Craig Orndorff, the morning man and midday host and evening sports play-by-play announcer on WAMM in Woodstock, Va., finishes up another noontime edition of "Helping Hand," the radio station's swap shop of the air, and steps out of the studio. "No goats today," he says.
In the Shenandoah Valley, where locals bump up against ever more weekenders and retirees from the Washington area, the noontime swap shop is still a place where people call in to offer livestock or, in one recent case, "frozen rats, 10 to a package, for $20."
More often than not, someone out there will bite.
WAMM is the last radio station in Shenandoah County. Its weak signal sometimes gets lost in the static of the AM band, but it is the only place on the radio where anyone cares about elections in Toms Brook or Strasburg, or the games played by high school teams, or the needs of county residents when the weather turns dangerous.
When a snowstorm or hurricane threatens, deejay Alan Arehart, a veteran of 33 years on the radio in the valley, brings his kids into the studio in sleeping bags and camps out for the duration, running the station on car batteries if necessary, reading listeners weather advisories through the night.
This might not have seemed so extraordinary a decade or so ago. But one spring morning in 2002, the Shenandoah Valley woke up to hear that their big-band station was now playing hip-hop and had been moved to Harrisonburg, 35 miles to the south. There were still four stations in Shenandoah County then. Clear Channel, the media monolith that has bought up 1,200 stations nationwide, now owns five of the top 15 stations in the Harrisonburg market and nine of the top 26 in the Winchester area. Shenandoah falls between those two markets.
A group of locals, including former Washington Star reporters Peggy Boston and Joan Anderson, got together to mourn the loss of their local stations and found themselves impelled to act. In less than three months, they raised $200,000 from 19 investors, bought a station and put it on the air.
WAMM is a storefront in Woodstock, just across Route 11 from the Cup and Crumb restaurant and just up the block from the gallery and frame shop, where a sign on the front door announces that the store will close on three Saturdays because the owner's son is visiting after a tour in Iraq. "Please understand how precious this time means to us," the note says.
The station is a homey little place decorated with antique microphones. The studio is a back room with a big picture window and stacks of CDs. On the white board, a message congratulates the sales staff of one full- and two part-timers (one of whom also runs the cemetery and works at the post office) for their "best ever" month -- $12,468.75 in ads sold.
WAMM has yet to turn a profit, and its programming of big-band tunes and standards from the '30s, '40s and '50s is mostly satellite-delivered music supplied by ABC in New York.
But car dealers, real estate brokers and banks support the broadcasts of high school football, basketball and baseball, as well as summer evening play-by-play of the Valley League, a collection of college players on their way to the minors.
"We don't want to become suburban Winchester," says Boston, the station's chairman. "We're the only thing in the county, and we want to sound like the county." On cue, someone walks through the front door to ask if the station would promote a dance to be held Friday night.
To the surprise of its staff, WAMM is attracting listeners not only among those who can pull in its signal at 1230 AM, but from around the world, via the Internet at www.radioshenandoah.com.
The promotional announcements for Arehart's program of doo-wop and early rock, "The Nifty Fifties," are recorded by a woman in Tasmania who listens to the show over the Web.
Still, it's not certain that WAMM can hold out against Clear Channel and other huge companies that bring a big-city sound to small towns. Even if ad spots on WAMM are only $10 each, it's a hard sell to advertisers who want to see the ratings and demographic studies big stations provide.
Local business owners see the value in a station that broadcasts from the county fair, gives air time to the 4-H club and airs lost-dog notices. But local shops are giving way to the Wal-Marts of the world, and that's another story.