WADN Staff - August 1994
WADN: Unique Format, Unique Market, Unique Radio Station
Most commercial broadcast companies put a station on the air, first and foremost, to make money. Typically, they regard programming only as an afterthought and a disposable means to that end. WADN, however, was conceived with a mission and a purpose. The facility that came into being was the result of a programming and community service concept. In spite of its various, sometimes glaring faults emanated over its short, 7 1/2-year existence, the original vision for WADN, and the original programming proposed, was truly on target and extraordinary. It sprang from a wonderful, idealistic vision that enhancing the cultural, social, and educational life of a community CAN coexist with making a profit. It was an attempt to bring an intelligent, often affluent, culturally informed audience — one typically lost to public radio — into the folds of a local, community based commercial station. Its financial support came from small area businesses, not from large corporations, global investment bankers, monolithic government agencies, or banal on-air begging.
WADN, unfortunately, is now relegated to
fading memories of those of us who produced its programing, supported
with our advertising dollars, appeared as a musical or community guest,
organized its annual festival, or just merely listened. The station
became the victim of poor management, unrealistic
and the assimilation of too many individuals who for various reasons
incompatible with its mission.
Nevertheless, the station has carried on,
albeit in reduced and altered forms, through two "hobby" projects that
I have developed since 1997. The first is Folk Image, a web site featuring
primarily archived shows that I produced up until 2004. These shows are
still available on demand through the web site. The second is Troubadour 1700 AM, a computerized
Part 15 radio station and internet stream that I operate from my
home. Troubadour 1700 has been on the air since April 2004, with
the exception of several months in the summer and fall of 2004. The
original WADN music library remains largely in tact to this day and has
served as the musical foundation of these two projects.
The Demise of WADN: A Decade of Mismanagement and Corruption
There were two ownership regimes that operated WADN from its sign on as a community based, folk music oriented station until about a year after a format change to personal finance. The original regime (1989-1993) crumbled because it lived in a fiscal fantasy world. It continued to spend more money than it took in, with the hope that another investment “angel” would come along to bail it out. They spent lavish amounts on staffing while severely compromising the quality of the station’s signal and the integrity of the format. I was told that two or three years prior to my employment at WADN, there were 28-30 employees on staff! Keep in mind that WADN was a novel, 5,000-watt, stand-alone suburban AM station with a music based format that was just getting off the ground. A staff that size is more typical of a corporately owned, 50,000-watt news/talk “blow torch” that’s been in a market for 50 or 75 years.
The first regime couldn’t realize that a radio station is, first and foremost, a SIGNAL, not a source of employment or independent contracting. You can have the sharpest, most experienced air staff and program producers in the world. But if your signal is substandard and doesn’t pop out at you when you tune down the dial, advertisers will eventually become disenchanted with the results and fall by the wayside.
WADN was originally billed to go on the air as a new, state-of-the-art, AM stereo radio station. “AM Stereo” even appeared on its first logo. What eventually made it to the airwaves, however, was a grave disappointment. First of all, the station's founders located the transmitter at a former Superfund clean up site that, at the time, was little more than a sand pit. Admittedly, they didn't have much choice in the matter, given the lack of available land suitable for radio towers, and the directional patterns the FCC required in order to protect other stations. But the fact remains that dry sand is one of the worst conductors of AM radio signals on the planet.
Over the years, mother nature has been slowly reclaiming the site and the glade is considerably wetter and greener than it use to be. In the mid 1990's, a loam business located next door had been steadily expanding. (Rich, fertile loam, by contrast, is a good conductor of AM radio signals.) As a result, the ground conductivity for the 1120 signal today is considerably better than it was during the early WADN era. However, the condition of the site in 1989 should have sent a red flag to the original owners that they would have to work extra hard to create a viable, marketable signal. But they ignored those warnings. They were more interested in building a large staff to do all their work for them while maintaining the leisurely, upper middle class lifestyle in which they were accustomed. So, when the construction budget proved inadequate, they compromised with a used, monaural audio processor that for years remained at far less than its optimal adjustment.
In those days, WADN’s audio modulation was noticeably lower than other stations nearby on the dial. It was also muddier and plagued with background noise from a poorly configured STL system. The combination of poor audio processing and poor ground conductivity resulted in a signal with significantly less coverage and marketability than originally anticipated.
As a radio veteran who has been involved with 10 different operations since the early 1970's, I will admit that if you are clever and talented, you can cut lots of fiscal corners in radio and get away with it. But the one area that you can't compromise is the condition and calibration of your transmitter and your audio processing chain. It's Cardinal Rule Number One: Don't ever, EVER, tolerate a substandard signal (especially on AM). Spend your last dime if you have to. Lay off every employee, including yourself, if you must. Get it repaired or upgraded without delay. Yet, year after year went by, and NOTHING was done about it. Oh, but there was plenty of room in their budget for every lame-brain, do-nothing consultant or micro-managing assistant who fit in their scheme of things - those who wanted a piece of the assets but had no real sense of commitment to the station, or a quality, essential product to offer.
I consider their approach analogous to a fastidious interior decorator who remodels her colonial era house every month, oblivious to the fact that the foundation is in crumbling disrepair. In a sense, that's what literally happened. By late 1992, these spend-thrifts had accumulated such an enormous debt, their very homes were about to be repossessed by creditors. Finally, their welfare wagon came to a screeching halt and they were forced to divest of the station.
The financial naiveté and inadequate work ethic of this first ownership regime would be enough, in most people's eyes, to disqualify them from ever managing a radio station again. Yet, it pales in significance to what, in my opinion, was their most hideous offense: the compromise of the format. Yes, I'm talking about the very format that was suppose to be WADN's unique marketing linchpin and the very reason the station was brought into existence.
In these litigation happy times, if you publicly criticize a company or individual, you dare not mention their name. So let me say generically that the first regime's investors were involved in a particular Boston based public relations firm. In other words, I am talking about people who are good at manipulating facts and creating "spin," but don't produce anything of concrete, lasting value to society. To people like this, it is not the heart or the core that matters, it's the facade. It's what other people see or expect. It's the obvious... the shallow cliché.
I don't know if it was just one of these investors that was responsible, or all of them in a unified front, but almost from the beginning, they forced the on air staff to infuse an inordinate amount of stale, bland, and dated pop "crossover" into the music mix. Whether it was from the days of "hippie folk pop" or from more recent periods, these selections had already been heavily (over) exposed by other formats. Years after the first regime lost its right to own WADN, I stumbled upon a couple of letters from irate listeners that were still in the station's public file. (... As well as the tepid replies, in my opinion, from then-Program Director Dick Pleasants. Understandably, he was worried about his job security.) Kate Borger, who had been on the station's air staff since opening day, admitted to me one day that the reason she pushed so hard to host a World Music show - and subsequently scaled down her station involvement to part time - was because executing the daily format had become a stifling, infuriating bore she could no longer endure. [As far as Kate's current activities, the last I heard, she was living in the Pittsburg area with her husband and hosting a weekly show on a non-commercial station in that market.]
With folk programing available in the market from - at that time - better quality sources and signals, it was no surprise that WADN failed to meet the admittedly high financial expectations of its first owners. Those who tuned in for music stayed for a song or two, then got bored or irritated by a selection the station had no business playing, and tuned to something else. So, this first regime also blatantly broke Cardinal Rule number 2 that I have gleaned from 28 years in radio: Give your format as much depth as possible and don't ever, EVER, alienate your core audience or fail their expectations.
A September 1, 1989 article in the Boston Globe reporting on the debut of WADN on August 28th of that year. The article introduces the initial staff, explains the vision of its founders, and chronologes the station’s 12-year struggle to get on the air.
If the first WADN ownership regime was well meaning but incompetent, the second would have to be judged as worse. I'm a little more hesitant to criticize the second regime because I was hired under their tutelage, whereas the first regime refuse to hire me. But in all honesty, they were indeed worse, because added to the incompetence was a total lack of business ethics on the part of a key member of the management team.
It's pretty evident now that this individual was pilfering station receipts for his own purposes. Of course, this resulted in a new cash flow crisis every couple of months. He responded in the exact opposite manner of the first regime: he would downsize the station a bit, lay off an employee or two, or cut wages. Or, he would alienate one of the "better" compensated employees until they got upset and quit. To further exacerbate matters, he would betray the trust of the advertising clients. If a particular client signed up for a two month schedule, he would schedule them for four months and continue to bill them each month for that period of time. On average, we would receive a good five or six calls a month from irate clients who were billed without their consent. Most of them would have normally bought another package down the line, but they didn't because it wasn't worth the time and money to put up with the aggravation. I've never seen a radio station involved in so many small claims cases from area businesses and organizations, some filed by former clients against the station and others filed by the station against former clients.
As for the investors behind this sleaze ball, they got hip to his game within three to four months after they bought the station. During the summer of 1994, they permanently cut off any further seed money or investment funds. They forced him to either sink or swim on his own cash flow.
Predictably, for the next two and a half years, the station continued a slow, steady slide to oblivion. Most of us were surprised it lasted as long as it did. The sleaze just kept getting worse. When the morning drive announcer left, this manager, who had no real on-air experience and minimal comprehension and appreciation of folk music, decided to take over his show and host it under an assumed name. (Hey, anything to cut down on expenses so he could keep it all!) Between his "frat boy humor" (to quote a letter from an angry listener - and certainly a form of "humor" that a folk audience does not appreciate), and his compromises with a format for which he had little knowledge or appreciation, it was a disaster.
There were also other problems on the programming side of things. In September 1993, the second regime promoted an individual with an extensive - even impressive - background in both broadcast programming and folk music. Yet for some inexplicable reason, this individual felt that the original management's approach of a "highly familiar" folk/pop crossover sound was still the correct one. So, for almost three years, not only was the station burdened by the corruption and incompetence of the second regime. It had leftover baggage from the first crippling it as well. The new management actually disagreed with his approach, but they didn't care. He was given free reign to terrorize any announcer that he felt was violating the original management's rotation clocks. I came so close to quitting so many times over such oppressive tactics, it's a miracle I stuck it out long enough to take the reigns of control briefly in 1996. When I did, I opened up that "stinking locker room" of a format to a huge burst of fresh air, dumping out all the stale pop garbage that had no business being there in the first place, and adding a huge repertoire of mostly high quality artists that were either not utilized or underutilized. But by the time I was in a position to do this, the audience and cash flow had dwindled so badly, I may as well have done it in a vacuum.
Once our charming manager got off the air each morning, he continued with his campaign of embezzlement and client alienation. By mid 1995, the paychecks for the few remaining staff members began arriving late. At this point, they were still dependable, but always late by up to a week sometimes. Then came a period when a few of them actually bounced.
By the fall of 1995, the landlord of Damonmill Square also had had enough. He had been promised compensation for various station activities over the years that incurred considerable expense for him, but promises were all he got. He kicked the station out of the complex effective January 1996. Most of us thought we would surely go "dark" (i.e. off the air) at that time. There was no way a facility in these dire straits could afford a move. But through pleading and cajoling, the management delayed the move until April. At last, a suite was found at the Concord Office Park, right next door to the station's transmitting facility. The rent was considerably lower, but the accommodations were grossly inferior. The rooms were definitely NOT designed for the soundproofing needs of a radio station as the Damonmill Square facility had been. The investors decided to reverse their policy and pay for the move. They thought it would be better than to allow the station to go dark and possibly loosing everything they had put into it.
After the move to the Concord Office Park, things actually went somewhat smoothly for a few weeks, with the move mostly paid for and the station's operating expenses somewhat reduced. However, we were trying to run a full time facility with a staff of only 3 or 4 full time employees in the days before affordable computer automation. Our satellite feed from the BBC had expired and management didn't want to pay $5,000 to renew it another year. A random play CD jukebox covered an increasing number of unmanned on-air hours. There was no control over the tracks it choose and there was several seconds of dead air between each song. My mere pittance of a pay was still coming in late. The manager was not keeping up with the phone bill, and advertisers were still being alienated and wondered how long we could last.
The management was also overstepping my common sense decisions, which further exacerbated cash flow. But then again, taste, common sense, and smart marketing were not in his repertoire. We had a handicapped intern helping us that summer, running the air product during the middays because we couldn't afford to hire a real midday person. Although an avid fan of radio, his handicap severely affected his voice in such a way it was unlikely he could ever do airwork at a professional facility. His job was to merely pick the music, run the spots, and fill out the logs so that everything ran smoothly. He did all those things admirably. But, he was under strict orders from me not to go on the air for obvious reasons, and management knew my decision.
Not less than 24 hours after I made my decision clear, I punched up the station on my way to work and I heard the intern attempting to talk on the air like a regular station personality. The manager had told him to just go on the air if he wanted to. Naturally, I was very upset, and when I confronted him about it, he gave me his lame excuses and trademark George W. Bush grin. Within minutes the phones rang, including a call from one of sales manager John Rando's few remaining clients. The client wanted to know what in hell was going on with this dreadful voice appearing on the air. Searching for an answer, John came up with the lame excuse that it was "National Handicap Week" and we were giving this handicapped radio buff a shot on the air. "He's having the time of his life in there!" John embarrassingly added. The client wasn't impressed and interpreted it as a sign that now, indeed, was the time to canceled her contract. It was the last straw for John. He handed in his resignation the next day.
The obvious question to ask at this point is, how long does a commercial radio station last without a sales manager, and who in their right mind would take his place? The general manager had now so raped and decimated the facility that even HE was forced to take another job on the side, specifically doing sales for WBNW, a business station, which at that time was at 590 on the AM dial. Certainly this didn't help matters. Also, for some unfathomable reason, he decided to go ahead with his annual tradition of taking a month off (!!!) each summer to be with his parent's family in California. For four long weeks, I broke my hump trying to keep the station in one piece with its format still intact. My reward when he got back was that my late paychecks had now turned into promises. Facing the inevitable, I had myself laid off and went on unemployment compensation, but I basically retained my role on a voluntary basis. Although I had every right to turn my back on this crippled station, and even take it to court, I was determined to fight it out until it was truly the end. When distressed radio stations reach this stage, you never know what can happen. My larger wisdom said to put up with it and stay involved for the time being.
A replacement - so to speak - for John Rando was eventually found. He was even less amiable and understanding of the folk format than even John was and mistakenly blamed many of the station's problems on it. Meanwhile, the manager spent the bulk of his time at WBNW, which itself was facing the extinction of its format due to the sale of the facility to a religious broadcaster. When the original WBNW disappeared, these two decided, along with the blessing of the investors, to merge WBNW's format with WADN's. After all, when you burn all your bridges to the community, your only option is a syndicated format that costs next to nothing to maintain. It was slow at first, but by the end of 1996, folk music was confined to weekends only. By early 1997, it was reduced to Sundays only (when not preempted by NASCAR of all things!), hosted by myself.
In late March of 1997, the manager had suddenly decided that he wanted to dispose of the station's music library, the result of over eight years of hard work. He declared he wanted $5,000 firm for it or else he would sell it off to a used music retailer who would dispose of it piecemeal. By this time, station intern Jim Valiquet (now known as Jim Black) and I had been discussing the viability of bringing WADN's doomed format to the fledgling but still primitive Internet. We decided that it was absolutely imperative that we gain control of that library immediately, or say good-bye forever to such a viable source of music for a website. Just hours before the music retailer was scheduled to arrive, I had Jim bring the manager a bank check for $5,000, financed entirely on one of my credit cards. It should be noted that at the time, I was living on an income of about $150 a week, comprised of unemployment compensation and a weekly paper route. I was already heavily in debt, trying to maintain an older mobile home I had just purchased the previous fall, and a car in need of expensive repairs. As for Jim, he not only didn't have any money. He didn't have a dime's worth of credit either. I later found out from the investors that the manager, in NO WAY, had their permission to dispose of the library. It was an obvious ploy the manager discovered that would pay him $5,000 in easy money under the table.
In April of 1997, the last folk track aired on the station. My dizzy odyssey with WADN had ended. Jim and I secured the URL and officially launched the Folk Image website. The first show was encoded a month later. The site was named after the short-lived show I hosted on Sundays. Ironically, the term was coined by that final sales manager who ignorantly blamed many of the station's problems on the format. He once remarked that my show would maintain the station's "folk image." The phrase stuck.
Several months after my departure, the investors finally took the opportunity to do what they should have done in 1993: they removed this unscrupulous general manager from their company. Why they waited so long and allowed him to destroy a station and a format that had been a decades long dream is still a bit unclear to me. I think I recall the chief investor saying they couldn't lure a viable replacement for him and none of them had the time to manage the station in a hands-on fashion. His dismissal may have also been a condition of a pending sale of the station. Whatever the case, it was unfortunately too little too late.
When I later filed suite against the station for failure to pay back wages, I received a call from the chief investor who advised me of the manager's dismissal. (I had named the manager as the chief defendant.) He said there is no need for the suit; they believed me and knew how this guy had operated. In fact, they were in the midst of settling the books and paying off a long list of people to whom the station owed money. The sale of the station to one of their associates was about to begin. They scraped together enough money to faithfully send me a check each month until the full amount was paid.
The station was sold to Barry Armstrong, a wealthy financial adviser who hosts a syndicated program called "Money Matters." In December of 1998, he changed the station's call letters to WBNW to reflect the personal finance format. The WADN call letters currently live on only in the form of this website's URL.
As a postscript, I should mention the astounding fact that WADN's former slime bucket manager was, believe it or not, hired for a management/sales position at a station in southern New Hampshire, just months after his unceremonious dismissal. Not surprisingly, his employment there lasted about a year. You see, he was caught with his hands in the cookie jar again. He was deliberately writing bad checks on "behalf" of the station while pocketing the real money for himself. When they found out, they practically ran him out of town on a fast rail.
It never fails to amaze me how people can be so careless with thousands and even millions of dollars in commercial or private assets that often take decades of hard work to build, not to mention their own reputations. Just two simple phone calls from the owner of that New Hampshire radio station - one to WADN's chief investor (someone who had been above in command) and one to myself (someone who had been below in command) - would have revealed that this individual was not only unqualified to handle assets. He shouldn't even be allowed to set foot in a radio station! But the investors behind WADN's second regime didn't do their homework either. Prior to his rape of WADN, this loathsome swine did the same thing to not just one, but FIVE radio stations in a western U.S. state. Why ANYONE would want to invest their money in someone who has proven time and time again that he embezzles money and destroys every radio station he touches is simply beyond comprehension.
For those of you still reading at this point, the question you are probably asking is, why am I spending so much time on all the lurid details of WADN's demise? It's probably for the same reason we study history in general. The history of the human race is pretty grim - war, injustice, greed, murder, and deception - but we can learn from the past. I have also chosen to trace the station's demise to demonstrate that its troubles had little if anything to do with its unique format as originally conceived.It was not easy to tell this story and remember all I endured, in spite of all the obvious humor that goes along with it. My earnest hope is that the Internet, thanks to its low cost and open access, will continue to unleash an avalanche of personal freedom and creativity that will boomerang back upon older, more expensive forms of media, such as radio. I want to see sagas like the one told here relegated to the distant past.