COLUMBUS, Ohio — It is not a sight one usually associates with a radio station: a fully fledged restaurant and bar.
But WWCD 102.5 has just opened The Big Room on an upper floor of its Brewery District offices in Columbus, offering drinks and meals and, sometimes, the chance to catch live music by some of the bands whose tunes the station has just played on air.
"The upstairs is a bar with a radio problem," joked station owner Randy Malloy.
The problem he referred to sardonically is one that has wreaked havoc on what was once an entire industry: independent commercial radio.
Malloy owns what is now one of the last stations of its kind. WWCD, with its mix of intergenerational alternative music, is the last independently owned commercial alternative rock station in a U.S. city with a population over 100,000, according to Mace Brazelle, the national director of rock and alternative formats for FMBQ, an industry trade publication.
In recent decades the radio landscape of America has been transformed by the corporate behemoths that started consolidating and gobbling up frequencies in the 1970s. The trend accelerated after the FCC lifted the limit on how many radio stations a company could own, in 1996. The Daily Swarm, a website that tracks trends in radio, reports that industry consolidation has resulted in a vast homogenization of music playlists. By 2012, up to 80 percent of playlists matched, according to the website, explaining why many listeners complain that all radio stations sound the same. (They do.)
WWCD is fighting for survival in this tough environment, and a crowdfunding campaign — along with the Big Room — could be the station's salvation. It rents the frequency it broadcasts on, paying roughly $300,000 a year for the frequency and $125,000 a year for the tower. Malloy and his staffers believe their most viable future is in owning the frequency, and they have kicked off an effort aimed at raising the $1 million needed to get the process started.
What is at stake is resembles a blast from the past. Stepping into the WWCD studios is like going back in time, to when radio stations employed local record-spinning DJs.
Malloy showed up at the studio on a recent morning excusing himself for needing to clean up spilled coffee all over his car. He's unfazed, greetings the staff and navigating the labyrinth that is WWCD's offices. The station is at the center of his life and has been almost since he showed up in Columbus when he was 18 to attend Ohio State University. The station went on the air in the summer of 1991. At the time, Malloy was a senior and the president of the OSU ski club. WWCD teamed up with the ski club on a promotion, and Malloy was seduced by its brand and blend of music.
He approached the station about being an intern and was brought on board. By 2010, he was the general manager. It was then that WWCD receive a jolt: It was sold to OSU, with plans to turn it into a classical music station. He made plans to do the unthinkable: look for another job. "But after thinking about it and not knowing what I was going to do, I thought, 'Maybe I could save this place,'" he said.
Malloy drained his 401(k) and took out a second mortgage. He bought beat-up equipment, some old trucks the station owned and the station's intellectual property.
He has never looked back, weaving WWCD into the community in a way corporate-owned stations would find difficult. It features $5 concerts showcasing rising bands (called low dough shows) and invitation-only performances where fans can hear their favorites in an intimate acoustic setting. Malloy has given away $9 million in airtime for local nonprofits. The station helps sponsor an arts festival and Pelotonia, a charity bike and volunteerism festival in Columbus. WWCD has provided a venue for local, national and international bands like Muse and the Black Keys. "These are now huge bands that had to start somewhere," he said.
Malloy inspires a deep loyalty among his staffers. Midday host Brian Phillips has been at the station 20 years. The IT person, Amy Diefenbach, has been there 21 years. On a recent morning, hosts Ed Francis and Krista Kae bantered about the crowdfunding. "We love what we do. And how many places can you see the owner's open office door right across the hall from the studio?" asked Francis.
The station's 12 full-time employees see one another more than they see their families. Malloy, who has a wife and one child, puts in 100-hour workweeks. "I'll come in at 8, go home at 7 and sometimes come back to the station and stay until 2 a.m. doing paperwork," he said.
It all comes down to the music. A typical corporate-owned alternative rock station might play 350 tracks a week, according to programming director Lesley James. WWCD averages 850, and as an independent station, it is open to all kinds of music from all sorts of places. "We have people dropping off CDs of their music all the time," he said.
The station has a two-hour music meeting every Thursday, during which James holds court with a staff of listeners, who go through each track, trying to identify the gems among the germs.
"I listen to it all. But if it doesn't grab you within 90 seconds, it gets put aside," he said. "We love to be the first to play a band's music."
Now the station's fate is largely up to the listeners. Malloy wouldn't speculate about whether failing to reach the crowdfunding goal would spell the end of the station. He is hedging his bets, which is why 102.5 opened the Big Room.
"We are a faceless voice that comes out of your radio, and there's nothing to see unless we are out and about. But at the Big Room you can see us … This makes it much more tangible, makes it much more real. This is a real business with real people who have jobs. We are a tangible mortar and bricks business. There is a radio station right below you broadcasting as you drink your beer," he said.
Artists far and wide would mourn the loss of WWCD.
"The DJs are in local bands and on the scene nightly, playing, drinking, hanging out. They put us on the air with programming like Front Stage, a well-promoted locals-only weekly radio show. They put us onstage in front of massive crowds and major bands. They are our peers and friends," said drummer Joel Chastain of the band Matter of Planets.
He described Matter of Planets as a "sci-fi, post-progressive all-instrumental metal band — heavy, spacey and loud."
It's that type of eclectic out-there music that wouldn't find an audience without a station like WWCD, laments Mike Conway, an assistant professor at the Indiana University journalism school who has written about and studied media history.
Listeners agree. "They are, honestly, the biggest influence on all of my music-related decisions, from what I buy to what concerts I attend. I have seen more bands than I can count at their low dough shows, from big names like Cake to local favorites like Used Kids," said Ashleigh Burleson, 32, a high school English teacher who lives in Delaware, Ohio.
But goodwill can't keep a radio station alive all by itself.
"These stations are really helpful to the local music scene and play a critical role in fostering local talent, so these stations are so important," Conway said. "But then they run up against the economics of the business,"