Sylva’s commercial radio station goes off air

The only commercial radio station in Jackson County, WRGC 680 AM, went to static on Aug. 31.

According to a statement on the radio station’s website, they were forced to go off the air due to a decline in revenue. The station’s main source of income came primarily from advertisers in Jackson County, but due to the economy, businesses have not been advertising as much.

The station began broadcasting in 1957 with the call letters of WMSJ (Wonderful Macon, Swain, Jackson) over the 1480 AM frequency. The call letters were changed after the owner’s son at the time, Ronnie G. Childress, was electrocuted in the 1970s while working on a station transmitter. At the time of closure, the station employed three part-time and two full-time employees.

“This incredibly difficult economy has made it impossible for us to secure the local advertising support needed to continue providing Jackson County a full service community radio station,” the statement said. “While WRGC has successfully maintained a large audience across northern Jackson County and adjacent areas, it has become clear that the station must discontinue operations until the economy improves. With these uncertain times and the fact that our studio/office/transmitter site lease is set to renew at the end of 2011, we did not feel it was prudent to commit any more of our company resource to subsidize the station’s operation.”

The statement does not say how long the station may be off air, only that the station’s long term plans “are not decided, but we have notified the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to go off air until a decision is made.”

According to FCC rules and guidelines, a station can stay offline for up to a year and still keep their broadcast license.

Douglas M. Sutton, President and CEO of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting, who owns WRGC, said Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College were the major advertisers for WRGC, but both institutions have recently experienced severe budget cuts and have not advertised as much.

“The loss of two of the three area’s new car dealers, a couple large hardware stores and lumber yard also hurt,” he said. “All of these were major advertisers on the station and we simply didn’t have the manpower to replace that lost income. The loss of revenue in Jackson County, 40% since the station’s peak in 2008, was the most severe in our group of stations. For instance in nearby Franklin, where we operate two radio stations, our revenues have actually increased 10 percent since 2008.”

Reflecting upon the history of WRGC, Sutton highlighted the bond the station had formed with WCU.

“WRGC and Western Carolina University have a long history together dating back to when the station began in 1957,” Sutton said. “In fact, the station changed frequency from 1480 to 680 in 1970 so it could add nighttime service and air WCU and local high school sports. The station actually originated the Western Carolina University Sports Network in the 1960s long before WWCU, the university’s station, was on the air.”

Many WCU students and faculty are feeling the loss of station.

Bob Byerly, supervisor at Einstein’s Bagels, lives in Jackson County and says he will miss listening to the “tradeo” as an advertising outlet and “swap shop” for the community.

For others, the radio station’s shut down highlights the country’s poor economic climate and forces them to reflect on the adjustments the local community has had to make.

Susan Abram, a professor at WCU, does not feel as though she will be affected on a personal level, but is a firm believer in the local presence of businesses. While acknowledging the corporate decision to shutter WRCG, Abram laments the loss and will miss the local information the station provided to the community.

Even though many WCU members sympathize with the station, Don Connelly, faculty advisor for WCU’s radio station (WWCU), thinks the closure is not all negative. While Connelly feels it is sad to lose something that’s been a fixture of the community, he also sees a possibility for growth within WWCU.

“WRGC and WWCU were not competing for listeners, but there is a chance WWCU could pick up some listeners, providing the WWCU crew an opportunity to improve the product they broadcast across the county,” Connelly said.

Though the radio station has officially gone off the air, Sutton said the corporation’s hope is that a local person in Sylva will buy the station.

“We would prefer selling the station to a local person in Sylva, but if that doesn’t occur, we will move the frequency to another location where we think we might be more successful in developing enough revenue to support the operation,” Sutton said. “WRGC leaving the air is and would be a big loss for the entire local community. We deeply regret it happened but with this economic climate, we had no choice.

“A radio station is not a charity,” he added. “Yes, it provides a tremendous amount of public service to the area, but all of that has to be paid for and radio stations have one source of revenue, advertising.”