For an individual to work 10 years at one radio station anymore feels unusual; 20 years is rare. Thirty years with the same station can seem nothing short of miraculous.
So how to describe S. Rea Crawford’s tenure?
The staff of WAWZ is shown in a Christmas photo. General Manager S. Rea Crawford is at left.
“Our station went on the air in 1931,” said Crawford, general manager of WAWZ(FM). “I signed on here in September, 1941 so I’ve been here 70 of those 80 years. It’s been a great ride with a lot of hard work, struggle, a few tears and plenty of excitement along the way.”
Crawford’s life is so intertwined with his station that it is hard to talk about one without the other.
The religious-formatted WAWZ, named for its founder Alma White and community of Zarephath, N.J., started out as an AM at 1380 on the dial, sharing the frequency with WBNX in the Bronx. Eventually its owner, Pillar of Fire Church, gave up that AM spot and started broadcasting on FM in 1954.
WAWZ is a not-for-profit ministry. Though it holds a commercial license and airs spots, the bulk of its income is derived from listener donations. The parent organization has six U.S. branches in three states, and owns three radio licenses.
“We started the first Christian network,” said Crawford. “Our original station was KPOF(AM) in Denver, named after our church. That went on in 1928 and is still a vibrant ministry in 2011. Then we came on the air here in Zarephath in 1931, and later we acquired WAKW(FM), Cincinnati in 1961.”
Crawford at a test bench at the transmitter site. He was in his mid to late teens when the photo was taken.
For the most part these stations are programmed locally, although some syndicated shows are heard on all three. WAWZ, known as “Star 99.1,” airs primarily contemporary Christian music.
Crawford noted that in the 1950s FM stations were still considered the lesser lights of the radio constellation.
“We bought our FM from a newspaper here that was going to dump it,” he said. “How much did it take to get? Two thousand dollars. You could junk out the cable and equipment for that much. Offers in recent years have been into seven figures.”
The station’s budget is about $5 million a year, and it has 35 employees. Estimated listenership is about 300,000, though Crawford said that sometimes reaches 600,000. “As to Arbitron, we show up respectably in New York but very strong in our Arbitron-rated home market of Middlesex-Somerset-Union. We show up first pretty consistently in MSU in our target demographic.”
A little history
When Crawford was still in his first year of high school he joined WAWZ. The attack on Pearl Harbor was three months in the future.
“I remember going out with our engineer and our portable equipment to the Roger Smith Hotel to broadcast war bond rallies,” he said. “We did it for nothing! … We always had pretty tight security because of the war, and everything was tense.”
A few years later came another tense moment. On Nov. 17, 1950 a severe hurricane slammed through Zarephath.
The blackboard on the right indicates this broadcast was done April 28, 1938.
“It laid our 300-foot self-supporter right down on the terra firma,” said Crawford. “It was almost unbelievable to see it proud and perfect one minute, and seconds later a tangled mass of steel.”
When the tower came down, only the heavy timber base remained standing.
“I was 22 and I remember I used to climb that tower,” he said. “It seemed like Mt. Everest — indestructible.”
Radio World asked him to list his duties over the years. “I started out with a broom, and quickly moved to steeplejack, helping to erect towers; proof of performance, all through the night; field intensity measurements, three-directional array on 1380 kilocycles; assisting in various FM maintenance and functions; occasional on-air DJ; faced FCC unannounced inspections, etc. etc.”
He said the station’s board of trustees is “not very prolific in assigning titles to people.” Until 1973 he was an “at-large radio man.”
“Then when our former GM passed away, I was suddenly catapulted to GM, with the full responsibilities of general manager.”
Now 84, he oversees all aspects of the station, still working full time. Station Manager Scott Taylor carries “the gut load” of day-to-day operation. Crawford also is involved with the ministry of the parent organization as a trustee and a presiding elder of the Pillar of Fire at Zarephath.
Alma White founded WAWZ and the community of Zarephath. She died in 1946, her legacy marred by religiously intolerant and racist writings and teachings.
Alma White, founder of the church and station, does not enjoy a bright reputation in modern histories. Though she was a feminist and is considered to be the first female bishop in the United States, she also is remembered for her association with the Ku Klux Klan and her virulent anti-Catholic, racist and other intolerant public comments. That’s not the person Crawford recalls.
“I did indeed know Alma White,” Crawford said, “and was the object of a couple lectures — I deserved it! She died in 1946 when I was 17 years old.”
He described White as “a stellar individual and a giant of a Christian. … Back in the 1920s and ’30s, this country was much polarized concerning race, religion, ethnicity and so forth. She did speak with certain individuals of many different organizations; but when she realized some of the serious issues regarding some organizations, she repudiated them and had nothing to do with them.”
Crawford’s way of looking at the world today sets the tone for the station.
“New Jersey is the most diverse and densely populated area of the country, a fascinating market,” he said. “We are well aware that a Christian radio station must be sensitive to the wide spectrum of racial, religious and ethnic groups in the most cosmopolitan market of the United States.”
While WAWZ has a religious format, it does not espouse any particular denomination.
“We believe in the Judeo-Christian ethic. We have a very broad presentation that is inter-denominational. There are so many things about this Judeo-Christian ethic that help and edify people of all backgrounds.
“There are many values and principles changing in the world today,” he continued. “The fabric of our country is changing. People who have lived here a long time are reticent to assert values and standards that are important to traditional America.
“I don’t want to seem ‘holier than thou,’ but I’m talking about being accountable for your own actions and not expecting the government to bail you out. Put in a solid week for your employer. Be a good neighbor and stick with the things that have made us a great nation.”
Zarephath was hit hard by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, as shown. The campus also suffered damage in this year’s Hurricane Irene, which Crawford described as ‘a nasty girl.’ WAWZ activated an emergency studio at its tower site and was still broadcasting from there in mid-October. It plans to build a new and bigger studio rather than rehab the old one. ‘These hundred-year floods are coming every 12 or 15 years,’ he added.
As general manager for 38 years, he admits he hasn’t made all the right calls.
“The biggest mistake I have made was being too cautious, too slow. I should have been more politely assertive over the years.”
WAWZ is only part of the Pillar of Fire ministry, and Crawford is involved with all aspects of that.
“The work we do here is more important than any one individual. We support missions overseas, some of which get generous support. We have a church here that will peak at a couple thousand people from most parts of the world coming on a weekend. Star 99.1 is heard in over 150 countries through its streaming.
“Also on our several hundred acres are regionally-accredited Somerset Christian College, Health Clinic, Safe Harbor, Urban Impact and other ministries. Urban Impact came about because Camden, N.J., has the highest murder rate in the country. We go in there and bring young folks to our campus and then upon return, connect them with established churches and groups.”
Working with Rea
A long-standing advertiser on WAWZ is Steve Kalafer, president/owner of Flemington Car and Truck Country Family of Dealerships, one of the largest such businesses in the state.
“We started on the station about eight years ago,” said Kalafer, who also spends advertising dollars on New York City’s WOR(AM).
“The listeners to 99.1 are so dedicated. Johnny Stone, the morning man and our voice on the air, has a loyal following and the station really delivers for us. When you purchase media, it’s supposed to be by the numbers. But in our case, the management and staff of the station are a big part of our decision. It’s clear that there is leadership there and a consistency of staff that really makes me feel comfortable.”
Station Manager Scott Taylor said, “Rea is an inspiration to the staff, not just because of his longevity, but also because of his personality. He’s very much engaged in this industry and as excited about radio today as he was the first day he showed up for work. When we get visitors here on a tour, he loves to show off his old-time radio collection. He gets a thrill out of sharing his passion.”
WAWZ has faced its share of weather-related troubles over the years. Rea Crawford is shown in 1950 inspecting damage from a hurricane that toppled the upper portion of one of the station’s self-supporting towers. WAWZ was an AM at that time.
WAWZ was named Station of the Year in 2007 and 2008 by the National Religious Broadcasters. In 2008 the NAB presented WAWZ with the Crystal Radio Award for Community Service. The Christian Music Broadcasters Association awarded WAWZ Station of the Year in 2010.
Hear WAWZ streamed at www.star991fm.com. At that URL one also can hear HD2 channel “The Voice,” which features spoken-word programming. HD3 channel The Energy” offers a more intense variety of Christian rock.
Now a sprightly 84, Crawford encourages young folks to appreciate what they have.
“Everyone is worth something, not just in the sight of God, but in the sight of family and community. Strength and legitimacy come from what you are doing.” He also confesses to being frustrated with some aspects of the American culture.
“A lot of kids are technically smart,” he said. “They understand the iPods and the computers, but ask them about Winston Churchill or FDR! We learn from history, and those values will be lost if we don’t wake up.”
Ken Deutsch says his radio career paralleled that of Rea Crawford, minus the longevity and the talent.