Bob Cairns: Local radio just isn't what it used to be

 

The news that Ron Galley, a fixture at WDLA radio in Walton, was retiring this week really got my memory working.

Ron’s voice has been an early-morning companion to Delaware County residents for 47 years. Several generations of some families have heard him introduce songs, read weather forecasts, announce eagerly anticipated school closings and broadcast high school sports.

His retirement truly marks the end of an era.

While my news career began with a start-up newspaper and has been in the print business for a long time, there were 18 years when I made my living on the radio. Most of that time was at WDLA and the other stations of the long-gone Delaware County Broadcasting Corp., working with Ron.

The radio station was a very different place in those days. I was a teenager when I first went on the air. Ron was a grizzled veteran in his late 20s.

There were about a dozen people working in the small radio station building on top of Bear Spring Mountain. Whenever the station was on the air, there was a DJ or engineer in the control room — four of them during the course of a weekday, three on Saturdays and two on Sundays. There was an engineer whose only job was to keep things running. There was a sales staff, a program director and a couple of executives who also happened to be the owners of the place.

There was a news director, and another news reporter, too. They did their own news gathering, writing and editing, and they reported the news on the hour, with headlines and weather at the half-hour.

When I stopped in at the current studio a few days ago to take Ron’s picture for our story about his retirement, he was the only one there. Aside from his few hours each morning, the programming on the airwaves emanating from Walton comes from somewhere else.

Very different.

Back in the days when I worked there, the radio station was very much a thread in the fabric of the community. Listeners could count on hearing high school football game broadcasts on autumn Saturdays and a basketball game or two every week during the season. DJs played requests, people who lost pets could enlist the aid of the station to find them and everybody listened to the news.

Even then, the programming was probably a throwback to another time: There were different times during the day when we played different types of music. There were even hours when we would alternate pop and country songs. We would broadcast all day from the Delaware County Fair, sweating in a small camper that an advertiser gave us to use in return for promotion. We teamed up with the American Heart Association to raise money during something called the Heart Radiothon, an event that involved staying on the air for an entire day in the showroom of a local car dealership.

When we covered local elections, we’d install a telephone line at the local Board of Elections office and call in live remote broadcasts as the results came in.

It was local. These days, it would be called hyper-local. It was fun and it was useful to the community.

A few factors led to the end of that kind of community-based radio. Automation and satellite-delivered content replaced live talent. A dwindling retail sector in Delaware County made it tough to support a full-time staff and all the other overhead costs needed to keep something like that afloat.

I got out before the Internet Revolution and before the stations left local ownership. I made the switch from writing 30-second radio news stories to writing in newspaper style and have tried to remain a part of the fabric of the community, working at community papers.

Today, there are still vestiges of the tight ties between radio and community around here. My old friend “Big” Chuck D’Imperio has a devoted following here in Oneonta (fun fact: I was Chuck’s first news director when he took over the WDOS morning show in the early 1990s), and WCDO in Sidney still does many of the things I remember so fondly from so long ago.

But, with “local” programming nearly indistinguishable from what you get on SiriusXM, the days of real, local radio are pretty much over.

Ron Galley’s retirement puts a period at the end of that story, for me.

Robert Cairns is the managing editor of The Daily Star. Contact him at rcairns@thedailystar or 607-441-7217. Follow him on Twitter at @DS_BobC.

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