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Radio in Beckley began when Joe L. Smith Jr., son of Congressman Joe L. Smith, applied for a broadcast license in 1938. Several months later, Smith received his authorization and WJLS (for the initials of J. L. Smith) went on the air in the spring of 1939. The younger Smith served as station manager until called to military service in October 1941. His brother, Hulett C. Smith, later governor of West Virginia, then took the radio position until he, too, went to the service. In June 1943, the station affiliated with the CBS network.

Local programming was important at WJLS in the early years. Several of the early country entertainers who played at the Beckley station went on to significant careers in the music business, notably Little Jimmy Dickens, who ultimately entered the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Lilly Brothers, early pioneers of bluegrass music. Others associated with WJLS included Johnnie Bailes, Walter Bailes, Lynn Davis and Molly O’Day, and the Dobro pioneer and songwriter, George ‘‘Speedy’’ Krise.

Over the years, there were numerous changes. In 1947, WJLS added an FM affiliate that in 1957 became WBKW-FM. At the end of the 1960s, WJLS became a country station while WBKW adopted a Christian format, both stations retaining this programming for several years and the Smiths retaining control. More recently, the format has shifted again with the AM station being Southern Gospel and WJLS-FM being country. Since 2013, WJLS has been owned by the West Virginia Radio Corporation.

Written by Ivan M. Tribe


  1. Tribe, Ivan M. Mountaineer Jamboree: Country Music in West Virginia. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.

  2. Becker, Martha J. & Marilyn Fletcher. Broadcasting in West Virginia: A History. Charleston: West Virginia Broadcasters Association, 1989.