- by Ann Bennett
The New Sound in Town
If you've flipped the radio dial lately, in between the disco, punk rock and "musak" beamed into the Mt. Washington Valley from across the Maine border, a fresh, new sound may have caught your ear. Some of those voices at WMWV FM 93.5, sound awfully familiar, though, and in fact, the station is WBNC FM, revitalized and totally revamped, featuring disc jockeys Danny Del Rossi, Greg Driscoll and Peter Durkee.
More than the call letters have changed, though. Gone are the days of potpourri programming at the Conway-FM station, once known for its heavy emphasis on swing and the big band era, classical music and jazz. The new programming is strictly contemporary, and the transition is part of a conscious effort to cultivate a strong local audience of listeners for the Valley's own FM station.
"FM radio grew up in my absence, and the Maine stations have really opened up the market," remarked Danny Del Rossi, who is back for a third stint at the Conway-based station following six years in Australia. "We plan to fill the vacuum they've created locally. It's exciting to start a new station, which is essentially what we're doing here at WMWV."
Noticeably absent from the FM airwaves is Skip Sherman, who owns both WBNC AM and WMWV with his wife Joan. Sherman has always carefully monitored the programming at both his AM and FM stations, and his preference for swing and jazz is well known among local listeners.
WBNC AM has been a community-oriented station since Joan and Skip took over the station 20 years ago. The couple brought diverse backgrounds to the job - Joan worked for a radio station in Connecticut, while Skip had been in advertising and with several newspapers and, hence, they were uniquely qualified to run what was then a strictly small-town radio station. WBNC was owned by Joan's Connecticut-based employer when they took over as managers in 1959, but the couple purchased the station a year later.
Joan assumed the business end of the operation, and skip took over the microphone and turntable. "In the beginning, there were still the remnants of really good jazz and swing, and easy listening music, too. Even if the stuff wasn't tremendously creative, it was well packaged and had tremendous commercial appeal," he recalled. "It was much easier to program in those days, but then came rock and roll. At some point in the sixties, we made peace with the new music, and we tried to play the best of all types," Skip continued. "Gradually, the station evolved into an eclectic mix. It's been that way ever since."
Sherman's taste may not have always coincided with the majority of the local populace, but the programming at WBNC has always been unique. In an age where most small-town radio stations have joined national networks to avoid the problems of filling airtime with original programs, WBNC has remained an independent, and has enjoyed sustained growth.
WBNC AM is a "daylighter," jargon for a station that broadcasts from sunrise to sunset. Of course, in mid-winter that means an abbreviated day, and the situation led the Shermans to decide in 1967 to add FM to WNBC. The FCC has no strictures on the length of the FM broadcasting day. "With the addition of FM, we basically were one and a half station," Skip commented. "We had FM programing early and late, but a great deal of duplication in between. In many ways, it seemed we were wasting the middle of the day."
Skip did use the FM format as an experimental medium, and cultivated devoted groups of listeners for each of the special programs he developed - big band, swing, jazz and classical music. "It was nice, but we never acquired a strong identity. You can't split the day between all those different kinds of music, and still be viable. The advertisers simply didn't go for it, and the commercial aspect is a fact of life."
Also, trying to program to please local listeners was becoming more of a dilemma, and Skip literally throws up his hands in despair when he considers the state of today's record industry. "It's always been a matter of trying to appeal to everybody, and now there is such a hodgepodge of musical categories, there's no way to keep up with it."
As a result, the Shermans decided to try a new tact, and to separate the two stations entirely. The FM was renamed to lend it a fresh identity of its own, and Skip called on Del Rossi, Durkee and Driscoll, young disc jockeys familiar with the Mt. Washington Valley, and attuned to the type of programming that would pull in a strong segment of local listeners, since a popular station translates into commercial success.
"The success of the venture is largely their responsibility now," Skip said. "My only directions were to continue to carry good music of all kinds. The only way to categorized it is as adult contemporary, with an emphasis on top performers and songwriters - not just popular, but talented. We'll still be eclectic."
Another major change is in the works for WMWV and WBNC AM. Over the last several months, Skip has arranged for a new transmitter to be erected on Oak Hill in Madison, and the financial commitment underlines the Shermans' high hopes for the new station. The technical advantages of the tower are that broadcasts will now be transmitted from 410 feet above average terrain, rather than 230 feet below, as has been the case in the current location behind the stations' offices in Conway. The new tower will increase the area of broadcast coverage by a healthy 50 percent, though Skip feels the addition is significant in another way. "The new vantage point is going to improve the quality of our broadcasts dramatically," he stated, "which is at least as important as broadening our range,"
Since setting the original boundaries for WMWV's programming, Skip has exercised a strict hands-off policy as far as the station is concerned. "He's given us total freedom," Del Rossi noted, "which considering how set the programming is at most stations, is incredible. But it has allowed us to respond to the constant flow of input of operation, and that's essential, too. It's important for people to identify with us, and to know we're listening to their suggestions. The listeners should feel free to participate because that's what makes WMWV the Valley's station."
Del Rossi has been adamant in his insistence that straight news show like Community Interview be dropped from WMWV. Now, with the exception of hourly news and weather broadcasts, from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day WMWV carries straight music, with sporadic commercial breaks. Del Rossi does foresee a varied format of special news broadcasts and public service programs in the future, but indicated that initially a definitive split had to be made from WBNC AM. "In the beginning, we simply had to separate ourselves to create a strong following of our own," he noted. "We'll develop our own style of news and community-oriented programs."
Other future plans include regular mini-concerts featuring major recording artists, the possibility of a "Jukebox Junkie Special," and the creation of a WMWV rideboard. A weeklong broadcasting marathon will be held in the near future to benefit local charity, too." "We have a lot of ideas, and the positive feedback so far has been tremendous," Del Rossi said. "One of our strengths is the station's flexibility and freedom to change. You never know quite what you'll hear on WMWV, just the parameters of the programming--top quality, contemporary music. FM has arrived in the Mt. Washington Valley."