Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Now This -- WJMA Past and Present

Last night I attended a viewing of "Now This." a documentary that chronicled the first 35 years of WJMA, a small-market radio station in central Virginia.

Long-time readers know I've written extensively about my local station, but watching the documentary and reuniting with former employees (yes, I was one, also) brought some things home.

Orange was a rural community with not much business to support advertising. WJMA, then known as Radio Orange, could also be heard in neighboring counties that also were basically rural with modest businesses: Culpeper, Louisa, Madison, and Fluvanna.

But then-owner Arch Harrison saw real opportunity. These communities all had a weekly newspaper, but (in the 1960's) no other source of information. So WJMA became that daily source.

At its peak, the station had two full-time reporters and stringers in each of the four outlying counties to phone in stories. There was a full-time sports director and some sports stringers. The high school coaches for each of the five counties were interviewed in a "Coaches Corner" segment.

As Tom Graves (no relation) the former sports director pointed out, WJMA not only broadcast local high school football and basketball. They sometimes used the AM for one game, and the FM for another -- covering two local sporting events. And in addition to an announcer and color commentator in the booth, there would be reporters on both sides of the field, and sometimes the referees were even miked.

How on earth could a dinky little station provide such coverage (and win broadcasting awards with predictable regularity)?

All of the former employees in "Now This" cited Harrison's hands-off management style, and -- most importantly -- the freedom to fail. It was OK to experiment. If it didn't work, you didn't lose your job. You just tried something different. And if it worked, well, then you tried to improve upon it.

It's all well and good to wax nostalgic about Radio Orange, but what does that have to do with modern broadcasting?


How can radio compete with all of the other media that draws away audience?

1) Local
2) Live

That means investing in people, not automation. It means staffing newsrooms, not subscribing to wire services. It means becoming an integral part of the community, not just handing out balloons at a car dealership sale.

Could Radio Orange work today? Absolutely.

They had a talented staff creating a ton of great local content every single day. Content that would work online. Content for videos. Content for podcasts. Content for web updates. Content for Twitterfeeds. Content to be shared with the local papers of each county, content to be shared with the local television stations, content to be shared with the public access cable channel.

Content the audience couldn't get anywhere else because no other organization would be gathering it.

Radio Orange was equally creative in their advertising structure as they were with their news and sports reporting. Everything was an opportunity for sponsorship, and at rates in line with what local businesses could afford. Ditto in the present day.

There's no reason every online and on-air element can't be sponsored. Not always with :30 spots, but creatively. Maybe just a single line and a link on a web page. A brief mention for the weather. A sponsor name and slogan for the sports scores.

It worked before -- and incorporating new media, I think it can work again.

- Ralph

Day 167 of the WJMA Podwatch. (OK, they finally added the news director's name to the metadata, but we still have no image, web address, etc.)


  1. I love the idea! Key in there is "freedom to fail" which is crucial as innovation wreaks havoc on what we have today.

  2. That was the secret to the success of Radio Orange. I understand the station works under a far different management style now.

    But radio (and all media, for that matter) are in an adapt or die environment. So maybe we need more Arch Harrisons in charge of stations, rather than less.