Billy Benns (1918-1999)
WFLI, Owner and General Manager
William E. Benns, Jr. (Billy) was born in September 13, 1918 and passed in December of 1999. He was born in Bessemer to William E. Benns, Sr. and Iralee Whitaker (occupations listed as architect age 44 and housewife age 29, respectively). He graduated from Sidney Lanier High School in Montgomery, Alabama. He was best known in Chattanooga as the owner of WFLI-AM radio, and he formerly owned radio stations in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, and Jacksonville, FL. He was a member of the American Federation of Communication Consulting Engineers, a HAM radio operator, and an avid pilot of many years.
(more to come)
Education and Marriage
From 1936-39 he attended Auburn University (Alabama Polytechnic Institute), graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, listed as “William Edwin Benns, Jr. of Montgomery” in the program. He was a Lambda Chi Fraternity member and became a member of the American Radio Relay League, Inc in 1939 with the call sign of W4FKJ.
Billy married Barbara Brady in 1939, and their early letters reflect a happy life. They are particularly attached to their kitty Roustabout, and they often write about Roustabout’s adventures in letters to Iralee and William E. Benns, Sr.
This letter reveals his intentions and ideas before forming WFTM, his first radio station. Perhaps this is a draft that he sent to potential investors. He writes “The idea of organizing a broadcasting station originated during the month of November, 1938. I was at the time moving old equipment for WSFA and noticed the prosperity of the station while at the same time waste was evident in the form of excess employees and equipment. Most radio stations are run by men who [know] nothing of radio and consequently do not appreciate where their money is going.” He continues to describe his strategy and current application situation.
WFTM AM 1210, located in Fort Myers, Florida, was the first station built, and the Benns family owned it from 1939 to 1942. Here are pictures of its early development.
According to documents sent to the FCC in 1941, Billy held the title of manager with a salary of $25.00 per week. His mother, Iralee Benns, held the position of Advertising Manager and earned $30.00 per week. An announcer there is listed as making $16.00 per week and an engineer-announcer made $22.00 per week. Billy’s wife, Barbara Benns, was listed as making $10.00 per week as program director.
A letter sent to the FCC concerning the sale of WFTM to Ronald B. Woodyard, notes that the application is still incomplete. Billy had concerns that Woodyard was preventing the sale of WFTM “without having to buy an option. However, he may come through this time. If you don’t receive the contract Monday, he will have made a goat of us and placed us in an embarrassing situation.” In a later letter (August 1942) Billy writes to his mother that he “received the contract this morning and was certainly glad to get it…However, If Mr. Woodyard does not sign the papers like he is supposed to I would be very happy with you in Fort Meyers…If the government has not signed me up for a year for the duration, I would be tempted to head for Florida if you don’t dispose of the station right away, but I know everything will turn out for the best.” WFTM was eventually sold to Woodyard.
In a letter dated August 8, 1942, Billy address what jobs his mother and father should look for and the possibilities for his parents to stay together during war time. Billy writes, “Every month that passes there are more opportunities for you and Dad. Selling is no good for making money, however there are exceptions.” Since there was great uncertainty as to when WWII would come to a close, perhaps Billy saw broadcasting as a risky venture at this time.
After working in radio at WFTM for 2 1/2 years, he worked for the War Department, Signal Corps General Development Laboratory, Fort Monmouth. He was honorably released Sept. 19, 1942.
He worked at USC (University of South Carolina) from 1945-46. A newspaper article entitled “College Clinic Will Stress Engineering Field for GI’s” describes free sessions of vocational advice for college bound GI’s and the shortage of engineers. “Opportunities in the field of electrical engineering will be outlined by Prof. Samuel Litman and Prof. W. E. Benns, who will also deal with power and communications options” (The State August 12, 1945).
In a letter dated Mar 14, 1945, Billy describes his future plan to his mother for the next radio station in Birmingham. “At the present, I have my eye on Birmingham for the next radio station…The Brennans are quite interested in owning half interest with the understanding that you and I are to operate the station. If this is acceptable and they don’t change their minds, we can apply for a 1kw station with the intention of applying for modification of construction permit allowing 5 kw if the 1 kw application is granted. If I finally decide on Birmingham after a more complete study of the situation you might want to establish your residence in or near that city.”
More to come…
Chattanooga Times Free Press obituary, Thursday, December 30, 1999
“William Edwin Benns Jr. Dies; Engineer Owned WFLI Radio”
William Edwin Benns Jr., the owner of WFLI-AM radio and the owner/operator of Benns Consulting Engineering Co., died Tuesday, Dec. 27, 1999, in a local hospital. He was 81.
Mr. Benns, a resident of Lookout Mountain, had lived in the Chattanooga area for more than 40 years and was an honors graduate of Auburn University.
He was a member of the American Federation of Communication Consulting Engineers, a HAM radio operator and an avid pilot of many years. He was a well-known broadcaster, radio and TV station owner. He had formerly owned stations in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., Richmond, Va., and Jacksonville, Fla.
He was father of the late Robert A. Benns. Survivors include his wife, Ying Hua Benns; two sons, William E. Benns III, Virginia Beach, Va., and Michael J. Benns, Knoxville; two daughters, Betty Ann Benns, Chattanooga, and Patricia Komorowski, Alburqueque, N.M.; 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
The funeral will be today at 7:30 p.m. at the East Brainerd Road Chapel of Heritage Funeral Home with the Rev. Gene Coleman officiating.
Burial will be in Brighton Cemetery, Bessemer, Ala., on Friday at 11 a.m. CST.
The family will receive friends today from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the funeral home.
Memories of Billy Benns from friends and family:
Ben Cagle – “December of 1960 ended as another mundane lackluster year in Chattanooga radio. In January of 1961 the final plans were being formulated for a radio station to serve the Chattanooga area. That radio station was WFLI and for many after Feburary 20, 1961, things would never be the same. WFLI 1070 AM was on the air. Station owner Billy Benns saw an emerging trend grow year after year and he wanted to a part of it. This relatively new thing called rock n’ roll was a baby boom bonanza.”
Tommy Jett – “It was all because of Mr. Benns and the vision he had. And WFLI was all a piece of luck, really. He and Bill Brennan saw no way they could get the frequency since there were already two stations on the frequency. So it started out as a joke to pass time and to file for the station. And then it turned out that the joke became the reality. And in return Mr. B was one of the most knowledgeable people that I knew at the time. Mr. B was like father figure to me in the later years. In the early years, he had a specific vision of what he wanted to do at WFLI, and the format was very tight. The music was carefully selected, and things were done very much according to the way Mr. Benns wanted it done. And luckily for us, things were done right.”
Mike King “Mr. Benns wanted to name me Mike Fli. My youthful ego got in my way. I now wish I had permitted the change. That could have been a lot of fun.”
Ross Allen “I can still see him walking across the lobby in the morning from his apartment down the hallway in socks and a t-shirt. He’d come in telling me not to play that record again. I’d seen him break the records if he didn’t want them played.”
Robert Brennan – “Billy Benns was a great engineer and visionary as well as a good fried and partner of my late father- Bill Brennan. Billy Benns was unique and not afraid to challenge the FCC when necessary according to stories I heard from my Uncle (also a great Enginner – Cyril Brennan)”
David Carroll – This is a photo “from the late Bettye Burchard’s WFLI photo collection (late 1970s!) First up, Billy Benns with beautiful little Betty in his lap!”
Brennan-Benns Broadcasting: A historical tribute to WAPE WBAM WFLI and WVOK created by David Isreal