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Long-time WBRF-98.1 FM bluegrass radio host Jay Allen said goodbye on Friday to his listeners.
Twenty-three years ago, Allen began his career at 98.1 by filling in at the studio during the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention.
“At the time, I was just doing odd jobs,” said Allen. “WBRF manager Zane Bennett called and asked if I could fill in during Old Fiddlers’ Convention week. After a few days, I thought that would be it.”
Allen ran studio operations that week while the crew worked at Felts Park, and he only expected the position to be temporary, but he was soon promoted to part-time radio announcer for the weekends.
Shortly after, he was hired by Carroll County Schools to teach and tutor students. He taught during the weekdays and then served as radio announcer on the weekends.
He eventually went full-time, taking over the “Blue Ridge Backroads” show Sunday through Friday.
For over 20 years, Allen has worked 14-hour days.
“I’ve been contemplating cutting back on my workload since March and have decided now is the time to do it. I thank Deborah Stringer and the Epperson family for their great support,” he said in a statement. “I’ve made many friends not only here at the station, but from the loyal listeners of the station and my bluegrass show. I’ve seen us grow from a primarily local station, to one that has a local, regional, national and international following.”
Allen will continue working at Carroll County Schools and plans to create an after-school program.
“I leave knowing that it has been a great ride here, but it’s time to hang up the headset and put away the microphone,” he added.
When Allen took a coast-to-coast trip in May to see San Francisco, Reno, Redwood Forest, Seattle, Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, he realized he wanted to slow down a bit and do more traveling.
Allen majored in communications at Indiana State University, where he had planned to be a sports writer until a professor talked him into making a career out of radio announcing. After graduating, he worked for his hometown radio station in Indiana as a sports announcer, calling the play-by-play for high school football, basketball and baseball games.
Soon after, he and Howard Espranik formed Magnum Communications, which bought radio station WHHV in Hillsville. There, he worked in all facets of radio from managing to sales to announcing sports.
“The area was beautiful, and I enjoyed the mountains more so than the beach,” said Allen. “I didn’t know much about bluegrass, and at the time, I wanted to get into radio management.”
After moving to Hillsville, Allen eventually gravitated from sports announcing to knowing all there is to know about bluegrass music. He has interviewed the “who’s who” of bluegrass, such as Ricky Skaggs, Bobby Osborne, Rhonda Vincent, Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Jeanette Williams, Lorraine Jordan, Valerie Smith, Ralph Stanley and Doyle Lawson, along with many local musicians.
He fondly remembers Marty Raybon coming to the studio twice for interviews.
Since he began his career at WBRF, he has covered the fiddlers convention, MerleFest and other large festivals year after year.
“I’m the kind of person that can listen to any type of music,” said Allen. “I started studying bluegrass and really enjoyed the storytelling and instrumental aspects of it... Many of the locals in Carroll County and Galax gave me a good indoctrination in bluegrass and old-time.”
Over the years, Allen has seen the station grow. When he first started, the station captured local listeners and then expanded into 40 counties in four states — Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Tennessee. Today, it even grabs the ears of those overseas through its online streaming.
“When I announced that I was leaving, I had 500 people to contact me from all over, including in France and Italy, saying they were going to miss me,” said Allen. “It feels great to hear that.”
For the past five or so years, Allen has been nominated as Bluegrass DJ of the Year through the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. WBRF has also been nominated as Bluegrass Station of the Year.
“Jay has had a great knowledge of bluegrass and always told his listeners the information they wanted to know,” said Deborah Stringer, manager of WBRF. “He connected to his audience and treated them like they were friends. It’s sad that he’s leaving. He’s going to be missed.”
Allen recalled some of his favorite listener moments. One listener called in and told his story of nearly getting a speeding ticket because he was listening to “Mule Skinner Blues” by the New Coon Creek Girls.
The song, played by Allen on WBRF was so upbeat that the listener was pulled over by the state police.
“He turned the radio up and told the officer to listen,” said Allen. “The state police understood and let him off with a warning.”
Allen remembered interviewing Sam Bush at MerleFest one year. Just after the performance, about 100 people gathered around to listen to the interview and take pictures.
“I joked that I always wondered over the years whether those people came to see Sam Bush or myself,” said Allen.
He has made many friends over the years, he said.
“I’m going to miss the people I work with and the listeners — the ones that call every night or once a week from all over the world,” said Allen. “Sometimes, we’ll get soldiers that listen and are stationed in Iraq that call in.”
Sherry Boyd will take Allen’s place, hosting the “Blue Ridge Backroads” show Monday through Thursday and “Blue Ridge Backroads Live” on Friday, broadcast from the Rex Theater in downtown Galax.
Boyd has won SPGMA’s Bluegrass DJ of the Year for four years and won the Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2010.
She has been emcee for large-scale bluegrass festivals like Merlefest for several years and has worked for WBRF for over a year.