Letter From Home “Local Radio” 12/9/12
The first snow of the season fell in Madison today, covering everything with a sheet of white. No matter how old I am there is still a thrill to waking up, looking out, and yelling to James, “It is snowing!” I have come to realize that this ‘snow thing’ is something that either one has in their DNA, or it is not. There is no way to force the love of snow, but when it has taken hold there is also no way to dislodge it. Once a kid, always a kid.
I took a shower, got into my favorite comfy rugby shirt, and settled down with coffee and the newspapers. The winter scene played outside the large windows I sat in front of, only about 20 feet from where I sat outside last Sunday on the lawn when it was sunny and over 60 degrees. As I watched through the day our chairs covered over with about 2 inches of winter magic. (Memo for Monday…time to bring in the chairs.)
Usually the first winter snow makes me think of where I grew up, but due to a newspaper story about a local small town radio station my thoughts were in another direction. My memories drifted back to Sturgeon Bay, and the days at WDOR.
Had a snowfall happened on a Sunday morning back then when I was at the station there would be the usual report from the police about the road conditions, urging caution with the slick streets. I would listen, and yawn as I had heard if many times before. No, they did not provide the type of information I wanted.
I was waiting for the man who called himself ‘the Egg Harbor reporter’ to dial me up and give some gripping account of how a car nearly wiped out at the curve where he lived, or how many inches had stacked up on his mailbox. (I swear I can still hear his slow dead-pan delivery of the information.) He was a favorite. I am not sure the man ever slept, as he had a reason to call and chat about the weather every chance he got, and I must say he was highly entertaining.
I loved to hear from the folks who had made it over the ‘Brussels’ Hill’ as they came back from church but wanted me to alert others to take another route. Perhaps the best account of the local roads was the lady who from time to time delivered a baked good from her oven. She would pop into the back door of the studio, thank me for the Southern gospel music I played, and update me on the roads, and then be off to church. Some people are nice to the person who delivers their morning paper, but she appreciated her local neighborhood disc jockey.
All those homespun stories made for my on-air conversation as listeners tuned in to hear local radio. Snowstorms made for bustle at the radio station, and we proved that it was equally engaging for the folks who tuned in to listen. That is just one way radio can connect with people.
I write it now as it happened back in those days. The reason I make a point of posting all this is the nature of radio is changing, and that concerns me. Readers know I have real belief that radio can be profitable, companionable, professional, and something that listeners want to invite into their homes. It need not be mean-spirited, and base.
I have written about my days on WDOR, and I guess would summarize it this way from 2009.
While I was working at a small AM/FM station in Door County we may not have been cutting edge, but we were local. Local neighborhood disc-jockeys with the current weather and local fishing conditions, high school sports reports, and even the local obituaries were read on certain long-form newscasts. (When was the last long-form newscast in the Madison radio market? Sadly many readers here may not have ever heard a real ‘noon report of local news’)
No one pretended to be more than what we were. We were happy to work out of a small studio that was too hot in the summer, and too chilly in the winter, but we knew our audience. Heck, we lived in the community, cared for our friends, and shared many commonalities. As such we served the community through our daily broadcasting. Local live radio for local listeners. And I might say with humility, having been a part of their radio team, that it was also profitable.
Which leads me to the news article that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal this morning about a small market station not far from Madison that is engaging in the very type of broadcasting I know about. There was a thrill in my heart over the snow falling outside my window, and real joy in reading this article.
That’s why it was refreshing last week when I visited WRCO.
The station, founded in 1949, has had only four owners in its 63-year history and the mission is all about serving Richland Center and its surrounding towns and villages.
Ron Fruit, 57, started working at the station in 1972 when he was 16 and was hired full time in 1983. In 1994, he and his wife, Beth, bought the place. Beth does the books, Ron oversees the operation and is on the air. In 2010, the station spent $450,000 to move to higher ground after the floods of 2007 and 2008.
During the floods, the stations were instrumental in relaying emergency information to the community. More recently, a pie auction held on the air raised more than $6,000 for a local food pantry.
“When all of your former teachers live in the community and your pastors are in the community and everybody knows you by your first name, you have a sense of accountability that you have to live up to,” Ron Fruit said. “I don’t want our legacy to be the last local owners of the radio station. Our mission has always been to leave the community a better place than we found it.”
Phil Nee, 49, got his first radio job at WRCO in 1986 and never left. He grew up on a nearby farm and is one of the station’s main announcers. He travels southwestern Wisconsin broadcasting a wide range of high school sporting events, including volleyball, wrestling and soccer, and hosts a six-hour Saturday evening show that features music from the 1950s through the 1980s.
“I just like the variety. The loyalty and the camaraderie,” Nee said, shortly after doing a phone interview with Ithica’s boys basketball coach and a few minutes prior to announcing a mix of country and Christmas music. “We don’t necessarily worry about ratings so much.”
I refuse to give in to the lowest common denominators when it comes to radio broadcasting. I know there is a market for the connection that listeners gravitate towards if given the choice on the dial. Large broadcasting companies are setting the rules, and playing by the rating books. But I am glad to have had the chance to do radio the way it was meant to be broadcast. I am also delighted that it still can be found playing out over the radios in homes and cars around Madison.