In Calvert County, Hola and Goodbye
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday , May 2, 2000

In the go-go radio business, every day seems to bring a new merger or acquisition. Listeners hear about them and shrug, So what? What's it mean for my favorite station?

Thanks to radio's current economic climate, Spanish speakers in Washington will no longer have to listen solely to sometimes-tinny AM stations. Last month Silver Spring's Mega Communications bought Warrenton's WPLC for $5.25 million, the same price that Mega paid last fall for WMJS, a community station in Prince Frederick. Sometime this summer, Spanish-speaking audiences will get two clear 6,000-watt FM signals playing Latin music. Which is good.

And, thanks to radio's current economic climate, Calvert County loses its local radio station. Which is bad.

Here's a story of winners and losers and no clear villains. Suddenly, fans of WMJS find themselves without a community radio station, thanks to market forces described in boring radio business stories.

If they're looking for the villain, good luck.

For 27 years, Melvin Gollub ran WMJS, Easy Listening 92.7 in Prince Frederick, the county seat. When Gollub started the station, Calvert was a sleepy, agricultural county. Now, thanks to the expansion of suburban Washington, Calvert is a lively, growing county.

And for 27 years, WMJS was the county's voice. Marty Madden helmed the morning show for the past 20 years, building a long-term rapport with his listeners. The station broadcasts school menus and senior activities, as well as local news.

This summer all that will end, thanks to Alfredo Alonso.

But he isn't the villain, even though he's responsible for the death of WMJS as Calvert Countians know it.

Alonso is president of Mega Communications, which has been buying Washington-area AM stations over the past two years. Last fall Mega wanted to buy its first FM station. It eyed small, affordable WMJS.

The Federal Communications Commission is not especially fond of big companies like Clear Channel Communications and CBS/Infinity. The agency thinks that listeners lose choice on the airwaves when big companies swallow up independent owners like Gollub. But even though Alonso does the same thing, the FCC likes him because he's a minority owner and serves a minority group. Spanish speakers in Washington traditionally have been underserved by radio stations broadcasting in their language.

So who's to blame for the death of WMJS? The FCC? Even though it favors deregulation, even it couldn't have foreseen the rampant consolidation of the past few years. The colossal radio companies, then? It's their obligation to shareholders to grow their companies and make money. How about Alonso? He's trying to give Spanish speakers more radio choices.

Alonso bought the two small FMs for today's economic reasons: "The only stations we can buy are independent ones," he says. "We can't buy major ones. The corporations are not willing to sell them and even if they were willing, it would be beyond my means to service the debt on that."

Gollub and WPLC owner Syd Abel sold their small FMs for today's economic reasons: "We are under the umbrella of Washington stations," Gollub says. "For instance, Auto Row [car dealerships] up in Waldorf is more interested in advertising on D.C. stations. We were a tough local sell."

Gollub points out that there are two FMs and one AM in the Chesapeake Bay area, so "I don't think there will be any loss of local information."

There are those who disagree. Such as the writer of a letter that landed on Alonso's desk a couple of weeks ago. And here begins the unwritten end of the story.

The letter was signed by a Bill Santiff, who identified himself as senior warden of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Prince Frederick. He is greatly concerned that his area is losing "the only radio station physically located in Calvert County." Santiff also happens to be an electronics engineer, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who knows a thing or two about radio. Would Mr. Alonso, Santiff wrote, be willing to donate equipment so Santiff and his church could start their own station and return a radio voice to Prince Frederick?

"I'd be more than happy to help," Alonso says. "We have a lot of equipment we're not going to use."

Santiff is overjoyed to hear this.

WMJS, Santiff says, "was a community bulletin board. It's what's happening in our local area, a little piece of local we could grab onto."

He's been closely following the FCC's proposal to license low-power FM stations, which could have a broadcast radius of up to about four miles. The FCC wants to hand out low-power licenses to folks like Santiff precisely because the Alfredo Alonsos and the Clear Channels of the radio world are buying independent, community-oriented stations. The low-power issue is being fought hard by existing broadcasters, who fear interference from the small stations. The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would drastically slow the licensing process.

But Santiff is undeterred. Late this month he will ask the FCC for a low-power license. If he gets it, he'll build a radio studio in the basement of the St. Paul's parish hall. He'll staff it with volunteers. He'll broadcast community announcements, local news and high school productions. And there will be music. Easy listening, sure, but: "My 17-year-old daughter wants to do a techno-trance program," he says.

And if it all works out, the story will have a happy ending, both for Washington's Latino listeners and Calvert's locals.

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2000 The Washington Post Company

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