As country music began to gain momentum on the airwaves in the 1970s, WSVL-FM’s Ann Williams grew to become a well-respected member of that genre’s radio community. Her enthusiasm and dedication created a loyal audience and established 97.1 as one of central Indiana’s primary country music stations.
Williams was the morning host who welcomed Shelby County’s earliest-rising radio listeners to the new day for 11 years, from 1968 until 1979.
“She had a tremendous knowledge of country music and was one of its greatest promoters,” said fellow station broadcaster Jack Boyce. “She received widespread recognition from the country music industry and became well-known, even in Nashville.”
WSVL-AM, 1520 (operating today as WSVX and also as 96.5 FM) and WSVL-FM, 97.1, were radio stations owned by Shelby County Broadcasting, Inc. that served the Shelby County area beginning in 1961 and 1964, respectively. Both stations provided news and sports coverage with 1520 programming primarily dedicated to the city of Shelbyville and 97.1, which enjoyed a wider scope due to its more powerful signal, directing service more to Shelby County and outlying areas.
Williams would arrive at the station at 4:30 a.m. following her drive to work from the Greensburg area and “turn on the power,” as she would say.
“In those days, radio stations had to have a person with a first-class radio license on site,” said Boyce. “Ann was already a ham radio operator so that was an advantage. She could turn the station on and run program as well. She served two important functions.”
The FCC eliminated the requirement for an on-duty Radio Telephone Operator License First Class in 1981. However, up to that time, the “first phone” license was an extremely important credential.
She would start the day with the 5 a.m. state and national news and then launch into country programming that was simulcast on both stations until 6 a.m. She would continue sending out country tunes on the fm side throughout the morning until her shift ended at 11:30 a.m.
The cramped fm studio featured a microphone, console board and vinyl records of the 45 and 78 variety that lined the walls, at times spilling over to the floor. Williams always kept a copy of the weekly Billboard Magazine in the studio so as to keep listeners updated concerning current country music hits and up and coming songs and artists.
“Ann developed quite a following,” stated former WSVL salesman and announcer Mark Risley. “She was very popular because she was an expert and had a genuine love for country music. People really appreciated that. She had a wide audience of dedicated listeners.”
Williams (photo) had a smooth, rural-flavored delivery with just enough of an accent to let the listener know that he or she was tuned to a country station. She played the country stars of the period with a playlist that included: Johnny Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, Bobby Bare, Freddy Fender and The Blackwood Singers. She would also reach back to her classic collection for selections from artists such as Narvel Felts, Ray Pillow, Stonewall Jackson, Stoney Edwards and even Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
She received regular calls for requests from listeners. Major Hospital nurses working the late shift routinely called.
“One nurse likes for me to play Hoyt Axton’s, ‘You’re the Hangnail in My Life,’” said Williams in 1975. “I get a lot of calls for Donna Fargo and recently people have been requesting newer performers like Pure Prairie League and Jesse Colter.”
Pure Prairie League and Colter would be at the forefront of the “crossover” artists who would have success in both country and pop music.
Country music was generally heard on radio via live performances at venues such as barn dances and hayrides in the 1920s and 1930s. Radio stations that catered to country music fans emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were generally located in smaller towns or rural areas and the music programming was part of a general format that also included news, sports and other local happenings.
Larger markets began to refine the country music format in the 1960s. Many believe country music became fully accepted in urban America in 1973 when New York’s WHN became an all-country music station.
WSVL-FM was ahead of its time in a couple of ways.
First, it became an all-country station beginning in 1964. The country music wave that would result in a proliferation of such enterprises was 10-20 years in the future.
And second, WSVL-FM featured a female DJ as its primary representative. There were a limited number of women broadcasters at the time and even fewer in leadership roles.
Risley and WSVL employees did not give much thought to the idea that Ann’s position within the organization could be groundbreaking. Risley said: “I don’t think it ever really dawned on us that she was unique or that it was something out of the ordinary. She was just extremely capable and qualified.”
Williams enjoyed steady success and earned respect in country music circles. She and Boyce (main photo) were given the opportunity to travel to Nashville to broadcast two days of WSVL morning shows from Opryland in June of 1972 and 1973.
“That was truly a remarkable experience,” said Boyce. “WSM Radio provided the studio and Ann was in her element. We saw numerous country music stars and Ann chased several of them down and persuaded them to join us on the air. We were able to feature our local sponsors as well. Ann had traveled to Nashville a few times. I could not believe how many performers she knew.”
Valerie Freeman was WSVL traffic manager during Ann’s time at the station.
“I answered the phone one morning and the voice said, ‘Yes. This is Charley Pride. Is Ann Williams available?’ I, of course, thought it was some joke but it was really Charley Pride,” said Freeman. “He talked to Ann for 10-15 minutes. I know he called her at least one other time at the station.”
Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000.
Williams was nominated for Small Market On-Air Personality of the Year and received a “Mr Dee-Jay USA Award” from Opryland.
Shelby County Broadcasting sold WSVL-FM to Emmis Communications in 1980. The powerful 97.1 signal in the Indianapolis market offered the potential for significantly greater earnings. WENS-97.1 became the first Emmis station. President and CEO Jeff Smulyan would develop Emmis into a major media empire with radio, television and publications that would include Indianapolis’ WIBC and New York’s WFAN.
97.1 FM currently operates under call letters WLHK and is once again a country music channel. In June, Emmis announced the sale of its Indianapolis radio holdings, including WLHK.
Williams left WSVL in 1979. She and her husband moved to an area of Tennessee where they had owned land for many years. She later worked as a DJ for Tennessee stations WAMG and WHIN. Ann died in 2018 at the age of 87.
Many Shelby County residents remember Ann Williams and the heart she gave to the country music she played for her listeners. I am sure many of her former listeners think of Ann Williams whenever they hear a country song. I know I do.