The old lament, “When I was your age, I had to walk 5 miles to school in the snow,” gets a roll of the eyes nowadays.
But consider the middle-aged owners of a small-town radio station having to abandon their vehicle in a blizzard to trudge through unplowed country roads and blinding snow—all to get on the air.
“I was worried; you really couldn’t see,” Nancy Russell says of the unexpected adventure seven years ago. She and husband, Charlie, evidentially hitched a ride to Route 13, the Eastern Shore’s only highway, and with a second lift finally made it to their station, WESR 103.3 The Shore, founded in 1958.
Why not stay home, safe and warm?
“It’s what we do,” says Charlie Russell, the patriarch of the family business that also includes his 30-year-old son, Will. “Anyone can play music; you have to be there when it counts.”
Nancy sees it as a “calling.”
“It really is a calling, to serve the community.”
While large, corporate radio stations have a mostly unseen audience, not a community in the heartfelt sense, that is not the case for WESR—or WEEZER, as locals affectionately call it. Their listeners are neighbors, in a rural enclave where everybody knows everybody. Many of them are farmers, school teachers, watermen and owners of mom and pop businesses like the Russells. They are the folks they see in the grocery store and at church, whose uncle fished with their grandfather.
“You have an intimacy with your audience; you’re interacting with them,” says Charlie. “Folks will tell us what they like and what they don’t like. They have no problem just dropping by the station.”
The Russell family’s radio days began back in the late ’50s during a chance breakfast meeting at the Whispering Pines, a now defunct hotel then owned by Charlie’s grandfather, Charles F. Russell I. Charles struck up a conversation with Vernon Baker who was starting up radio stations across Virginia.
Intrigued with having a local station, Russell provided his nearby farmland and built the simple block building that still houses WESR today, right outside the historic small town of Accomac on the upper Eastern Shore.
Baker acquired the license for WESR-AM 1330, a 5,000-watt signal, and at 8:25 a.m. on Jan. 23, 1958, the first radio station on the 70-mile peninsula hit the airwaves. At the helm was the senior Charles’ youngest son, Brooks Russell, Charlie’s uncle. The local press characterized the reaction to the inaugural broadcast with, “There was an air of jubilance”.
A decade went by, and taking a chance on the yet-to-be-proven FM band, WESR-AM began simulcasting on 103.3 FM in 1968 with a 50,000-watt signal, the largest available. WESR broadcast coverage centers around the Eastern Shore’s two counties of Accomack and Northampton, though it also reaches the southern end of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Under the tutelage of his Uncle Brooks, Charlie started at the station in 1968 at the age of 18. “I was very green, and I had this big idea there was a certain celebrity attached to being a radio announcer,” Charlie says. “That is, ’til my barber told me he thought our station had hired a new girl announcer.”
The family business grew, as did the family. Charlie met Nancy when she worked at the station, and they married in 1979. Dubbed Radio Brats, their two children, Amanda and Will, grew up at WESR, donning headphones to play DJ or falling asleep on a play swing amidst the organized clutter. Amanda worked for a time at the station but now lives in Maryland.
The current Radio Brats are two black labs, slow moving, elder Dixie and her caffeinated sidekick, Masey. Both take their jobs as official greeters very seriously. Division of duties among the rest of the Russells are Charlie, general manager; Nancy, office manager or “The Brains” and Will, program director.
Will, as his mom explains, is “the new,” helping to meld the modern technologies to family tradition, with a more vibrant online presence, including new-to-the-station live streaming.
He hadn’t planned on joining the station after graduating with a degree in Business Economics from Randolph Macon College. But he said the combination of a harsh economic climate in 2009 and his desire to return “to the creeks where I grew up hunting and fishing” brought him home to WESR.
As the next generation of Russells in radio, Will sees what’s out there grabbing fellow millennials’ attention but believes that radio is here to stay in local communities. “If we can provide content no one else is, from news stories to community events, we will always be relevant.”
The meat and potatoes of this rural radio programming is the local news, weather and tide reports that run five times a day starting at 6 a.m. There are no daily newspapers on the Eastern Shore. WESR supplies the immediate, what’s happening here at home, news.
It may seem odd to refer to reading obituaries on the air as a listener favorite, but the Russells serve a tight-knit community, and the old joke still applies. Folks jest that they listen to make sure they don’t hear their name.
In a more upbeat vein, announcing birthdays are big. People will call in the names of family, friends and coworkers who are celebrating one, and on Friday the winner of the birthday cake from the locally renowned Corner Bakery is announced. “And if we forget to tell them, they call,” Nancy notes. “They want to know!”
A perennial favorite since the ’70s is Swap Shop, where folks call in with their wares for sale. The advent of Ebay and Facebook online swapping has not dimmed the locals’ enthusiasm for the program. “About half of listeners tell us they tune in for the entertainment value alone,” says Charlie. “We have some characters; we always have.”
What’s the oddest thing put up for sale? A skunk, he answers, until Nancy reminds him that it was a lost skunk. Lost and Found is yet another free service they provide.
Of course all the programming wraps around the music—in this case mainstream favorites of yesterday and today. But, Will adds, popular too are their twice weekly regional indie music programs, Shore Made Music and Franktown Jam. Both are labors of love from local music lovers.
For listeners, WESR is a mainstay of their everyday, but the team of four full-time and seven part-time staff really shines in weather emergencies. Hurricanes, Nor’easters, snowstorms—they supply what locals tell you is a reassuring lifeline to the outside world.
This year’s blizzard trapped folks on their farms and down remote necks for days on end, a scary isolation even for stalwart country folks. But Morning Show Announcer Kelley Gaskill volunteered to bunk at the station on an air mattress for nearly three days to keep all the local weather, cancellations and road condition updates coming.
But most important to their family of listeners, they keep the community connected. Pages of Letter to the Editor clips spanning the decades voice this sentiment loud and clear, like this note from a husband and wife in the little hamlet of Hallwood after a hurricane:
“It was so nice and comforting when WESR allowed the people to call in to let them know what was happening all over the Shore. It was nice to be able to pick up the phone and talk to a person and not get an answering machine. It let us know how much they do for the Shore and comforting to us who were in fear of what to expect next.”
The Russells say this level of community commitment is only possible because of their small, but dependable team—their WESR Family.
Gaskill, as a WESR veteran of 16 years, agrees. “I don’t work for a family; I’m part of a family,” she says. “We’re all the kids, and Charlie and Nancy are the foster parents.”
Family working for family. That explains walking 5 miles in the snow.