The Little Station That Could

February 28, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire

7:29 a.m. In the airwaves southwest of Frederick, near the quiet Potomac River community of Brunswick, population 5,000, the only voice coming over the car radio at 1520 on the AM dial is the strident sneer of shock-jock announcer Howard Stern. Thanks to the magic of electromagnetism, his bilious attitude has filtered all the way down through the ether from WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y. Somewhere, the great radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi is spinning in his grave.

7:30 a.m. A piercing signal emanates from the radio, followed by the crisp tones of banjo music. It's as if Howard Stern has been hit by a well-aimed phaser and blasted into antimatter. The deep voice of Tom Whalen booms over the bluegrass, announcing that WTRI, Brunswick's daring little 1520-AM, dawn-to-dusk, 500-watt station, is on the air.

7:37 a.m. Tom, who spent 15 years in New York as an actor and truck driver before retreating to the charm of small-town radio, reads a list of school buses delayed because of an overnight dusting of snow. He then urges listeners to get on down to the Sheetz gas station and eatery, "where you can see your sandwich being made."

7:50 a.m. Reading from the sports page of the Frederick $H newspaper, Tom recaps basketball scores from the previous night. He is alone in the station, a single-story, cement-block bungalow whose living room is the lobby and whose bedrooms are the studios. The front door bears a homey brass knocker and the stoop has a mat -- as do the rows of split-level homes in the typically neat suburban neighborhood that starts just across the street.

In a field out back of the bungalow stands the station's antenna. It carries Tom's voice over a 50-mile radius, extending into a tri-state area bounded by Hagerstown, Frederick and Gaithersburg in Maryland; Leesburg and Herndon in Virginia; and Martinsburg in West Virginia.

Station owner Liz Roberts, who bought the near-bankrupt country-music station a year ago from associates of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., hopes to take delivery soon of new equipment to boost the power to 10,000 watts. When she does, she will have two reasons to celebrate.

First, the station will have a new transmitter to replace the ancient monster that sits a few feet from Tom's microphone. It emits a steady thrum during the day and puts out so much heat that the back door of the bungalow must remain open -- allowing heat to escape, but also letting frigid outdoor air seep inside. In the summer, the sound of lawn mowers and crickets comes through that doorway and combines with the thrum for an interesting background symphony to all announcements.

Second, it will mean that Liz Roberts' grand broadcasting experiment -- in which the veteran producer for the British Broadcasting Corp. and National Public Radio gambled with a format shunned by other stations -- will have survived against heavy odds. Her plan is simple: WTRI plays only local music, most of it country, folk and bluegrass, some of it recorded, and much of it performed live right in those tiny bedroom studios.

Because her definition of "local" is loose enough to include the richly endowed music scene in the Washington-Baltimore region, hundreds of guitar pickers, songwriters and singers have found their way to the remote bungalow, hauling in everything from banjos to jaw's harps.

In the meantime, Liz has invited church choirs and schoolchildren into her station; she has brought in horn players from high school bands to talk of their musical goals; she has even had area writers read their short stories over the air. Several times the station has broadcast community events, including the annual Railroad Days festival that Brunswick is noted for and a Halloween party for 400 children.

While many feared that a station with such a narrowly defined format would go over like an endless amateur hour, WTRI in its first 12 months has surprised the doubters. It has managed to win awards, raise eyebrows in the radio industry and even draw praise from broadcasting critics. More importantly, it appears to have won the acceptance of the locals.

"She really is trying to involve the community," says Bobbie Wilkinson, a listener from nearby Hamilton, Va. "When she gets people from the community involved, other people listen because they look on her as a friend. How many radio station presidents are that accessible to the public?"

Still, Brunswick's mayor, Richard E. Goodrich, notes there was a difficult adjustment period. "One of the things Liz had to overcome was the fact WTRI was once affiliated with that group out of Leesburg," he says, referring to the unpredictable and often unpopular LaRouche political organization.

"So Liz walked into a situation with a credibility problem," he says. "But she did her homework and has been very hard-working. She has shown her commitment to be part of the community. It's so nice to say to people, 'I'm from Brunswick -- and by the way, do you listen to our local radio station?' "

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