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Don’t touch that dial!
AM radio keeps it live, keeps it local

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted December 15, 2006

It used to be Vermonters tuned into AM radio for the latest news and information.

In the AM heyday, many stations had news departments that would cover all the issues: snowstorms, Town Meeting Day, or a local school board meeting.These locally-owned radio stations had up to three reporters and covered news in their local communities, giving them a vested interest in the towns they served.

“When I first broke in to this business, the fall of 1973, every radio station up and down the state had at least one person on staff reporting the news, going out and covering stories and the like,” said Tim Johnson of WTSA-Brattleboro, one of the last remaining AM news reporters in Vermont. “For most of them, it was the flood, fire, accident beat, and a selectboard meeting or two. Folks in Bennington and Windham counties, in particular, felt cut off from the rest of the state, since the Burlington TV stations did not reach us. So you had the choice of the Brattleboro Reformer, which at the time was an afternoon newspaper, the Boston or Springfield, Massachusetts, TV stations, or local radio. Local radio was offering something unique. My feeling is, at the time when each moderately sized community had its locally owned radio station, with at least one newsperson, we all received a more diverse mix of local news.”

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Vermont radio stations grew in value, and by the early 1990s, radio stations had become popular trading commodities. Radio stations were bought and sold by outside parties with little interest in the communities they served. To maximize profits, new proprietors would sacrifice the news departments and go with newswire services. Local news reporters faded from the public ear.

“I think a lot of it changed when these stations became more and more valuable and became traded like baseball cards and they went up and up in value and became more like the cards and not owned by families that were really into broadcasting,” said Mark Johnson of WDEV-FM in Waterbury. Johnson is the host of the popular radio show The Mark Johnson Show, heard from 9-11 a.m. daily. “They were owned by corporations that were trying to make a buck, flip ’em, the next guy would try and make a buck, flip ’em, and the easiest thing to cut was the news guy and you have your morning guy spinning the records, or your morning guy read the news.”

Others believe news content followed when local ownership withered away.

“Local ownership has a lot to do with whether or not there was a news director or news staff. So if you went back 20 years ago in Vermont, my guess would be that would find 95 percent of the stations were locally owned,” said Bob Kinzel, host of Vermont Public Radio’s Switchboard, and a regular reporter. Prior to VPR, Kinzel once owned a news service in Vermont that provided local news and reporting. “These are people that have been in the community for years and covering news was one of their responsibilities. But as soon as you yank out local ownership I think that the commitment to local news decreased dramatically.”

Another longtime radio personality and reporter agrees.

“I think it’s a staff shortage at many of these stations so they’ve cut back so you don’t see the reporters out there or you have the reporters on the scene,” said Ernie Farrar of WVMT-AM, in Colchester, and co-host of the Charlie & Ernie Show. Farrar is another Vermont radio pioneer and thinks news departments are expensive because it takes additional manpower. “I just think you would need to hire more people and hiring more people means they’ll have to pay more money. And I think that’s what they have to do in order to bring it back.”

Filling the gap

Although there hasn’t been a resurgence of local news reporting on the AM side, AM radio is alive and well. Local talk radio is today filling the void local news reporting left behind.

“People are more in tune to news and information, but with the way that talk radio has formatted itself over the last 10 to15 years it’s now a ‘voice of the people,’” said Charlie Papillo, co-host of The Charlie & Ernie Show. “I think our strongest point is [that] there are tons of syndicated programs and morning shows that are out there and we are local. [They’re] going to cover the national stuff but Vermont-wise, I’m on the same level with them. I can have the governor on in a heartbeat, so we’re right there and that’s the big difference between syndicated and what we do.”

Co-host Farrar agrees.

“I do think it’s a trend because where else are you going to get the news? The FM I know of plays music and I don’t get any news. So where do people turn to? If they want to know what’s happening, it’s the AM route, and that’s the way to go and I think it’s because of the talk shows and its newsworthiness,” Farrar said.

Other stations, like WDEV in Waterbury, are also offering more ideologically-oriented talk shows. From the left, Anthony Pollina hosts Equal Time in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Paul Beaudry, an unabashed conservative, takes his views to the air after The Mark Johnson Show each day on True North.

There are plenty of others, too: most notably, Tim Philbin in Rutland, another conservative talk show host.

But, it’s the local talk and information shows in the morning that are picking up new listeners, especially in Brattleboro.

WKVT-AM recently switched to a local talk radio format and the change has made an impact. Live & Local is broadcast daily from 9 a.m.-noon and the show was a hit from the get go. “I think letting it be a ‘moral kiosk’ for the community is what makes it appealing,” said Steve West, the show’s host. “It’s a place to strut your stuff and not feel like you have to be a pundit or an expert. I think the ‘everybody’s included’ motif is what appeals to people. That, and making fun of almost everything.”

WKVT-AM also hired Gorty Baldwin as their news director and now provides news at the top of the hour and covers local events.

“We felt there was a need for a newsperson to cover local topics,” said Peter Case, program director for WKVT-AM and FM. “WKVT understands wholeheartedly that to be a local station comes first. We program to our community and what they want to hear. Our community wants to hear what’s happening on a national level but at the end of the day they need to know what’s happening on local level. Being local is what it’s all about.”

While remaining true to being local, WKVT, VPR, and WDEV, among others, are also streaming some of their talk and information programs live on the Internet and making their programs available via podcasts.

For veterans like WTSA’s Johnson, if AM radio is to survive it must adapt to the times and stay true to its roots.

“I’d like to think that with the proliferation of satellite music channels, local radio is seeing resurgence. For instance, you can’t get local weather, school cancellations, or a lost dog report from XM satellite. If local radio is to survive, it has to be just that, local.”