Arts + Entertainment

Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.

 

What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County

There’s still no reprieve in sight for WRGC, Sylva’s radio station and a five-decade community mainstay for local weather, news and more.

The station, broadcasting at 680 AM, went off the air at the end of August.

Gary Ayers, a regional radio personality living in Jackson County who has an intense interest in locally owned and operated radio stations, previously indicated that he might try to buy WRGC and get it back on the airwaves. Ayers once worked at WBHN in Bryson City, and previously owned a radio station in Canton.

Art Sutton, president and CEO of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, which owns WRGC, said local advertising didn’t generate enough money to keep the station running. WRGC had about 8,000 daily listeners.

Sutton said many of them have called or emailed to express their sadness over losing the station.

Ayers said the door remains open to the possibility of buying the station, but he’s not sure it’s a good business decision to walk through that open door. Local advertising support, Ayers said, seems tepid at best.  In talking with business owners, Ayers found few have interest in radio as an advertising medium.

Since 2008, the radio station’s revenue in Sylva had declined by 40 percent. The broadcasting company owns two stations in neighboring Franklin, one on AM and the other on FM, and there the revenue, despite the economy, grew nearly 10 percent over the same period.

Sutton said last week that the station’s lease on its office and studios and tower site expires at the end of the year. The immediate urgency for a buyer would come if a new owner wanted to use the present site. Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company leases the office and tower site from the station’s founder and longtime owner, Jimmy Childress of Sylva.

The FCC will allow the station to remain silent until Aug. 31 of next year before pulling the frequency, Sutton said.

“At that time, it must return to the air waves or the license will be deleted,” he said. “If a buyer does not come forward very soon, and wish to build the station’s tower in another location, yes, we will move the frequency to another market.”

Sutton declined, citing competitive reasons, to say where the frequency might go.

He said the company plans to begin removing the towers and equipment next month.

“I still believe a local operator could do well with WRGC,” Sutton said. “The station had a large audience for a small town station.”

Sutton described WRGC as a “unique situation,” but one “I think a local person living and working there could figure out, respond to more quickly than an absentee operator like us, and be successful.”

I don’t listen to local radio so much anymore, but the story in last week’s edition about the demise of WRGC in Sylva still struck and emotional chord somewhere inside.

When I say I don’t listen to local radio regularly, I mean the very small, very local AM and FM stations like WRGC in Sylva or WPTL in Canton or similar stations in Franklin and Bryson City. Almost every small town has one or two. When I’m in my car I tune them in, but that’s not a lot of listening. I do love nothing better during night driving in the mountains than to see what kind of AM signals I can pick up by just scanning through the dial, and that method leaves me listening to local stations as well as radio personalities from far-off cities in the Midwest.

No, those super-local stations have become, in many ways, irrelevant. I listen to four radio stations here in the mountains, and in this order — WNCW 88.7, WCQS at 95.3 (a very close second), and 104.9, and on rare occasions the WCU station — 90.5 —when I can pick it up.

We even did business with WRGC a few years back. We were the new kid in town then, and our newspaper was trying to gain an audience in Jackson County. We would sponsor the newscasts of local events, hoping to familiarize its listeners with what we were doing.

Perhaps the closing of another business shouldn’t resonate so heavily. But I’m in the media business. When local radio — or local media of any kind — dies a death related to an unsustainable business model, I start sniffing around for clues to survival. Secondly, I’m a small business owner. Anytime someone else shutters their doors I feel some of their pain, and questions about the recession and what it will take to ride out this storm come front and center.

My description earlier, of these stations being super-local, was in all likelihood wrong. These stations used to be hyperlocal. But to keep costs down, the companies that own many of these little stations program national talk shows and no live disc jockey segments where some engineer in some faraway place is keeping an eye on things. This model takes away the local part of a local radio station.

That’s the first step on the path to irrelevance — trying to do the same thing the satellite and internet stations are doing. That’s exactly what happened to newspapers during their great demise in the 1980s and 1990s. Big corporations bought them all up, and so they quit focusing on their local communities and instead focused on profits. The quality of the product suffered, and much of their news was and remains wire copy, the same stories we get from a dozen different places these days.  

And it happened at the same time some very passionate internet bloggers and news sites started, which allowed them to gain a foothold. This sent many good newspapers to their grave, and rendered many others irrelevant.

But there’s a glimmer of hope. We small guys are reporting stories no one else reports. We’re figuring out the internet and even social media, finding ways to grab pieces of those advertising pies. It’s a struggle, but show me companies in any industry — not just media — that aren’t struggling these days.

Here in Western North Carolina, I think we’ll also benefit from the growing realization that it is important to support the local economy. Whether it’s at the farmers market, the local pottery studio, the insurance guy down the street or the dentist you see at the coffee shop, there’s a growing acceptance that if we send our dollars out of the community we are sapping our community’s strength and vibrancy. This only works, though, if the local business produces a quality product. Otherwise, the local side of the equation doesn’t hold up.

We work and live and play in a very unique place. The vacuum created by WRGC’s demise will be filled, and there is a lot of commotion going on right now in Jackson County surrounding the issue of local radio. But we are all better off when there are many media sources doing good work and competing and complementing each other. Well-done local radio can still work. Here’s hoping WRGC finds its way back on the air and into the media mix.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

WRGC, a local mainstay on the AM radio dial in Sylva for more than five decades, went off the air last week, the latest victim of a sour economy and plummeting advertising revenues.

The static left in the radio station’s wake disappointed many in the Jackson County community, which has long relied on the 680 AM station for weather reports, school updates, local news and such specialties as “tradio,” a popular tell-it-and-sell-it program. WRGC went off the air Aug. 31 without warning. The radio station had about 8,000 daily listeners.

Three part-time workers and one fulltime employee lost their jobs; another fulltime employee was able to transfer elsewhere within Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, which owns WRGC.

 

A blow to the community

Terry Fox, owner and operator of a vegetable and fruit stand in Sylva, said over his makeshift lunch of deviled ham and crackers on Saturday that local people don’t much like this kind of drastic change — one day you have a radio station; the next you don’t.

Fox sometimes played the radio station in his store to entertain the largely local clientele who frequent it for peaches, greasy beans, sweet potatoes, local honey and more. In recent years, he’s relied on it less and less. WRGC went to “adult contemporary” programming from the country music and gospel lineup many coming through here particularly enjoy.

He added that in his opinion, the station lost local following, too, after limiting NASCAR programming and changing the tell-it-and-sell-it program’s format.

“People are going to miss it, though,” Fox said of the station’s demise.

 

What happened

“This incredibly difficult economy has made it impossible for us to secure the local advertising support needed to continue providing Jackson County a full service community radio station,” WRGC’s parent company says in a posting to the radio station’s website.

“While WRGC has successfully maintained a large audience across northern Jackson County and adjacent areas, it has become clear that the station must discontinue operations until the economy improves. With these uncertain times and the fact that our studio/office/transmitter site lease is set to renew at the end of 2011, we did not feel it was prudent to commit any more of our company resource to subsidize the station’s operation.”

Company President/CEO Art Sutton said in a follow-up interview via email that “the economy of Western North Carolina has been hit especially hard, particularly where real estate was such a driver. … I have just concluded that in this new normal, WRGC needs an owner who is from the community, lives in the community, and can give it the attention, time and care only a local owner can.”

Sutton said he has no plans to shutdown his AM and FM radio stations in Franklin, which he described as profitable enterprises. At the peak of revenue (the company bought WRGC in 2002), the Sylva radio station did just 21 percent less in revenue than the two stations combined in Franklin.

“Since 2008, our revenue in Sylva has dropped 40 percent while in Franklin the revenue, despite the economy, grew nearly 10 percent over the same period,” he said. “As in Sylva, all the advertising revenue is generated locally in the station’s county of location.”

Additionally, operating costs are higher in Jackson County than in neighboring Macon County, Sutton said, where the company owns the transmitter site and studios and only needs one tower. In Sylva, by contrast, the Georgia-based company rents space and requires two towers.

Sutton pointed to the specific advertising losses in the past few years of two car dealers and Southern Lumber Company. Revenues also dropped after the local hospital merged with Haywood County and Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College experienced steep state budget cuts, impacting their advertising budgets.

“These were major advertisers for the station,” he wrote.

The Federal Communications Commission won’t let a station remain silent for longer than one year, or its license is cancelled. Sutton hopes to sell the station to a local buyer. But if not, he said he would consider moving WRGC to another market.

“We will do that before we lose the license as much as I would hate to see Jackson County lose its only commercial radio station, when all is said and done, a radio station is not a charity. It’s a business that depends on advertising sales, entirely,” he wrote.

WRGC was a family affair

A local buyer just might be a real possibility, however. Radio founder and longtime owner Jimmy Childress owns everything about WRGC except for the license and equipment, which he sold to Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company 10 years ago.

The Childress family owns the property involved.

WRGC’s call letters come from the initials of Childress’ son, Ronnie, who was electrocuted in the 1970s while working on the station’s transmitter.

At 87 years old, Childress laughed when asked if he planned to get back in the radio game, saying bluntly: “I’m too old to fool with it.”

Childress expressed his disappointment that WRGC has gone off the air, but seemed optimistic the day would be saved and the radio would again hit the airwaves. He’s been in discussions with local radio personality Gary Ayers, a Sylva resident, Bryson City native and fixture in Western Carolina University Catamount sports, about Ayers leasing the radio property.

“It would be an excellent buy if he took it,” Childress said, adding that the key to a local radio station is “that you’ve got to know your audience, and try to appeal to a good cross-section of the whole county.”

Ayers early Tuesday confirmed his interest in acquiring WRGC, though he described the negotiations as complicated by two different parties (Childress and Georgia-Caroline Radiocasting) being involved.

“Therein is the interesting scenario,” said Ayers, who owned a radio station in Canton for seven years. If the numbers add up to acquire WRGC, and the necessary local advertising support is evident, then Ayers said he hopes to move forward on the deal.

When Starcast South let WBHN in Bryson City go dead in September 2009 as Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company has done now with WRGC, local residents formed Lighthouse Broadcasting, raised money, bought the station, and changed the format to Southern Gospel/Christian.

WBHN, 1590 AM, signed on again in 2010 in the nick of time — just eighteen hours before to the station’s license was set to expire had it gone past the one-year mark.

The loss of WRGC in Sylva is the latest in a series of changes rattling Jackson County’s airwaves. The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group headquartered in Sylva, won rights to the frequency 95.3 FM over Western Carolina University, when the FCC decided to make it available. By comparison, the Canary Coalition’s station would be full-powered, with a possible three-state range. Avram Friedman, director of the clean-air advocacy group, pictures a radio station largely focused on environmental issues that would open up media access to a variety of the region’s nonprofits.

WCU is appealing the FCC’s decision to give The Canary Coalition the frequency. Regardless of whether WCU or The Canary Coalition ultimately prevails, it will deal a major blow to National Public Radio listners. WCQS, the region’s main NPR station, broadcasts in Haywood and Jackson on 95.3 FM.

Being knocked off the frequency would leave more than 100,000 listeners potentially without public radio in Haywood and Jackson counties. WCQS, based in Asheville, has used the frequency for 20 years. The radio station, however, was not considered “local” when the FCC was assessing who to grant the license to, a requirement of the federal agency.

A new FM radio station in Western North Carolina means more than 108,000 people living in the region might not be able to pick up their local National Public Radio station anymore.

That’s because the frequency involved, 95.3 FM, currently serves as a translator for WCQS, serving residents in much of Haywood and Jackson counties. It’s been in service for two decades.

Though there remain a number of other frequencies public-radio fans can tune into west of Buncombe County if they want to listen to WCQS, it will be hit and miss in many mountain valleys — the station comes in on four different frequencies depending on your area — once a new radio station takes over the frequency.

“It is, unfortunately, a challenging situation for us,” said Jody Evans, who has been the executive director of WCQS for about a year. “I think this is a loss for the community, but we are going to do what we can, within the guidelines of the FCC, to get public radio to the people of Western North Carolina.”

Evans was careful to emphasize that The Canary Coalition, who won tentative rights to the frequency, is not at fault; and nor is Western Carolina University, she said, which is fighting the environmental group for rights to 95.3. Rather, WCQS simply isn’t considered “local” under FCC regulations, though the radio station does serve the entire region.

“We can stay on the air until someone builds a station,” Evans said.

In its application with the FCC for rights to the frequency, WCU made the argument that the federal agency should give it 95.3, in part, because the university had plans to help out public radio. Evans deferred any comment on those possible plans to the university.

Granted, public radio will no longer be picked up via 95.3 once another entity takes over the frequency, whether it is WCU or The Canary Coalition, WCU noted in its FCC filings. But “much of this proposed loss area would be avoided, however, by transfer of WCU’s current facilities (WWCU and WWCU-FM1 to WNC Public Radio) … If an applicant other than WCU were to be awarded the Dillsboro allotment, it is virtually guaranteed that the public will lose this source (i.e., the programming of FM Translator W237AR) of noncommercial service upon which it has relied for nearly 20 years.”

Western Carolina University, eager to broadcast Catamount sports and other school-based programming to a larger audience than it can currently reach, is fighting The Canary Coalition for rights to a new FM radio station.

The station could reach up to three states once on the air, depending on which Jackson County mountaintop the transmitter is located, according to regional radio experts.

WCU’s current radio station, WWCU 90.5 FM, on a good day is heard roughly from Sylva to parts of Buncombe County. The signal is spotty at best, however.

WWCU 90.5 FM currently reaches about 43,627 people. Meanwhile, 73,800 people potentially could hear the new FM radio station, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.

Asheville-based public radio station WCQS, the Cherokee Boys & Girls Club and a nonprofit Christian foundation based in Georgia also applied for the new frequency.

While the FCC tentatively awarded air rights for the new full-powered FM radio frequency to The Canary Coalition, a small grassroots environmental organization headquartered in Sylva, WCU is not going down without a fight.

WCU has hired the private Raleigh law firm Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard, whose specialties include telecommunications and media law, to persuade the FCC to give it the license instead of The Canary Coalition.

The Canary Coalition has a staff of one, Executive Director Avram Friedman, and is using the legal services of an attorney in California to fend off WCU’s bid for the radio station. The attorney is helping the nonprofit for a reduced rate, Friedman said.

Larry Nestler, chairman of The Canary Coalition’s board, questioned why WCU would choose to pick this fight during such tough budgetary times. The state cut the university’s budget this year by 13.5 percent.

“And here is Western hiring a big-time law firm out of Raleigh using taxpayer money,” Nestler said. “It seems a little much.”

WCU has paid the Raleigh lawyers $21,752.34 so far in legal fees, according to the university.

 

WCU tightlipped on legal battle

The university issued a terse statement when queried about its bid for the radio station, saying through spokesman Bill Studenc that: “Because the application is still pending with the FCC, the university is unable to comment on the status of the application, or any specifics about the application, until that process has moved forward to completion.”

The Smoky Mountain News then filed several requests for information from WCU under the state’s public records law. WCU complied with most of the requests, but has yet to produce emails, as also requested under the state law, to-and-from various university leaders regarding the radio station.

WCU’s legal battle against The Canary Coalition originated under former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer from the university’s top post. It isn’t clear whether new Chancellor David Belcher will embrace his predecessor’s fight.

Records reveal that WCU is fighting The Canary Coalition on every front that it can, challenging a variety of claims in the environmental group’s FCC application, and even arguing about whether The Canary Coalition is locally based as claimed.

The FCC used a point system to award licenses, with applicants given a set number of points if they met certain criteria. The Canary Coalition received five points (three for being local and two for diversity), WCU just three (localism only).

In its petition to overturn the FCC’s ruling that tentatively favors The Canary Coalition, WCU countered that the nonprofit is not a local entity — rather, that people think of it as an Asheville-based group, though it indeed leases office space in Sylva.

Perhaps most significantly, WCU has called into question the financial solvency of The Canary Coalition. The group, WCU’s high-powered legal team says, doesn’t have the money to back the dream of a radio station with regional reach.

The Canary Coalition indeed might have trouble proving it has the financial ability to get a radio station up and running. Friedman estimates it will cost about $50,000 to get on the air, for equipment, staff and so on. The FCC wants those awarded a frequency to have enough money in the bank to construct and operate a radio station for three months.

In a filing with the FCC, The Canary Coalition pointed to a bank balance on Feb. 5 of $43,945.97 as evidence that it can build and operate a radio station.

That just doesn’t cut it, WCU responded in a follow-up filing. A more complete financial picture of The Canary Coalition, not a one-day snapshot, doesn’t bode well for the group’s ability to pay for a radio station, WCU claimed. The Canary Coalition is attempting “to elevate the significance of that one-day balance determinatively above the significance of three years’ worth of public IRS filings … that show Canary’s downward-trending revenues and dire financial health,” WCU wrote to the FCC.

When Friedman put out a fundraising call to help get the radio station up and running in an email newsletter to Canary Coalition members and supporters last week, WCU jumped on it as more evidence the environmental organization doesn’t have start-up costs required by the FCC. WCU filed a supplemental petition late last week, citing the newsletter, that indicates Friedman is soliciting money now from group members for the project.

“This admission by Canary conclusively demonstrates not only that Canary lacks the funds to construct and operate the proposed station for three months without revenue but also that Canary recognizes that it lacks the funds. This admission is fatal to Canary’s financial certification and qualification,” the university’s lawyers maintained.

WCU’s lawyers also pointed out that The Canary Coalition originally estimated costs for the radio station at just more than $39,000, but now is seeking $50,000. Regardless of which amount is correct, WCU’s Raleigh law firm stated, a radio station “is clearly beyond (The Canary Coalition’s) financial ability to build and operate.”

 

Why WCU wants it

If WCU is able to overturn The Canary Coalition’s rights to the new FM station, plans call for the university to continue serving the area with its current “unique, locally originated programming,” plus to turn the station into “the flagship station in the WCU Catamount Sports Network, airing live college athletics of substantial importance to the local community.”

“Through the airing of its non-commercial educational program service, (WCU) brings thousands of hours of unique radio broadcast programming — including educational and curriculum-related programming — to its service area every year, and … seeks to further its educational mission by expanding its ability to provide such programming to the residents of Western North Carolina.”

 

Facts about WCU's current radio station

How old is the radio station at WCU?

In 1948, WCCA 550 AM signed on as a radio station from the lower floor of the Joyner building. In 1949, the call letters were changed to WWOO. In 1972, WWOO changed its call letters to WCAT. In 1977, WCAT 550 AM went off the air and WWCU 90.5 FM went on the air.

What’s the coverage area?

Roughly, from west of Sylva to the west side of Asheville, though the terrain of the mountains makes the coverage sporadic in places. The station transmitter is located on Cutoff Mountain near Balsam Gap.

How is it subsidized, to the tune of what each year?  

The radio station receives two funding allocations each year for operational expenses.  The station receives $15,000 from the provost’s office and $27,500 in education and technology funds.

Does the radio station make any money?

The radio station is licensed as a noncommercial educational station and as such does not sell commercial advertising.

Is it student run?

WWCU operates with a student general manager and student program coordinator under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The student general manager and program coordinator work with a volunteer staff of students, staff, and faculty.

What is the programming?

Classic rock, plus weather, WCU sports programs, and some Native American-geared programming.

Source: WCU

The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group rooted in Jackson County that fights for air quality, might soon take to the airwaves via its own educational, community radio station.

Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, believes a local radio station would provide the entire environmental community in Western North Carolina with its own forum, plus open educational and networking opportunities for those involved. A range of community-oriented programs by other nonprofits could be included, and local musicians featured, Friedman said. A more complete vision of the future community radio station still must be hammered out, he said.

In a newsletter announcement last week to The Canary Coalition’s members, Friedman noted: “The organization’s leaders view this an opportunity to bring the public educational and advocacy mission of the Canary Coalition to a new level of effectiveness. This will be a radio station that offers programming found nowhere else, delivering in-depth coverage of environmental issues and news.” 

Friedman added that in his view, the environmental and social progress community has little voice in a world of corporate-owned mass media.

“Important events, demonstrations, public hearings, discussions, debates and informational forums are often ignored by the conventional media or relegated to small back page, one-time articles that may even miss the point entirely. Even public radio stations have been less than forthcoming with covering the news and events organized by local nonprofits,” he wrote.

There are, at rough count, at least 34 environmental organizations based in WNC. If The Canary Coalition successfully launches its radio station, it could open the region’s airwaves to issues that are of interest to other nonprofits as well, empowering the grassroots movement in WNC as never before.

That’s because The Canary Coalition’s radio station wouldn’t be a dinky, low-powered station with a broadcast reach of a measly two blocks or so.

The Federal Communications Commission has given The Canary Coalition the OK for a full-powered FM station. Regional radio experts say the station could potentially broadcast to a three-state audience, depending on where the transmitter is placed. The radio station would be based in Dillsboro, frequency 95.3 FM (for two decades where listeners in WNC have found public radio WCQS, see accompanying story).

 

Tentative plans

“We view this as an opportunity to provide that voice for the environmental community,” Friedman said one day last week in a cell phone interview as he headed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against a pipeline that would connect oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.

In an application filed with the FCC, The Canary Coalition promised to “coordinate with local educational institutions, community health, environmental, social and cultural organizations and the business community on developing programming for the station. In addition, it will broadcast cultural programming including musical content relevant to the population of the service area, as well as local news, public affairs programming and public service announcements.”

Friedman, a Bronx native, is a fixture in the WNC environmental movement. Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and has been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. Friedman, a Sylva resident, ran unsuccessfully — twice — against Democrat Rep. Phil Haire for the right to represent Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties in the state House.

He is unapologetically liberal, even perhaps something of a radical, at least by many mountain residents’ standards. He was arrested twice for protesting Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte.

If the FCC issues a construction permit (Western Carolina University wants to wrest the frequency away from the nonprofit, see accompanying article), Friedman and The Canary Coalition would have a three-year window to study what programming to offer, and how to get the radio station actually up and running.

SEE ALSO: University fights environmental group for rights to radio frequency

Larry Nestler, who chairs the nonprofit’s board, said he believes a radio station could serve both as a source of revenue for The Canary Coalition, and “as a way of getting the word out on soliciting help on getting clean air.”

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, which operates the low-powered MAIN-FM 103.5, said in his group’s case the Internet Service Provider side of MAIN subsidizes the radio station. The technical staff essentially has done double duty for the ISP and the station, Bowen said.

The Canary Coalition has even shallower pockets than MAIN. This would be noncommercial radio — minus paid advertisements — so listener contributions and grants would most likely have to sustain the operation in Dillsboro, Bowen said.

SEE ALSO: Asheville public radio’s reach threatened by new FM station

 

What it would take

The Prometheus Radio Project, a national group promoting community-based radio, estimates that a “minimalist” studio can cost only $4,000 (not including furniture), depending on how much equipment is donated. A high-end studio, however, can cost as much as $100,000.

Friedman estimated it would cost about $50,000 to buy the needed equipment, hire some staff and get the radio station started. In a recent newsletter, he urged members to consider supporting the effort with cash donations.

Friedman told the nonprofit’s members that “if and when we overcome this challenge (from WCU) and gain the FCC license, we look forward to a new era when The Canary Coalition can serve the community in a new and spectacular manner, broadcasting news and information about air quality, climate change, new developments in the renewable energy and efficiency economy transformation. News of the Fukishima catastrophe and other nuclear accidents will not be blacked out in our region, on this station. Listeners will learn about the realities of hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). There will be no corporate tampering with this news. The facts will be presented, discussed and debated.”

 

Why this frequency?

In 2007, in a relatively rare event, the FCC accepted applications from community groups across the nation seeking full power, noncommercial radio licenses. A second round of applications took place last year.

There were a limited number of these new FCC licenses to go around — only in areas with open bandwidth on the radio dial, and only for nonprofit, community radio stations.

The idea was to open up the airwaves to non-corporate interests and encourage citizen access and community participation, said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville.

Bowen, a nationally known advocate for local ownership of media infrastructure, was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Bowen’s group already operates MAIN-FM 103.5, a low-powered FM radio station that bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and is based in Asheville.

As Bowen followed the FCC’s release of new frequencies, he discovered there indeed would be one in the mountains, but not in Asheville — it was being issued in Dillsboro.

“We didn’t qualify, because we are Asheville-based,” Bowen said. “But I immediately thought of The Canary Coalition. This was a golden opportunity, and there are folks (including MAIN) who have the experience to help them.”

He called Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, and the idea of Canary Coalition radio was born.

When Swain County faced an onslaught of snow and ice last winter, local radio station WBHN wasn’t broadcasting road information or school closings.

Die-hard fans of Swain County High’s sports teams haven’t been able to tune into any of the school’s games since last fall.

Financial hardship had forced WBHN to temporarily suspend operations on Sept. 16, 2009. If the station doesn’t find its footing by Sept. 16, the Federal Communications Commission will promptly cancel its license and the station will stay “dark” permanently.

Two independent movements have sprouted in the last year to rescue the Bryson City station from oblivion.

Lloyd Brown is leading an effort to convert WBHN into a listener-powered station, similar to National Public Radio. Brown said the newly-formed nonprofit, The Lighthouse Broadcasting Corporation, will primarily play gospel music, but also broadcast bluegrass, country, Western and easy listening. Church programming, youth sports and local bands such as the Rye Holler Boys will be featured.

“We’re not going to have any of this hard rock or any of this off the wall music,” said Brown.

Gary Ayers, who was a radio personality on WBHN from 1974 to 1984, is leading a separate attempt to revive the commercial station.

Many Swain County residents have expressed concerns about the station going off the air to Ayers.

“It’s just a lack of information, a voice for the community,” he said. Many elderly residents in Swain County rely on the radio for information.

“I have not run across one person who didn’t want this station back on,” said Ayers, who has made the rounds to local businesses to gauge interest in advertising with the radio station.

“People have been very willing to spend ad dollars,” Ayers said. “In some cases, it’s not a lot of dollars, but every business has been very open.”

Ayers is still looking for donations to help him become the next owner of WBHN.

But Brown said he has already offered $85,000 for a six-month lease, with $10,000 as a down payment and $75,000 to come in the next six months. As of last week, Brown said he had $8,000 in hand from private contributions. Victory Baptist Church has said it will make up the remainder, according to Brown.

Before he passed away, Pastor Tom Harris of Victory Baptist Church ran a program on WBHN every day for at least 35 years.

“He was a daily source of information,” Ayers said. “He would come on and say who was sick, who was in the hospital…Tom was like the county’s pastor.”

Brown says he plans on playing tapes of Harris’ past shows at least every Sunday.

“We’re going to keep his ministry alive,” said Brown.

 

Down to the wire

Ayers and Brown have mutually agreed that Tuesday, Sept. 7, would be the deadline for either group to buy the station from its owner.

“If a sale agreement is not reached, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have time to get it back on,” said Ayers.

When a financial hardship case is filed with the FCC, the station has up to 12 months to either sell the station or find funding to get it back on the air.

If the station isn’t broadcasting by Sept. 16, it would disappear from the dial for good, according to Ayers.

Finding a new frequency would be much more expensive than taking the station over before the deadline, Ayers said.

Brown was confident that the nonprofit model would be the key to success despite financial difficulties in the past.

“People won’t donate to an individual, but they will donate to a nonprofit,” said Brown.

If Brown’s nonprofit becomes a reality, it will be run by a community board and an advisory board with seven members each.

Ayers said he’s a friend of Brown’s and has no hard feelings against his group, whatever happens next.

“One of us needs to succeed,” said Ayers. “We’re just really hoping to get the station back on.”

Brown hopes Ayers will help with youth sports programming and advertising since “everybody knows him.”

Brown’s ultimate goal remains for the station to be cooperatively owned by Swain’s citizens.

“We want to keep this on for our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren,” said Brown. “We’re doing this for Swain County.”

 

Pitch in to save WBHN (1590 AM)

Contact Gary Ayers at 828.506.9362 or

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact Lloyd Brown at 828.488.2833 or 828.736.0280.

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