ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Since 1957 – the same year the radio station opened – Swap Shop hit the WRGS airwaves. Ever since the first broadcast, people from across East Tennessee have been clamoring to participate.
In a small production room, WRGS radio host Jay Phillips fires up the bright red light that indicates his broadcast is live on the air.
“Join us on the ‘World Famous Swap Shop’ and we hope you enjoy the ride,” he said into his microphone.
According to Debbie Beal, Owner and General Manager of WRGS Radio in Rogersville, the phrase “World Famous Swap Shop” was coined in the 1970s by a previous host at the station, and she liked it so much she trademarked it.
“We put out the information, and then the people call each other and buy, trade, sell everything from guns to goats to chickens to cars, stereos, anything,” Beal told News Channel 11 Friday.
That information is precious to several antique collectors in the region.
So much so that in October 2018, Beal got an email from a production company called Hit and Run Creative asking if she would consider letting them make a reality TV show based on the Swap Shop show.
“And they said, ‘we had a producer going through your area and listened to your show, and we’ve been talking about it, we’d like to discuss it with you.’ So I contacted them and at first, I thought, ‘well, this is like a Howard Stern prank?’ But no, it wasn’t,” she said, sitting in her sales office at WRGS.
Beal wasn’t the only person who got a call from the production company.
“It was very random,” Tori Cooley, Proprietor of West Main Antiques said. “They were like, ‘Hey, we’re doing a show in your area. Is this something that you’d be interested in looking into?’ And I was like ‘sure.’ And we did a couple of Skype interviews, it sounded like a really fun project, and happy to be a part of it.”
Filming commenced for several months in 2020.
‘there’s cameras, more cameras‘
At West Main Antiques in Downtown Johnson City, shop manager Larry Thacker showed News Channel 11 all the unique finds reaped from hour upon hour of listening to the radio show.
He echoed Cooley with his enthusiastic sentiments for being on the show.
“Well, you don’t know what to expect ’til all the production equipment and production teams start showing up and there’s cameras, more cameras,” Thacker said.
He said the large production crews would put a massive amount of work into making the show a reality day in and day out.
J.P. Mathes II and Fiddling Leona are local antique collectors also featured on the show. Additionally, the pair told News Channel 11 that they are musicians and that their music is featured in the series.
“On the show, we’re listening to Swap Shop out of Rogersville,” Mathes said. “Basically, it’s a picking show, and we’re going around trying to find some things that other people may not want that we can turn into cash.”
He explained that the entire show was based solely on the Eastern Tennessee region and that he was happy to showcase the hidden treasures of the area.
“So the entire show is primarily shot all mostly in East Tennessee, you know Knoxville region to the Tri-Cities region. So the whole thing is kind of featuring the whole east part of Tennessee. It kind of hits on the culture a little bit. It hits also on the products. It hits on the vintage items that are around here, and it plays into our local radio culture,” Mathes said.
Originally hailing from Japan, Leona told News Channel 11 she likes to collect antiques primarily made in the U.S. and that appearing on the show could allow her to share her newfound lifestyle with those sharing her cultural background.
“So when I heard about this, this was just a perfect opportunity that I could introduce what I do and also the area that I live to where I am from, which is Japan,” Leona said. “I’m just so excited to be able to introduce (to) all the Asian people, what kind of area this East Tennessee is and what kind of people we have and what we collect or either sell or buy.”
‘beyond what we thought it would be‘
The show meant a great deal to all of the people News Channel 11 interviewed.
“It was beyond what we thought it would be once it started out,” Mathes said.
To Cooley, Swap Shop is an important component to her business running smoothly.
“Sometimes you got to find other resources to find inventory,” Cooley said. “And the fun thing about Swap Shop is a lot of times its people who they’re not internet savvy or it’s, you have a chance of finding something on there that you’re not going to find on Facebook Marketplace, or I don’t even know if people use Craigslist anymore. But you know, it’s just another avenue to find inventory.”
“It’s really essential, a show like Swap Shop,” Thacker agreed. “That’s your connection to the larger community. Because you really don’t know what’s out there as far as really great items.”
He explained that American antiques are “coming to a close” since the country has physically produced fewer and fewer products over the last few decades.
“So a shop like this and a show like this preserves that history and preserves those kinds of items because almost everything in here is made in the United States still. So we’re preserving it and selling it, finding it, selling it to people who want to take it home and preserve it for another generation or two or three, so that saving those items into perpetuity is extremely important to us,” Thacker said.
Beal said she hopes the Netflix series will help business.
“This could mean a lot for our station, our online site will probably get attention from all over the world. Netflix is international,” Beal said.
She walked through the poster-clad walls of the WRGS foyer, reminiscing over the memories made with disk jockeys throughout the decades as Swap Shop remained a hit.
“One of our DJs coined the phrase ‘often imitated, never replicated, local commerce at its best’ and I think that fits Swap Shop,” she said.
Beal said her hopes for the show far surpass the success of the series. She hopes the Netflix series boosts regional tourism – and thus, revenue.
“It’s exciting. I’m excited for Rogersville. I’m excited for all the people that are involved in it. I think this could do a lot for East Tennessee, draw some attention here. Maybe we get visitors. So I think it’s gonna be fun for our radio station to participate in this,” Beal said.
The series will air on Netflix on Tuesday, Nov. 9.
A premier watch party will be held at the Wallace Theater in Johnson City, starting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.