Station listens to listeners

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WBRF-98.1 FM made some controversial programming changes last year that were hardly music to listeners' ears. Radio station general manager Debby Stringer heard the complaints loud and clear and is bringing back the things listeners missed most.

By Brian Funk, Editor




Sometimes, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.
That's what Debby Stringer, general manager of WBRF-98.1 FM in Galax, says she learned the hard way last year when the country radio station made some unpopular programming changes.
It turned out that taking away long-running programs and limiting song requests hit listeners' collective ears like the screech of nails on a chalkboard.
Now, after hearing opinions from listeners for several months, Stringer says WBRF is playing a tune fans want to hear.
“We listened to our listeners,” she said in February, just days before the station made more changes, this time aimed at fixing what didn't work.
If comments from fans via e-mail and the station's Facebook page since then are any indication, WBRF has hit the right note this time.
Now rebranded as “Classic Country 98.1,” the station has decided to ditch modern country music altogether and only play songs and artists from the late 1940s through 1994, with some bluegrass and old-time thrown into the mix.
Goodbye, Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney. Welcome back, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard.
It's a strategy designed to make WBRF unique in its market. “We chose to go with the classic country format to offer the listeners an alternative,” Stringer explains. “At least five stations in our listening area are programming modern country. None of them, except us, are offering classic country.”
This programming shift — the biggest of the changes enacted last year — is one of the only things WBRF is keeping from the controversial past six months.
(Also getting the boot is “The Legend,” a new name that was meant to evoke the classic country format.)
Stringer said the programming changes, which cost the station some listeners and a couple of on-air personalities, were business decisions aimed at growing and evolving the station. Most were not well-received, but Stringer says that WBRF — one of very few 100,000-watt stations owned by a family, not a corporation — has the freedom to try new things, and should not be afraid to do so.
“We don't want to be a cookie-cutter station,” she said.
Stringer said many of the changes were instigated by Tom Collins, a new director of operations hired in July 1010. He is no longer with the station.
Stringer said popular late-night DJ Bruce Hodges' departure during the time of transition was a personnel decision and “a separate issue” not driven by the programming changes. Hodges, who now broadcasts his “NightRide USA” show on the Internet, will not be returning.
But longtime morning co-host and Galax businessman Maurice Vaughan is back after parting ways with WBRF last year. Vaughan now co-hosts “Flashback Wednesdays,” playing artists like Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb, Jim Reeves and Hank Snow.
“He'll pick a year and play songs from it,” Stringer said. “He'll have guests from the community occasionally.”
Stringer's husband, John — who advises, but is not employed by, the station — said WBRF “is going back to some roots.”
Classic Country 98.1 is a powerful station that reaches thousands of listeners in four states and more than 344,000 fans who listen online around the world, “but it's also a Galax station,” John Stringer said. “That's our main responsibility. We're proud to be from the Blue Ridge Mountains. This is really the birthplace of country music, and we've got to stick to our roots.”
The station even responded to listeners' complaints about dropping local school closing announcements. They might not be relevant to out-of-town or Internet listeners, but John Stringer said it's a responsibility to the community.
The station reaches far into the New River Valley and to the Piedmont area of North Carolina — almost to Charlotte — and Stringer says the station's goal is to promote the Galax area to folks living in those more urban areas.
“We are also the only FM station in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem, N.C., market carrying NASCAR races,” she points out.
Stringer said NASCAR's race broadcasters have been very appreciative of the station's reach into a widespread market. “We are going to set up on location at the Martinsville Speedway for the NASCAR races on April 2 and 3. They are going to put us on their big screen and give us lots of tickets to give away.”
After news was taken away last year, Stringer said she heard numerous complaints. “Due to listener demand, we added back three minutes of CBS World News at the top of the hour.”
Another thing being brought back are listener requests. “We got so many that it was hard to work them in, but as long as they fit the format, we'll honor them,” Stringer said.
WBRF has added an “All-Request Lunch Hour” from noon to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.
But don't call up requesting Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban or Sugarland. From now on, the sound is strictly old-school.
During the station's “Good Morning” drive-time show from 5:30-10 a.m., you'll hear songs from 1960 to 1994, with one song per hour from after 1995, Stringer said. That's when you're most likely to hear more contemporary artists like George Strait or Alan Jackson.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, the music goes all the way back to the 1940s.
Then, from 5-6 p.m., comes one of the station's most popular new programs, the “Outlaw Drive at 5”  with DJ Buford Kegley, featuring artists like Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, David Allen Coe and Tanya Tucker.
Stringer is also experimenting with adding some “alternative country” artists — the antithesis of the slickly produced Nashville sound — to the outlaw mix, like singer/songwriter Steve Earle and Guy Clark.
(A recent show featured seldom-heard gems like Earle's “Snake Oil” and a live version of Clark's “Black Diamond Strings” from MerleFest 2003.)
Stringer said her goal with “Outlaw Drive at 5” is “to program great music that you don't hear every day, along with the favorites.”
Bluegrass and old-time music will remain a big part of WBRF's programming, with six hours of traditional music from 6 p.m. to midnight, and more on weekends, with DJs Jay Allen and Judith Burnette.
“And, due to the huge number of requests that we receive, we have now decided to dedicate one full hour each night to bluegrass gospel music,” Stringer said.
Some partnerships this year will help the station reach a wider audience and offer an opportunity to promote Galax. WBRF is still the Wake Forest University flagship station and a media partner with  North Carolina TV station WXII-12.
This year, WBRF is a top sponsor of MerleFest, the annual roots music festival in North Carolina, and a major sponsor of HoustonFest, a new two-day event in Galax kicking off in May. It honors the young banjo player Houston Caldwell, who died last year.
WBRF-FM — along with sister stations WPAQ-AM and WWWJ-AM — will sponsor the HoustonFest main stage and broadcast live from the event.
“We are going to conduct live on-air interviews of the musicians that are going to perform at HoustonFest,” Stringer said. “Every Wednesday at 9:15 a.m. between now and HoustonFest, Jay Allan will interview an individual HoustonFest artist.”
This July, WBRF will bring a local talent search, The Texaco Country Showdown, to the area. “It's the nation's oldest and largest country talent show,” Stringer said. “Garth Brooks, Martina McBride and Tim McGraw have all participated in the past. You can win $100,000 and get discovered.”
The station got its fans involved in one of the most recent changes — selecting a new logo for Classic Country 98.1. “We had our listeners to vote on our Facebook page for their favorite new logo,” Stringer said. “We drew a name from the ones that voted and the winner got a pair of tickets to MerleFest.”
Stringer says that the station continues to evolve and adapt to what listeners want. She encourages fans to contact her with suggestions.
“Send us an e-mail. We'll listen — obviously!”