Personal Ramblings from a Lifelong Radio Geek
By Ed McDonald, Station Manager
The story of how Mountain Streams Radio WKYW came to be is a very personal story for me. I really cannot tell it without telling a bit of my own story. So—with your indulgence—I’ll try:
It’s no exaggeration to say that when WKYW goes on the air, it will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of a lifelong “radio geek.” I can only hope that there will be a few people out there who share a bit of that dream and who will enjoy listening to it.
I describe myself as a “radio geek” because ever since childhood, my life has been caught up in some way or other with radio. I grew up here in Mineral County, and even before starting school, I listened to and “played” radio almost constantly. It was the early 1950’s, and the “golden age” of network radio was giving way to television. Thus, most of the radio I heard was local, coming from stations in small towns in and around eastern West Virginia. Those stations were staffed by local announcers (not always good ones) who played records and read the news and weather. These stations also broadcast such things as commercials for all sorts of local businesses, the calendar of coming events, high school sports, farm market reports, obituaries, lost-and-found items, “trading post” shows where people publicized things they wanted to buy or sell, and local musicians playing live in the studio. Early on, these things shaped my ideas about what a radio station should sound like. At the same time—just as some kids pretend to be cowboys or soldiers or astronauts—I pretended to work in imaginary radio stations.
Then when I was eight, I received one of my most memorable Christmas presents of all time—an RCA Victor Strato-World radio. In its day it was a pretty good multi-band shortwave receiver, and it got me started DXing—i.e., seeking out and listening for the signals of distant radio stations.
Three years later, I got my first tape recorder along with a little low-power AM transmitter. That’s when I went on the air for the first time and broadcast to the neighbors. I called them on the phone and begged them to tune in! The transmitter had three tubes on top (remember vacuum tubes?), and if you weren’t careful and touched one of them too hard, you either burned your finger or put the little station off the air.
When I reached ninth grade at the West Virginia School for the Blind in nearby Romney, that little transmitter left my bedroom at home and became part of a radio station in the boys’ dormitory. Several of us boys pooled our equipment, record collections, and whatever raw talent we could muster, and this little radio station became an important part of campus life. We broadcast all kinds of music, news, weather, sports and campus happenings for a couple hours each evening and throughout most weekends. The sound was pretty rough, but it was probably the most fun I ever had doing radio. (The school eventually secured an FCC license for a “real” radio station which continues to this day.)
Following graduation I enrolled at Bethany [WV] College, where I majored in journalism and spent most of my spare time hanging out at the campus radio station. That one actually had an FCC license and operated with ten big watts. While most of my fellow “radioheads” were playing the “underground” rock of the day, a few of us developed a passion for folk music. That included the usual suspects such as Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, but it also embraced bluegrass, ballads, blues, and old-time string bands. This music has been an important part of my life ever since.
After college, I landed jobs at a couple little stations in the Kanawha Valley playing “easy listening” music, doing local news, and persuading the manager to let me do a bluegrass show.
Then came graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, and that led to a job at the university’s public radio station. While my real job involved producing features about arts and health care, I also found time to host some of the station’s folk and bluegrass shows. This was my first exposure to a truly professional radio operation, and it probably taught me more than any college class.
Nevertheless, I eventually left Athens and returned to Bethany. I became faculty manager of that little ten-watt station and helped it expand to a thousand watts.
But then came the opportunity I couldn’t refuse. A new public radio station was going on the air at Northern Kentucky University near Cincinnati, and it planned to offer a format of folk music. We called it “Kentucky Folk Radio,” and for several years I was the evening drive-time announcer playing pretty much whatever I wanted within the broad spectrum of folk music. This experience did even more to broaden my understanding and increase my appreciation of the music.
Despite the rewards of working at a folk music radio station, a combination of family obligations, homesickness, and an ill-fated notion of becoming an Appalachian history scholar eventually led me back to West Virginia. I spent some time in Morgantown but ultimately returned home to Keyser. Even though the academic pursuits didn’t work out, I got reacquainted with a childhood sweetheart who soon became my wife. Karen and I now live in an old house just two doors from the WKYW studio, and we’re about to celebrate our twentieth anniversary.
Meanwhile, I knew that unless I created my own opportunity, I could never remain in Keyser and do the kind of radio I really wanted to do. So we built a little studio in the basement and started dabbling with the idea of a syndicated folk music program. That idea evolved into a show called “Sidetracks” which was picked up by such stations as Allegheny Mountain Radio in Pocahontas County, WV; WFWM in nearby Frostburg, MD; and the statewide West Virginia Public Radio Network. Karen is both an accomplished musician and a computer genius, and so her keen ear and technical expertise have been an integral part of the production of “Sidetracks.” The show is also nearly 20 years old and still on the air, although these days we’re rerunning a lot of archival shows in order to make time for this new radio station venture.
Throughout the years of doing “Sidetracks,” we acquired an extensive library of recorded music, and so I had access to a vast collection of music any time I wished to listen to it. Yet I often thought it would be cool if I could just turn on the radio and hear this music I enjoyed so much.
Then in 2013 the FCC announced that it would open a two-week “window” during which nonprofit organizations could apply for permission to build and operate what were termed low power FM (LPFM) radio stations designed to serve local communities. Now when I was a little kid pretending to be a radio announcer, I often declared that when I grew up, I wanted to build a radio station. When that LPFM window opened, I somehow knew that this would probably be my last chance to fulfill those childhood aspirations. I knew there wasn’t time to create a new nonprofit organization, so as an active member of the Mineral County Historical Society, I brought the idea to the Society’s board of directors. I’m not sure they really believed the project would fly, but they apparently liked it enough to give me the green light to try—provided I didn’t cause the organization to go broke!
With less than two months till the window closed and without a long-range plan at the time, I contacted an engineer who knew how to meet the demands of the FCC, and we cobbled together a successful application. The original plan called for putting the studio in our basement with the antenna on the roof. The construction permit was granted in February, 2014, and with the help of a few Society members and some enthusiastic supporters of the project, we raised more than enough money to pay off the initial engineering costs.
Shortly after receiving the permit, I met with the president and several other officials at Potomac State College for the purpose of making them aware of our plans to start a new radio station in town. I invited them to become involved in any way that seemed to be appropriate, and somehow our discussion landed on the possibility of housing the station in one of the college’s nearby residence halls—a former hospital building. It took several meetings and nearly two years to work through all of the details and get them written into a “legal” agreement between the Historical Society and the college. Nevertheless, it has finally come to pass. In essence, the college has graciously provided a laboratory in which I can develop this concept for a radio station that combines the basic elements of local radio with a wealth of great music that is a vital part of our cultural heritage. We, in turn, will offer students, faculty, and staff a variety of opportunities to become involved in the operations of the station.
It is exciting, gratifying, challenging, and a bit humbling to consider that so many experiences of this “lifelong radio geek” have at last come together to create Mountain Streams Radio. As I said at the beginning, when the Internet stream begins to flow and the radio signal hits the air, it will indeed be the fulfillment of a dream. It is nonetheless an untested dream, and I can only hope that it is successful. I hope that our community benefits in many ways from the services we plan to offer and that listeners around the world enjoy the music we play. I sometimes wish I were a little younger and could look ahead to more years of working with the station and helping it grow, but if people like it and become involved as listeners, supporters, and volunteers, I must have faith that the future will take care of itself. Well, that’s my story for now, but—as they say on the radio—stay tuned!