WILMINGTON, Del. - It's noon on Tuesday, and a shabby little downtown building is about to report the vital signs of Wilmington, Delaware, the United States and the universe to whomever is within 60 miles or so and has a radio tuned to 1450 AM.
Sure, WILM does traffic, weather and Phillies and Orioles scores. But how many other stations devote a full hour to the noon news report? How many rely almost exclusively on their own producers, reporters and anchors to deliver the content, and how many schedule stories on Delaware River slots parlors and the Liberian war in the same show?
The answer, of course, is few or none.
In an age of media consolidation, syndication and robo-programs, WILM is fighting all three trends simultaneously. It spends gobs of airtime and revenue on locally produced programs. It respects listeners and is passionate about the news.
It has not become part of a chain. And despite frequent, lucrative offers and new regulations that may increase bidders' interest, WILM owners E.B. Hawkins and Sally Hawkins say they won't sell out.
"E.B. and I have just decided that for the time being, we're going to hang tight," said Sally Hawkins, 80, who is E.B.'s mother, the principal owner and the chipper champion of Wilmington broadcast news.
"It's such an interesting way to make a living. I suppose the day will come. The problem is, once we're gone, nobody is going to do this. I mean, the money we spend - it's ridiculous! But if I can just get one more person to think about what's going on in the world ..." she trails off.
`Last of the Mohicans'
This month the Federal Communications Commission again relaxed rules limiting the number of newspapers and radio and television stations that can be owned by one company. Although in some ways the regulations for radio stations are slightly more stringent than previously, many analysts predict a new wave of media mergers and continued buyer interest in WILM.
"That's such a sweetheart station," said Valerie Geller, a New York-based programming consultant. "Everybody is rooting for the ones like them that are the last of the Mohicans. Every day you know those owners are getting offers for millions and millions of dollars."
Mark Fratrik, a vice president with media consultants BIA Financial Network in Chantilly, Va., estimated that WILM attracts 8.7 percent of the commercial-radio listeners in its market and would sell for between $5 million and $8 million.
If it were dollars the Hawkinses were mainly interested in, WILM would already be very different.
One of the first stations to convert to a news and talk format in the 1970s when it became clear that FM broadcasters would dominate music and AM stations would have to do something else, WILM has ambitions and quality standards bigger than its market or its transmitter.
"They have a pretty hefty staff, and that's a very special thing," said Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade publication. "Pound for pound, when you look at their market size, they're a real powerhouse of journalism."
At only 1,000 watts of power, WILM doesn't reach much beyond central Delaware and its 500,000 or so listeners. It is dwarfed by the likes of WDEL of Wilmington, at 5,000 watts, or Baltimore's WBAL, with 50,000 watts.
Not just local news
But WILM's newsroom counts 13 full-time journalists and almost a dozen part-time reporters and other staffers, according to news director Mark Fowser. The station employs full-time legislative and court reporters as well as journalists to rush to the latest crime scenes, outdoor festivals or whatever else looks interesting in Delaware.
It also plugs listeners into the world. Program director/anchor/reporter Allan Loudell runs up huge phone bills calling seldom-quoted experts and on-the-spot witnesses (including, frequently, reporters for The Sun) for national and global news events. During the Iraq war, Loudell put a Baghdad hotel clerk on the air as bombs fell, and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks he talked with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir about his interview with terrorist Osama bin Laden.
This sort of coverage happens every day. Last Tuesday, the WILM Noon News Update, broadcast from an underground studio graced by dented acoustic tile, plywood desktops and stained carpet, offered self-produced reports on a proposed slots parlor, affordable homes in Wilmington and new accountants for New Castle County.
But it also included interviews with a Newsweek reporter about the CIA, with a Swiss journalist about the latest Middle East violence and with an Arizona radio journalist and the U.S. correspondent for the Irish Times about the fatal hit-and-run traffic accident allegedly involving Phoenix Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien.