A strange thing happened over the weekend – six different people I'm connected to sent me the same article. That immediately told me something. First, they thought I'd find it interesting, and therefore, so might you. But it also dawned on me I didn't read this story in the usual radio trades or emails that find their way into my box each day and week.
This story about endangered rural radio in the U.S. ironically is from The Guardian, that venerable UK-based publication. And the title says it all:
“America's rural radio stations are vanishing – and taking the country's soul with them.”
It's a problem that impacts both commercial and public radio stations in the U.S. The writer is an American who lives in the Tucson area, Debbie Weingarten, and she writes this story with a lot of heart.
All Access covered it last week, along with a thoughtful commentary from Perry Michael Simon. It's worthy of your time.
But this story isn't just about small town radio stations – it's the story of Mark Lucke, a guy who fell into the radio business in Willcox, and is now cast with the responsibility of keeping radio alive in this small town – or watching it die.
The Guardian story focuses on the “heritage station” in the hot box building, KHIL. This is an AM station with a rich six decade history that has been struggling for years. And it's a microcosm of the plight of many small stations running out of the resources to stay alive.
Debbie Weingarten's writing reads a lot like The Last Picture Show – the sad tale of a town with no TV station, no daily newspaper, and a “cluster” of sick radio stations housed in a little building on Patte Road.
For the older residents of Willcox, all they have is KHIL, a station that plays old time country songs without the aid of music scheduling software, callout research, airplay charts, or consultants.
The station's had attention before – in a great 12 minute documentary from The Atlantic (posted below). But the publicity never translated into funding. Like The Guardian piece, it's just a fascinating story about commitment and grit in small town America. It brings KHIL's story to light, but somehow, nothing much changes at the stations or for Mark Lucke.
Mark first started in 2003, and has stuck with these stations through thick and thin. Mark hasn't received a paycheck in over a year, and is under considerable stress.
Mark lives in the building, doesn't take vacations, and is on-site 24 hours a day to keep these stations on the air. It's June and temperatures are regularly hitting the 100° mark in Willcox. The air conditioner in the building hasn't worked for months, the utility bills are piling up, and for Mark, it's another day in paradise.
It's also a story of questionable financial dealings and other small town chicanery and nastiness. The deeper you dig, the gnarlier it gets. While there are many stories intertwined with these failing stations and this dusty town, the story is about the dedication of commitment of a guy from Dallas who came to Arizona to take care of his ailing father, and ended up taking care of these radio stations.
Over the weekend, I reached out to Debbie Weingarten who connected me with Mark and his ex-wife, Mercedez. Along with Mark's son, Tristan, the group is struggling to survive in a radio world the likes of which it is safe to say none of us will ever experience.
I spoke with Mark on Sunday, heard his story, and shook my head at the unfortunate circumstances he's endured. While his experience may or may not be emblematic of other stations in rural America, the radio industry's emphasis on big markets, big companies, big data, and big scale have left stations like Mark's in the dust.
When you read The Guardian story, it seems like it's about a station from perhaps a parallel universe, with little relationship to the “radio” that many of us are doing or have been doing for years.
And unlike those of you who work in radio in cities and towns with scores of multi-media outlets, these stations – especially KHIL – are a lifeline to the people of Willcox, and connects with its community in ways most stations do not.
Stations like KHIL don't win Marconis or Crystals. Mark is not likely to be inducted to the National Radio Hall of Fame or end up as one of the “40 Most Powerful” in radio. He doesn't attend the NAB, CES, or Podcast Movement.
But he's more committed to radio, his stations, and his community than perhaps anyone I've met in my 45+ years in the business.
What motivates Mark, and why is he still keeping KHIL (and the other stations) on the air?
“It would leave all the old timers with nothing. These people need it,” he told me.
Note these listeners are very likely well beyond the 25-54 demographic. But that's OK. The last thing on Mark's mind is the “demographic cliff,” much less Total Line Reporting or programmatic selling. This is a story of radio survival.
Mark's story sums up the plight that many stations across rural America are experiencing – how to maintain service in towns where support has all but dried up. And yet, these stations provide essential services – not the least of which is companionship.
How many of us would display the same level of commitment to a group of radio stations in a town like Willcox? You don't have to tell me the answer – I know it.
I wanted to see it all for myself – or at least the next best thing. As it turns out, one of our consultants, Chris Firmage, lives in nearby Tucson – about 100 miles west of Willcox. He made the trek to visit Mark yesterday, and took a number of the photos you see in this post.
For most of us, yesterday was just another day in radio. Emmis sold its Austin cluster to Sinclair Telecable. Beasley bought a radio station and a pocketful of translators from Radio One here in Detroit. And WTOP is launching a new podcast. Today, we can expect more of the same.
Yesterday in Willcox, AZ, it was another day in the life of Mark Lucke, hanging by a thread.
Mercedez has set up a GoFundMe page. I know everyone has their hand out these days, and most of us are paying for multiple media subscriptions, not to mention non-fat lattes. But if you're moved by Mark's story, check it out and think it over. We can't save the hundreds of small town radio stations enduring similar hardships, but we can help this little group in Willcox, AZ, and the guy who shepherds them.
Access it here.
Thanks also to Debbie Weingarten, Mercedez, and Chris Firmage.
Special thanks to Randy Kabrich, who got to me first.
- Research Will Break Your Heart - March 29, 2023
- What's The ONE Thing? - March 28, 2023
- The Art Of The Sale - March 24, 2023
Jay Pearce says
Boy, talk about striking a familiar note…
In 1997 a friend introduced me to WWHP “The Whip” in Farmer City, IL. It was an awesome Americana station but it seemed to go off the air a lot. And I only ever heard one guy on the air. It was 20 minutes away from Champaign, IL – where I had just become unemployed. So I drove over to find the place and met a radio veteran determined to buck the odds and prove people really did want to hear good music. He and his son lived in the station – which was kind of a mess. It had been a decent country station…but bigger country stations came along and drown out WWHP’s weaker signal that barely made it into the larger cities to its east and west. I volunteered to fix the transmitter so it would stay on the air. Then I started selling ads for 20% commission. I rebuilt the studio and drew up a business plan and did morning drive to give the owner a chance to develop the business side of the operation. Eventually I had to go get a job that actually paid and provided benefits. But Larry Williams carried on and continued to defy the odds. Even after his partners forced a sale, The Whip continues online at https://backlandradio.com/
Fred Jacobs says
Wow, Jay, you must have been deja vuing as you read today’s post. And then suggests to me there are similar examples all over the U.S. Sounds like Larry and Mark Lucke would have a lot in common. Thanks for writing and sharing the Whip story.
Ken Mills says
Fred — Nice job on this story! I featured it on my blog on Monday. I ended my article on a hopeful note. 75 miles south of Willcox, in Bisbee, Arizona, there is KBRP-FM, a LPFM station dedicated to serve a small community in much the way KHIL once did. KBRP is one of a growing number of noncom stations that are rekindling the mission of serving rural communities. You can see more at Spark News: https://acrnewsfeed.blogspot.com/2019/06/welcome-to-willcox-arizona-where.html
Fred Jacobs says
Ken, thanks for this, and shining the light on radio stations serving these small rural communities. This is an important part of the lifeblood of the industry.
Thank you so very much for this incredible article about what is happening in Willcox, AZ with my family. Word’s cannot express my the abundant feeling of hope in my heart this morning when I read your email and looked at the link to this article. I for the first time also saw the ALL ACCESS article as well. I am in shock. My Facebook page for them has had more people looking to see what is happening and GOFUNDME link is working. May God bless you and your family the way you have just blessed mine. This has lite a torch in my heart to see the word’s that you wrote about Mark and Tristan Lucke. My beautiful family. You are my newest hero Fred Jacob!!!! Always, Mercedez Lucke-Benedict
Fred Jacobs says
I know all our blog readers are on the same page when it comes to helping you guys & keeping radio alive in small market America. Best to Mark & Tristan, Mercedez, and we’ll do our best to keep the funds coming your way. If anyone’s interested in visiting their GoFundMe page:
Dan Kelley says
Mark owns (or was gifted) 49% of the station, but it appears that his “partner” has pulled away, for reasons, if you read the Guardian article, were to due a request from majority partner to do something unethical. The 51% partner, if you were to research and learn his name, appears to have run into some issues in the past.
Mark simply needs to find someone to buy the majority partner out.
Fred Jacobs says
Yeah, Dan, I used the term gnarly. I talked with Mark about his “business arrangement,” which is at the root of his problems. I didn’t want to dig too deeply into the area, and rather showcased his commitment to the stations, his audience, and his community. But you are correct (as the Guardian story pointed out) that it appears to be one of those lose-lose deals.
Matthew Hill says
I have a similar story as well.
For a few months last year, I volunteered at southern gospel station WGSG 89.5 in the little rural town of Mayo, Florida, with less than 2,000 population. There, the owner lived on the property and, before the abolishment of the studio rule, had to stay on site every weekday from 9-5. The owner was supposed to be living in Texas, where said person owned a house and another gospel station, but didn’t have anybody to operate the Florida station. Additionally, the station had become unprofitable and was only afloat thanks to an extremely generous donation. Eventually, last May, she sold the station to a national teleevangelist who owns a radio network, and returned to Texas where the other stations still lives on. Unfortunately, WGSG is now completely automated from out of town.
While there’s no telling how many people listened, I know there was a particular person who enjoyed the old time gospel music. At the beginning of a particular hour (I believe it was 2pm), I had to insert songs from some older groups so that person could enjoy listening. Also, at least a couple of times, people called in to give appreciation for me being on-air. Now, those people have lost all that, with the station airing sermons and bible studies much more than music. It’s just sad to see these small stations dissipate into oblivion.
Fred Jacobs says
Matthew, thanks for another story about radio in rural America. Those of us in big cities may have trouble relating, but these stories help us better understand the unique impact local radio has.