Radio pioneer, ex-UK Wildcat, dies

Ernest Sparkman, a pioneering Eastern Kentucky broadcaster, died Friday at his home in Hazard. He was 84.

Mr. Sparkman was one of the original owners of WSGS-FM 101.1, the first FM radio station in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It holds distinctions such as being the only station in the commonwealth to broadcast every game of the Boys Sweet 16 High School Basketball Tournament for the past 61 years. For 40 years, Mr. Sparkman called the games himself.

"He was one of the giants of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky," Hazard mayor Bill Gorman, whose brother L.D. Gorman was one of the original co-owners of WSGS, said Saturday. "He was a great guy, dedicated to the community and passionate about radio."

Mr. Sparkman's son, Shane, said Saturday night that his father first got interested in radio when he was in a country music band, The Kentucky Hilltoppers, which played on radio stations.

"He was loading instruments into the studio, and then, on the other side of the glass, he saw the warm announcer," said Shane Sparkman, now the news director at WSGS. "He thought he was in the wrong line of business."

Mr. Sparkman talked to the announcer about how to get into radio, and then drove to Minneapolis to learn at Beck's Radio School. He was on the air in 1950, working with numerous stations before founding WSGS.

"He had found his calling," Shane Sparkman recalled.

Mr. Sparkman bought into FM radio when FM was a bit of a novelty. Most home radios and virtually all car radios only had AM dials.

To combat the scarcity of FM, which the owner correctly believed would gain in popularity, Shane Sparkman said his dad sold FM converters, devices which could attach to car or home AM radios to enable them to receive FM signals.

As a sports broadcaster, Mr. Sparkman called the historic 1956 state championship win by the Carr Creek Indians, his alma mater.

Carr Creek coach Morton Combs once said Mr. Sparkman and late UK announcer Cawood Ledford, "were the best broadcasters in the state."

Mr. Sparkman was a high school basketball standout for Carr Creek, and received a full scholarship to the University of Kentucky, where he played for Adolph Rupp.

Shane Sparkman recalled an infamous story about his dad's freshman year.

During a terrible practice at Madison Square Garden in 1944, Rupp reportedly told him to defecate at the corner of the arena floor, "then you can go back to Carr Creek and tell the folks back home at least you did something in Madison Square Garden."

Mr. Sparkman only played one year for the Cats before being drafted at the end of World War II. He served in the Air Force. When he returned, he began building his career as a broadcaster and involved his stations in charitable efforts.

"He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through the Lion's Club Radio Auction," Gorman said.

Today, WSGS is still on the air, a "traditional country" station that broadcasts news and information with local announcers, Shane Sparkman said.

Ernest Sparkman is survived by his wife Coralee, sons Faron and Shane, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Visitation will be 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the New Hope Christian Center church on Gorman Hollow Road in Hazard. The funeral will follow.