By Catherine Cheney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The building from which WAGE (1200 AM) once broadcast still stands on Wage Drive in Leesburg, but the county it long served has changed since 1958, when the station went on the air. Loudoun County's only radio station stopped broadcasting last week.
The broadcasts turned to static, in a demonstration of how the economy has affected local news outlets and development has posed a challenge to institutions that once seemed invincible.
WAGE began, on frequency 1290, as a daytime station. For the following two decades, it offered a variety of music and news programs. When it switched to frequency 1200, it became a destination for 24-hour news and talk, moving toward some nationally syndicated programs but maintaining its commitment to local news.
"The music format at WAGE has changed a lot. At one point it was a classical music station, then easy listening, then they started to bring light rock and pop," said Chris King, 60, a former announcer, sports director and program director for the station. King found out about its Aug. 2 closing online. "But one thing that never changed and was always consistent was a commitment to local news."
Coverage of local events, including birth, wedding and death announcements, weather, traffic reports, agriculture, community fairs, sports, Board of Supervisors meetings and even birthdays, remained a priority until New World Radio acquired the station in 2005 and brought institutional changes in 2007 with the firing of its general manager, news director and afternoon host, as well as the near elimination of its local news programming.
Debra Jenkins, an aide to Vice Chairman Susan Buckley of the county Board of Supervisors, said she was frustrated with the 2007 changes.
"From my viewpoint, WAGE radio went off the air when they changed the programming format," Jenkins said. "For over 40 years, my AM dial stayed tuned to 1200. Practically overnight, WAGE listeners went from listening to their hometown radio station to the Wall Street Journal covering national, international and financial news," she wrote in an e-mail. "It was a profound change; it was as though a childhood friend had died. I despised the new programming and quit listening."
The 2007 decision stemmed from economic pressures that many local news outlets face. As retail chains replaced mom-and-pop stores in the county, WAGE lost its advertising sources.
"The local advertisers were being absorbed by big-box stores like Wal-Mart," King said. "The mom-and-pop stores were bread and butter for WAGE."
With decreasing ad revenue, WAGE had to cut costs. But by cutting local programming and switching to syndicated content, the station also lost its connection to the community.
Alan Pendleton, vice president of New World Radio, did not return calls asking for comment. The company has indicated that the absence of WAGE from the 1200 frequency is temporary.
"If your content is off a satellite or somewhere I can pick up off another station in Washington, and doesn't have that local relevance, why are you going to listen?" said Paul Draisey, who began his career with WAGE in 1971 when he was a freshman at Loudoun Valley High School and was fired in the 2007 restructuring of the station. "Without any local glue in the form of programming to get them there, they didn't have a reason to advertise."
"WAGE going off the air doesn't surprise me. What surprises me is that they lasted as long as they did after the programming changes," Jenkins said. "What I would love to see is some entity resurrect our hometown station, and make it even better than what it was."
But Eugene Delgaudio, who represents Sterling on the Board of Supervisors, said, "There is no way any radio is coming back in Loudoun." He said that with news Web sites offering blogs, video and social networking online, local radio has lost its relevance.