WMLB-AM, Atlanta [link] subscribes to the “chaos theory” of radio programming. On WMLB you could hear Bob Dylan segued into Rumble by Link Wray, followed by readings from books by Flannery O’Connor. You might think this is a noncom community station or maybe a new LPFM. But actually WMLB is/was an unusual commercial AM station.
However, WMLB won’t be around much longer. Station owner Joe Weber says he is pulling the plug at the end of May and is moving to California. Weber told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [link], WMLB was never profitable. Perhaps the station could be called a not-for-profit venture.
WMLB was Weber’s passion project. Back in the 1980s Weber made big bucks in the bakery supply business. In 1997 he took his baking dough and started WMLB. At first WMLB was heard on AM 1190 AM. Then in 2006, Weber’s company, JW Broadcasting, bought the license for AM 1690 for $12 million. Weber quickly learned he paid a lot of money for a station very few people could even receive.
In 1993 the FCC expanded the AM dial in an attempt to “save AM.” New frequencies were added between 1610 kHz and 1790 kHz, including AM 1690 in Atlanta. At the time AM radio tuners could not tune in stations that were broadcasting above 1600 kHz. Also in 1993, the FCC required manufacturers to only sell radio sets that could receive stations in the expanded AM band.
Stations like AM 1690 never had a chance. At the time, very few new radio tuners were being built. There were well over a billion old sets still in use. These older sets couldn’t receive WMLB.
WMLB called itself The Voice of the Arts and reflected the tastes of one listener: Joe Weber. During his handcrafted programs, Weber would infuse bird calls, poetry and famous speeches into the music mix.
An employee of WMLB, Mike Rose, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that was the way Weber liked to operate:
“It was never about appealing to a certain demographic or target audience. This was just stuff he liked and his friends liked. He wanted a venue for it. He didn’t want to lose money but money wasn’t the primary motivator.”
Weber looks at the failure of WMLB as an unpleasant experience. He told the Journal-Constitution:
“I went in with my eyes wide open but I didn’t expect to take such a beating. I knew I could afford to lose whatever I invested. But it was not a good feeling to take such a bath financially. I really felt stupid.”
In a humble moment, Weber said:
“Just because you did great in one business doesn’t mean you can repeat it in another. I went in fairly deeply with very little understanding of the significance of how AM worked and how the world was changing. If I was maybe 30 years younger, I wouldn’t have made the move.”
The failure of WMLB was a double loss for Weber. Three years ago his wife of many years (and his assistant at the station) passed away. Weber described the impact of her loss this way:
“After she died I didn’t have much appetite to do a show anymore or invest emotion or energy into the station.”
Weber intends to keep the license for AM 1690 and lease it to another operator. AM 1690's tower site sits on a valuable piece of property. Several stations lease tower space from Weber and site is profitable.
THE SQUID IN SANTA CRUZ MOVES FORWARD
Last week on Wednesday (5/2) we featured the plan by Santa Cruz residents to start a new station [link] with the same sensibility and programming as KUSP, a station that was sold out of bankruptcy to Educational Media Foundation (EMF) in 2016. In that article we express skepticism that the new venture will fly.
This week we saw the news in Tom Taylor’s excellent newsletter TomTaylorNOW [link], that the deal to buy the station was filed Monday (5/7) with the FCC. The station, now KSRI 90.7 FM, was sold by EMF to Natural Bridges Media, a new California non-profit corporation, for $265,000. The Board Chair of Natural Bridges is former KUSP employee Rachel Goodman.
According to various news sources, the new 90.7 will have the call letters KSQD a/k/a K-Squid. The deal will be final when the FCC approves it in early summer 2018.
Natural Bridges raised the $265,000 to purchase the station using a crowd funding site. Now the task of raising funds to buy equipment, build the studios, pay the tower rent and operate K-Squid begins. Natural Bridges says they need at least $80,000 for the basics.
KEN SAYS: This is a personal and professional victory for Rachel Goodman and we congratulate her and her associates for buying the station. Now we will see if Goodman and company can successfully run the station. Though we remain skeptical, let’s hope Goodman proves us and other nay-sayers wrong.