On Halloween night, October 30, 1938, noted actor, Orson Wells, terrified the nation with his Mercury Theatre on the Air’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast, recounting a purported Martian invasion of earth. Popular WCYB radio personality, Eddie Cowell, displayed similar chicanery on January 23, 1954 by telling his listening audience that an enormous monster was on the loose reaping havoc in downtown Bristol.
The well-liked deejay went on to describe the ominous creature as being 80 feet tall, 40 feet thick and having a 100-foot tail capable of toppling large trees. Cowell employed the same tactic as Wells – unfolding the horror over a period of time to build the suspense as new information was supposedly relayed to the station. Listeners were informed that a bomber containing advanced weaponry was being deployed from Washington DC to eradicate the scary beast. Some 1000 frantic calls from listeners across East Tennessee and southwest Virginia poured into the station; local law enforcement dispatches also received numerous inquiries.
Thanks to Joe and Ida Cowell, the late broadcaster’s son and widow respectively, the Eddie Cowell story can be revisited. The creative prankster began his memorable career as sports broadcaster for WJHL radio in 1939 after winning a contest, eventually becoming sports director and then program director. Ed O’Cowell, as he often called himself on the air, possessed an extensive repertoire of madcap records and sound effects that he routinely incorporated into his broadcasts. One favorite bandleader was Spike Jones and His City Slickers, who offered “dinner music for people who aren’t very hungry.” Another artist was Victor Borge with his “Phonetic Punctuation” routine – reading text and hilariously inserting audible punctuation.
During World War II, businessman Truett Siler, owner of a local furniture and appliance store, became a sponsor of Cowell’s show. The two men made a noble wager to see who could sell the most war bonds in a single week. While the collective total was an impressive $90,000, it was Cowell who prevailed in the bet, resulting in the storeowner pulling his entertainer friend along Main Street in a wagon before a crowd of curious bystanders.
About 1948, Eddie was offered a role in WJHL’s “Man on the Street” broadcast, a clever promotional initiative sponsored by Honey-Krust Bakery. Anna Sue Lacey as “Honey” and Eddie as “Krust” interviewed contestants at 12:15 pm every day, Monday through Saturday, in front of the Majestic Theatre. Ruth Greenway also served in that capacity. The ability of the pair to glean interesting facts from people made the program immensely popular. Sometimes tricky questions were asked, such as how to spell “phthsic” (pronounced “tiz-ik”). Participants were rewarded with a freshly baked loaf of Honey Krust Bread.
Eddie was elected as a Johnson City Commissioner in 1949 after a decisive victory over four competitors. His numerous community service activities earned him the title, “Outstanding Young Man of 1949,” by the Johnson City Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Howard Patrick presented his award at a highly attended banquet at the John Sevier Hotel ballroom. In July 1950, misfortune struck the broadcaster when he was abruptly stricken with crippling polio. He was eventually transported to Duke Hospital in Durham, NC for further treatment.
While still at this medical facility, Eddie experienced something on October 7 that few people can boast. General Robert Neyland, University of Tennessee head football coach, arranged for the wheelchair bound radio personality to sit on the sidelines with his favorite team. The visiting Volunteers honored their special guest with a 28-7 victory over the Duke Blue Devils.
In 1953, Eddie left WJHL and, after a brief stint at WBEJ in Elizabethton, joined Bristol's WCYB Radio, where he produced an afternoon show and an evening sports program. It was during this stint that the zany airman is best remembered for his creative unusual broadcasts. Eddie once reported that an airplane carrying 200 passengers was stuck by its landing gear on a cloud over Tri-Cities Airport and that extrication efforts were underway. Another widely remembered prank involved a submarine sighting at South Holston Lake. The sultan of surprise once aired the news that actress Marilyn Monroe and then husband, Joe DiMaggio, Yankee Hall of Fame baseball legend, were visiting Bristol and became lost. A host of volunteers searched for the celebrated couple without success.
Merrill Moore, former WCYB Television anchorman, recalls when his good friend told his radio fans that a man was going to toss currency from the roof of Bristol's General Shale building at a designated time. A sizeable and disappointed crowd arrived to witness the non-event. The rascally conniving deejay then invited listeners to join him on the banks of the nearby Holston River to observe the annual polar bear club members plunge into the icy waters. Several gullible shivering spectators gobbled his witty bait.
Ida Cowell recalls when her husband asked listeners to come to the WCYB building and watch him tap dance on a narrow fifth floor ledge – quite a feat for someone with polio. The practical joker tapped two quarters together on his broadcast table to simulate the desired sound effect. Other Cowell shenanigans include reports of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill staying at a nearby hotel and diamond mines being discovered in Abington, Virginia. Once in response to a scheduled visit by President Eisenhower to the area, the uninhibited jester actually phoned the White House during a broadcast to see if the nation's leader and his staff might stop by Mrs. Cowell's kitchen to enjoy some of her delicious cherry pie. Eddie’s bag of trickery appeared to be endless. This rebel with a cause had the uncanny ability to project realism into his broadcasts even when logic suggested otherwise.
The end of Eddie’s on-the-air shenanigans came to an abrupt halt soon after the monster scare when a local resident filed a complaint with the FCC, asking that such on-the-air tomfoolery be halted immediately. The station eventually complied with the request against a storm of protest. The good-natured showman’s involvement with the station was later expanded to television, which included hosting such television quiz shows as Kiddie College and Club Quiz.
The funnyman retired in 1970 and, after several years of declining health, passed away in 1988 at age 70. East Tennessee State University's College of Arts and Sciences honored him by instigating an annual “Eddie Cowell Broadcast Journalism Scholarship” for deserving students.
Eddie's funeral in 1988 included a brief moment of merriment that symbolized his illustrious life. Merrill Moore recalls the event while serving as pallbearer: “While we were bringing his casket down the steps of St. Mary's Catholic Church on Market Street, several police cars and fire engines zoomed by with sirens blaring.” Perhaps they were heading toward Bristol to deal with a menacing monster, to Tri-Cities Airport to assist with a cloud stuck aircraft or to South Holston Lake to investigate sightings of a submarine. Another pallbearer turned to Merrill and whispered, “Can't you just imagine Ed grinning right now and saying, 'You don't really need to make all this fuss over me.'” Both men fought back laughter.
This sudden spontaneous disruption of an emotional solemn event was just as Eddie Cowell would have orchestrated it. Looking back over this unique and highly creative announcer’s career, one has to conclude that this radio genius was truly ahead of his time.