The East Tennessee radio waves are a little more drab these days, ever since Billy Kidd, the longtime disc jockey for WIMZ-FM 103.5, died on Nov. 11.
Born William Winningham, the radio veteran had been with Knoxville’s classic rock station for almost 30 years. He was 61 years old and was found in his home on Veteran’s Day. Two years ago, he was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame, and although based in Knoxville, the station’s wattage meant that Kidd’s voice could be heard throughout the region, including Blount County. In addition, his favorite charity, Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee, was based in Maryville. The center named their loading dock after him.
“As long as he was part of the radio station, he was involved in Second Harvest and feeding people,” Aaron Snukals, director of events for BigWheel in Knoxville and the former director of development for Second Harvest, told The Daily Times this week. “I remember one time, we were doing ‘Camping for Cans’ at Walmart in Knoxville, and there was a bus stop right behind us, and all of these people were going to and from the bus stop with their carts, and they were hungry, too.
“Billy would just go up to them and ask, ‘What do you need?’ He would load them up with food, and I saw him on several occasions reach into his wallet and give them $20 or $100 out of his own pocket. That was Billy. When he was off the air, he was the same as he was on the air.”
Genuine — that’s the word that seems most associated with the long-time WIMZ disc jockey. As a promoter, he was often a part of performances at Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville, says former Shed Entertainment Director Josh Formont, who recently left the venue for a marketing position with Earthadelic in Knoxville. But even when the station wasn’t promoting shows by bands like Jackyl or Foghat, Kidd was often there anyway, Formont added.
“Every single charity event, he was a part of it, and not only would he promote it, he would come out to the event,” Formont said. “And even when we weren’t buying advertising, he loved The Shed so much that he would talk about it constantly. He would come out to shows that didn’t fit the WIMZ demographic, like Blackberry Smoke — the station didn’t play their music, but he would bring them on, interview them, promote the show and not charge us anything. At the show, he was always taking pictures and posting on his social media. He was such a pro, and I don’t know if there’s a more recognizable voice in Knoxville radio than his.”
Over the past 30 years, Kidd became a fixture on the East Tennessee airwaves whose steady presence was rivaled only by men like Blount County’s Ted Ousley, known to listeners of WIVK-FM as Gunner. His longevity during a time of media transition made him a steady hand for those who sought personality to go along with the songs they liked, and Kidd gave it to them and then some, Snukals said.
“You’ve got to remember, when Billy was on the air and first starting, there weren’t all the other intrusions in the media world that we have today,” said Snukals, himself a radio veteran who worked with Kidd years ago as a sales manager for the station.
“We were still rolling tape, still using big eight-track tape players in the studio, and people listened to us for traffic and weather. Radio was the only alternative you had back then.
“I think there’s an art to radio, because anybody can sit behind a microphone and play some records and tell you who’s next. But there’s an art to grabbing listeners, to getting them to stay with you and follow you, and Billy had that gift mastered. And on top of that, he would put his hands on a stack of Bibles and tell you that the reason God put him on this earth was to do things for other people through the 1,000 watt megaphone of WIMZ.”
The music was important, but so too was his advocacy. This weekend, Kidd will be buried in Livingston, Tennessee, and throughout this week, his coworkers at WIMZ have solicited listener stories and pictures of him in order to pay tribute to their fallen comrade. It hasn’t been easy, says deejay Tammy Kelly — known to listeners as T.K. — but it has, in a way, been cathartic, she said.
“I’ve talked to countless people this week, and the continuing theme throughout everyone’s encounters with Billy was that they felt like they knew him forever,” she said. “He would talk to you like he’d known you his whole life, and that’s the truth. That doesn’t mean he was a saint; he and I would get into it, because we shared an office, and I would come into the station around the time he was going on the air — and nine times out of 10, my office would be covered in his lunch!
“But he would turn it into a bit, and at the end, he would say, ‘That’s good radio right there.’ He was always looking a way to have fun, and that’s the other thing people have mentioned: how much fun he was on the air. He was a really generous human being who wanted to find the joy in every aspect of life. He lived that, and that was the legacy he left behind.”