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Sylva AM radio station goes dark

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.

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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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