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News Jackson radio station unexpectedly silenced

WRGC-AM 680 turned off its transmitters last week, silencing the “real voice of the community” said one listener. Photos by Will Peoples.Company’s Franklin station continuing its broadcasting

Nothing but static can now be heard on Sylva’s WRGCAM (680) radio station. Late last Wednesday night (Aug 30), the radio station went off air and a notice from station management posted on its website informed listeners it is uncertain if or when they will return.

The notice cited that “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.”

The notice also informed listeners that although the station has been successful in maintained a large radio audience throughout the coverage area, the station had to 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.”

“Uncle Jimmy” Childress of Sylva and Harold Thomas of Asheville started the radio station, which first aired Nov. 8, 1957, using the call letters WMSJ. The station took the responsibility of being Jackson County’s only full-service radio station seriously. The station’s call letters changed from WMSJ to WRGC in the 1970s. The call letters were changed to reflect the initials of Jimmy’s son, Ronnie G. Childress, after Ronnie died from electrocution while working on the station’s radio transmitter.

In January of 2002, after 44 years as Sylva’s hometown radio station, Jimmy Childress sold WRGC to Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. LLC, a Georgia-based broadcasting company owned by Douglas “Art” Sutton Jr. of Toccoa, Ga. Georgia-Carolina also owns “Franklin’s First Voice, 1050 WFSC.

According to Sutton, President and CEO of Georgia-Carolina, closing WRGC was not completly unexpected. “We monitor closely the financial performance of all our stations, 14 of them. Since 2008, advertising revenue for all media has decreased due to the economy. The Western North Carolina area was hit especially hard due to the collapse of the real estate industry after 2008. The Sylva station had the greatest decline in revenue; 40% since our peak revenue year of 2008, the same year the economy went bust.”

The station’s fan-run Facebook page “680 AM WRGC-Jackson County Radio.” posted to inform residents of the closing. “Sad news for Jackson County. WRGC is now officially off the air. Personally, I would like to thank everyone for listening in and supporting the station for so many years. God Bless.”

The sign on the door of the former WRGC broadcasting station rings with finality.Residents also took to the Facebook page to share surprise and disappointment after learning of the news. “Very disappointed to hear this. You have been a beacon in the storm. Good luck to all employees and thank you for the service you provided,” posted Bill Geddes.

“This was the real voice of our community. It feels a lot lonelier here without WRGC around,” posted Elizabeth Stewart.

Even those who only listened to WRGC while visiting the area expressed their disbelief. “I have listened and enjoyed your programming when visiting Western North Carolina. Your voices will be missed!,” posted Keith Lawrence Weiss of Rapides, La.

Melynda Kaufman’s husband worked for the radio station for a little more than three years. Kaufman said, “My husband lost his job ... we sat as a family and listened to our favorite station, our family's livelihood, a small town radio station of over 50 years... go off the air ... the hum as the tower was turned off brought tears to all our eyes.”

Former station employee and Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians Urban Planner since 1998, Brandon Stephens, first started working for WRGC when he was only 14 years old and continued to work for 22 years. According to Stephens, the closing is upsetting for several different reasons.

“The Jackson County community has no voice. No longer do we have a venue for local breaking news, coverage of WCU and Smoky Mountain High School sports, of which I was most noted on the radio for. It also eliminates emergency news if there is severe weather, promotion of local events (festivals, fund raisers, and charity events),” Stephens said.

Like many Jackson County residents, Stephens is hopeful that the station can be reopened. “Without knowing how severe the station is troubled financially, I believe there are probably good business practices to save our local radio station. I realized a long time ago that media like The Sylva Herald and Smoky Mountain News have an important job. Radio does the work they do in different styles,” he continued, “to say local media is gone is inaccurate. But part of our county identity has been removed. In my 22 years of working there [WRGC] we experienced tough times right after the Persian Gulf War initiated. We downsized and worked more diligently to maximize our use of resources and not lose quality of the broadcast.”

WRGC served as one of only two media outlets in Jackson County, the other being The Sylva Herald.

The radio station broadcasted on the choice frequency of 680 kilohertz, because AM radio signals are able to travel greater distances, which is needed in the Western North Carolina coverage area because of the mountainous terrain of the region. WRGC’s coverage began in northern Jackson County and spread to portions of Swain, Macon and Haywood counties.

Although WRGC mostly appealed to the 25 and older crowd, station management researched a music format known as adult contemporary, designed to appeal to the majority of Jackson County’s residents. The station played contemporary artists and frequently threw in hits from the past 25 years.

The station’s format focused on frequent, up-todate local news, weather, sport broadcasts, community events and the famed “tradio.”

Dan Barry, New York Times columnist for the “This Land” column, wrote about the unique smalltown segment in 2007. “Here in Sylva, where WRGC’s power drops to 250 watts at sunset, Tradio may well be the most popular program on the air,” wrote Barry. “For 15 minutes every weekday afternoon, people talk, listen and connect, all through a kind of radio-wave eBay called Tradio.”

The “tradio” segment could be heard weekdays at 9:45 a.m., during the Morning Show, and offered listeners the opportunity to call in and advertise items they wanted to buy, sell or trade. The unique segment was just one more way WRGC went above and beyond to serve Jackson County and its citizens.

Many Jackson County natives relied on WRGC’s live coverage of Smoky Mountain High School and Western Carolina University sports to keep up with away games. WRGC was the first station to broadcast Catamount baseball games. The university dedicated the baseball field to Ronnie G. Childress in 1978 deeming it “Childress Field” for the support he and WRGC provided to the university. “This [radio station closing] really is sad news. I have certainly appreciated being able to listen to the games when I wasn’t able to make it. Your broadcast and support for the community will definitely be missed,” Susan Yeager Ward posted on the WRGC fan run facebook page.

Kelly Childress explained that WRGC is a part of Jackson County as a whole, and important to everyone, not just her family. “It is sad and unfortunate for the entire community. It is especially sad for those who kept up with the local news and sports through WRGC. The station was an entire Jackson County tradition, not just a Childress family tradition. It will be missed by many people.”

The radio was also an affiliate of the Atlanta Braves radio network, the largest radio affiliate network in Major League Baseball. WRGC aired coverage of The Atlanta Braves baseball season for its listeners.

During the winter months, WRGC was the only source of local, immediate coverage of local weather. The station provided vital updated continuous live coverage of emergency weather conditions. Broadcasters informed listeners of school closings and dangerous road conditions. When storms caused power outages in the area, WRGC was the only source of information residents could depend on to provide crucial information during tough conditions.

During each election in Jackson County, the radio station provided listeners with candidate profiles with intentions of helping citizens be more informed voters. The station also aired live from polling stations to provide the community with up-to-date election results.

According to Stephens, the most unsettling part of the station’s closing in the uncertainty of its future. “The fact the station is “dark” forces loyal listeners to change stations. It forces loyal advertisers to change their spending habits. If this goes on for too long, the current company or a new owner could have great difficulty getting the station to become a viable business. Broadcasting is all about image. Right now it doesn’t have an image. The lack of image also reflects on our community,” said Stephens.

Franklin’s radio stations are thriving

Although the Helen, Georgia-based radio station, Georgia 1051 WNGA, which is also owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. LLC, went off air shortly after midnight on August 10. and cited identical problems, Franklin’s radio stations are safe, according to Sutton.

The Helen, Ga. station’s website, www.georgia1051.com, has a notice posted that is almost identical to the one found on WRCG’s homepage, with the addition of, “Unfortunately, in recent months, the same fate has happened to three other stations in the North Georgia area. Plain and simple, times are very tough.”

According to Sutton, all the other stations owned by Georgia-Carolina, are not at risk. “Since 2008, we had two stations in our company which were not cash flowing. Sylva and Helen, Ga. Both were taken off the air in August. The other stations are either breaking even or making money which in this economy is an accomplishment,” said Sutton.

Franklin’s radio stations are among the most profitable that Georgia-Carolina owns. “The Franklin stations are no way impacted. In fact, our Franklin stations, WFSC (AM 1050) and WNCC-(FM 96.7) have grown their revenues by ten percent since 2008 and that market is our second highest revenue producer in the group,” said Sutton.”

Sutton is adamant that the radio stations serving Macon County is not subject to the same problems WRGC faced. “Unlike Sylva, Franklin has not lost two car dealers, it’s not had hardware stores and lumber yards close; it did not have both colleges cut back on their advertising plus had the local hospital merger with one in a neighboring county ... all of these Jackson County businesses and institutions were major advertisers on WRGC so their loss was a huge hit to the station,”he said. “In addition to WFSC and WNCC-FM, our Clayton, Ga. FM station, WRBN(Sky 104 FM) serves Macon County. Its operating results have also stayed in the black. That being said, a radio station is not a charity. It provides a great deal of public service but at the end of the day, the service has to be paid for and advertising is what does it.”

“We deeply regret we had to take WRGC off the air. Of the ten years we have owned the station, seven of them were profitable,” explained Sutton. “It’s obvious that the station was very important to the community based on the reaction people have had to it going off but as business owners we have to make tough decisions. We feel it’s important to make decisions ... which best provide for the security of all our stations and employees,” he said.

According to Sutton, the Federal Communications Commission allows a radio station to remain off the air for one year before its license is cancelled. “We will not allow that to happen,” he said. “Either we will sell the station, ... or we will move the frequency to another area where we feel it can operate more profitably.”





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