ORANGE – Back in the early 1980s, I went to boarding school in the Virginia country. As typical of so many 14-year-olds, I did not appreciate so many things that now I understand to be great. One such institution was Radio Orange, the clever marketing handle for the dual AM-FM station WJMA. WJMA, the initials of which stand for hometown President James Madison, was one of those great community radio stations, thousands of which have been rendered puerile by the vile radio consolidation of the last 20 years. Each morning, Radio Orange woke me on my clock radio.
I was lucky enough to know, however, that the station was a standout, even as I would have rather heard its less Middle of the Road (that was the music it mostly played) tunes of The Carpenters and such on my morning clock radio. Patricia McArver, the wife of our faculty member, often did the news, and Ann Harrison, the daughter of the legendary station owner Archie Harrison, was a day student at the “all-boys” school. Mrs. Skillcorn, the wife of my patient algebra teacher and wrestling coach Bill Skillcorn, also filled in with the news, as I recall. McArver later went to The Citadel, where she still teaches communications.
So we listened to radio Orange, alot, as it had great news and a sort of subversive marketing nickname Radio Orange. The “Radio” echoed Radio Free Europe and other ambitious attempts to subvert collectivist thought with facts, and we as students thought it pretty hip. The ads too, were intensely local. In fact it was all local, even a classical show.
Archie Harrison, who died in 2013, was famous in Virginia news circles, and beloved, as the station was even more innovative than some of the more over-programmed teenybopper stations in the larger markets of Richmond, Norfolk and D.C. The news staff did live news, with actual reporting from county meetings and such. I wish I had talked to him about radio then; instead I just remember him as a dapper guy who came around quite often.
Waking up this morning, I wondered if there were airchecks related to the station, to hear the sound of what those mornings were like. Airchecks, I have realized, are one of the few ways that time travel is truly possible, as you sort of step back into the moment when you hear them. Thankfully, there are dozens on the website wjma.radiohistory.net, as well as an exhaustive history of the station’s accomplishments. Please read the site, as it also includes a long list of the local civic leaders who made the station happen. These foresighted men realized that good, local radio programming was essential to a town’s economic health.
The station was sold, and eventually moved to Culpeper, which was a great loss for Orange-ites, as we called them.
Would that today’s large radio companies go back and study the economics and ecosystems of these independent radio stations, to see what they contributed to our country, and what potential they still have with thoughtful, civic-minded local ownership. Or even better, Agit Pai’s newly radio friendly Federal Communications Commission could carefully study the current radio stations that operate in this fashion, and with policy, encourage more of them.
Today, the radio giants of Cumulus and I Heart Media own hundreds of stations. Their leveraged companies are short of cash and ideas. Perhaps there might be a way to de-leverage these companies, spinning off the radio stations into joint ventures with majority local ownership, yet with some of the advantages of networks. Expanding the pie. That’s what capitalism is about and that’s what Radio Orange was about.