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