It’s been more than a week since listeners tuning in to 1450 on the AM dial in Anniston have heard anything but static; WDNG, which has operated under those call letters in Anniston since July 1, 1957, has pulled its broadcast.
Station manager Jim Hensleigh initially said the problem was a technical issue, but the truth actually revealed a much bigger problem: The station is broke, and the power to its transmitter on Crawford Avenue has been shut off.
Financial worries for the station date back at least to last year when a local grocery store sued the station’s owner, Francis DiPietro, claiming he wrote worthless checks to the station’s employees and had them cash them at local stores including Dorsey’s Supermarket in Oxford, whose owners filed the suit. A Calhoun County circuit judge sentenced DiPietro, known for decades to WDNG listeners by his radio name J.J. Dark, to four years in prison.
Hensleigh said while things don’t look great for the station, they might be close to a turnaround as negotiations with a local owner were “98 percent” done, according to the station manager.
But why would a local owner want to invest in an off-air station that can’t pay its employees?
Legal and criminal issues aside, the financial strain faced by WDNG in recent months isn’t too uncommon a struggle in local media markets right now, and the reality often means radio stations are snatched up by larger out-of-town owners intent on keeping the budget at a minimum and turning a profit.
“A lot of small stations are being consolidated,” said Mike Stedham, a former news director at WDNG and the current manager of student media at Jacksonville State University. “Chains come in and buy them, and to cut back on costs, they consolidate all of them.”
Business-wise the strategy might make sense, but, Stedham said, when a chain comes in to buy a station, the local identity and flavor that makes the broadcast an asset to the community is lost.
“It’s great to have local ownership,” Stedham said. “A local owner, from a news perspective, there’s nothing like having a local leader for local news in any media.”
And it might be the only way to attract listeners at a smaller station, said Jerry Chandler, another former WDNG reporter and JSU communications professor.
“You can’t just plug in an automated system and have a satellite beam in a transmission so that what you hear in Anniston isn’t any different from what you hear in Appleton, Wisconsin, or Spokane, Washington,” Chandler said. “You start sounding like everyone else, you lose your edge.”
Chandler would know first-hand. When he worked for WDNG, the station had a full news staff covering city council meetings and local issues. Until it went off the air last week, WDNG in the last few years had been airing mostly local talk shows and national content from conservative radio hosts like Sean Hannity.
It’s become harder to keep that local coverage, especially if local advertisers aren’t going to invest.
“The economy is not that good,” said Jim Jacobs, the owner of Oxford-based 92.7 FM, which is also for sale.
“And when the economy isn’t good, advertising is something businesses feel they can cut back on.”
Jacobs said creating a unique niche for a local audience to engage in doesn’t exactly make up for lost advertising revenue.
“There isn’t a radio station out there that isn’t trying to increase their listener base every day,” Jacobs said. “That doesn’t automatically increase your ad sales; it might increase your case (that) you should receive more ad sales, but you still have to get out there and get it.”
And the more radio stations competing in Calhoun County for that local advertising, the less of it there is to go around.
Then there’s WDNG, which right now is facing the burden of getting ad sales — and listeners — while it’s off the air. It’s why Hensleigh said he told The Star the problem with the broadcast was just a technical issue, not a financial problem.
The front page of WDNG’s website Thursday explained in some detail the situation involving DiPietro and the hopeful impending sale of the station. The mostly optimistic sentiments echoed Hensleigh’s declarations that WDNG would live on.
“It’s not about Mr. DiPietro and it’s not about WDNG,” Hensleigh said. “It’s about preserving an icon that’s been around since the 1950s.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.