Turn your radio dial to 88.7 FM and you’ll hear “stuff that nobody else will touch in the area.” Blues, beach, R&B, bluegrass, classical.
That’s how Annalisa Roughton, the radio station’s longtime operations manager who at 9 years old was the youngest person to appear on air, puts it.
Her station, housed in the city school district’s Chesapeake Career Center, has a long history in Hampton Roads, helped along the way by students. Sixty-five years, to be exact. It’s been labeled the first public school FM station in Virginia and one of the nation’s oldest public school radio stations.
But its future come the new year is looking a bit fuzzy, like a station that’s starting to fade out on a long drive.
Chesapeake Public Schools, its longtime operator, will stop funding the station by Dec. 31, citing the $200,000 a year it costs to run it and diminished interest from students.
“We are faced with a tough decision, and it’s hard to justify the expense of maintaining a radio station in place of hiring new teachers or purchasing much-needed technology,” Superintendent Jared Cotton told School Board members at a Feb. 24 meeting.
There might be light at the end of the tunnel.
The school division is in talks with WHRO about some sort of partnership but an agreement has not yet been finalized, Chesapeake Public Schools officials said.
“We anticipate the agreement will be complete within the next few weeks,” spokeswoman Angie Smith wrote in an email on Nov. 18.
Bert Schmidt, president at WHRO, declined in an email to comment, saying he could speak about it at a later time.
The potential agreement is an interesting one. WHRO is owned by a collaboration of 21 local public school districts, according to its website, and has educational programming as its core mission. The HRO stands for Home Room One.
This wouldn’t be the first time the two stations have made a deal. According to an Old Dominion University professor’s 2001 dissertation on the history of public radio in Hampton Roads, WHRO had been in search of a second station in the 1980s and negotiated with WFOS to take over the latter’s 90.3 frequency. WFOS then moved in 1990 to 88.7, where it broadcasts today. As part of the deal, WHRO bought WFOS a new transmitter.
WFOS has been broadcasting in what’s now Chesapeake since 1955, when it began as a 10-watt operation at the old Oscar Smith High School in South Norfolk.
It started with the help of the widow of the school’s namesake, who made a donation to the school for an antenna bought from a station down in Florida and other equipment, said Richie Babb, the station’s general manager.
They wanted the station’s call letters to be WOFS, for Oscar Frommell Smith, but those were taken. They settled for WFOS; “F” for FM and “OS” for Oscar Smith.
The idea was that running the station would let students learn the ins and outs of broadcasting and see if they were interested in it as a career.
Students were put on the air to run hourlong shows or reading news or sports. The station sent students to cover local elections, even sending a contingent up to Richmond to cover state elections.
Pete Michaud, who does play-by-play for the Norfolk Tides, says his long career in broadcasting started at WFOS.
When he was an Indian River High School student in the late 1970s, Michaud said, a friend of his got him turned on to the station. He ended up doing a morning show every weekday. His fondest memories are going up to Richmond for election night coverage and being in the hotel ballrooms beside professional journalists and, as a teenager, getting to ask questions of candidates.
“It was a tremendous experience,” Michaud said. The job gave him the necessary chops for his first commercial job in radio and eventually doing play-by-play for the Norfolk Admirals and Tides.
He also learned the importance of pronunciations. He remembers one time when he was reading a news story out of Illinois, but pronounced the end of the state like “noise.” A woman from Chicago called in to tell him he had gotten it wrong.
“For the rest of my life, I’ve never made that mistake again,” Michaud said.
WFOS would grow into the 15,500-watt station it is today. About eight disc jockeys are on a rotation during the week, playing their own music throughout the day. The best part? No ads.
But in 2015, Chesapeake Public Schools stopped offering a radio program to its students. Cotton said advancements in technology have made music more accessible to the public in other formats. Partly as a result, jobs in local radio have become scarce, making it less vital for the school district to train students for that career.
And Babb said more of the jobs that do exist in local radio these days are low paying because most stations no longer have their own disc jockeys or announcers. Most stuff is syndicated and automated.
“We’re teaching kids to just sit there and watch the audio board,” Babb said. “Those real announcer jobs just aren’t there anymore.”
Roughton says students still do come in and intern during the summer. Students interested in communications or audio engineering can get credit, and the station can look good on a resume.
She still thinks there’s interest from students. Radio has evolved and so has interest in audio production like podcasting.
“I don’t think people realize how valuable radio is becoming,” she said. “There are different ways we can offer services…you just have to know how to market it.”
Roughton said the school district’s announcement it would pull funding came as a shock. The station attempted fundraising, posting on its Twitter account that it was aiming to become listener funded. By fall, it had raised 15% of a $40,000 goal. It wouldn’t be enough.
The station has a lengthy list of needed repairs, totaling about $150,000 on top of the $200,000 a year it costs to run it, Cotton said. Babb said they recently stopped asking people to send it funds when the conversations with WHRO started. He said the plan would be to return funds to people if the money isn’t used for operations of the station.
Roughton says there’s hope the potential agreement will be good for WFOS. Just how it will look is uncertain.
“I see us sticking around,” Roughton said.
Gordon Rago, 757-446-2601, [email protected]
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