Community radio: ‘Mirror’ of local life

Friday, August 17, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 33
By John McBryde

Don Hazelwood (right) and Darrell Williams are two of the hosts of the popular midday Trade Talk on WAKM.

The conference room at Cadence Bank in downtown Franklin is filled with 15 or so people awaiting their turn to speak with Tom Lawrence, the veteran radio personality for WAKM 950-AM in Williamson County.

Standing to one side of the room and holding a microphone, Lawrence calls up each guest to discuss why they’re in attendance on this weekday morning. Richard Marsh and Joey Davis are there to talk about the Williamson County Fair, and Mark Basenberg explains his role as the new community relations coordinator for the Williamson County Animal Adoption and Control Center.

A couple of performers from the Pull-Tight Players theatre group discuss their most recent production, Bye Bye Birdie, and someone from the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald tells listeners about that organization’s booth at the Living Green Expo at the Williamson County Ag Expo Park.

Welcome to Hometown Radio, WAKM’s long-running program broadcast remotely from locations around Williamson County every Monday through Friday morning. It has been held at Cadence Bank on East Main Street each Wednesday for almost five years and, like it does on other days in other locations, the 5,000-watt station covers a wide range of topics.

“Everybody wants on the radio for some reason or another,” says Lawrence, a 48-year veteran of radio who, along with his business partners, purchased WAKM in 1982. “They come on to promote their event or to just talk about their business or organization.”

Wednesdays at Cadence Bank exemplify the very notion and appeal of community radio in Middle Tennessee. As the world moves forward with SiriusXM, Pandora and Spotify, not to mention the megawatt power of FM conglomerates in Nashville, the niche remains solid for the local AM stations found in just about every town that surrounds Music City.

“One of the underpinnings of (community) radio is that it has to be local,” says Bob Pondillo, associate professor of mass communications at Middle Tennessee State University and longtime observer of the radio industry. “These small, local stations provide a service that no one else does, and it’s important that they reflect back what’s found in the community.”

In Murfreesboro, for instance, the owner of WGNS 1450-AM is a voice the community knows over the air as well as a face seen throughout Rutherford County.

“This station is a part of the community,” says Bart Walker, who purchased WGNS in 1984. “Whenever something happens, we are there, and we try to be a mirror.

“I think that what makes local radio work is that you find what the needs are in the community and you address those needs with programs,” he adds. “As long as you do that, there is a need for community radio.”

In addition to WAKM and WGNS, other community radio AM stations in Nashville’s surrounding counties include WJZM (1400) in Clarksville, WDKN (1260) in Dickson, WHIN (1010) in Gallatin, WCOR (1490) in Lebanon and WSGI (1100) in Springfield.

They range in power from 1,000 to 5,000 watts, and a few are simulcast on an FM frequency. All feature local news along with some sort of programming specific to the community. Most broadcast high school sports and serve as affiliates for Titans football or area college athletics.

And just about all community radio stations feature a Swap and Shop-type program, an on-air classifieds that allows listeners to call in looking to buy or sell items, announce yard sales and bazaars, or to simply tell a funny story or two.

During one afternoon on WAKM’s Trade Time, the list of items for sale included a restored 1933 Chevrolet, a 20-gauge shotgun with a box of shells, 10 small birds with cages, and tickets to the recent Rod Stewart and Stevie Nicks concert in Nashville.

Trade Time is an animal all unto itself,” Lawrence says of the show that airs on WAKM each weekday at lunchtime. “It’s personality-driven, and it’s made for small towns.”

Tommy Jackson (left) keeps the conversation lively, poking fun of host Darrell Williams during WAKM’s Trade Talk.

It’s also tailored for sponsorships. John Slaughter, a State Farm insurance agent in Franklin, has sponsored Trade Time for nearly 10 years. As part of the money he spends with the station, he appears on the show twice a week.

“You get people to identify with you because they hear your voice and get to know your personality,” he says, “and the next thing you know they’re calling you up and buying insurance from you.

“All these other guys are going after Internet leads and things like that, but I’ll take this any day.”

Coleman Walker, co-owner of Walker & Phillips Insurance in Lebanon, echos that testimonial. He has hosted a daily show titled Coleman & Company on WCOR for nearly 19 years, and says it has helped to generate business for his insurance company.

“I think we have a tremendous listening audience,” says Walker, whose show is a one-hour roundtable format featuring local officials, politicians and others from the community. “We’ve sold out advertising since we started, and even if an advertiser drops out, there is another ready to replace them.”

Community radio stations owe much of their survival to local advertisers, who can target a very specific market. For many, their loyalty is mirrored by their longevity.

“We have been so fortunate (with our advertisers),” says Bart Walker, who changed the format of WGNS from contemporary music to talk radio in 1991. “We have some who have been with us since the station signed on in 1947. And they are proud of that.”

Shacklett’s Photography in Murfreesboro is one such business. Founded in 1936, the company’s attention to the community parallels that of WGNS, the business’ owner says.

“It seems that the people who listen to WGNS look to it to inform them about what’s really going on in our community,” says Bill Shacklett, who along with his sister, Gloria Christy, took over the photography company from their parents in 1989.

“We try to leverage that same kind of perspective from our customers. We focus on community history, and we try to help Bart with some of our input.”

While community radio can be looked on as quaint or even nostalgic in its format – most of the area’s stations date to the 1940s and early ’50s – that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily behind the times. They’re thinking locally but acting globally, in a sense, by using the Internet to broadcast worldwide.

“We’re not afraid of the Internet anymore,” says Lawrence, a Franklin native who started in radio at age 14. “We use it as a tool, and we stream everything online now.”

Of course, the bottom line for community radio is just as it is for any business. Stations strive to operate in the black, and MTSU’s Pondillo says there can be a fine line between making money and providing a service for the community.

“(Profit) margins, especially in local radio, are really small,” he says. “You’re not going to get rich by running a little radio station, but you can do a great, great service for a community.

“General managers have to decide how they’re going to spread their dollars. These are business people, after all, and they’re trying to make it work and still make a profit at the end of the day.

“I really think they’re doing the best they can, and they’ll probably be around longer than you might think,” he adds.