West Virginia radio: securing the ‘enduring power and value’ of the Mountain State’s local stations

By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV

As a child growing up, Bob Spencer dreamed of working in radio. His aspiration blossomed into reality as soon as he earned his FCC (Federal Communications Commission) license as a young teenager, opening the path for him to land his first broadcasting gig. Positions at WJLS and WCIR served as the genesis of Spencer’s radio career, in 1977. Spencer had earned his license to broadcast even before he had gotten his license to drive.

Spencer has spent the last forty-six years in radio, and today he and a business partner own First Media Services. Here in West Virginia, Spencer’s stations include J104 (WHAJ) Kicks Country 106.3 (WHKK), 100.9 The Eagle (WKOY), Mix 102.9 (WKQB), Newstalk 1440AM-97.3 FM (WHIS), Willie 94.5(WAMN), The Mix 92.7 (WKQR), and 98.7 EZ FM (WKEZ) . These stations cover large portions of southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, with J104’s 100,000 watts reaching thirty-one counties across five different states. First Media also owns radio stations in Georgia.

Photo by Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV.

In this era when people have so many listening options, from satellite radio to live streaming to podcasting to downloading, Spencer believes in the enduring power and value of local radio. “I think we are fine-tuned to our area. Anybody can get any song we play at any time on their cell phones, but we’ve got the ‘special sauce’ to put it all together. I think that’s what we do best,” Spencer said.

Ken Dietz agrees. Dietz came to J104 back in 1985, and today his voice can be heard across First Media stations, particularly J104. Dietz deejays Monday through Friday from noon to three p.m. He said that a local radio station’s connection to its local community makes it shine. “I had a guy telling me about his experience as a listener to satellite radio. He told me—and this really opened my eyes—that he missed local advertisements, to find out what’s going on. You don’t necessarily go there, but he did. He said he missed local ads, local stuff.”

Dietz a reflected on the changes that have impacted local radio since his career began in the 1980s. “It’s funny because I think that radio is the same in many aspects. The difference is probably technology. The office staff, the engineering staff, the sales staff, everyone has adapted. It’s the same formula, but the technology is very different.”

Spencer uses the analogy of parenthood. “At first, you have one child who gets all of your attention,” he noted. Then, he explained, as you have more children, your care and attention must be shared. In the past, owning or working for one station was like having one kid that you pay a lot of attention to, but now there are more children, more radio stations who need staffing and care.

“In the old days, when you had a five-hour air shift, you’d sit there and every three
minutes you’re hitting a button,” Dietz said.” You sat there five hours a day, doing the show.
Now with technology, you spend a fraction of that time. You’re still doing the show the day of,
but because of voice-tracking, among other things, you can do a five hour shift in half an hour. It
allows you time to support the other stations.”

As a disc jockey, Dietz always imagines himself talking to one listener, one-on-one. That keeps his craft conversational, authentic. That human connection drew him into radio in the first place, and it keeps his love for the business alive today. “I think the ability to connect to listeners, to connect to the area means the most. The entertainment aspect of the work, the music, is always fun, too,” he said.

Brock Matthews has been working in local radio for twenty years. Like Ken Dietz, Matthews began at J104, but today his voice can be heard across Spencer’s many radio stations. He also does programming and social media for First Media Services. “Growing up, I always loved the radio. I was fascinated with how, when I would call Ken or Doug Dillon, or someone else on the air, they could record my voice and then play my voice over the intro of a song, and make it stop right when the singer would start singing. I just thought that was magical, and I was taken in by it,” he explained.

Matthews said local radio provides many indispensable services to the community. “If something is going down, we’re there,” he said. He noted how “being there” includes not only news coverage, but outreach. For instance, First Media stations have brought trucks full of donated supplies to communities ravaged by floods. It’s not just local news and community service that draws listeners in, though, Matthews contends. “Right now it’s football season. People want to hear their teams. We bring them that,” he said.

J104 and the other First Media stations’ reach into the southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia region can also be demonstrated by the quantitative impact of their on-air promotions and contests. Just this summer, a contest on J104 to win trips to Dollywood and other attractions garnered nearly 100,000 unique texts from listeners. They call it “text in to win,” and according to Matthews, the reach and power of such promotions keep local radio vital. “We’re the only media now that’s free. We’re always giving away free stuff, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.” Matthews said that for advertisers partnered with such on-air giveaways, “their brand, their message is really getting in front of a lot of people. People get really excited about it.”

Bob Spencer shares a vintage pin with friend and retired employee, Greg Kanode, a 2019 inductee into the West Virginia Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. Photo by proud son Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV.

As a radio station owner, Bob Spencer considers himself and his staff stewards of a great legacy. According to Spencer, one of the stations’ previous owners, Mike Shott, changed the station’s format from easy listening to top forty around 1980-1981. J104 has maintained the same format ever since. “That started it up, and it grew from there,” Spencer said. Matthews shares his boss’s assessment. “There has been some incredible talent on this mic,” he said.

Bob Spencer said that his entire staff lives up to upholding that abiding legacy. “These guys are so buttoned up. They dot the ‘ i’s’, they cross the ‘t’s.’ It amazes me all the stuff they get done, and all the stuff we get on the air. The bottom line, I think, is passion. We all have the passion. We all want what comes out of the speakers to be bigger than life, bigger than the area.” Spencer said that in addition to their passionate dedication to all the radio stations, his staff share something else– friendship. “I respect these guys. I work with them. We are friends. We all try to be the best.”

While Spencer lifts up everyone else’s labor, Ken Dietz pointed out that Spencer plays an unquestioned role in each radio station’s success. Dietz said that in recent years, J104 and other stations have been owned by larger media companies outside of West Virginia. “I tell you something that has helped this organization tremendously, and that’s Bob Spencer,” Dietz said. He’s here. He’s local. He’s a radio guy.”

J104 recently won the West Virginia Broadcaster’s Association Station of the Year, an award it has garnered often in the past. Not long ago, Brock Matthews received a text message from the man who does J104’s voiceovers, which are mainly station identifications. “He was hanging out with his friend who is one of the heavy hitters in the voiceover industry. They were streaming J104,” Matthews began. “This guy, our voiceover guy’s friend, is on a ton of stations, from Boston to LA. He was blown away at how tight, how great our sound is. The biggest station in the country, in the world, even…J104 is right there with them. The best stations aren’t in the biggest markets nowadays.”

Sitting in a conference room down the hall from the studio, Bob Spencer smiled. “J104 is just a magical station. It blows your mind all the places it reaches, from all the places where people listen. It’s because of these guys,” he said, pointing toward Dietz and Matthews. “They’ve kept it consistent. J104 is just a special station.”


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