It’s a radio time warp.
At least that’s what folks think when they’re driving through Pocahontas County, W.Va., and, suddenly, all the radio stations fade out—except one. And this one sounds like it’s the 1950s, with live disc jockeys and homespun humor.
Garlin Groves signs on with the local weather report: cloudy with a chance of thundershowers.
“Oh, there’s nothing but a few clouds between us and the sun,” he says. Then he and radio partner Cherryl Ellison sing Keep on the Sunny Side in old-fashioned mountain twangs while Ellison backs it up with her keyboards.
They’re broadcasting from WVMR-AM, “the little station with a big sound,” half buried in a mountainside adjoining the Monongahela National and Seneca State forests in Frost, W.Va. (pop. 27).
Not so long ago, the area had no radio reception at all. But in 1981, the community founded this unique radio station that quietly slips signals through the world’s only bounded Radio Quiet Zone.
The station fills a big gap, connecting 9,000 residents throughout Pocahontas County’s 90-mile length. Before WVMR, the mother station of Allegheny Mountain Radio (another station is in Durbin; two others broadcast in Virginia), locals got no emergency information, or any other information for that matter. Before cable and satellites they couldn’t get television—and even today no TV station covers news in the area. Neither does a daily newspaper. Cell phones don’t even work because the Federal Communications Commission restricts incoming radio signals to none.
That’s because the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) was established in Pocahontas County in 1956 because the area was so quiet, and the FCC enacted regulations to keep it that way. Scientists can’t hear radio noises from space if earthly radio broadcasts drown them out, and broadcast signals can do that. And so it was until community meetings hacked a path through regulations, and NRAO scientists helped design a broadcast system to meet the FCC restrictions.
“There were a lot of skeptics at first,” says Gibbs Kinderman, WVMR’s special projects director, who was on the original radio committee 20 years ago.
As for the lack of news, Kinderman recalls when a neighbor “could be in the ground before I knew he was dead.” Streams would flood and no one knew until they saw the water.
Now locals hear everything from funeral notices to reports of lost cows wandering the roads; not to mention good old bluegrass music, high school ball games, and more—all done with a local accent reflecting the diversity of the community, because the community creates the shows. Local disc jockeys, mostly volunteers who have no broadcasting experience, man the microphone.
“This morning Cherryl showed up in britches two sizes too large and said ‘look how much weight I lost,’” Groves announces. “I ain’t gained but 200 pounds in 70 years.” He dedicates the next song, Overweight Blues, to her. After 15 years of broadcasting together, she just rolls her eyes and laughs. Their folksy banter and live music earned them a “Golden Reel” award for Best Music & Variety show from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.
Kinderman served as station manager before recently handing the reins to Cheryl Weatherholt.
“We need some youth,” he says nodding toward Weatherholt while a rebroadcast of Fibber McGee and Molly hits the airwaves. Weatherholt’s daughter, Kama, got her involved.
Kama, a high school senior, and classmate Bud Shearer are veteran disc jockeys. They started doing shows together as freshmen. He likes NASCAR. She likes the theater. They do a call-in talk show for teens, Dead Air, and together spin an interesting mix of music.
Another disc jockey, Annbelle Schaffner, didn’t exactly rush in to the job. A friend tricked her. Schaffner agreed to help during the station’s maiden broadcast, and when time came for the first station identification, the friend handed her the microphone. After that, she started showing up Sunday mornings to play Christian music and still does.
It gets into people’s blood.
For three years, Caroline Sharp had a daily 6 a.m. show. Without warning, she suddenly announced, “this is my last show.” Burnout. A year later, unable to stay away, she’s filling the afternoon slot.
“Big radio stations are all computerized programming and run by big corporations,” Sharp says. “Here you can play anything you want and we talk about personal things, like the cows and other stuff. When I do my show it is Caroline, and when Randy does his show it is Randy.”
WVMR doesn’t come in a box. It’s community radio with pizzazz.