Bloomington's WJBC: Life Begins at 80
     


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News Director Don Newberg, right, interviews Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1961.
In May 1925 the stock market was rising to unheard-of heights. You could buy a Ford Runabout for $265 on the weekly purchase plan (demountable rims and starter $85 extra).

And 1925 was the year Lee Stremlau launched WJBC(AM) from Hummer's Furniture Store in LaSalle, Ill. The call letters stood for "Where Jazz Becomes Classic."

Nine years later, during the depths of the Depression, the enterprise moved to Bloomington and became that market's first radio station. WJBC was only on the air a few hours a day at first, but it featured eight daily newscasts, weather twice a day and Western Union time at the top of each hour.

In 2005, WJBC won the NAB Marconi Radio "Small Market Station of the Year" award, not just for its 81-year history, but for what it is doing today.

Sometimes more is more

Station Manager Janae Jontry said a focus on localism differentiates WJBC from most of the competition. Part of a five-station cluster owned by Regent Communications, WJBC is the only AM of the group and has five full-time news people and an agribusiness director.

"We use our AM news product on our FM stations with the 'WJBC newsroom brand,'" said Jontry. "National and local news stories are updated frequently on our Web site, and we offer sports and other program highlights as podcasts."

Webmaster Matt Swaney recently re-launched www.wjbc.com , which is designed to mirror the station in local content. The site archives many high-school play-by-play games broadcast over the station's secondary Internet stream, www.wjbc2.com

"On a busy sports night we can air one game on WJBC and one on our second stream," said Jontry. "We also stream city council meetings."

The station's online business model is still a work in progress, but one strictly Web-based revenue source is the Central Illinois Wedding Planner, a directory for wedding service providers. WJBC also markets broadcasts of local sporting events on CD through the Web site. A plastic surgeon has an "Ask the Doctor" feature online that he sponsors.

Late morning host/ program director R.C. McBride is the driving force behind the Web site.

"My general manager, Red Pitcher, is very supportive of new technology," said McBride. "Radio has to embrace it. Instead of just running news at the top of the hour, we have to figure out how people want to use our product and tailor it to them."

McBride is "hands-on" with respect to repurposing programming for the Internet.

"It's up to each host and producer to come up with a highlight every day, usually an interview," he said. "Using WebReady software from a company called Wireready, it is a three-minute process to get our content updated online. The same company offers another package called PodcastReady.'"

In the Midwest, weather conditions can change quickly. McBride and his Webmaster have set up a system whereby listeners can get instant alerts sent to their mobile phone, pager or e-mail account.

"Radio can do a much better job than TV with severe weather," he said. "With TV trying to cover so many counties, it can't justify breaking into programming if just one or two counties have an emergency. We get on the air immediately if we need to, and people can take a portable radio down into their basements during tornado warnings. You can't do that with a TV."

Ratings, revenue and retention

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After winning the Marconi in 2005. Front, from left: Jayme Monacelli, R.C. McBride, Red Pitcher, Janae Jontry, Beth Whisman. Back: Colleen Reynolds, Steve Brienen, Eric Stock, Todd Wineburner, Scott Laughlin, Jim Williams, Greg Halbleib, Carrie Muehling, Steve Fast

WJBC has ratings any station would envy. In the fall 2005 Arbitron 12+ category, WJBC had a 15.9 share in the morning. Country-formatted WBWN(FM) had a 14.8 and hot adult contemporary WBNQ(FM) had a 12.1. All are owned by Regent Communications. The nearest competition, cross-town WIHN(FM), had a 4.2 in the same daypart.

But ratings in medium markets don't automatically translate into dollars.

"Fluidity in national and regional sales is our biggest challenge on all of our stations," said Vice President/General Manager Red Pitcher. "Local advertising represents 65 percent of our income and that's steady, but the national business has ups and downs with no rhyme or reason."

Programming also presents its challenges.

"Someone may say something on the air that not everyone agrees with," said Pitcher. "But as long as you let the listeners have access, you keep your credibility. You're never going to escape controversy, but we never use our station as a pulpit."

One of the biggest issues for stations large and small is keeping good people.
Years of Service
Engineer Ron Schott has been with the station since 1983, some 23 years.

Long service seems a hallmark at WJBC, where morning host Scott Laughlin and VP/GM Red Pitcher each has 20 years, morning co-host and news director Colleen Reynolds has 19 years, Manager Janae Jontry and Program Director R.C. McBride each has 13 years. Assistant PD/ND and afternoon co-host Beth Whisman has seven years at the station, and afternoon host Steve Fast has four.

"It's more of a lifestyle issue," Pitcher said. "While this is a good white-collar town and we pay better than the standard in markets our size, a lot of people are trying to get out of some of the larger markets to come to a place where it doesn't cost as much to live and doesn't have as stressful a commute."

Pitcher recently won the "Broadcaster of the Year" award from the Illinois Broadcasters Association.

Power to the people

While many stations do everything to avoid being stuck with older demographics, WJBC welcomes everyone.

"The baby boomer audience should not be discounted," said Jontry. "The number of people and the disposable income they have make it an important demographic. We also get younger people involved through our community service."

For the last 36 years, WJBC has presented the "Brotherhood Tree," an event during which listeners are asked to leave an extra Christmas present under a tree at one of several locations. Station members collect, sort and wrap them at a local armory and then distribute the goodies to people who most need them.

"We get referrals from schools, social service agencies and write-in requests as to who needs what," said Jontry. "This year we distributed presents to almost 6,500 people. We all enjoy doing this together."

Another community outpouring occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. The station planned to raise at least $5,000 for the Red Cross rescue effort; listeners came together with WJBC to raise $870,000 in one week.

For a timeline and history of WJBC, including an audio archive and a discussion of experiments by engineers George Stephenson and Jack Jenkins with the "endless loop tape cartridge," visit www.wjbc.com.

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