT, as well as resurrecting WCOR .
"She offered me a job to host a local talk show. I was hesitant to begin 'Coleman and Company,' and just not sure I wanted to get back in broadcasting even for one hour a day," he recalled of the popular morning show which debuted the second week of October 1993.
"But after over 22 years of doing it, I fully believe I made the right decision. Sometimes I want to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. And none of this would have come about if Susie James had not had the vision and dream of wanting a new FM radio station."
WANT-FM and WCOR-AM owner-general manager James says, "I'm proud to be involved in providing a service of informing and entertaining our community. Coleman Walker has played a vital role as he has interviewed a wide variety of guests on an amazing amount of diverse topics."
She admits she had to convince him to return behind the microphone and gives credit to the station's sports broadcaster Clyde Harville who suggested that she reach out to Walker.
"From the minute you talked to him, you knew he needed to be a talk-show host," James said. "He is generous with his time and his attention, so when you're talking to him you've got his full attention, and he is keeping eye on the clock but definitely engaged in the conversation.
"He is set in his ways but open to hearing other opinions, and he can change his mind and will admit when he is wrong. He's a good husband and good father. I think we're lucky to have our crazy little group of people here," she said.
'Coleman' begins long run
For his inaugural "Coleman & Company," the guests were Mayor Bobby Jewell of Lebanon, Mayor Mike Jennings of Watertown and county executive Don Simpson.
Walker recounted, "It was one of the longest hours of my life. I hadn't been on radio in years. When we got through I thought, 'What have I've gotten myself into?' I had talked to a minister friend about it, and he said, 'Do it. God will bless you,' and he has."
As for what he enjoys most about quizzing his guests, he says, "Just meeting people and doing live radio. I love meeting so many people and have met so many over the years."
Indeed, his guest books holds the signatures of somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 names.
Now semiretired from the insurance business, he says his hobbies include playing corn hole at the Lebanon Senior Citizens Center and a little golf.
"Í'm a big Vandy fan of football, basketball and baseball. They've been my team since Bill Wade was a sophomore in 1949 (Wade was a stellar SEC quarterback who later played in the NFL with the Chicago Bears)."
A self-confessed pack rat, he also grows a backyard garden every year as he enjoys fresh tomatoes, peas, beans, okra, cucumbers and squash.
As for how much longer he will continue the longest-running radio gig in Lebanon, Walker answers, "I don't have any date to quit in mind, but I have considered it. I'm 76. I like the idea to be doing this till I'm 80 years old. It gets me up and out every morning."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.