In Country: With Kix 98.7, WNZF Launches Flagler’s Fourth Radio Station in Four Years
FlaglerLive | July 13, 2012
On the forty-first day, he passed away
He just dehydrated and died
Well, he went up to heaven, located his dog
Not only that, but he rejoined his arm
Down below, all the critics, they loot it all back
Cancer robbed the whore of her charm
His ex-wife died of stretch marks, his ex-employer went broke
The theologians were finally found out
Right down to the ground, that old jail house burned down
The earth suffered perpetual drought
–From Johnny Cash’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” (written by Loudon Wainwright III).
If you were under the impression that country music doesn’t have a base in Flagler you’d be mistaken, at least according to local radio WNZF station manager, David Ayres. As it turns out, the small Flagler County Broadcasting family, whose empire branches out in three guises—WNFZ News Radio, Beach-FM, and since last November, Oldies 100.9 FM—has its Bunnell studio on East Moody Boulevard under re-construction to accommodate the growth and appeal to ears in the area. Until recently listeners were struggling for reception, tuning to Orlando and Ocala stations in hopes of remedying that certain deprivation in their lives.
“The cranes are here and the tower’s going up,” Ayres says. The station, which will be dubbed Kix Country 98.7 FM (WAKX, with 4,000 watts), debuts August 1, with a format it calls “traditional country.” Tradition is a subjective idea these days, when last night’s TV programs can be dubbed classics and any lyrics containing a combination of patriotism, piety and dogs dying prematurely called traditional.
Originally from Cleveland (whose Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is 524 miles from Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame), Ayers admits that he once had his blinders on in thinking that, to most people, country was no big deal. “I was a city boy and I didn’t know anyone who listened to this stuff.”
“Most people who don’t listen to country buy into the stereotype that it’s only the redneck in his red pickup truck who’s a fan, but the truth is the doctors and lawyers in the Lexus are listening, too. It’s a fun format,” Ayers says. He likens the genre’s appeal to the overall experience of a “family reunion” which seems an appropriate metaphor in completing the WNZF family circuit. “America, God, and country. It’s something that everyone has in common and is something to be shared with parents and children.”
God, of course, being that indispensable Highwaymen’s holy trinity: Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings (peace be upon them).
Ayers disabused himself of his parochial thinking, he says, in the 1990s, when he began broadcasting country music for Clear Channel across the Tampa area. Although he knew nothing about that type of music, it wasn’t only his eyes and ears that were opened to what someone from his neck of non-woods might interpret as the surprise phenomenon of its popularity. It was his heart, too. He also fell in love with the consumers and media surrounding it.
Many casual music listeners might be surprised to learn they’re part of the movement as well. Many of their favorite artists, Ayers guesses, are crossover stars like Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, albeit with some of the Caribbean-type sounds that have been integrated into the genre. It’s become more difficult to categorize the music, he says.
“Even bands like Hootie and the Blowfish have incorporated country sounds. And you know what? Older bands like the Eagles and Crosby Stills & Nash (bands who get plenty of fresh air on Oldies-FM), if they were still making music today, they’d be country.”
In what can be viewed as a welcoming conversion experience in embracing the genre, according to Ayers’s interpretation, this is what Kenny Chesney is talking about in his song, “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem.”
In other words: “I don’t have to wear a cowboy hat or boots to be accepted.”
Larry Tritten’s ‘Instant Country Lyric Kit,’ from the November 1992 issue of Playboy (William Safire was the interview, Stephanie Adams, who won a $1.2 million judgment in February after being brutalized by New York City police, was the playmate.). Click on the image for larger view. [/caption]The cross-over isn’t just a matter of music. There’s politics, too, depending on the times. There’s a reason you don’t hear too many black people humming along with Hank Williams Jr., and why Charley Pride remains as much of a country music exception as his likeness at tea party meetings: country music is white people’s last musical redoubt, what Bruce Feiler termed “a soundtrack for white flight,” and what the author Ann Patchett summed up in an analysis at the beginning of the Iraq War: “Country music is not providing the soundtrack to American life on an average day, unless you count the crossovers, which means that Shania Twain is played on pop stations and Faith Hill lands on the cover of fashion magazines,” Patchett wrote in the New York Times Magazine. “Most of the time, country music, like pop music, is just a bunch of love songs anyway, and no one really cares if there is a little extra twang in the guitar. Peacetime blurs the cultural divide between Britney Spears and LeAnn Rimes. But during times of war, Americans find a flag to snap onto the windows of their S.U.V.’s and country music sails into the foreground. For every battle, we get a new, disposable anthem, one that’s catchier than ‘’The Star-Spangled Banner’’ and easier to sing. Cultural conservatives, who rightly feel unrepresented in most of popular culture, are as comfortable with the lyrics of a country hit as they are tuning into Fox News, as these are the places their viewpoints are powerfully and abundantly represented. And that’s exactly what makes these venues so popular. Country is no longer about the South; it’s a state of mind.”
Naturally, a country station dovetails nicely with WNZF’s devotion to the voices of white alienation: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage. Politics aside (and now that relative peace time has diminished the need for country’s versions of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), there’s always the music for music’s sake, and those who could care less about politics so long as the radio signal is strong.
Ron Charles, WNZF’s Chief Engineer and News Director, and also a navy veteran of 22-years, says he is living his second dream career at WNZF. “The whole time since I was 12, I think I wanted to work in broadcasting, though I did get patches of that experience during my time in the service.”
That said, he’s honest when he admits he’s waiting for a similar born-again country music experience to befall him, as it did Ayers. Originally from Lowell, Mass., Charles grew up listening to AM Top 40 in the late 60s and early 70s, and was raised in a place where country was a strange sounding aberration.
Charles is optimistic the conversion will happen as it has before with other genres during his radio career. A few years back, Charles began broadcasting for a station that played the likes of Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand. “I didn’t care for it all that much at first,” he said, “but after a few months it really grew on me and I embraced it wholeheartedly. Right now, I enjoy country but I don’t have a favorite artist or anything, but like all unfamiliar music genres, it’s an acquired taste.”
On the technical spec side of things, asked if this fourth addition to the WNFZ family presents any new challenges for a man with his dual positions at the station, Charles responded the way most people in media respond nowadays: the luxury of doing a single job is history. “In small-town radio like Flagler County Broadcasting, it’s very common to wear several hats,” he says. “Many big city radio enterprises are beginning to follow this small town model in an effort to be less cost-prohibitive.
Beginning a station from scratch has become part of the Flagler County Broadcasting routine. “We’ve learned a lot from each of our experiences with the other three stations. It’s just like adding a new baby sister,” though Ayers is quick to add: “But no more kids. We don’t have any more space.”
In addition to optimal music reception, there are other WNZF benefits to the upgrades. “With the Flagler County Broadcasting investments in our infrastructure,” Charles says, “we have back-up electrical generators at almost all our sites. So if there was ever a loss of power during an emergency, you probably wouldn’t even know it. With a combination broadcasting on all these frequencies from the Emergency Operating Center, people won’t have to sit there hoping and praying that they hear in five or ten seconds about Flagler County on some Central Florida station. That was the situation four years ago.”
WNZF’s progression from just news to rock to oldies and now country was anything but planned. “All of our opportunities came to us,” Ayres says. When the FCC began accepting bids for the station grounds three years ago, one other guy at first outbid them. “When we started, we had only the one news station, but once we got the other two within two years, the other guy was understandably shaken. As the FCC deadline approached, the guy came back to us with his hat in hand. We settled for a lot of money.”
However, even if Ayers doesn’t say as much, his “blessing” word choice isn’t a reflection of some nebulous miracle. A large part of their success, he says, is that Palm Coast reached the point where it can sustain its own media market, broadcast and otherwise, and did so in a relatively short time. Four years ago, there were no radio stations in Palm Coast, no newspaper, no online news. The relatively rapid growth of local media, both men attest, is mutually supportive. “There’s definitely a great media sector synergy,” says Charles. “That may not be the case in other communities.”