In 1989, country music was changing, and radio man Bob Bloom was eager to harness the modern sound of performers like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson.
The genre had shed its traditional honky-tonk rhythms, replacing them with a pop-like sound that appealed to a younger audience.
“The 18 to 34 demographic fell in love with country music,” Bloom says, and advertisers were noticing.
Bloom, who had managed several radio stations, had an opportunity to ride that wave. It was just a piece of paper, a license from the Federal Communications Commission to occupy a radio frequency. He found a studio in Havre de Grace, Maryland, rebuilt the tower a few miles away and hired the talent.
He racked his brain to find the perfect first song to capture the moment and send a message. But then he just said to heck with it and played a song he liked. The first song on 103.7 WXCY, played on March 1, 1989, was the mournful but spirited “Baby I Lied,” by Deborah Allen.
Thirty years later, Bloom says he was surprised at how well the community took to the station. Its signal beams clear to Baltimore and Philadelphia, but from the start it focused on Hartford and Cecil counties in Maryland and New Castle County in Delaware.
“It filled a real void on the I-95 corridor,” he says. The disc jockeys told listeners about Newark nights out and Blue Rocks games. “If there was an event, a walk or run we were there,” Bloom says. Operations manager and afternoon host Brad Austin says still doing so is key to WXCY’s continuing success. Stations based in Philadelphia or Baltimore “talk about Elkton like it’s Mars,” he says.
Austin also plays close attention to what advertisers want.
“My duty is to drive the content side, but the secret of great local radio is that the two are tightly woven together,” he says. “I have to understand [advertising’s] challenges and help them close a deal by doing anything I can do to get a ‘yes.’”
That might mean having a DJ talk about a product or inviting the advertiser to a concert.
Meanwhile, the advent of digital advertising and streaming radio has shaken the industry and changed how it sells ads. The radio industry has seen advertising declines over the years, but Austin says WXCY has defied that trend by developing its online sales capacity. It offers advertisers the shotgun blast of a radio advertisement and the targeted precision of a social media ad campaign.
“Gone are the days when we walk in with a piece of paper and say, ‘Buy these 50 commercials and your business will go up and they say ‘yes,’’” Austin says.
But naturally, as a radio station, the music has always been a key factor. The station’s program directors have striven to balance the genre’s different flavors and satisfy varying constituencies. Even as country music has changed, its stories continue to touch on timeless human themes like heartache and nostalgia.
“The best you can do is give a little something to everybody all of the time,” Austin says. “They’re never more than a song away from something that fits in their wheelhouse.”