When Bettye Robinson started working at WESL July 31, 1972, as a receptionist, she had no way of knowing how many changes she’d see in her 35 year career there.
You may not recognize her name, because most of her work was behind the scenes, although she was called on to work in the control room occasionally when a jock was late for a shift. She readily admits to becoming the mother figure for many of the station’s announcers over the years.
The station had just recently returned to the airwaves when she was hired, having gone dark because of financial problems. WESL signed on July 10 of that year under the ownership of E. St. Louis Broadcasting. The company was overseen by majority owner Dr. Wendell Hansen. “He was a jewel. I loved him,” says Bettye Robinson. “He would come in once a month. We’d have a sales meeting and he’d give us a pep talk. We made a lot of money with him.”
Hansen was a real character, even by radio standards. He had a group of trained birds which he’d occasionally bring to the station, where he would put on a bird show. “He was just good for the station,” Robinson recalls. “I think we made more money under Dr. Hansen than we did under any other owners. He’d worked with radio and with black people before and he knew the kind of music blacks liked. He knew how to deal with people.”
Reverend Robert Wolf, the station manager, had hired Bettye Robinson, a process she recalls fondly. “He was the best manager I had. He taught me so much about radio. There was an article in the paper and he said he was looking for a receptionist. So I came down. He said ‘Are you sure you want to work in radio?’ I told him I’d give it a try. And Reverend Wolf asked if I could type. I told him I could, so he sent me to the E. St. Louis employment office to take a typing test. That was on a Thursday. He called me at home the next day and asked if I wanted to go to work. I asked when I could start and he told me to come in Monday.”
At that point, WESL featured block programming. Don O’Day had an oldies show. Ken Brantley hosted a program of gospel music. Program director Decatur Agnew even asked the station’s receptionist to host a daily five-minute household hints show. Bettye Robinson remembers writing the scripts using a big book full of information. She also took calls from listeners who had specific questions. Her 2:00 p.m. show, Bettye’s Household Tips, ran for about a year.
Everything at the station changed in January, 1984, when Bishop L.E. Willis of Norfolk, Va., bought WESL. The format was switched to gospel and all the announcers quit. Bettye Robinson has been the administrative assistant to Dr. Hansen, and she performed many of the same duties as the station liaison to the bishop.
Ten years later there was another owner, nightclub impresario Robert Riggins. His hope was that he could use the station to promote his club, and for awhile it worked well. Blues musicians appearing at the club would drop by the station, which was a thrill for Bettye Robinson. “With Mr. Riggins I met all the blues people and they’re very nice. Johnny Taylor, Bobby Bland, Bobby Rush. I met so many entertainers I’d heard about.”
But Riggins’ lack of knowledge of the radio business proved to be his downfall. He spent money to add on to the studio building, envisioning an increase in the sales staff. “He was going to hire all these people to come in and turn things around,” says Robinson, but it never happened. “Mr. Riggins never really moved into the new building because he got sick. That was his dream - to move into the new building.”
In the late ‘90s, Bettye Robinson decided to retire to pursue another dream, but those plans took a detour. ““I retired from WESL in 1999 on a Saturday evening. I had a big retirement celebration. Mr. Riggins asked ‘What are we going to do without you? I don’t know radio.’ And Mozella, his wife, said, ‘You can’t leave us.’ So I told them I’d come back and help until they could find someone. I went back the next Monday morning and ended up staying.”
Another ownership change came in November of 2004. Simmons Media bought WESL and later moved out of the E. St. Louis studios, consolidating operations with another radio property in a building on Laclede’s Landing on the Missouri side of the river. The format was also changed, bringing back Bettye Robinson’s thoughts of retirement. WESL, she says, would never be the same. “Home is that little building that sits at 149 S. Eighth Street, and when I think of WESL, that’s what I see in my mind.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 3/2007.)