here was a time when you could tell what city you were in by listening to the radio. That’s not true anymore in most markets,” says Cleveland-based media consultant John Gorman. “Akron is a rare exception.”
According to Gorman, locally owned Rubber City Radio Group, which controls three Akron stations, deserves most of the credit.
This year, the company’s 97.5 WONE-FM celebrates 25 years as “The Home of Rock and Roll.” President and CEO Thom Mandel says it’s the top-rated station in Greater Akron among men 55 and older, and it’s consistently at or near the top among all adults 25 to 54.
“For better or worse, we don’t educate people about what they should hear,” says Mandel. “We play what they want to hear and sample things they will like.”
That includes a mix of classic and new rock, from AC/DC and Skynyrd to Alice in Chains and Shinedown, and a lot in between. “Music trends come and go, and we’ve dabbled in them all. But our mission is (to play) basic rock and roll,” says morning co-host Tim Daugherty, who was part of the station’s original on-air team.
Local and independent
Media mogul Mandel bought his first station, Medina’s 94.9 WDBN-FM, in 1988. He changed the format from adult contemporary to country and renamed it WQMX. In 1993, his Rubber City Radio Group purchased WONE and sister station 1590 WAKR-AM.
What Mandel and his staff have accomplished in an era of “big corporate radio,” in which a handful of companies own the majority of stations nationwide, is impressive. “Akron may be the largest market in the country still dominated by a local, independent owner,” Mandel says from his first-floor office at the Akron Radio Center, on West Market Street just west of North Hawkins Avenue.
Gorman, himself a former broadcaster who was with 100.7 WMMS-FM in its glory days of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, knows of only one other local owner who consistently leads a market in ratings and revenue, and that station is in Philadelphia. “(Mandel) deserves more credit than just having successful and locally owned radio stations,” Gorman says. “Akron is near the top in time spent listening. More people in Akron listen to the radio more often than in most other markets.”
‘Digital’ from day one
WONE was Akron’s first FM station, created in the 1940s with original call letters WAKR-FM. It was started by family-run Summit Radio Corp., which also owned WAKR-AM and, later, the city’s first TV station, WAKR-TV (later WAKC-TV). In the 1960s, WONE was known as WAEZ-FM, an easy-listening station. It adopted the rock format and its current call letters in 1985.
Fittingly, the first song the new rock station played was Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
When the station switched to rock, Mandel says it was already playing CDs while the competition was still spinning vinyl. Listeners probably couldn’t hear the difference, as the transmitters were still analog, “but it gave the station a claim to quality. It was ‘better, clearer, digital.’”
Today, WONE is completely digital. Every song you hear is a WAV file, with the music stored on a five-terabyte hard drive. There is still a CD player in the studio, but it is rarely used. “I used to replace them every six months. Now they last forever,” Mandel says.
Another change that has transformed radio since ‘85 is digital editing. Instead of people splicing audiotape to put together interviews, sound effects and other parts of a show, computers now do the work. And voice tracking allows DJs to record parts of their shows in advance. “I can be on the air while not really being in the studio,” Daugherty says. “Ultimately, it does make the job easier.”
Broadcasting in Akron,
Mandel says you can tune in to about 45 different radio stations in the parking lot of the Akron Radio Center, and all but 10 are from Cleveland. Half of those remaining are based in Akron, including WONE, WAKR and WQMX. That gives Mandel’s stations a head start among Greater Akron listeners.
But it’s not enough just to be based here. Mandel believes his stations have to offer quality programming—“to sound as good or better than the Cleveland stations”—and be part of the community.
Before Mandel made WONE No. 1, the station changed hands several times in just a few years. Mandel says these owners “damaged the brand” by making cuts to local on-air talent. At one point, the morning show was imported from another market and the program director was from New York. The station had two local DJs, and according to Mandel, “all they did was play music.”
“Ownership changes came fast and furious for a lot of radio stations back in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Daugherty says. “It was always a time of concern, not knowing if you’d be retained or if they’d go in another direction.”
Mandel changed that, with Rubber City Radio Group providing stability and a local presence that’s unrivaled.
Agents of change
There are three types of radio stations, according to Mandel, who got his start in commercial radio and attended college in Syracuse, New York, before moving back to Northeast Ohio. The first is nothing more than a jukebox that plays music or syndicated programs. The second appears local but uses, in his words, “smoke and mirrors.” Mandel cites the example of one Akron station whose midday host no longer lives in the city—or the state, for that matter—but is still heard here weekdays doing a “local” show—a cost-saving measure for the station’s owner.
The third kind of station is what Mandel has created at WONE, WAKR and WQMX. On-air talent is local, employees are encouraged to volunteer and be seen in the community, and charities and nonprofits receive station support. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good business,” says Mandel, a former board chair of the United Way of Summit County.
He sees his stations as agents of change that can do good by providing publicity for local events, issues and organizations.
One such recipient is Haven of Rest, which benefits each December from WQMX’s annual “Tree of Lights” fundraising campaign.
“Their partnership is invaluable as we reach out to help the homeless and needy in the Greater Akron community” says the Rev. Ben Walker, who will retire as executive director of Haven of Rest Ministries at year’s end. “Rubber City’s commitment to the community is so visible ... They’re a treasure in our area.”
A local success story
In 1993, three years after Mandel purchased WONE and WAKR, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Among other things it eliminated ownership caps, making possible the nationwide chains that dominate today’s radio landscape.
Gorman says the big corporations paid too much for stations in the ensuing buying frenzy, thinking people had to listen to radio, and they didn’t consider competition or new technologies on the horizon like satellite radio or streaming audio.
Today, Gorman says the nationwide chains are strapped with debt. At least one is facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“I expect we’ll see some fire sales on the horizon as the major chains are forced by creditors to sell off properties to reduce debt,” Gorman predicts. “Some stations, including many AMs, will probably (go off the air), but we will have more independent owners and smaller groups in the future—and they’ll be looking at success stories like Rubber City Radio as the template.”
Nathan Kelly is a freelance writer and radio listener who lives in West Akron.