Located beneath the towering red and white antenna on Riverview Road, JET’s classic little radio station near the new Unicoi County hospital is home to WEMB 1420 AM station, owned and operated by Maria’s dad from 1958 until his death in 1994. It is also home to its sister station, WXIS 103.9 FM, founded by her uncle.
An Erwin native and Unicoi County High School graduate, Maria was in her early 20s when her father, James E. “Country Jim” True, passed away and placed the station in trust for his children under the management of his employees.
And so the station continued for the next 20 years when, in keeping with Jim’s will, Maria returned to Erwin to take control of the family’s broadcasting legacy and bring it into a new era of radio.
Still a young man when he purchased the station, during Jim True’s era at WEMB the station played primarily country music with blocks of rock, jazz and big band music in its programming mix.
“They called him Country Jim but his passion was big band,” Maria said. She treasures his collection of big band classics on reel-to-reel tape and vinyl. And she lovingly recalls how her dad recorded his “Yesterday 1420 Memory Lane” show so he could go home and wash his car while listening to his favorites.
“He loved Hank Williams Sr. too. But his real love was big band,” she said.
In the years between her stints at the station, Maria studied business administration at East Tennessee State University and a college in Newport News, Va. She lived for a time in Little Rock, Ark., and in Colorado Springs, Colo. She married and had a daughter. And a little more than a year before her most recent return to Erwin, she founded a Merle Norman Cosmetics Studio in Rogersville that continues to operate successfully.
By the time she she took over the stations and used her dad’s initials to form JET Corp. in his honor, radio had evolved to the point that a majority of listeners were no longer tuning in for music but for talk radio, news and sports.
In keeping with that trend, Maria reformatted the stations and within a year had transformed WEMB to NBC Sports 1420 featuring Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd’s No. 1 and No. 2 top sports radio programs in the nation. The station also has local sports programming, including live coverage of the Unicoi County Blue Devils.
The FM station went to round-the-clock news with local, national and international reports updating every 21 minutes via CBS News and local news reporters stringing from here to Virginia; entertainment features, including Paula Deen, Bob Vila, Rachael Ray; and local community focus segments on nonprofit organizations across the region.
“All of that was to stay on trend with radio listenership,” Maria said. It’s an evolution she plans to continue.
“There will be more tweaks to add variety and interest. Both stations are constantly evolving. I want the stations to really take off. And, to dream big, make us the most listened to stations in the Tri-Cities.”
Three and a half years into that dream, she said Live Wire Radio 103.9 is already offering listeners more news than any other station in the Tri-Cities.
“Live Wire Radio 103.9 is not a traditional station. It’s a whole new concept in radio.”
Looking back over her family’s 60 years on the air, she said, “We’ve always considered ourselves to be an innovator, an originator, setting the tone for Tri-Cities radio.
“We’ve always been ahead of our time and that tradition is continuing.”
Email Sue Guinn Legg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.