Photo by Chris Thelen

 

“I listened to the radio a lot in Atlanta, which was the beginning of the big rock and roll battles of the early ‘60s. Man, I listened to some of the best rock and roll ever to come out of the radio, and I knew I wanted to get in the battle.”

~Drew

Harley Drew spent more than half a century in radio, and now in retirement, he spends a lot of time in books. In fact, just about everywhere you look in his North Augusta home, you see books—even on the entertainment center and end tables on his back porch.

“I’ve probably read 600 books in the past two years,” Drew said, kicking back in the recliner on his screened-in back porch. Sure, there a lot of books here, but I mostly read on my Kindle. That thing is a wonderful development. I rarely go to sleep without spending at least 30 minutes on my Kindle.”

Even as a child Drew loved to read, and that piqued his interest in radio. It was the 1950s, and 9-year-old Drew spent lots of time listening to the radio and reading magazines and books to see how things worked. “I decided then I wanted to work in radio, though probably as a technician, not an announcer,” he said.

That decision led to a 58-year career, during which he was inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame and led Augusta’s WBBQ to the top of the national ratings charts. He signed off and hung up his headphones for the last time on Sept. 28, 2017.

Drew began his radio career at age 15 with WBRO in Waynesboro, Ga. He mopped floors, burned trash and picked up some occasional weekend airtime. Before long, he was on the air before and after school.

“I signed the radio station on at 4:58 a.m. with the National Anthem. I would work until 8 o’clock, then I would get off the air and beat it to high school in time for homeroom at 8:20. I came back for some afternoon stuff, too.”

Even though he was on the air, Drew still loved the technical side of radio work. “I did a lot of electronics at the radio station even though I wasn’t paid to do that. I kept those electronics spotless.”

Eventually, Drew headed to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to become an electrical engineer.

“I listened to the radio a lot in Atlanta, which was the beginning of the big rock and roll battles of the early ‘60s. Man, I listened to some of the best rock and roll ever to come out of the radio, and I knew I wanted to get in the battle.”

With a severe case of broadcasting fever, Drew called his dad and told him he wanted to be in radio. His father didn’t think there was a future as a radio announcer but said he would support his son, so Drew moved back to Waynesboro and continued working on the air.


Harley Drew in Augusta

1962

Is the first voice
heard on WFNL

1964 – 1989

Program director for WBBQ

1989 – 1995

National Program Director for the Arrow Communications Group, owners of WZNY

1995 – 2017

Beasley Broadcast Group in 1995 as Operations Director for WGAC, WGOR, and WRDW 

2011

Inducted into Georgia Radio Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement


 

While working at WBRO, Drew would read about new radio stations getting their FCC licenses in Broadcasting Magazine. One was WFNL 1600 AM in North Augusta, and he applied for a job. In 1963, Drew was the first voice heard as WFNL went live.

“I was in the booth, and everyone else was in the parking lot, listening on their car stereos to see how the station sounded. The first song I played was Number One Man by Bruce Channel. That was appropriate since I was the Number One Man on that station!”

It turns out, he was Number 1 in another way. At the time, everybody in radio paid a lot of attention to the Pulse ratings, which measured a radio station’s listening audience. WFNL wanted to see how their new station was starting out. “Well, when we got the first Pulse ratings in, I was No. 1 right out of the box for my afternoon show.”

That caught the attention of WBBQ General Manager Ed Dunbar and Owner George Weiss. “They came in came in and said they wanted me to come work for them. I told them I just got here and didn’t want to turn around and leave. They said, ‘Well, if you ever want to leave, drive on up the hill, and we’ll put you to work!”

Around the spring of 1964, Drew decided to drive on up the hill. He joined WBBQ in the mobile news department, where he would go report on everything from arrests to car wrecks all over the Augusta-North Augusta area. 

After a few weeks in the mobile news department and filling in on-air when DJs were sick or on vacation, Drew was made a full-time DJ. Many on-air personalities had a cool nickname, so Drew decided to pick one for himself. And so was “Handsome” Harley Drew.

“It was a good name, and it served it well,” he said. “People would come up to me and say, ‘You ain’t handsome!’ And I just say, ‘Well, it’s all theater of the mind in radio!’”

“Handsome” Harley Drew hit the airwaves about the time WBBQ went to a full-time rock and roll format and became known as Tiger Radio.

“That caught on big-time,” Drew said. “We used a lot of local talent at Bell Auditorium for what we called Tiger Hop concerts and dances. We even started printing a weekly survey sheet with the ratings on them. I took pictures at the events, and the kids couldn’t wait to get their weekly Fab 40 survey and see if their pictures were on the back.”

Drew was quickly promoted to WBBQ’s program director, a position he held for the next 25 years. During that time, WBBQ became one of the top 10 highest rated radio stations in America by share of audience.

“Duncan’s American Radio rated us Number 7 in America. We were thrilled with that! It was an inconceivable honor. We held a Top 10 position with them for several years until they stopped doing those ratings.”

In 1989, Drew left WBBQ to become the national program director for Arrow Communications Group, which owned WZNY – Sunny 105.7—in Augusta. “I would fly around to their seven stations and advise on ways to generate buzz in the community and tighten up their programming and make it more interesting.”

He is particularly proud of a promotion he did for 92 ZOO – WZOQ-FM in Lima, Ohio. The local fire department wanted a new truck, so the radio station bought the old one, painted it up and took it to parades and other events. “Little kids ate that up! It generated a lot of buzz for that station.”

When Benchmark Communications bough WZNY, Drew became the station’s general manager, and he held that position until 1995, when he joined Beasley Broadcasting Group as operations director for WGAC, WGOR and WRDW. Drew stayed with Beasley until he retired in September.

“Handsome” Harley Drew earned a lot of recognition during his career. Augusta Magazine named him Augusta’s Best Radio Personality; the Augusta West Rotary Club gave him the Louis Harris Award, which is given to someone in the media who upholds the highest standards of journalism; he received many state and national awards for programming excellence. Perhaps his proudest achievement, he said, was being inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in 2011. 

Despite all his achievements and recognition, Drew felt he was being pushed to retire.

“I think there were increasing feelings in the company that I had my own road, and they didn’t want to follow it. They put pressure on me to consider retirement. I wasn’t exactly ready to retire, but I figured if that’s what they want, I’ll go ahead and retire. So I did. And I retired gracefully.”

Retirement gives Drew time for two passions that fill his home – books and family. Like his books, family photos adorn walls, shelves and tables. One photo shows Drew and his wife, Carol. They have been married for 20 years. Another photo shows his daughter, Kim, from his first wife (she died at 35 of breast cancer; his second wife was a “ricochet wife” that did not work out). He proudly shows off photos of Kim’s sons (“fine young men”) and Carol’s twin daughters (they are about 9 in the photo on the porch, but are now 20 and attending nursing school).

His favorite thing to read about? “I’m a UFO buff. I absolutely believe we are being observed by alien civilizations, and they observe us quite frequently. We’ve never disproved them.”

Drew doesn’t think aliens are here to do us any harm, but they have demonstrated their power. “There many good photos and films of UFOs flying around nuclear facilities and interfering with missile launches. I have no doubt they have bases on the moon and told us to stop going, which is why we haven’t been back since the early ‘70s.”

When you interview a man who spent more than half a century in the radio industry, you have to ask whether he believes radio is still relevant in this age of downloadable music and streaming radio.

“I knew you were going to ask that,” he said with a laugh. “I really think a lot of streaming stuff – while it’s popular at the moment – never will be as good as local radio. Well done local radio gives you information about the community – weather, traffic, news and people you hear that you can identify with. You don’t get that with streaming radio. You hear the same music over and over and don’t get local information. Spotify and those guys will never be able to do what good, locally produced radio can do.”

If Drew has his way, though, his retirement won’t be permanent. If the right opportunity comes along, Drew would certainly consider going back on the air. For him, the right opportunity would be North Augusta-based WAFJ 88.3, a contemporary Christian radio station. (He is quick to add the disclaimer that he has not talked to – or been approached by – WAFJ concerning future employment.) After a career in rock and roll and news/talk, why go to Christian radio?

“I like what they do. The older you get, the more you believe in Jesus because you’re going to meet him sooner than later! It’s just something I believe in and would enjoy being a part of.”

Article appears in the January 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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