CHESTERTOWN — WCTR has been on the air for 50 years. In the world of independent small-town radio stations, that’s an impressive accomplishment. Broadcasting on the 1530 AM frequency, and more recently on FM 102.3, WCTR has become an institution in the community.
The station hasn’t reached that milestone without its share of growing pains over the years. Since its first broadcast – June 16. 1963, according to Keith Thompson, the station’s main on-air voice – it’s seen changes of ownership, changes of format, and even a lightning strike that wiped out all the electronics in the studio. That was actually a plus in the long run, allowing the station to ditch its analog equipment and upgrade to digital in one swoop.
WCTR began life with a 250-watt signal, broadcasting in daylight hours only. It later increased its signal to 1,000 watts, and built its 187-foot tower next to its studio and transmitter at 231 Flatland Road – according to the station’s website, one of the highest spots in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties.
In 2004, Dick Gelfman, a Baltimore TV personality, bought the station from Baltimore radio personality Brian Wilson, who had owned it for about two years; he in turn had bought it from Jody Taylor Morrison, who with her late husband Dave Taylor had owned it since 1985.
Thompson and station manager Ken Collins were in the studio Tuesday, July 30, to talk about being part of the local community for half a century. Thompson, who joined the station in 2007, remembered that its format was “full service oldies” when he came on board, alternating tunes “from Wayne Newton to the Beatles” with lots of public service features. Shortly thereafter it shifted to the ABC network’s “classic oldies” format, with a slightly later focus, from the Beatles to the 1980s.
It was already part of the local landscape. Collins remembered, after coming on board as an ad salesman in 2005, walking into downtown businesses and the Visitors Center where radios would be carrying WCTR. He spoke of how he’d worked to align the station with community organizations, joining the Chamber of Commerce, working with the Adolescent Substance Abuse Coalition and the Sassafras River Association and giving Character Counts students a weekly spot on the microphone.
The station moved to an all-talk format in 2010, facing Thompson with a dilemma. “I’d never done talk before,” he said. “It’s hard to survive a format change.” He’d spent his entire previous radio career spinning records, frequently on country stations. He came on board at WCTR in 2007, after being out of radio for “about a year.” He liked the oldies format the station featured at the time, and to his surprise found himself with a full time job spinning records again.
But when the format change came, Collins said that he and Gelfman were confident in Thompson’s ability to handle the new format. Not only did he adapt; in the process, he discovered his own style of interviewing. Rather than prepare a script for each interview, he basically “wings it.” According to Collins, “He just asks questions.”
And there’s no prepared list of questions. Thompson said, “I hate people with a list of questions. A list stifles the conversation.” He prefers to let the talk “drift off into tangents,” even if he sometimes “hits dead ends” and has to back out. “I don’t know where it’s going.” he said. “I’m along for the ride, the same as our listeners.”
Thompson said he especially enjoys his on-air conversations with Kent County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Tom Martin. “We see the world from different points of view,” he said. Their talks aren’t “knock-down, drag-out” arguments, but “good contrast,” Collins said.
“We try to present a balance of opinion,” Collins said. He pointed to some of the regular guests – Martin and Republican County Commissioner Billy Short – as indicative of the range of the station’s coverage. Thompson and Collins are looking forward to this fall’s Chestertown mayoral election, which they said has the potential to be “a real turning point” in the community.
Also, Collins said, WCTR “isn’t just a Chestertown station” any more. As the only station broadcasting to the entire Upper Shore, from the Upper Shore, it has the ability to focus on issues that affect the larger community. The station has interviewed governors, congressmen, mayors, council members and candidates for a variety of elective offices. Collins said the station wants to increase its coverage of Queen Anne’s news and politics, as well.
After decades of broadcasting on the AM band, it added the FM signal in June 2011. That extended the station’s reach to a new demographic, Collins said. At the same time, it went to 24-hour operation, with the FM signal carrying syndicated material all night. The AM operation remains daylight only.
The station’s reach extends even farther with its presence on the Internet, with its website carrying all its programming as podcasts. Now its shows can be listened to all over the world; Collins said they’ve gotten calls and email from listeners in California in response to some of their shows.
Further expansion is in the cards, as well. WCTR is also planning to set up a new FM transmitter in Queen Anne’s County, between Church Hill and Centreville, to expand the reach of its FM signal.