By Barbara Elliott
Tucked away in the woods just beyond Pocahontas County High School sits the modest headquarters of a powerful radio network. Its power lies not in the network’s transmission capabilities, but rather in its dogged determination to offer original, local programming that not only entertains and informs its listeners, but involves them as well.
Allegheny Mountain Radio (AMR), as the umbrella network is known, recently adopted Mountain Magic as its tagline. That is a fitting description for an operation that has somehow found a way to serve communities within the remote regions of the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. Radio transmissions in the Quiet Zone are heavily restricted by law to facilitate scientific research by radio astronomers at the Green Bank Observatory.
For many years, radio stations were not able to operate in Pocahontas County or in bordering Highland County in Virginia due to these restrictions. That all changed in the late 1970s when a local group was formed with the help of the West Virginia Humanities Council to explore the needs of the county.
Gibbs Kinderman, who was at time a member of the Humanities Council board, says that the group decided one of the things needed was a radio station so everybody could communicate. Kinderman and his family later moved to Pocahontas County “because it was the most beautiful place on earth.” About the same time the school system became interested in starting an FM station to offer educational programming. Kinderman and other community organizers got behind the idea, but there was a hitch. “The Observatory said ‘I don’t think so,’ so being a bit of a little bit of a contrarian, I said ‘what about AM?’,” he recalls.
Thus was born the idea for WVMR, a feisty AM community station that still broadcasts from a studio just down the road from the Observatory. It truly took a village to put it on the air.
“We got a committee to work on it. Omar Bowyer had been a radio engineer before going to work at the Observatory. He put 99.5 FM in Beckley,what we now know as the Big Dawg, on the air. He had the technical knowledge. The extension agent, Betty Rae Weiford, had the extension service communications thing going, and we got others interested. The school board and county commission got involved. Walt Helmick was an early board member. Musicians were really into the idea. Richard Hefner was one of the first ones to get involved,” Kinderman says.
They group-managed to cobble together funding from a variety of sources to build and equip the studio. The Appalachian Regional Commission granted some money for the facility, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at that time had money to help start stations. The school board provided the land with a 99-year lease for $1 a year, and the county commission put in $25,000. They also raised money in the local community. A non-profit organization, Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, was incorporated on April 19, 1979, and WVMR
went on the air on the air in July of 1981 with B.J. Sharp-Gudmundsson as its first general manager. About a year later, Kinderman became general manager, a position he held for many years until his retirement.
Kinderman admits that the first broadcast did not go quite as planned. He laughingly recalls how it started off with the “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” by Emmy Lou Harris, after which the station’s first volunteer DJ, Dunmore postmistress Annabelle Shaffner, signed on and attempted to turn things over to a Reverend Henderson for a devotional. She called upon Henderson to speak, but somehow the connection didn’t work. When he did not come on, she punched a button and instead of a prayer listeners were treated to a recording of “How Many Hearts have You Broken Today.”
That inaugural week was a real trial by fire for Glenda VanReenan, the first news director. Fresh out of school with a degree in communication arts, she was excited to find a job in her field in her home county. Although the station was by no means ready to start producing remote broadcasts, she nevertheless found herself parked on the front steps of the old First National Bank of Marlinton with a little piece of equipment and two chairs, proudly announcing that she was bringing the Pioneer Days festivities “live from beautiful downtown Marlinton.”
VanReenan has a passion for news, and she was soon undertaking one of the main objectives of the station—to inform citizens and bring greater transparency to the goings-on of the local school board, county commission, and other public entities.
“It was difficult at times. Anything new is regarded with suspicion. Sometimes at Board of Education meetings I would receive snide remarks. You just had to keep on going. ” she recalls. She was particularly excited when she got to cover her first election and had an opportunity to interview candidates not only for local offices, but statewide. “I was awestruck,” she says. “But by the next time an election rolled, I went from being excited to thinking, oh no, I have to talk to them.”
The event that galvanized the community around the station was the devastating flood of 1985. Long-time staffers recall that all the phones in the county were out, and power was out almost everywhere except, miraculously, at the radio station. As an AM station, WVMR normally did not broadcast at night, but because emergency authorities requested it, they received special permission to stay on the air at night. They broadcast around the clock for a week providing critical information not only about where services were available, but about who had been found alive and where they were. The information came in on scraps of paper dropped off at the station or from of ham radio operators around the county.
In the early 1990s, community leaders in Bath and Highland Counties in Virginia expressed an interest in providing similar programming services to their communities In May 1995, the Monterey, Virginia-based WVLS launched, followed by WCHG from Hot Springs in June of that year. The stations ran WVMR program during the day and local programs at night. That way, the new stations were able to broadcast a full schedule without having to hire a full-time staff. They also added a translator FM station in Durbin in July 1998. WVMR-FM in Hillsboro came online in 2010, and WNMP-FM in Marlinton in 2011.
AMR Program Director Heather Niday explains that they were able to get around the FM restrictions in the Radio Quiet Zone through the ingenuity of her husband Chuck, a WVMR volunteer who also happens to be the person at the Observatory responsible for overseeing radio interference. “Basically we have a daisy chain. Chuck has designed a series of switches that allow us to work around the Quiet Zone. He has to get permission so we’re not interfering with the Observatory,” she explains.
Although much has changed as the network has evolved, intensely local news coverage combined with delightfully eclectic musical programming are still mainstays of Allegheny Mountain Radio. Unlike most other radio stations in the United States. AMR has no set format. Depending on when you tune it, you might hear gospel, country, bluegrass, contemporary hits, jazz or even classical selections. An added bonus is the coverage of both Bath County Charger sand Pocahontas County High School Warriors games, which they can originate from different stations at the same time.
Richard Hise, general manager of AMR, says that the flexibility to originate programming from different locations is a great benefit, especially in times of emergency like the derecho in 2012. “During the derecho, we had no power here at WVMR, but we have a flexibility that is unique in that we are a network of stations and can program across lines,” he notes.
Hise started out at AMR hosting a gospel show with his wife. He feels that one of the unique and endearing things about the network is that all the DJs are all local volunteers programming music they love. “People want to hear a local voice, and our music is unique. You know what time of day it is by whose voice is on the radio,” he says.
Assistant General Manager Sue Fertig adds that although DJs have a program guide, they are not locked into it. “If a pig is loose or a dog is roaming around, they call the station and we report it. If your dog is lost, that’s important to you. We have brought so many animals home, including pigs, cows, a turtle, even a llama. People know we’re a good resource,” Fertig says.
The on-air talent with the longest tenure is Norris Long, who came on board as the second volunteer DJ and has been hosting a bluegrass program on Sunday afternoons ever since. And, like everyone else who has ever worked at the station, he has done a little bit of everything else too, including hosting the early morning shift. “I remember when I did my first shift as the morning DJ. I had had five cups of coffee and was completely wired on the air. Gibbs called in and said ‘there ought to be a law against people like you,’” he laughs.
Apparently Long was born to be a DJ, because he remembers as a youngster growing up in Cass he used to hold speakers out of his bedroom window and play 45 RPM records for the enjoyment of unsuspecting passers-by. He brought his love of bluegrass, big band, and traditional music to WVMR, along with his impressive collection of vinyl records. For many years his bluegrass program showcased local musicians who performed live in the studio. Back then the live segment of his program was jokingly referred to at the station as Frost City Limits. Although the AMR features fewer live performances these days, they are still a mainstay of the fall and spring on-air fund drives.
“Traditional music is better than it’s ever been with the new musicians coming up. It’s been fun getting people, including a few former station managers, who thought traditional music was too ‘hick-y’ to learn to enjoy it,” he says.
Although the programming has not changed significantly over the past 36 years, the means of delivering it has been totally transformed by technology. For example, Hise says that when he and his wife first began doing the gospel show, they recorded it onto a MiniDisc at the Bath County station and mailed it to Frost. A program produced by a couple in Holland formerly was mailed in on a disc one a month. Now they can upload it to the cloud and the WVMR staff can download it instantaneously. Perhaps the most transformational change of all is the ability to stream programming anywhere through the website www.alleghenymountainradio.org. Hise says the next step is to digitize their impressive (and space- consuming) collection of vinyl albums and CDs.
On the flip side, the technical advances have made it more challenging to find volunteers DJs who have the technical chops to navigate the computerized equipment and also manage to be entertaining on the air.
“Volunteers have evolved. Thirty years ago they sat down at a turntable and talked into a mic. Now they have CD players and computers. It’s a dance. You have to stay ready for what’s coming up next. Morning and evening drive times are even more complex, especially morning drive, when they are alone at the station. While they are on the air they are constantly checking emails for announcements and updates, such as traffic or weather issues or funeral notices,” comments Niday.
Even with those challenges, AMR is blessed with a fiercely devoted group of volunteers, not only DJs, but community members and board members who are willing to fill in a shift at the last minute, answer phones during fund drives, or even sweep the floors if necessary. “We have a great group of volunteers. They bring something unique, and they have a great love for AMR. It takes a special person to be a volunteer here, but it gets under your skin,” Niday says.
Loyalty to the station also is evident in financial support from listeners that keeps the station on the air. As a nonprofit community network, AMR receives about half of its annual $500,000 budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The rest comes from grants, underwriters and individual donors.
“We get an excellent return rate on pledges. We usually get three-fourths within a couple of weeks of when they are made. Other broadcasters are flabbergasted by our return rates,” says Fertig, who counts business manager among her many duties.
Niday says there is misconception among some people that they are part of National Public Radio, but that is not the case. And she adds that while many NPR stations are being pushed to run more and more national programming at the expense of local news coverage, AMR is just the opposite. ”We have five minutes of national news at the top of the hour, and the rest is local,” she says.
Like radio stations across the country AMR is trying to find the right balance of programming to attract younger listeners while maintaining the loyal base whose support keeps them on the air. Hise says that one approach that is working well is Radio Kids Clubs. The idea is to bring high school and middle schoolers in to write and broadcast scripts. “We have good clubs at both WVMR and WVLS, and we are working on one at on WCHG. The basic way to keep radio relevant is to keep the community involved. When they come in they are amazed to see what it takes to keep us on the air,” he says.
Niday notes with pride that AMR is unique in that it still sounds like and old-time radio station. “We are members of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, a loose affiliation of community stations. There are always posts on their listserve on how they can make their stations more local,” she says. “We’re there.”