Photo by Jonathan Rodgers
Excerpts from many of Ken Berryhill's interviews with country stars such as Ernest Tubb (top left) can be heard on "Ken's Country Classics," which airs weekly on WRVU 91.1 FM. WRVU general manager and A&S senior Jeremy Mills (top right) and his colleagues renamed Sarratt Room 182C the "Berryhill Listening Room," in honor of the man who is often described as the "Father of WRVU
Photo by Jonathan Rodgers
Years before Vanderbilt students first transmitted a weak signal through the circuitry of the University's electrical system -- a starter kit of sorts for what eventually would become the influential college radio station WRVU 91.1 FM -- there was undergraduate student and radio buff Ken Berryhill.
Berryhill arrived at the University in 1950 concerned about how he would stack up academically with his classmates. So much so that the transfer student from Lambuth College and a veteran of licensed airwaves for three years left his personal broadcast equipment at home in Memphis with his parents, promising to study without distraction. However, short of funds, he sought part-time employment at WMAK, which broadcast from the basement of Nashville's original Maxwell House Hotel, located on Church Street. Before long, he was deejaying the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift five nights a week, plus an occasional Saturday stint.
"I had to lock up in a hurry and hustle out of there," Berryhill told the Register last week. "I had to run the block to catch the last bus at 12:05."
The following year, he brought from home the equipment necessary to broadcast a radio signal from his Cole Hall dorm room.
"I couldn't be heard outside the building," he said. "So I ran a wire out my window and around one-quarter of the building's exterior."
The pirate radio signal, which reached about a mile, attracted a fair share of listeners according to the student paper, the Vanderbilt Hustler.
"... Free records are given to the student who can identify the title of the music being played," said the article, published Oct. 12, 1951, referring to on-air contests Berryhill would host. "This practice has proved amazingly popular and has gained many loyal followers of the broadcasts."
However, it didn't take long for campus officials to intervene.
"It was a matter of safety," said Berryhill, who identified himself on the air as the Voice of the Commodore. "They were concerned about lightning."
With the help of classmate Tom Landess, Berryhill would broadcast contemporary country artists, big band and the occasional Dixieland jazz tune. He even taped the final game of the 1951 World Series and rebroadcast it several times at the request of listeners (of course, this was done without the written consent of Major League Baseball).
But his vision for radio at Vanderbilt, which he told then-Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, was much more ambitious. He believed the University should provide a campus station that would broadcast entertainment, Vanderbilt-related news items, sporting events and possibly even classes.
"Chancellor Branscomb was very businesslike," said Berryhill, now 70. "He asked questions, listened to my ideas and took notes."
Shortly before Berryhill was drafted into the Army, he was contacted by Rob Roy Purdy, professor of English and chair of the committee to explore the feasibility of a student station.
"By the time I got back here [two years later], the station was up and going," he said.
Berryhill would later marry Mary Lea Morris and earn a master's degree in English from Memphis State University. His career took him through a who's who of the country music's heyday, which, in retrospect, is a bit odd.
"When I was a kid, I hated [country music]," he said. "I really couldn't stand it."
That changed in 1940 when, as a 10-year-old boy, he saw Roy Acuff and Pete Kirby, a.k.a. "Bashful Brother Oswald," perform "Wabash Cannonball" live.
"That single performance made me a fan," he said.
As television producer and radio disc jockey, he worked with or interviewed legendary artists such as Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Elvis Presley, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams Sr. and Porter Wagoner. While his association with the artists of the day was largely professional, his anecdotes are personal.
"When Elvis first hit the Billboard charts, I phoned his house to see if they had heard the news," he said. "Elvis' father, who answered the phone, asked, 'Is that good?'"
He tells of meeting Hank Williams III recently, the punk-rock-rooted country music phenom and grandson of the legendary Hank Sr.
"I had known Hank Sr., and really wanted to see his grandson at the Grand Old Opry," he said. "[The younger Williams] was very courteous to me."
Berryhill, now retired, produces a series of weekly radio programs that are broadcast globally via shortwave radio and, as of 1997, also on WRVU.
"I get mail from people all over the world who hear the programs on WRVU [Web casts] and the shortwave radio," he said.
Listeners can tune to WRVU each Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. and hear "Ken's Country Classics." In between contemporary and classic country songs, Berryhill incorporates segments from interviews he conducted in the late 1960s backstage at the Ryman Auditorium. He also airs "The Old Record Shop," which features big band and Dixieland jazz oldies. Included in between shows is a short segment in which he profiles personalities from a variety of walks of life.
Now in the fifth year in his reprised presence on campus airwaves, Berryhill has been described as the Father of Vanderbilt Radio.
"I think that might be an overstatement," he said. "All I did was strike the match."
Either way, he has earned the respect of the student-run station's current personnel, according to Jeremy Mills, general manager and senior in the College of Arts and Science. Mills and his staff last week renamed the station's listening room in Berryhill's honor.
"We've recently completed another chapter in WRVU history," said Mills, as they surprised the station's oldest deejay with a bronze plaque on the wall.
"When you said you needed to meet with me, I thought you were kicking me off the air, like on Survivor," said Berryhill.
"No," answered Mills. "We've permanently voted you onto this island.
Ken Berryhill is a 1955 alumnus of the College of Arts and Science, and is nominated for induction into the Country Radio Broadcasters Hall of Fame.