When WRNR went off the air this month, Annapolis mourned the demise of its only FM station.

It was a refrain similar to the one two years ago when Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak sold WNAV for $1 to develop the land under the city’s only AM station. The new owners dropped local programming in favor of that syndicated sound you can find anywhere and everywhere.

“Oh, woe is me,” cried Annapolis.

Honestly, was anyone still listening to either of these stations anymore? When was the last time you were in a car with someone under 35 who didn’t sync their phone to the audio system for personal tuneage? If you’ve got money, aren’t you listening to satellite radio anyway?

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Before you turn the dial, friends, let me say I come to praise radio, not to bury it.

“Radio can and should be a force of information for the citizenry,” said Rob Timm, who left WRNR last year for a job as production manager at WTMD public radio in Towson.

WRNR, the last locally programmed radio station in Annapolis, went off the air at midnight on Feb. 9.
WRNR, the last locally programmed radio station in Annapolis, went off the air at midnight on Feb. 9.

Timm was a program director and an on-air personality for years at RNR, working with longtime programming manager Bob Waugh. He was as sorry as anyone to see owner Steve Kingston sell the frequency to a Christian format broadcaster.

That’s because of what local radio can be to a community. It can define it with fantastic music like you sometimes heard on RNR, or with the local affairs programming it and WNAV provided.

But those days are gone in Annapolis. The business and the listeners changed.

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John Frenaye reaches 7,000 to 10,000 listeners a day with his “Eye on Annapolis” podcast. It’s like radio, but not exactly. After it launches at 7 a.m., there’s no updating until the next day. Losing local radio is a loss of immediacy, of being current, and that indefinable thing called identity.

“I think you lose a sense of community,” he said.

Kingston didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but here’s my outsider’s assessment of what happened to RNR. When the New Jersey resident assumed a role as an active owner, he began to tinker with the format. It moved away from its status as one of the nation’s premier adult album alternative stations.

People like me listening for new music went elsewhere, and a lot of us followed the on-air talent. Morning host Alex Cortright left for TMD in 2015, followed a few years later by midday host Carrie Evans and last year by Timm. Evans is now the program director.

It wasn’t just the music, it was the business. The radio audience, at least in Annapolis, got old. Music is about youth, but not here. Then COVID dried up events, and advertising vanished during the pandemic shutdown. When the Peter and John Radio Fellowship came knocking, Kingston sold for $1.54 million.

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He wasn’t the only one to decide it was time to get out of radio. Towson University shopped WTMD for years and was reportedly fielding inquiries from a Christian broadcast outfit before it sold the station to WYPR for $3 million last year. (Full disclosure, WYPR partners on content with The Baltimore Banner).

The loss of an Annapolis outlet, though, doesn’t mean that people who have something to say can’t find a way to share it.

Annapolis musician Ruben Dobbs started a Saturday night music show last month, “The Swamp Candy Radio Hour” on WSDL, part of Delmarva Public Radio. It’s the kind of mental musical exercise that once might have found a home on a funky radio station in Annapolis.

“I’m trying to create a themed episode for every episode, like connecting the dots tying musicians that the average person doesn’t know,” Dobbs said.

If you can’t always hear it live at 8 p.m. on Saturdays because Salisbury is a weak signal in Annapolis, you can stream it live or listen to it as a podcast. Dobbs considers it a continuation of the legacy of Jonathan Gilbert, the longtime radio host better known as “Weasel.”

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Gilbert and WTMD parted ways last year, ending “Weasel’s Wild Weekend” — a trip through music via an encyclopedic brain that could be both fascinating and annoying at almost the same moment. Dobbs’ plan to connect the dots is similar. Saturday, he’ll focus on the strange journey of B-side songs from those classic 45s.

“Maybe it will be a hit, or it will be a funny song that you want to get out there, but there’s often an unexpected destiny for a B-song,” he said.

This found a home in Salisbury because local radio has played out differently there. WAMU, the D.C. public radio powerhouse, bought WRAU in 1996 and used it to keep its audience listening when they went to the beach.

Twenty-five years later and WAMU sold it for about a half-million dollars to a Christian broadcasting company, saying it wanted to concentrate on its D.C. metro audience. Honestly, though, why did it need WRAU when people stream programs rather than listen to a broadcast?

The sale gave Delmarva Public Radio — three stations with different formats — a chance to claw back the audience it had lost to WAMU. Former WAMU “Coastal Connections” reporter Bryan Russo is now production and operations director at Delmarva.

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“We get to have three of the NPR formats in radio stations — all the while we’re focusing on building up our own homegrown programs, whether news programs or public affairs or music programs like Ruben’s [Dobbs],” Russo said. “We have that commitment to local and not just a public radio station that’s buying content from the network.”

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Why can’t Annapolis have something like this? Just because something is dead today, is it possible for it to be alive again tomorrow?

At Maryland Hall, Scott Shaffer thinks it can — within limits.

The Annapolis arts center recently bought Crab Radio from Anne Arundel County Public Schools. It’s a low-power station that the school system intended to use as a teaching tool for students. But they learned over about a decade that it’s hard to keep something like that going. COVID was the end.

Maryland Hall is still in the process of building its digital media lab and recording studio and will launch on April 2 with a live broadcast from the organization’s annual open house on Maryland Day, ArtFest. Funding is coming from grants and the existing budget, which will include hiring some staff members.

“We’re going to be the only Annapolis radio station left. As you know, there’s a long history of radio in Annapolis and we’re really hoping to include that in our programming,” said Shaffer, Maryland Hall chief financial officer.

The idea is to make Crab Radio 104.7 a community-driven radio station, with a focus on local music, programming from resident arts companies at Maryland Hall, news and talk. It might incorporate local podcasters.

Will this replace what Annapolis has lost? No. You won’t be able to hear Crab Radio very far outside the city limits, and Annapolis is more than just the city itself.

It does, however, offer hope.

Kingston has been reported as saying he might find ways to bring WRNR back, and music was still playing Monday on the website. Last year, regional broadcaster Maryland Media One acquired an ownership stake in WNAV. Some of its other stations offer local voices.

Maybe local programming isn’t so dead after all. Maybe we’ll be saved from having to depend on ever-newer ways to listen to the sound of Annapolis.

“I never know what the heck streaming service the program I want is on,” Timm said. “I can never find it. Whereas with traditional radio services, I hit button No. 1 and it’s there. It’s going to be difficult to replicate that experience.”

An earlier version of this column included incorrect information on the buyer of WRAU.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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