Lucedale and surrounding communities have been tuning into local radio station WRBE for 63 years.
WRBE first aired Sept. 3, 1960. “I remember the day well,” lifelong resident JoAnn Weaver said. “It was the Saturday before Labor Day in 1960,” Weaver said. “I had stopped by the post office and had received a letter from Mil asking me for our first date. I had the radio on and heard it that day.” Mil is her late husband, a long-time respected attorney in Lucedale.
Galloway Corley started the station and built the building. He hired a station manager and announcers to operate it. Corley sold the station to Hubert (Pinky) Grant in 1972. Grant sold it to Herman Kelly in 1980. During Kelly’s ownership Doug Luce, Sr. had an interest in the station as a silent partner. Kelly sold it in 1998 to Larry Shirley, who still owns the station.
In the Sept. 8, 1960 edition of the George County Times, a front-page headline announced “WHHT Begins Broadcasts.” Those were the original call letters of the station when it aired on 1440 as an AM frequency only. Sometime later the call letters for the AM changed to WRBE as a tribute to the local high school mascot, the George County Rebels. The letters WREB were not available; therefore, the letters were transposed to WRBE. When Kelly added the FM on the dial at 106.9 in 1990, he used the same WRBE call letters for both AM and FM. In 2011 Shirley and a co-worker changed the AM to WVGG with one G representing George County and the other G representing Greene County.
Bill Mims worked as a disc jockey as a high school teenager after school and on weekends. “I started working there fall 1966 or early winter 1967. I graduated 1967. Back then it was WHHT. Chuck Burgess was manager and the voice on the advertisements. The radio aired from dawn until dusk so its hours varied depending on the time of the year. In the wintertime it signed off about 5 p.m. In the summer months it signed off about 7 p.m.,” Mims said. “I was young and wanted to play rock-n-roll. It was a considered a country station, but the music changed depending on the time of day. Early in the day it was country. Then from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. it was rock-n-roll. At 5 p.m. the station played dinnertime music.”
The station’s primary format is still country. Its audience mainly consists of George, Greene, Perry and northern Jackson counties and has the capability of reaching even more listeners through internet streaming. The AM is 5000 watts and the FM is 6000 watts.
In addition to playing music, the station serves as a news outlet for listeners, has a popular daily swap shop session and follows local high school sporting events. When Shirley bought WRBE, Kelly advised him to not waste his time with sports because it would take too much time and not generate much revenue. “I just listened to him, but I knew I wanted to cover sports,” Shirley said. “He was right in that it did take a lot of time, but he was wrong about the money because I made money on sports.”
“In 1998 when I came here, I had one turntable, one CD player and a cassette player. Now we play music on radio from the internet, but I like the flexibility of the other avenues,” Shirley said.
Shirley first got into the radio business in 1967 while in high school at Quitman. His family had lived in Maryland until 1965 when his father died of a penicillin reaction. He and his mother moved back to Mississippi. Because Shirley had lived in other regions of the country, his dialect was much different than other teenagers in Quitman. “Herman (Kelly) owned the radio station in Quitman and some of the kids in school made a bet with me that I wouldn’t go ask Herman for a job. The bet was on,” Shirley recalled. “I walked in and asked for a job. He said, ‘You’re hired.’ I asked why and he said because you don’t sound like the kids around here.”
Shirley and Kelly continued to cross paths even after Shirley earned a constructional engineering degree and worked in other careers. Shirley worked as a disc jockey at various stations throughout college and in his early married years to earn extra income. He also partnered with Kelly and another man in owning a station in central Mississippi. In 1980 he and his wife and infant son actually moved to Lucedale for Shirley to work for Kelly; however, that only lasted a few months. “I thought Lucedale wasn’t friendly, but it was Herman who wasn’t friendly. He and I were as different or opposite as we could be,” Shirley said. “He and I headbutted, and Jackie cried the whole time.”
When the opportunity to buy WRBE arose years later, his wife Jackie was hesitant because of her 1980 experience. “Jackie and I said to each other, ‘let’s pray and make sure we do the right thing in buying the station.’ I’ve never regretted it,” Shirley said.