Small market radio

Published July 20, 2023

By Lib Campbell

In December of 1965, I married into a broadcasting family. My father-in-law ran a television station. My husband was a disc jockey and salesman at a small radio station in Greenville, NC. Hours were long, often on Sundays and holidays. Ownership of radio stations in small markets is a challenging and sometimes thankless work.
Oh, but the fun and the stories. They are priceless! In the beginning years of our marriage, we lived in Greenville. It was a happy time as newlyweds, working alongside other young people. The operating studio had a plate glass window overlooking the main street. People walking along the sidewalk saw the disc jockeys spin their favorite records live and in person. 
Tom had a radio name he used on air. His parents were a little shocked at his playing rock and roll music. He was “Tom Terrific,” and I, of course, became “Mrs. Terrific.” What can I say!
When we moved to Wilson WGTM, I came into the business to do program logs and billing. Being office help has never and likely will never be my long suit. Somehow, we muddled through. The station was on the fifth floor of the bank building on Nash Street. Tom was in sales and management by this time. He would do special broadcasts like high school football and basketball, remotes at car dealerships, and the Wilson Christmas Parade. We were involved with pretty much everything in town.
Moving to Elizabeth City WGAI in 1976 rocked our world. The records of the station were a mess, there were unsent invoices and almost no cash in the bank. But we had a great team of people. We dug in and made our time in Elizabeth City one of personal growth and learning. We made good friends and hope we made a difference.
One day, I got to be “on air.” I don’t know how that happened, but before long, I was hosting a morning call-in show. It was folksy, not political. We talked gardening, recipes, shared ghost stories and I interviewed pool shark Wimpy Lassiter. There were regular callers who checked in daily. It was a community. If one of the regulars didn’t call, people checked on them. 
I did live commercials, ad-lib (no pun intended). A dry-cleaner and a monument company were my two biggest sponsors. I could sell a tombstone like nobody’s business. I even went out to the cemetery to see how the sandblasting of letters was done on a stone already in place. The show stayed sold out. 
In small market radio, there is a lot of creativity and ingenuity in ways required to make money. Eeking out a living included games, like The Money Tree, where I sewed five hundred one-dollar bills on fringe to hang around a Christmas tree. The tree would rotate around to sponsors until somebody won it. We did Hank Williams Day and Elvis Presley Day, selling fifteen-minute time slots to sponsors. 
When it snowed, we were snow central. Wall-to-wall reporting on road conditions. The selling of snow tires and shovels was ongoing. One snowfall in the early 1980s shut the area down, all except WGAI. Because we had a generator that would power the station, we could stay on the air. The National Guard transported our announcers to get them to the station. This was an essential service to the people of the Albemarle area. 
Election coverage was our very best thing. The station was election central. We would set out sodas, coffee and snacks. Candidates would come for interviews. Our team was positioned in court houses and polling places reporting the vote as it came in, interviewing voters and candidates as people were coming and going. It was always exciting.
A small market radio station, like all radio, is licensed to operate in the public interest. There was a time when stations were held accountable for their public service by filing regular reports with the Federal Communications Commission. President Reagan’s de-regulation of broadcasting put an end to that requirement. I’m not sure radio is better off for that.
News reports say that AM Radio is being dropped from the dashboard radios of trucks and automobiles in the near future. Replacement by Bluetooth, Serius XM, and who knows what-all will be the new thing. Many small market radio stations are operated remotely, there is no community connection anymore. 
There are losses in our culture, of small market radio stations and small-town newspapers, where community was built, and people stayed connected. Who’s to say if these losses may be contributing to the divisions we are living today? Genies are being let out of bottles in ways that may come back to bite us. Time will tell. 
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite She can be contacted at