In its 40-year history, Memphis' longstanding community radio station WEVL FM 90 (technically, 89.9 on the dial) has transformed fxrom a tiny operation very few people could even pick up outside of Midtown, to an over 50-mile coverage radius reaching three states, in addition to streaming worldwide online at wevl.org. The station's popularity has also grown accordingly, thanks both to the stronger signal and a widely diverse schedule of programming, offering everything from underground rock to bluegrass to world music.
WEVL was founded in 1976 by a social worker and event promoter named Dennis Batson, who would also go on to be a founding member of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance. Batson shepherded WEVL through its shaky first few years and, obviously, played a crucial role in the station's history.
"I never knew him," says Brian Craig, a WEVL volunteer since 1981 and its program director since 1992. "But I'm told he listened to a few community stations in other cities and really liked what he heard. He got inspired to create something like that for Memphis."
WEVL's upward trajectory truly began to take shape in 1986, when the signal strength was increased dramatically and Judy Dorsey was given the title of station manager, a position she holds to this day. Under Dorsey's leadership, the station has taken great strides in terms of fund-raising, promotion, and maintaining the growing core of station members and volunteers. WEVL is now funded entirely by its membership drives and other fund-raising efforts, such as the annual Blues on the Bluff concert.
To commemorate its 40th year, the station tapped a dedicated trio of volunteer DJs — Amanda Dent, Kelly Kraisinger, and Amy Schaftlein — to create an event to serve as both a benefit concert and a celebration. That event is the WEVL 40 Fest, which takes place on Saturday, October 8th, 3-10 p.m. at Loflin Yard.
"When I think about how important this station has been to so many people over the past 40 years, it really hits me what an honor it is to be organizing this with Amy and Kelly," says Dent, who has been hosting her Monday afternoon show Lost in the Shuffle on WEVL for roughly eight years.
What Dent, Kraisinger, and Schaftlein have put together is an all-day music festival boasting a tremendous lineup of Memphis music talent, combining established mainstays MouseRocket, the Mighty Souls Brass Band, and DJs Andrew McCalla and Eric Hermeyer (formerly known as Buck Wilders and the Hook-Up) with rising stars like Chickasaw Mound and sensation Julien Baker. But the main attraction on the bill might be the WEVLs, a local supergroup featuring well-known local players Mark Edgar Stuart, Steve Selvidge, Terrence Bishop, and Graham Winchester, plus special guests who were assembled just for this particular show. "Our motto throughout has been 'it doesn't hurt to ask,'" Dent says. "And I've really been in awe of how so many people are not just willing but also eager to help us with this. "I called Terrence Bishop and asked what he thought about putting together a group of really great Memphis musicians for a one-time show. I'd been corresponding with Steve Selvidge about him playing the festival and threw the idea out to him as well. They jumped on board immediately. On the fly, Terrence named the band the WEVLs. He also recruited Mark Edgar Stuart and Graham Winchester for the core band with several special guests in the works."
And if the personnel of the WEVLs wasn't enticing enough, the idea behind the band makes it a must-see.
"They will be performing some of WEVL DJs' favorite tunes that they've played on their shows," Dent says. "So we'll be hearing versions of songs from shows like Joyce Cobb's Voices, Pajama Party, Sho-Nuff Country, and other shows we love on WEVL." With the schedule of bands set and the show date rapidly approaching, both Dent and Craig are confident that WEVL 40 Fest will be a fitting tribute to a cornerstone of Memphis music and radio. "People like us because we have passionate, knowledgeable DJs — real people who love music and put their hearts into it," says Craig. "And that's what Amanda, Kelly and Amy have done with the festival." "I can't imagine a station like WEVL being any place but Memphis," Dent says. "At the very least, it feels like home — like these are friends playing incredible music for you from the vastest and most diverse record collection ever. Because, really, that's what it is. Just a bunch of schmoes like me with regular jobs, bad habits, and an undying love for music. "Excluding Joyce Cobb from the schmoes comment, obviously." WEVL 40 Fest, Saturday, October 8th at Loflin Yard, 3-10 p.m. Prices vary.