Ray Wilkinson was a pioneering farm broadcaster who almost single-handedly changed the way agricultural news was reported in the Southeast. Ray spent more than three decades at Capitol Broadcasting Company, winning countless friends and earning a spot in the National Farm Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Born in Chicago, Ray Wilkinson moved to Eastern North Carolina in 1948 to take a job as Program Director for WFMA/WCEC Radio in Rocky Mount. He started producing regular agricultural reports and feature stories that were picked up by the fledgling Tobacco Radio Network, a division of Capitol Broadcasting Company. Wilkinson’s reports became so popular that CBC eventually hired him as its Farm News Director in 1963.
At CBC, Wilkinson was responsible for covering all things agricultural on radio and television. He anchored daily farm news reports on WRAL-TV and became a fixture on the station’s morning and midday newscasts.
But it was Wilkinson’s in-depth coverage of agricultural markets that truly set him apart from other farm broadcasters. Wilkinson reported on commodity prices not only in North Carolina — but throughout the Southeast. Colleagues described him as a walking encyclopedia of farm facts, lore and knowledge. Farmers recognized him as “Uncle Ray”– their voice, their friend and champion.
Ray was a savvy businessman; as General Manager of the Tobacco Radio Network, Wilkinson was instrumental in developing a multi-state, commodity-oriented radio network. He’s credited with expanding TRN from a handful of radio stations in Eastern North Carolina into a regional chain stretching from Virginia to Florida.
Wilkinson didn’t stop there, either–he took CBC’s farm reporting global. Wilkinson organized and produced the first World Tobacco Teleconference in 1991. He also produced market development reports from Europe, Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
For many North Carolinians, it was the “other” Ray Wilkinson that they remember, the one who made them laugh. Early in his career, Ray began telling jokes about two fictitious country bumpkins, “Cecil and Leonard,” and the tales endeared him to fans far and wide, young and old. Ray was invited to speak at conventions throughout the country, and before long, his hayseed duo was almost as famous as the farm reporter himself.
When Ray Wilkinson retired as a CBC Vice President in 1995, he passed the broadcasting torch to his son, Dan, who at the time was a rising WRAL farm reporter. Eight years later, Dan died suddenly at the age of 45, and the death took a toll on his father’s boundless optimism. But as Ray would say later, life is about change, and that means accepting the bad with the good.
And as for the change he saw through the years in broadcasting — Ray summed it up as only a farm reporter would: “You just learn to make the transition — just like mules to horses and horses to tractors.”
Ray Wilkinson blazed a trail for other farm broadcasters and his influence was felt far beyond the borders of North Carolina. Fittingly he was inducted into the National Association of Farm Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1996. In bestowing the honor, the association recognized Ray for more than 45 years of service to farmers, farm families and the entire agribusiness community.
Ray was the recipient of numerous other major awards, including the “Oscar in Agriculture” in 1965; “Farm Broadcaster of the Year” by the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in 1975, “Agricultural Communicator of the Year” by the National AgriMarketing Association in 1991, “NCDA Friend of Agriculture Award” in 1990, and the “Governor’s Award for Service to Agriculture” in 1990.
In 1990 Wilkinson became the first fulltime farm broadcaster inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. The NCAB honored Ray for his significant contributions to broadcasting in North Carolina.
Wilkinson loved history and was well-known for his dedication to the revitalization of historic Halifax, NC. In honor of those efforts he received the prestigious “Old North State Award” at the State Capitol in 2004.
Ray Wilkinson died on December 4, 2004 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 79.