It’s 8 a.m., and National Public Radio is entering the third hour of “Morning Edition,” the pundits who populate the well-caffeinated cable talk shows are in full froth and thousands of iPhones are getting fired up for the day.
Switch to 1110 on the AM dial, and you’ll hear “The Star Spangled Banner,” followed by a lively, old-time twang of a steel guitar. WKZV, the “classic country” station in Washington, is starting another day on the air.
“It’s the way radio used to be,” said disc jockey Bob Berry, a 67-year-old semiretired veteran of radio stations in Wheeling, W.Va., Knoxville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., who mans the board at WKZV’s studio on East Chestnut Street in Washington on weekday mornings.
Indeed, just about everything about WKZV harkens back to an earlier age in radio: It’s on the AM dial, which has largely been denuded of music programming in the last 20 years in favor of news, talk and religious formats; it spins “classic country,” which, for the most part, can be classified as country music that was made between the death of Hank Williams and the rise of Garth Brooks; it’s owned independently, and not by a faceless corporate entity; and it takes to the air at sunrise and leaves the air at sundown, when WKZV must cede the stage for WBT-AM, a news station in Charlotte, N.C., that also occupies 1110 on the AM dial and blasts its signal up and down the East Coast.
The number of AM stations licensed to operate exclusively in daylight hours has been steadily dwindling since FM radio began its domination of commercial radio in the 1970s and 1980s.
“There used to be many more of those kinds of stations,” according to Terry Hazlett, the manager of Canonsburg Borough who also keeps a close eye on the radio industry and writes a column about it for the Observer-Reporter. “But now there are just a few.”
Unlike rock radio formats, which keep spinning acts like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin decades after they last released new material, commercial country radio tends to jettison its oldies, and the acts that created them, with a lickety-split lack of sentimentality, Hazlett added. That being the case, “there are very, very few stations that do classic country,” Hazlett added.
Also, in an age when the playlists of most commercial radio stations are determined by platoons of MBA-wielding consultants, piloted by computers and as predictable as a fast-food burger, the disc jockeys at WKZV play the tunes that they want and the tunes that they like.
“When I do my own show on Saturdays, I bring in my own collection,” said Randy Allum, a West Finley Township resident who hosts a “Country Memories” show on Saturday mornings. He plays only compact discs and “I get to choose from 4,000 different songs.”
Unlike most other radio stations, WKZV remains devoutly old-school when it comes to the World Wide Web. It doesn’t stream online, or have a website, so the only way to hear it is by turning on the radio and flipping the dial.
You can think of WKZV as being like a beloved old 45 RPM single or transistor radio in the moment when downloads and Sirius rule.
Berry’s work at the station is a way “to keep my foot in the business,” he explained one recent morning. “Plus, I enjoy the music and keeping traditional country music alive.”
WKZV first went on the air in 1970, under the call letters WKEG, starting with a country and polka format and switching to easy listening and adult contemporary formats as it passed from one owner to another.
Other formats were attempted and the station went off the air for a couple of years in the late 1980s and early 1990s before it was resurrected as WKZV in 1992. The following year, it was purchased by Canonsburg resident Helen Supinski, who continues to own the station. She could not be reached for comment on this story.
Many of the artists who get the most spins on WKZV have portraits hanging on the wall, like Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The total listenership of WKZV is something of a mystery, as it is for some other commercial radio stations right now – the station does not subscribe to Arbitron, the radio data collection agency which was recently purchased by the Nielsen Co. Allum said he sometimes gets 25 to 35 phone calls for requests when he does his Saturday morning show, and the yardstick used to be in radio that you had 1,000 listeners per call. His calls come in from areas as disparate as Burgettstown and Mount Washington above Pittsburgh’s South Side. Berry said he has been able to hang on to the station’s 1,000-watt signal as he’s traveled into Ohio from Wheeling.
“In every sense of the word, this is the way we used to do it in the early days,” Berry said.