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Hope Remains for This Small, Local AM Station

Though WAGS(AM) went dark earlier this year, owner holds out hope for station and local radio in general

There may still be hope for one small radio station in rural South Carolina.

The Americana country and bluegrass station WAGS(AM) in Bishopville has been through a lot in the more than 60 years since its founding in 1954. What drove its early owners and DJs was the focus on rural news, the desire to share local stories from local citizens, and the aspiration to discover and share good music.

It was operator Jim Jenkins who decided to take a chance and take stewardship of WAGS 18 years ago. “That was November 2000,” Jenkins said. “I was 53 and proverbially full of spit and vinegar.”

Now in rolls the year 2018, nearly 65 years since WAGS was founded, and life changes mean that Jenkins made plans to step aside. The station has now gone quiet. “As I step aside,” he said on the radio station’s web page, “there seems to be no one to step in and assume stewardship of WAGS radio.”

“Soon the license will have to be surrendered and at that point WAGS-AM will be gone for good.”

While Jenkins knew what he liked about radio after making his first foray into the medium at WUVT(FM) on the campus of Virginia Tech in the late 1960s. But he had never run an entire radio station before. He knew, however, what he wanted to see.

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The station devoted its airwaves to the news and goings on of its local community. It supported live on-air interviews with artists and hosted a local music festival call WAGSFEST on the station grounds, Jenkins said.

“It was about the music and companionship,” he said. “Radio today is about neither; hence the dreadful numbers. Does anyone really like what passes for radio today, especially the iHeart plastic banana stuff?”

What is lost if WAGS goes down for good? “That has been asked all over small town America when anything goes down due to the Walmartization of America,” he said, pointing to the ironic poignancy of a country song that would have been at home on WAGS — “Anytown USA” — to describe the character and beauty lost by the homogenization of small towns across America.

But the lack of a dedicated staff and a specific successor meant the end was near for WAGS, said the 71-year-old broadcaster. “We took it off air because it was just too much,” he said.

Several enlightening moments happened in the days leading up to the final broadcast: “It was surprising the number of people who expressed dismay that we were going dark,” he said.

Since the station went dark, Jenkins has heard from several individuals who have expressed interested in taking over the license. He’s actively hoping for a last-minute miracle so he can pass the baton to someone who can continue with the commitment to providing local radio to this small town of 3,000. Tiny Bishopville has long served as a crossroads of communication — in the late 1700s, the town’s local tavern served as a vital stagecoach stop between the bustling coastal town of Georgetown and urban Charlotte, N.C. It remains a town with character and history: despite its tiny size, Bishopville can proudly boast of the more than a dozen buildings listed on the National Historic Register thanks to the area’s rich architectural history of Greek Revival and Neoclassical-style homes.

“I’m hoping that it won’t come to surrendering the license,” he said. “Since we went dark there have been a couple of legit inquires and I have hopes that someone of consequence will keep WAGS going. There is still time.”

“But either way, it’s been a great run.”