For many, those touchstones transpired before a tinny AM radio in granddaddy’s pickup, or a tube console set in a neighbor’s basement, or later, a heavy plastic portable unit with retractable antenna perched atop a Styrofoam cooler at a family picnic out by the pond on a warm summer’s night.
Both the range and affordability of AM radio stations made them, for a time, an intensely local affair, further burnishing those recollections with a sense of place; radio itself was once a destination, an impermanent, fleeting thing to be sought.
Now, in an on–demand world of device-driven digital downloads, that’s no longer the case, but after years of dwindling market advantage, one of the first real forms of electronic mass media is in the midst of a makeover that signals a new era for the hundreds of small-market AM radio stations that dot rural America and rural North Carolina.
Oldies but goodies
Back in 1963, most AM radio stations, with the exception of the largest in the largest markets, were doing something called block programming — say, popular music from 6 to 9 a.m., easy listening till noon, country from noon to 3, and rock n’ roll in the afternoon. Sandwiched betwixt were local weather and news.
Such was the case for Vernon Presley’s WPTL, which began broadcasting in Canton in 1963 and featured blocks of country, rock and gospel.
With the advent of television, radio began to specialize into specific formats, like Top 40 — playing the same records over and over, every two or three hours.
Top 40 did mark a resurgence in AM radio, until the advent of stereo rocked the FM market.
Presley’s WPTL signal covered Asheville, all of Haywood County, and into Henderson County, but as time went on, AM signals began to degrade with the ever-increasing leakage of RF signals from new technology and new infrastructure like cable television and data lines.
Due to flagging health, Presley sold WPTL in 1975 to Asheville’s Price McNabb Advertising, but the station suffered under non-local ownership, until on March 1, 1978, it was purchased by a man named Bill Reck, who’d owned a station just north of Orlando, Florida, in Sanford.
“We sold it, and had a non-compete in place for 500 miles,” said Reck. “This is about 575.”
Around the time Reck bought the station, FCC regulations had limited WPTL to daytime broadcasting only, but eventually allowed stations like Reck’s to broadcast at night, albeit at a greatly reduced power.
“Well that was fine, but that wasn’t where the people lived. They did like everybody else did and moved out to the suburbs. So we broadcast to the closed-up stores, doctors offices and banks in downtown Canton, and people still couldn’t hear the Pisgah Bears games,” he laughed.
Sometime in the late 1990s a man walked into the small WPTL studio on Pisgah Drive to drop off some paperwork. With him was 10-year-old Andy Rogers.
“That trip to the radio station sparked my interest in wanting to be a part of that,” said Rogers, now 31 and station manager at Sylva’s WRGC and Bryson City’s WBHN, both AM stations owned by Roy Burnette.
Rogers has spent more than half his young life working in radio, getting his start at the age of 14 with WQNS; he credits Betty Jo Nichols, who passed away in 2004, with opening the door.
“They started me out running church services, but I got my big break hosting a three-hour southern gospel music program on Sunday mornings,” Rogers said.
After studying film and video production at Haywood Community College, Rogers got right back into radio, hosting a morning show on Reck’s WPTL before he was even 20 years old.
While bouncing around in the tight-knit world of Western North Carolina radio — both corporate and locally-owned — Rogers got a call from Burnette around 2011.
WRGC, then under ownership of the Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, went off the air for a brief period due to financial difficulties, and Burnette needed technical help getting it back up and running under his ownership.
What Burnette had bought was a storied outlet, founded in Sylva in 1957 as WMSJ, with the “MSJ” standing for Macon, Swain and Jackson.
When the owner’s son Ronnie G. Childress was electrocuted while working on a piece of equipment during a thunderstorm in 1975, the call sign was changed to his initials, RGC.
Much like Sylva’s WRGC, Canton’s WPTL found itself of late competing for attention and advertisers not only with other local radio, television and print outlets but also with international corporate behemoths like iTunes, SiriusXM, Spotify and YouTube.
Reck, who’s been in radio for 58 years, explains how a small 500-watt AM station in rural Southern Appalachia remains viable today, 40 years and 27 days after he purchased it.
“The simple answer is two words,” he said. “Local service.”
WPTL’s local service includes live coverage of Pisgah High School’s football, basketball, softball and baseball games, and even some soccer, as well as Tuscola High School’s basketball, softball and baseball games — exactly the type of treasured tailgate memories that bolster the generational fiber of small-town America.
Other finely-tuned local programming, including a flea market segment, obituaries, gospel hymns and Bible teachings, begins at 6 a.m. and continues through 10:30; that’s followed by Westwood One’s Real Country network.
“Real country is defined as classic country,” said Reck. “George Jones. Conway Twitty. Loretta Lynn.“
That old gold is augmented by popular contemporary artists like Brooks and Dunn, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Reba McEntire.
“We have the best of the new, true country without getting into rock n’ roll country, and the best of the old country without getting very deep into people like Porter Wagoner and Hank Williams Sr.,” Reck said. “We play some of their music, but we’ll play a lot more Hank Jr. than Hank Sr., and we’ll play a lot more Kenny Chesney than we will Porter Wagoner.”
Things are slightly different with WRGC’s adult contemporary format and WBHN’s classic country stylings, but the one similarity between all three stations is that local service angle.
“We broadcast Smoky Mountain High School football, boys and girls basketball, and some baseball,” Rogers said of the Sylva Station. “We have carried Swain County football, and we’re hoping to do a lot more with the Bryson City station.”
And then, of course, there’s Western Carolina University football and basketball.
“WRGC is a valuable and long-time partner of Western Carolina University. The station is a cornerstone of the Catamount Sports Network and, through its news operations and ‘540 Focus’ programming, regularly shares information about university activities, programs and people with residents of Jackson County and surrounding communities,” said Bill Studenc, chief communications officer at WCU. “We applaud these improvements to WRGC’s broadcast capabilities and welcome the opportunities that they present in providing a broader swath of listeners across the region with access to information about Western Carolina University.”
Worsening AM signal degradation in a heavily mountainous region and dusk power curfews have made all that local content increasingly difficult to find, but recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission already have local listeners tuning on and tuning in to a new twist on an old favorite.
“The FCC recognized the problem, but deemed it impractical to give the already-saturated AM radio market a power increase,” Reck said, adding that such a move would cause widespread interference from Sevierville to Sunburst to Salisbury, and everywhere in between.
The solution was what’s called a translator, which basically rebroadcasts one radio frequency’s output onto another.
In this case, WPTL’s 920 AM frequency can now be heard on 101.7 FM; Reck applied for a license from the FCC last July and was quickly approved. He began construction on the Chambers Mountain site this past January, was given final approval by the FCC Feb. 7, and began full-time broadcasting at 7 p.m. that same night.
“Now it’s just a matter of putting that service back to work and we’re looking to tell people all about it and give them a chance to rediscover WPTL,” Reck said.
Rogers isn’t far behind his old boss with WRGC and WBHN.
“Both stations applied for and have received a translator frequency,” he said. “The station in Sylva, 540 AM, is also now on 105.7 FM. We just got it up this week. It’s still in a test phase, and we’re awaiting final license approval any day now.”
With that project out of the way, construction was slated to begin on the WBHN translator the week of March 26; soon, Bryson City’s 1590 AM will also be heard louder and clearer than ever on 94.1 FM, possibly as far as Robbinsville.
“The FM translators are going to breathe some new life into local radio,” Rogers said. “I think it’s going to give us a little more of a viable edge than we’ve had in the past.”
Heather Hyatt (left) and Andy Rogers host the morning show on Sylva’s WRGC. Donated photo
On the air
The increasing availability of FM translators to small-market AM stations levels the playing field somewhat; according to Maryland-based media relations services company News Generation, 93 percent of Americans listen to AM or FM radio, 4 percent more than watch television.
Digital listenership has increased from 12 percent of Americans in 2007 to more than 50 percent last year, with 40 percent of cellphone owners using the device to play audio in their cars.
The global reach of the internet means one needn’t be within antenna range of Canton to stay connected to music, news and sports; Reck mentioned a local West Point grad who listens to the station from Afghanistan.
“There are people with ties to the community that listen to us and then there are people that are just out there, everywhere,” he said. “We have a group in Finland that just found us, likes us, and listens to us. There’s another in Ukraine. It’s crazy.”
While most if not all local stations broadcast over the internet — as well as serve up digital content of their own on social media platforms — Rogers warns against getting carried away with it.
“The radio market as a whole has spent so much money building these digital platforms, they’ve lost sight of the backbone of their operation, which is local terrestrial radio,” he said.
According to Rogers, those digital platforms are “everything but terrestrial radio” — things like mobile apps, on-demand content and even event production.
“I guess [with the recent iHeartMedia bankruptcy], you can see the effects of that,” said Rogers.
Instead, local service delivered by a local presence is far more important than syndicated regional or national talent appearing on local radio in dozens of markets.
“That’s still something that holds weight,” he said. “We’re your neighbors.”
Rogers says you can see the impact on the bottom line.
“Businesses that advertise with local radio get results, or they wouldn’t remain. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince a new client to advertise on radio, but once they see the return on investment, 95 percent of our clients remain regular advertisers,” he said. “Obviously there’s still something viable there.”
At its peak, there were four locally operated radio stations in Haywood County, the first being WHCC in Waynesville, followed by WWIT and WPTL in Canton, and finally WQNS in Waynesville. Reck’s WPTL is the only one still under local management.
Sitting in the WPTL studio amidst stacks of dusty old LPs and 45s in yellowed jackets — there isn’t even a turntable in the building anymore — Reck sees the industry as remaining viable for the foreseeable future.
“I think that as times progress, some of the smaller stations will go off the air, and more of them will continue to adapt,” he said. “But I think you’ll see more selective stations like mine becoming actually stronger. We have to continually look for ways to serve our community and be visible, and be relevant.”
And although he can still recount the in-studio appearances there by everyone from Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Jim Ed Brown to contemporary bluegrass juggernaut Balsam Range, his forward-looking perspective on the industry suggests WPTL and stations like it will continue to create those cherished memories, from Canton to Finland.
“It’s kind of like restaurant row,” he said. “McDonald’s builds next to Hardee’s who builds next to Taco Bell who builds next to Bojangles’ who builds next to Wendy’s, and on it goes. It’s easier to get a bigger piece of the pie than it is to try to be the pie.”