Piedmont broadcaster, State Road native retires

State Road native Ralph Shaw, seen here in the studio at WTOB 980 AM in Winston-Salem, had a journalism career spanning the Siloam Bridge collapse to interviewing four presidents of the United States.

Courtesy Ralph Shaw

Overhear Ralph Shaw at the grocery store or, perhaps, the gas station and many people in the Piedmont will readily pause at the familiar timber of his voice.

And anyone receiving a letter or email from him might guess he’s spent some time as a professional editor — the placement of each hyphen or comma is the epitome of punctuation perfection.

After nearly 50 years as a broadcaster and journalist in the region, the State Road native who got his start at WIFM in Elkin is retiring.

He said it’s a decision that brings mixed emotions.

“What I do, I do because I love it,” said Shaw, who is 66. “I got into radio because of a love for the business, a love for music. I got into news back in ‘74 because I loved finding out things and being able to report them.”

His last day behind the microphone is Sept. 30, wrapping up his career at WTOB 980 AM in Winston-Salem — a morning show gig that had him rising from bed at 2:45 a.m. He said he’s only needed his alarm a handful of times throughout his career and once even worked double duty filling in as the evening assignment editor at Channel 12 in Winston-Salem while also doing the morning show in Elkin.

“I had to write out what day it was,” he admitted of that disjointed period.

Shaw’s radio career launched in 1972 during his junior year at Surry Central High School in Dobson. He is the son of Raymond and Martha Shaw. His dad was an electrician and plumber.

“Everybody knew my daddy and everybody knew my momma. She was also a weaver,” Shaw recounted. “She learned how to weave from her grandmother, who was a demonstrator for Chatham Manufacturing.”

Shaw and his father also did stints with Chatham. After high school, Shaw studied business at Surry Community College. He had been named after Dr. Ralph Cook of Elkin and had grown up knowing his family hoped he would pursue medicine.

But medicine just didn’t appeal to him. He considered becoming a pharmacist. Then, he won some records in a contest on WIFM in Elkin, and stopped by the studio to pick up his prize. He was hooked.

During his early years at WIFM in Elkin, he was encouraged to do some work as a news reporter rather than spinning records. One of his first stories was the Siloam Bridge collapse. During his coverage, he hitched a ride on an emergency helicopter and even took photographs of the scene.

“I realized I had a major news story on my hands,” Shaw recalled. “I was getting calls from stations around the country and we had ABC News calling … I’ll never forget that night. That’s when I started being a stringer for the Winston-Salem Journal.”

He has been employed by or his work has broadcast on radio and television stations in Sparta, Mount Airy, North Wilkesboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, Greensboro, Charlotte, Burlington, Sylva, Eden, Asheboro, Lexington, Roxboro, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Either through wire service transmission or stringer gigs, his voice or words have reached people across the country through ABC, the Associated Press, CBS, Mutual News, NBC, North Carolina News Network, NPR and United Press International.

During his career, he has held nearly every job title in the industry: disc jockey, program director, reporter, traffic reporter, news anchor, assignment editor, assignment manager, news director, account representative and station manager.

After being an airborne traffic reporter in Winston-Salem, he moved to the assignment editor position at Channel 8 in High Point. It was the lowest ranked news station in the broadcast area at the time.

“At that point, we had the smallest staff, we did not have live capabilities and we did not have a helicopter. My instructions were do your best,” Shaw said. “From 1983 through May of ‘84, we struggled. We were No. 3 in the ratings in September 1983. And then we climbed to No. 1. We did that on news story content alone.”

Shaw has earned more than 30 awards for his work, including several honors for North Carolina Journalist of the Year.

“Through all my years in journalism, I have never ever been accused of being unfair,” Shaw said of his longevity.

He often moonlighted in the evening at clubs as a disc jockey, and one night a bouncer whom he regularly interacted with said, “You don’t even know my real name.”

“He told me his real name, and I was shocked. I said, ‘I bet you want to beat the hell out of me,’” Shaw recalled. “He said, ‘The story you did on me was fair. You gave the truth and I know you to be a fair person.’”

Years earlier, Shaw had covered the story of the bouncer who, at the time, had been an insurance agent and involved in fraudulent activity.

“Daddy always said to treat people fairly — it doesn’t matter how seemingly important they are or seemingly unimportant they are,” Shaw said. “I’ve always tried to live by that.”

Lisa Michals is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Tribune.