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Locally owned radio stations the exception, not the rule

This is the first of a three-part series on locally owned radio stations.

by Danny Forinash

STAFF WRITER

What is it like for a locally owned radio station in the market full of mergers and media powerhouses we have today?

"It's like a mom 'n' pop store competing against department stores like Wal-Mart," says Mark Mills, owner and general manager of WHAR 1340 AM and WVHF 92.7 FM in Clarksburg.

Locally owned stations have become a rarity in the competitive radio market. In our area, only three exist: WHAR/WVHF, WOTR 96.3 FM of Lost Creek and WHAW 980 AM of Weston. All three use satellites to receive outside transmissions in order to stay in business, but they also remain in the hands of people who live within the areas they serve.

With big, outside-owned stations ruling the airwaves and reaching many more people than smaller radio can, you may wonder how local radio survives and how much longer it can persist.

Mills says that the importance of local radio and its chances of survival lie in its ability to be locally oriented. He believes stations like WHAR are more likely to be involved with the "little things in the community" that bigger stations may not have the interest to cover.

Since WHAR serves only Harrison County and some of its surrounding counties, it is more inclined to put the focus on one small area with more specific interests. Larger radio stations serve a much larger area and, therefore, their focus becomes spread out and less focused.

"We have to be a part of the community and stay visible as a station," says Mills. To do this, WHAR/WVHF works closely with local schools and organizations. The station broadcasts sporting events for Robert C. Byrd High School and basketball games for Alderson-Broaddus College. It works to help local charities, like when Pittsburgh Pirates tickets were traded away for food to be given to the Salvation Army. The station also lets listeners know about road problems and local emergencies.

"It's just a nice thing for the community," says Mills. "It's not as important as something like a cure for cancer. Nobody lives or dies by radio. We're here to entertain and inform."

The AM station, WHAR, is the only talk radio station in Harrison County. It involves "a little bit of everything." Local talk and syndicated talk shows like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan can be heard. Mills also has a show called "Interesting People," on which he talks to anyone he finds intriguing, from pro wrestlers to preachers.

WVHF, on FM, plays adult contemporary music, or as Mills describes it, "VH1 rather than MTV." The music is aimed at listeners aged 25 and up. WVHF also broadcasts the sporting events.

"We have to pick a target audience," says Mills. "We can't do everything for everyone like we used to."

"It used to be friendly, fun competition," says Mills, recalling the days when only three stations competed for listeners in the area. "It still is to a certain extent. But now I don't even know who these people are (at the bigger stations)."

Mills also says his station has to be "locally out there" to stay alive financially. "We can't spend as much on promotion, so we have to promote as cleverly as possible," he says. "We have to keep in physical contact with people."

Like any radio station manager, says Mills, he has to "be concerned about the bottom line, maybe even more so" because of scarcity in funds. "We pay bills just as much as the big guys," he says.

"We get tough competition from television, newspapers and billboards," says Joanie Callihan, local sales manager for WHAR/WVHF, about competing for advertisers. "We have to be creative and make advertising work for local businesses."

"As a smaller station, we can be more flexible," continues Callihan. "We're Harrison County, we're Clarksburg and we're Bridgeport. We work closely with the people. They're like our next-door neighbors."

But the biggest concern for local radio is not money. "Our toughest problem is staffing," says Mills. "It's very hard to get a good mesh of people because, with so many radio stations in our area, there is little talent to go around."

However, Mills believes he is lucky enough to have a great staff at WHAR. "They're team players," he says. "That's what it takes to run a station like this. They have to be dedicated and work together toward a common goal. It only takes one person to concentrate on himself and pull everything apart."

Clint Adams, program director at WHAR, says that one of the best parts about working at a smaller station is the freedom to learn the jobs of other people and each facet of the business. "At bigger stations, each person has a specific job with little flexibility," he says. "Here, each person on the staff has several jobs and more opportunities to be versatile. It's great for internships because of that."

"I'm also a garbage picker-upper," says Mills, pointing out that everyone at WHAR has many duties. "We each take out our own garbage. That's part of being a part of a local station like this."

"It's better to be small rather than big because we know what (Mills) expects from us," says Debbie Southern, WHAR/WVHF office manager. "At bigger stations, you might have seven or eight people telling you what to do. Here, if we make a mistake, we only hear about it once and then we know exactly what is expected."

"It's definitely a lot happier and more fun (than working at bigger radio stations)," says Callihan. "We don't have the multiple meetings and corporate hoopla. We can be more independent."

Mills believes that, in order make local radio work, there has to be drive to work at it more than anything else. "I love to do it," he says.

Staff writer Danny Forinash can be reached at 626-1446.

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