He's known, simply, as Cousin Ray. On more formal occasions he's Raymond Woolfenden. By either handle, the 71-year-old owner and driving force behind WPWC-AM's "top shot country sound" in Dumfries is known far and wide as a crusty, tireless pioneer of radio broadcasting.
"I love it," he says. Why, then, does he want to sell?
"We have a great station here," he said the other day. "Over the years, I've turned 10 stations country and none is as community-oriented as we are." While Cousin Ray may be best known as the early-morning voice on his 1000-watt outlet, playing the tunes, old and new, for devoted listeners in Northern Virginia, he wears other hats as well: station designer and builder, sole advertising salesman and head cheerleader for his homegrown product in a market overshadowed by Washington's 50,000-watt WMZQ.
But he's been in the business now for more than 40 years and has decided he can't keep up the pace. Last July, he suffered a mild stroke and it has sapped his energy. The strong, soothing voice is still there. The shock of white hair and long, bushy sideburns, the trademark Kentucky Colonel tie, tucked up under his sagging chin -- none of that has changed. But you notice that he walks more slowly now, and his hands tap chairs and walls to help him keep his balance. His formerly excellent memory seems to fail sometimes. And he's just tired. He wants to sell the station. He's asking $1.2 million.
"One, two, three ... I've got seven people interested, most from northern Virginia," he said, thumbing through a manila folder pulled from a stack on his desk, each bulging with records and memories. "Can't say how long it will take. Won't know that till I've got the money."
Woolfenden was dubbed Cousin Ray when he was 5 years old by a little girl in a tiny town in Virginia that is no more. It was called Kopp, and it's now the site of Quantico Marine Base. He grew up there, and the little girl was the only person he didn't know at a birthday party. Turns out they were related, a fact he discovered when she ran up, threw her arms around him and exclaimed "Cousin Ray!" The name stuck. It also fit his friendly on-air persona when his broadcasting career began in Akron, Ohio, after World War II.
"I'd been working as a mechanic, but my nails were always dirty," he said. No Akron station offered a program of country music, the music he'd grown up with, so he walked right in to a local station and offered to start one. The one-hour program quickly expanded to four, but Cousin Ray sought new challenges. Soon, he was back in Virginia, and in 1961 launched what was probably the nation's first all-country FM station, WXRA.
Since Cousin Ray returned in 1973 to the county where he was born and raised, he has not only run WPWC-AM with the same vigor he applied to a score of other stations throughout the South, he's built a reservoir of good will, as well. While his long days at the station begin by 5 a.m., he's just as likely to be found emceeing the Fourth of July parade, entertaining the handicapped or tracking down a cheap refrigerator for a needy family.
Certificates of appreciation cover the dark paneled walls at WDWC: thank-you's from veterans hospitals where Cousin Ray and his band entertained, schools where he preached his unique blend of Christianity and optimism, from the American Heart Association and the Salvation Army, on whose boards he has served many years, and a slew of others. More certificates grow in taller and taller stacks on the desk top, waiting their turn to be reaped and mounted.
The hallways are reserved for the photos. "To Cousin Ray, from Tom T. Hall," and from Ernest Tubbs and Loretta Lynn and Eddie Rabbitt and most any other country star of the last 40 years you could name. "This station is known as a museum," he said. "I've worked throughout the country with every traditional country artist there is. I'm listed in every country Who's Who there is." You could find the proof in the photo albums and books Cousin Ray has piled helter skelter in his office, but you don't doubt him.
Beneath the seeming disorder lies a carefully structured station built around a sense of efficiency he found lacking in so many previous stations. "The deejay would have to go to one room for the records, another for an interview. Here, it's all together," he said. His wife Doris and son Raynee -- whom Cousin Ray first sat in front of the microphone at age 14 -- pitch in as needed. But it is Woolfenden's experience and drive that have turned WPWC into an integral part of the small community it serves. As one of the many leaflets he liberally distributes proclaims: "A formula for success -- enthusiasm, dedication, attitude plus diligent work."
Woolfenden said he might like to stay at the microphone for a new owner, but only on his terms. "I can't keep going at these hours," he said. But even if he sells and retires from some boards and puts away the string bass, he will hold a unique place in Dumfries where for 13 years his soothing voice has spoken to the friends and extended family to whom he truly became Cousin Ray.
Jeffrey Yorke's On the Dial column will resume next month.