What a quaint notion: a radio station that covered local high school sports, offered its rural listeners a daily hour-long swap shop for secondhand goods and stayed up all night covering a major storm.
Three years ago, Peggy Boston and her partners in the Shenandoah Valley decided to carve out a place in an increasingly corporate radio world for just such a venture. They bought a little AM station and called it Retro Radio. In an era in which a few huge media companies control most of radio and pipe-in programming from thousands of miles away, WAMM in Woodstock, Va., 90 miles west of Washington, broke the mold. Its local deejays not only focused on the Valley but also aimed their message at an audience that most of the industry dismisses outright -- the 45-plus age bracket.
Retro Radio played standards, the big bands, crooners, sweet pop, doo-wop and early rock, music that spanned the 1940s to the '60s.
But there would be no storybook ending to this hometown tale. Last spring, WAMM went silent. "It wasn't even close," says Boston, a retired Washington Star reporter. Despite being the only radio station in Shenandoah County, WAMM failed to attract regional and national advertisers; advertising agencies "just weren't interested in our age group," she says. "The buyers would say, 'Your people are all dead.' The perception was that they were all 80-plus."
This fall, WAMM (1230 AM) is coming back as something entirely new for the Valley: its first Spanish-language station, owned by Harrisonburg businessman Jason Rodriguez, who is following in Boston's path by banking on a labor-intensive, locally oriented approach to radio.
Radio Latino consists of two deejays -- a mortgage broker and a real estate salesman, both volunteering their time at WAMM -- spending their mornings providing news, talk and music for the Valley's small but burgeoning Hispanic population. The station plays Hispanic hits the rest of the day.
"There are more and more Hispanics here, and they're not migrant farmers anymore," Rodriguez says. "They're managers and professionals, and they're here to stay."
A solitary Spanish station faces difficult decisions about what kind of music to play. Rodriguez's family is from Puerto Rico, so he favors salsa and merengue, but about 70 percent of the Hispanics in the Valley are Mexican, so the station will also play a heavy selection of Mexican pop and standards, as well as the hot reggaeton sound that is succeeding on commercial FM radio in big cities.
So far, the response to Radio Latino has been strong. "There's still some good old boys here, but there's also an acceptance because our money's green," Rodriguez says. "I have non-Latinos welcoming me with open arms. A 63-year-old lady stopped me on the street and said she rents rooms and everyone who rents from her is Hispanic, so she's trying to learn Spanish."
The Retro Radio concept lives on down the road in Mount Jackson, where two of Peggy Boston's deejays have taken over another station, WSVG (790 AM), to give the local standards format another spin. "Probably the only way to save local radio is to go bare-bones like they are doing and have two or three people do everything," Boston says. "It can only work if you don't want to make a lot of money and you're willing to put in an awful lot of work."
Boston, partner Joan Anderson and the 19 investors who put up $200,000 to get Retro Radio on the air "all lost all their money, and they don't care," Boston says. "They're just glad we tried."
"It was a labor of love," says Anderson, also a retired Star reporter. "Funny, shutting it down reminded Peggy and me of the folding of our beloved Star. For us, it was about love and the community."