Arts + Entertainment

Jackson County commissioners may have taken a leap of faith to help WRGC radio get back on the air, but it seems to be paying off so far.

Not only has station owner Roy Burnette restored a local AM presence to the cars and homes of thousands of listeners in Jackson and surrounding counties, but he’s also created the equivalent of eight full-time jobs practically overnight.

The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.

“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.

540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.

Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.

The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

It will be several more weeks at best before Sylva AM radio station WRGC gets back on the air, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission to grant the station a license.

Word that the station would resume broadcasting around Valentine’s Day were rumors, said Roy Burnette, who is trying to revive the radio station. In addition to securing the license, Burnette is waiting on a final piece of funding in the form of a Jackson County economic development loan.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., which currently operates radio stations in Franklin.

Burnette wants to buy the station and expand its reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

Burnette, CEO of the new 540 Broadcasting Co., asked county leaders for a $289,000 loan to make his dreams come true. Jackson County commissioners have approved $179,000 of the loan outright and are poised to extend the remainder — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral to cover the loan if the radio station owner defaults. Efforts to protect the county by joining Burnette as a co-license holder on his FCC permit were rejected by the federal agency.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette wanted $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette would provide $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

The county has agreed that payments on the loan would be deferred until May 2012 and then be paid during the next 10 years in 40 quarterly payments at an interest rate of 2 percent.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said that Jackson leaders “are still having to work through” possible collateral and that Burnette might be asked to pledge personal assets.

“He seems amenable,” Wooten said.

For his part, Burnette said he’s simply “waiting on the FCC to grant the license for a transfer.” That will also allow him on moving forward with building a new transmitter.

“Everything will be top quality — the signal and service,” Burnette said.

Prospective buyers of an AM radio station in Sylva could land a $289,000 loan from the Jackson County economic development fund in exchange for creating 11 jobs.

Jackson County commissioners already approved $179,000 of the loan and are poised to approve the remainder next week — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral should the radio station default. The money will primarily be used to purchase the radio license from its current owner, but since a radio station license is not very tangible, the county is hesitant about how it would serve as collateral for the loan.

Jackson County Attorney Jay Coward suggested another option: Jackson County’s name could be included as a co-license holder when filing for the frequency from the Federal Communications Commission.

“If not we would certainly have to rethink it,” Coward said of the loan.

The radio station, currently owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., went dead in August. Its owners cited a lack of revenue. Jackson County resident Roy Burnette, who once worked for WRGC and other local AM radio stations in the region, wants to get the station back on the air.  

Burnette says the new radio station would broadcast at 5,000 watts, reaching from Canton to Topton in Cherokee County, and that he would create 11 jobs.

By comparison, WCQS, the National Public Radio station based in Asheville, employees 12 fulltime and four part-time employees, said executive director Jody Evans on Tuesday.

Commissioners appear partly driven by a desire to bring back the local AM radio station in addition to the jobs themselves. Commissioner Doug Cody said he believes WRGC represents more than simply job creation, from instilling community pride to broadcasting emergency weather information.

“It is a service to the entire county,” Cody said.

Jackson County will not actually become any sort of “partner” in the radio station, even if the county does end up as a co-license holder, Chairman Jack Debnam said.

Maybe, maybe not: The idea has yet to be researched and vetted, Debnam said, adding that it would be Coward’s job to ferret out such answers before commissioners’ actually vote on the final piece of the loan next week.

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, described the potential for public-private license arrangement between the county and the station as unusual. Bowen said that he wasn’t immediately aware of legal barriers that would prevent such an occurrence.

“But whether it would be a good investment, one would really have to know more about the market and the assets involved,” Bowen said.

When asked about the likelihood of the AM radio station surviving in today’s advertising landscape, Jackson County commissioners said they were relying on the financial projections provided by the prospective radio owner.

— From staff reports

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.”

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.

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