JOHNSON CITY (April 10, 2014) – When WETS-FM (89.5 MHz) went on the air 40 years ago, the radio station operated from a slightly renovated old house, had a staff of five, and broadcast for only 12 hours each day. The closest thing to locally-generated content was local hosts playing classical music from vinyl LPs.
Today, that same radio station provides three separate radio services, each operating 24 hours a day and available to listeners around the world. Broadcasting from its own custom-built facility, WETS-FM/HD distributes original programming to other stations around the United States.
When asked how East Tennessee State University’s public radio station accomplished this growth, station director Wayne Winkler answers with two words: “listener support.”
Since the station carries no advertising, WETS listeners are responsible for transforming the station from a tiny operation in one of the smallest markets measured by Nielsen Audio (the ratings company) to a state-of-the-art content generator with national reach.
“Without the financial support of our listeners during our fundraising campaigns,” Winkler asserts, “none of this could have been possible.”
The station’s annual spring fund drive is under way, and WETS listeners are asked to contribute to their public radio station. Supporters may phone in pledges and contributions at 888-895-9387 (WETS) or contribute online at www.wets.org. Volunteers are also needed to answer phones and take pledges; prospective volunteers may use the toll-free number to schedule times.
WETS briefly interrupts regular programming in both spring and fall to ask listeners for tax-deductible contributions. It’s a ritual known to public radio listeners across America, dating back to 1979, when the Federal Communications Commission permitted non-commercial “educational” radio and television stations to ask for listener contributions on the air.
“Congress formed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, as a means of providing funding for non-commercial stations,” according to Winkler. “Compared to the funding provided to non-commercial broadcasters in other industrialized nations, that funding was minuscule, but within less than a decade, Congress began cutting it. Before long, some members – as well as some presidents – were calling for its complete elimination.”
Allowing stations to raise money from their listeners was meant to give local stations a chance to replace some of the money cut from the CPB grants those stations received. Instead, it freed stations from the tight budgets imposed by limits on governmental and institutional funding. Listeners provided more money than any government agency would, allowing the stations to expand their services.
“That first fundraiser really opened our eyes to the possibilities,” Winkler recalls. “We spent a few days asking listeners for money and raised a little over $15,000. We were thrilled – especially when we were certain that ETSU wasn’t going to cut our budget by that amount.”
The university has been consistent in its support of WETS, and it took many years for community support to equal the funding provided by ETSU. But in times of university or federal funding cutbacks, listener contributions have been vital to the station, and even provided enough money for the station to build its own facility – Richard F. Ellis Hall – named after the man who guided the station from its inception until his death in 1993.
Winkler says listener support is now the “lifeblood” of WETS, and that he and his staff have always paid close attention to what programming actually received that backing. They have also added two digital HD channels that are dedicated entirely to music.
“Now we not only offer news and information around the clock, we offer more music than we ever did before, and it’s available online as well as on HD receivers,” Winkler said.