Local, independent radio stations are a unique piece of culture in their communities. We caught up with Richmond-area radio stations to see what it’s like to operate an independent station in the modern world of corporate-controlled playlists and syndicated DJs.
In an industry that is experiencing financial stagnation and a steady increase in banal programming, local independent radio stations are challenging the notion that the medium of terrestrial radio will go anywhere anytime soon.
For countless radio disc jockeys, on-air personalities, and station managers, the mission is to provide a voice and outlet for their community. The radio has been an illustrious and amplifying source for exactly that.
However, over past decades, the industry has not been the same force to be reckoned with as it once was. In 2019, there were 510 broadcast announcers and radio disc jockeys in Virginia, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just ten years ago, there were 800 employed in that same field.
Not all hope is lost, though. According to a 2019 Nielson study, terrestrial radio still reaches 92 percent of the population. The reach is higher than other platforms like television and mobile devices. Low-power FM stations are also on a rise: as of March 2020, there are 2,159 low-power FM stations in the U.S., nearly a 150 percent increase from 2010.
Providing a platform for the unheard, Richmond’s all-volunteer independent radio station, WRIR 97.3 FM, stays at the forefront of all things local and culture. And while it certainly has the highest profile with RVA Mag’s readership, WRIR is far from the only independent radio outlet Richmonders have access to. Independent radio stations are adapting to the rapid evolution of media and technology, adjusting their formats and accessibility to cater to the needs and wants of the Richmond area.
From music to talk shows, low-power FM stations have established a local foothold. Low-power stations like WRIR are required to be run by nonprofit organizations (schools, churches, Native American tribes, etc); their signals are allowed to cover about a four-mile radius. Like many low-power stations, Richmond’s 103.3 The Bridge is commercial-free and runs entirely by volunteers and donations.
Listeners of The Bridge can end their Wednesday night jamming out to Richmond’s underground music scene, including tracks from artists who are often overlooked.
“My goal as a DJ is to bring in new, emerging queer pop artists, with a focus on femme, trans, and non-binary people,” said Erin Gerety, Music Director of The Bridge.
That’s what Gerety hopes listeners will appreciate after tuning in to the station’s weekly “Little Rascal’s School Night Slumber Party” segment.
The Bridge’s mission is to highlight local artists, like Baby Grill, Gnawing, and Alfred. Gerety, who uses they/them pronouns, said they currently try to play two local songs an hour, and plan to increase the rotation to five.
As the singer for local band BUTT, Gerety is involved with the local music scene in a variety of ways. Before coming to The Bridge, Gerety was a DJ, and briefly the hip-hop director, at WRIR. Based on their prior radio experiences at WRIR Gerety decided to take on the task as music director at The Bridge.
The station has given them an opportunity to feature a diverse range of local artists, including “total weirdo music,” they said, “that wouldn’t be played elsewhere.” The Bridge allows Gerety to pre-record their programs, which allows them to record consistently regardless of their busy schedule and gives them full creative control over what is played.
“Working with The Bridge, I have the opportunity to run a regular program that I can take a deep-dive in,” they said. “It’s an exciting and different way of working, [and it] has allowed me a lot more freedom.”
One of the ways WRIR has achieved its closeness with local culture is through its prominent location in downtown Richmond, within a mile of VCU’s campus. But rest assured, if you live a little farther away from the city center, there are local independent stations based in your area as well.
Since 1998, Hanover County’s source of old-school throwbacks and local news has been WHAN, The Mater, 102.9 FM.
Before WHAN established itself as a strong Ashland-area source of music, it began as a talk radio station. For a short period of time, the station was leased to the University of Virginia, where music was weaved into the programming. When station owner Bill Roberts regained full control in 2017, the more music-oriented format was locked in.
While WHAN is known to play oldies — such as The Beatles or Jefferson Starship — in recent years, it has expanded to play a variety of music across a plethora of genres and eras, from the Grateful Dead to the Panic! At The Disco.
“We play some British artists. I played a German group today,” Roberts said. “We’ve got a pretty [diverse] mixture of artists.”
In the Ashland area, WHAN is best known for its local sports coverage. From Randolph-Macon College football to Hanover County high school sports, WHAN has widely covered sports in the area since 2011.
Rob Witham, operations manager of WHAN, came to the station as a sports announcer with previous experience in corporate radio. He said there is a disconnect nowadays between corporate stations and locals.
“One of radio’s greatest gifts has always been its way to connect with the local community,” he said. “And stations who don’t do it, do it at their own peril.”
Witham emphasized WHAN’s commitment to the Hanover community. The station broadcasts from local events like the Ashland Strawberry Faire and the Hanover Tomato Festival.
“If there’s something happening in our community, we’re going to be broadcasting live,” Witham said. “So people see us, they know we’re there, and that we care about things they care about.”
Over the years, WHAN has ventured into different types of talk shows and non-musical programming. They host a Sunday program targeted to the Richmond-area Hispanic population.
“Because we’re small and have nothing to lose, we can try things,” Roberts said. “We can experiment and do things that, maybe, other stations would be reluctant to do.”
The name Christopher Maxwell is a familiar one in some local radio circles. Having helped to start WRIR, Maxwell is also the founder of WRWK, The Work, 93.9. He created the community-based station because he wanted to provide an outlet for local voices to “push the needle” for progressive change.
WRWK focuses on talk shows involving local voices. They have interviewed candidates for local office, including those whose voices aren’t often heard in local media. They’ve broadcasted from a variety of local political events over their years of operation, including the 2017 Women’s March and the Virginia 7th Congressional District Debate.
“If we want to create a conversation across silos,” Maxwell said, “and one where humanity can become what’s [ultimately] possible, I need to go to that edge.”
That edge was Chesterfield County. A few months after being on-air, Maxwell saw changes in the county that he believes WRWK was a catalyst for. He noted the unseating of Congressman David Brat, a Republican, by Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the first Democratic representative of the 7th District in Virginia since 1970.
The Work’s operation depends on listeners’ contributions. One way the station receives donations is through fundraisers. Their next fundraiser is happening Saturday, September 26, at Rick’s Rock Cafe. They will, of course, be live-streaming from the venue.
Turn the dial to 92.9 FM, and you’ll find WBTL, the station known as Boomtown Richmond. Classics like The Beatles (who provide the station’s call letters) and beloved old-school local bands like Ron Moody And The Centaurs will be playing. Station owner Mike Mazursky started radio broadcasting in Richmond in 1996, and recently he noticed there was not a prominent station dedicated to oldies music from the 1950-1980s era. WBTL was born three years ago.
“I knew it was a huge opportunity for me to be the exclusive radio station for classic hits and oldies,” Mazursky said.
The coronavirus pandemic has created challenges for radio stations across the country and in Virginia, but it’s had a particularly tough effect for some independent stations. For WHAN, it wiped out months of planned programming.
“This is the first year since I’ve been [at WHAN] that we haven’t been able to do local sports because of the coronavirus,” Roberts said.
Faced with these challenges, local stations have gotten creative. WHAN filled some gaps in programming by spending a week playing their entire main music library of 4,000 songs in alphabetical order, a move that garnered positive feedback from their audience.
Pre-pandemic, Witham hosted a sports talk show that primarily focused on local high school and college sports. Since the pandemic, the show has shifted to sports news, concentrating on the ramifications of COVID-19 on the sports world.
“We do a lot of discussion about mental health issues,” Witham said. “We have experts on the air talking about that; how the pandemic is affecting student athletes and coaches.”
For Mazursky at Boomtown, it’s important to inform the station’s Baby Boomer demographic with coronavirus updates. Mazursky also owns WULT, Ultra Richmond, 94.1 FM, a Spanish-language radio station. WULT works with Sacred Heart Center and Capital Area Health Network to distribute masks and hand sanitizers at events.
As the radio landscape continues to evolve, local independent radio stations constantly adapt. The public shift toward streaming services threatened the mere existence of radio, and local stations including Boomtown, The Bridge, and The Work all have live streaming on their websites to make themselves more accessible in the streaming era.
At a time when the most powerful commercial stations beam in nationally syndicated DJs from far-flung locales, these independent radio stations are bringing a much-needed local touch that sets them apart. Whether spotlighting the local music scene or foregrounding social issues, their commitment to the local community shines through. It seems they won’t go radio silent anytime soon.