An Unfettered Press
On the Air in Springville
When the 5,000 residents of Springville, New York, want to hear about happenings in their home town, they switch their radio dials from the large, powerful stations in Buffalo, New York, some 64 kilometers away, and tune in to station WFWC. Financial writer Richard Schroeder reports on how this small American rural radio station keeps Springville informed and itself in business.
When the disk jockey at radio station WFWC delivers the weather report, all he has to do is look past his control board and out the studio's storefront window to see what the shoppers coming to adjacent stores in the Franklin Street plaza are wearing.
"It is an interesting location because our main studio is almost right out on the street," says Skip Tillinghast, the station's program director. "People feel free to pop in and say hello and drop off notices of community events."
The station's location in rural Springville, New York, (population 5,000) is ideal for its one newsperson, Fred Haier, who lives close by. The location allows him to work in the morning from 5:30 to 9:30, run home for lunch and a rest, and return for the afternoon news reports from 3:30 to 6.
Beginning with the farm report every morning at 5:30, WFWC broadcasts country and western music, local news, weather, and information on community activities to residents of Springville and the surrounding hills and valleys of this agricultural area in western New York State.
The AM station, with 1,000 watts of power and four full-time and four part-time employees, holds its own against dozens of major radio stations in nearby Buffalo because it offers the local advertising, news, and information often ignored by the bigger media outlets, says Lloyd Lane, general manager and part-owner of the station.
"We give them mainly local advertising -- the mom and pop Main Street businesses, the local hardware store, car dealers, the drug store," he says.
"When the local police shift turns over, we update them on the latest items on the village police blotter. And we are always looking for community news."
The station has followed closely plans to open in Springville a large discount store, part of a national chain of stores that are noted for providing tough competition for local businesses. WFWC also keeps Springville residents up to date on developments at a controversial experimental nuclear repository being operated by the federal government in nearby West Valley, New York.
WFWC is one of about 5,000 AM radio stations in the United States, more than half of which serve small towns and villages. Despite its size, the station's broadcasting mix and strategies are as sophisticated as those of larger urban stations.
Like its big brothers, WFWC targets the morning and afternoon "drive times," when workers and students drive from their homes to workplaces and schools, which is why the station's only newsperson works a split shift. Program Director Tillinghast is the broadcaster during the morning drive time, and another station employee handles the afternoon shift.
Every weekday from 5:30 a.m. to 6 a.m., the station runs syndicated farm shows on various topics, then follows up by broadcasting local produce prices.
Then comes Tillinghast's morning broadcast, a mix of 70 percent music and 30 percent local news and information. Every Wednesday morning, a local guest -- Springville's mayor, a school official, a business owner -- participates in a listeners' call-in show that is on the air for 30 minutes.
Most of the rest of the broadcast day consists of piped-in country and western music shows purchased from a syndication company in the western United States and transmitted to WFWC by satellite.
Virtually all of the advertising on WFWC is local, although it gets a few national ads from companies such as McDonald's, which operates a fast-food restaurant in the village.
Advertisers might include anything from a specialized graphics store to a furniture retailer or an auto parts outlet, says Peter F. Regan, the station's sole advertising salesperson.
Regan is a busy man. "I typically write the ads for my clients," he says. "I write the copy because I have the best insight into what they are trying to say. I also produce a lot of the ads myself, and I do the actual announcing. I like to get my hands into all the different aspects of it."
He discussed his work shortly after recording an ad for a local furniture store, which was having a sale before taking inventory of its stock. "This is it, the final days," said Regan, belting out the sales pitch in a booming baritone. "You'll find 40 percent off all in-stock curio cabinets. Discontinued bedroom sets for 50 percent. We want to sell it, not count it."
Regan spent several years managing a retail outlet before working in radio. "I know how I want them phrased," he says of his ads. "I have been in business management, so I know the other side. I know what it's like for someone who has to spend the advertising dollars."
WFWC enjoys a near-monopoly on local radio advertising. "In terms of radio, we are it. As far as our territory goes, people listen to Buffalo stations that penetrate the area. But when you think of the advertising dollars spent to buy time on one of those stations, you are paying a lot for listeners you will never see." The average local advertiser spends $250 to $500 a month at WFWC, with single ads selling for $8 to $10 a spot, Lane says. The only competition for advertisers comes from weekly shopping and community newspapers, he adds.
Lane, who bought the station with three partners in 1991, gets a workout running it and its sister station, WCJW, 48 kilometers away in the rural village of Warsaw, New York.
"I get into all the small decisions, everything from what equipment to buy to assisting in the scheduling of announcers," Lane says. "Right now we are short one person, so I am working a two-hour air shift every day. I had to rearrange my schedule so that I could fill the void."
Payroll costs are the station's biggest expense, comprising about half its budget, followed by interest on debt that Lane assumed to buy the station.
There is no big money in small-town radio, Lane says. The average announcer at WFWC earns $14 to $16 an hour. An advertising salesman can earn as much as $35,000 a year in commissions.
Says Skip Tillinghast: "It takes a person who is more dedicated to the spirit of radio, rather than to making a lot of money, to succeed here."