Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The word “radio,” I’m reliably informed, was first used by broadcasters a century ago this year, right here in Arlington. The transition from the quainter “wireless” was accomplished at the Naval Radio Station, the area’s first such facility, located at what is now South Courthouse Road and 7th Street, according to research by my history buff friend Tom Dickinson.

Successors in the burgeoning radio industry would include country station WARL, which broadcast for decades at Lee Highway and North George Mason Drive. It later became WAVA—all news, hard rock, then Christian programming. (Its tower is still there.)

But for most with ears and Arlington in our blood, music radio will always mean WEAM. It reigned at 1390 on the AM dial from 1948 into the 1980s and baptized many a youth in the joys of top 40. “The lively lineup” and “WEAM Team Redcoats” of voices like Terry Knight and Jack Alix (JA the deejay defected to WPGC) were major influences on boomers’ formative years. The call letters originally stood for the licensee’s daughter, Ellen Ann Miller, according to a 2013 online history by Thomas White.

Though a modest 5000 watts, WEAM shouted its Arlington location over the airwaves (the office was at 1515 Courthouse Road, but the studio was above Minor Hill, off Williamsburg Blvd.). My pal Dave McGarry recalls hiking to the studio and witnessing the jock sending out the Beatles “Hey Jude” to teens around the Beltway. Dave still owns copies of WEAM playlists and an early ‘60s photo gallery of WEAM personalities: Lee Stevens, Paul Christy, Les Alexander and Johnny Rogue. Sports news was delivered by a young-looking Nat Albright.

In an online reminiscence in 2010, Bill Prettyman, a WEAM deejay from 1961-65, recalls the fabulous reverb the engineers used to create that high-energy sound. Most of the jocks had stage names (his was Doug Vanderbilt). “There was no news department,” he wrote, just “rip and read” off the wires.

Whether you heard WEAM in your car, from your kitchen intercom, or crackling out of your Japanese transistor in bed at night, you got the latest pop and rock singles punctuated by promos and call-ins that conjure up an array of Arlington’s eateries, schools, sports and shopping meccas.

I got a nostalgic taste of WEAM in 2005 when a local history nut gave me a CD recorded from SiriusXM radio. Current satellite radio host Terry “Motormouth” Young conducted detailed research to recreate WEAM from the years spanning the 1960s. Between his own voice and that of WEAM veteran Russ Wheeler you hear hits by the Marcels, Tommy James and the Shondells and the Swingin’ Medallions alongside shoutouts to waitresses at Hot Shoppes, Tops Drive-In and the Broiler. You could buy the latest hits downtown at Waxie Maxies or Swillers (in Clarendon), and then hit Woodward and Lothrop to score a pair of Levi’s for $4, perhaps to wear to a movie at the Sunset Drive-In.

Motormouth congratulated Wakefield High School for being school of the year and describes O’Connell High as the place where girls have to kneel on the floor to prove their skirts are long enough. He also sent kudos to the Black Knights Little League team for capturing the 1968 championship.

Out in radioland, more than a few ex-kids were thrilled.