SYLVA, N.C. -- Another noon hour is drawing to a close at the small radio station beside the railroad track, 680 on the AM dial, your home for today's hits and yesterday's favorites. Listeners have heard the news, weather, sports and a reminder to visit Andy Shaw Ford, across from the Wal-Mart. It's time again for that thousand-watt form of communion, Tradio.
The host, Dennis the Menace, leans toward the microphone the way he might to confide in his life's companion. His voice, chain-smoker deep, assumes the broadcasting cadence that tries to evoke folksy familiarity but somehow comes out sounding like God trying hard to just shoot the breeze.
"Well, it's a good time to do Tradio, so let's do it," he says, to maybe 1,500 listeners. "Looking to buy, sell, trade or give away? Well, give us a call, and we'll try to help you out."
Remember, the number to call is 586-WRGC, as in WRGC-AM.
And the residents of Sylva, population 2,500, call. So do their neighbors in the surrounding hamlets and hollows of the Great Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, where radio signals can come and go like snippets of dreams. For 15 minutes every weekday afternoon, people talk, listen and connect, all through a kind of radio-wave eBay called Tradio.
"Hello there," says Dennis the Menace. "You're first on Tradio."
Callers can say they have a sofa, a car or a goat to sell. They can say they're looking for a power saw, a bicycle or a goat to buy.
They can promote a yard sale or ask that people keep an eye out for a beloved horse that's gone wandering. Some call so often with the same items for sale that the host, whose real name is Dennis Nelson, hears the voice and instantly knows the rest.
Price is right
"And I got a lamp for $20," a regular caller says on this afternoon.
"And some end tables," Nelson says.
"See, I remember these things."
"And a fish tank."
"Oh yes," Nelson says, recalling. "A fish tank - with fish."
"Yes," the caller answers.
Programs like Tradio - the Swap Shop, for example, or Tell It and Sell It - appear on small stations around the country. They usually prohibit the sale of bedding, firearms and animal husbandry, and often hint of curious interior lives. Not long ago, a car radio casting for a signal in West Virginia snagged a program in which a female caller was looking to sell a house, 16 acres, a bowling ball and a sequin dress slit up the side.
Here in Sylva, where WRGC's power drops to 250 watts at sunset, Tradio may well be the most popular program on the air. "We get anything and everything," says Will Candler, the station's 26-year-old operations manager. "Matter of fact, I bought a lawn mower off of it. Use it to this day."
Candler is also the morning show host and an ad salesman, which is the way things are at small stations: many tasks being handled by a few, all for the thrill of achieving that almost spiritual state of being called "on the air." The other half-dozen employees at WRGC include the hosts, Dennis the Menace and Frank "The Byrdman" Byrd, with Charlie Bauder on the news and Brandon Stephens, "The Voice of the Mustangs," on sports.
From Candler's modest office in the modest station headquarters, you can see a horse named Kitty grazing in a nearby field and feel the tremble as another freight train grinds its way past to a local paper mill.
"It comes about three times a day," he says. "We try not to have the mike on when it comes through."
An eclectic mix
Back to Tradio, sponsored by Savannah Farms Nursery and the Rusty Lizard bar. Down the steps, past shelved rows of thousands of black discs that haven't spun on a turntable in years - from the Gospel Melody Singers singing about the Lord to Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty singing "You Done Lost Your Baby" - and into the wall-carpeted control room. There, the white-bearded Nelson sips a Mountain Dew and leans in again as if to share endearments with that microphone.
"Tradio, whether you're lookin' to buy, sell, trade or give away," he says. "Perhaps a stray pet has wandered into your area. Well, maybe you want to try to find the owner. Or, heaven forbid, you've lost a pet. Well, we'll try to help you."
Nelson, 58, has worked at so many stations over so many years that their call letters seem to run together into one alphabetical jumble. He used to resist his nickname but has since come to embrace minor celebrity; "Dennis the Menace" appears on the shirt he's wearing and on the front license plate of his pickup truck parked near the railroad tracks.
He lives with five cats in "the last house in the holler" and sees Tradio as a conversation with a community of both the rich and the poor. "We'll have someone selling antiques," he says during a break. "And the very next call is someone wanting to sell their chickens."
Eighty-four degrees in Sylva, skies are bright and "it's your turn on Tradio." Someone has a refrigerator for sale, with an ice maker. Someone has a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am, in good condition. Someone has 650 concrete blocks, but leaves unclear the small matter of delivery.
Dennis the Menace returns after a commercial break. And with that deep, almost unreal voice of his, he invites another of us to join him on the air.