Eastern Kentucky broadcasting pioneer dies

Eastern Kentucky broadcasting legend Ernest Sparkman has died.

Sparkman died peacefully at his home in Hazard Friday afternoon. He was 84.

He was President of the Kentucky Broadcaster's Association in 1975 and his voice was one of the most recognized in East Kentucky, echoing across the mountains for six decades. In the 1950's, Sparkman started WSGS, the first FM station in eastern Kentucky and the most powerful at 100,000 watts.

Sparkman joined WKIC in Hazard in 1948 with his country music band, the Kentucky Hilltoppers, and became an announcer at the station in 1950. He spoke the first words on many Kentucky stations including WTCW in Whitesburg, WTCR in Ashland, WSGS in Hazard, and WFLE in Flemingsburg . He built WSGS in the late 1950s when FM was still a novelty and most people did not even have FM radios in their automobiles. He once promoted the new FM station by throwing fliers over eastern Kentucky from an airplane. Believing that FM would be popular someday, he applied for as much power as he could get and soon WSGS became the most powerful station in Kentucky.

Sparkman started the East Kentucky Sports Network. In its heyday, it fed over 20 radio stations play-by-play of the Boy's Sweet 16. Sparkman called the games at the tournament for 40 years, longer than any broadcaster in Kentucky - from 1954 until 1994. WSGS is the only station in the state to broadcast every game of the tournament for the past 61 years. "When he did a ballgame, it just had a different sound to it, a great sound. To me, his voice was meant for basketball on the radio," said former Hazard basketball coach Roscoe Shackelford. In addition to calling basketball games, Ernest played basketball at Carr Creek High School under legendary coach Morton Combs and later played for another legend, Adolph Rupp, in 1944-45 on a team that included future All-Americans Alex Groza and Jack Parkinson.
He also played for the United States Air Force.

Two major fund raisers each year, the Lion's Club Radio Auction and the Senior Citizens Radio Day, have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years and both were the brainchild of Sparkman. WSGS received national attention when ABC's Ted Koppel, on Nightline, did a story on a group of volunteers from Hazard who traveled to New Orleans just days after Hurricane Katrina hit. They were accompanied by several tractor trailers loaded down with water, food, and other supplies from the people of eastern Kentucky. Randy Poff, a volunteer and deputy with the Perry County Sheriff's Department, told Koppel that all it took to get all the trucks filled was a few hours on WSGS.

Sparkman covered many memorable news stories during his long career including the 1958 Floyd County school bus crash that killed 26 children and the bus driver. He drove to Floyd County and described what he saw from the banks of the Big Sandy River. "This by far the most tragic situation that has ever taken place here in eastern Kentucky ... tonight there are families, kids, teenage boys, and teenage girls lying at the bottom of this cold river ... it's a scene that is actually so tragic that it's hard to describe," Sparkman said.

Sparkman also started local television in Hazard in the 1960's and was the voice of Santa Claus and popular characters on the radio like Greasy Creek Bill.

Ernest Sparkman is survived by his wife of 62 years, Coralee, and two sons, Faron and Shane. His sons are carrying on his legacy by managing and operating WSGS.

Visitation will be Sunday, January 17th from 5:00 until 6:30 at New Hope Christian Center in Hazard. His funeral will follow at 6:30.

(Thanks to WSGS for contributing to this story)


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