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Voice of the past fights for its future

by Tom Feran



Jimmy Morgan figures the Big Band era ended "about 1949 and a half," if you want to get technical. But who's counting?

The era lives and the melody lingers on, thanks to a happily determined band of volunteers at WKHR FM/91.5, the little nonprofit, community radio station in Chagrin Falls.

Morgan, the music director, says they play mostly music of the '30s, early '50s and, especially, the 1940s - the jazz, the great bands, the great singers.

Scott McVay, the towering "Duke" who gets credit for building the station from scratch, put it more simply.

"If we don't hear the melody, we don't play it. That's the No. 1 rule," he said. "And keep it fresh - nobody wants to hear Sing, Sing, Sing' 20 times a day."

Twenty times? Listeners soon might not hear the Louis Prima composition at all, if not for WKHR.

Next month, another sweeping shift in local radio will find Salem Communications, one of Cleveland's four big station owners, taking the sports format of WKNR AM/1220 down the dial to AM/850 - where WRMR, the longtime home of pop standards, will simply go away. There's barely a prayer that music of the "Greatest Generation" will find another home on commercial radio.

But, WRMR's big signal aside, "I don't feel they're any competition to us anyway," Morgan said. Listeners enjoy WKHR's wider variety within its focus on "the great American songbook" - not to mention the freedom from commercials and talk shows.

On Saturday morning, paid talk was running on WRMR. At WKHR, 10-year volunteer Barbara Reagh was playing music from her own collection of 1,100 CDs, while George Stark - a "new guy" with two years at the station - was busy taking phoned-in listener requests.

"I'm glad to do it so we don't disappoint anybody," he said.

Outside the studio, in an upstairs corner of Kenston High School, other volunteers were picking up their "pay" - doughnuts from a tub supplied by a friendly local supermarket. Even the cost-cutting radio giants can't get help that cheap. But then, they can't inspire the same devotion.

Licensed to the Kenston Local School District, WKHR originally ran with a tiny 10 watts, as part of a vocational broadcast class. The students played rock, but adult volunteers kept the station going on weekends with big band and swing music. Among them was McVay, the now-retired president of Scott Chemical Co. and a one-time college DJ at Miami University.

When budget support waned a dozen years ago, McVay stepped up in a big way. He formed WKHR Inc. to run the station, invested some $50,000 in it and gathered more volunteers and support. They've been building ever since.

Six years ago, the station shifted to big band jazz exclusively. Five years ago, it won approval to boost power to 1,100 watts. Four years ago, it started 24-hour service, using a $16,000 computerized switcher for overnight hours. They built a fine Web site at www.wkhr.org.

Most days, WKHR is live from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Kenston students run it from noon to 6 p.m. Supervised by teacher Chris Kofron, they use a playlist assembled by Morgan, a former big-band horn player who spent decades in the record industry as a store manager and promoter.

"There's 50 ways to mispronounce Bix Beiderbecke, and they've found every one," McVay said with a chuckle. Not a problem with the 40 adult volunteers, who tend to be retired, averaging in their 60s and hugely knowledgeable.

WKHR's reach is limited, but listener loyalty is immense. In one week last fall, its first on-air fund-raiser drew more than $43,000 that was matched in funding from the Storer Foundation.

Now McVay is thinking bigger. Since the range of FM owes as much to transmitter height as to power, he's applied to put WKHR on a 400-foot tower in Newbury that would reach a potential 500,000 listeners in Greater Cleveland.

"My concern is not what's happening today," he said. "My concern is what's happening tomorrow, and in two, three, four years."

The music can recall the past. WKHR wants to make sure it has a future, too.

E-mail: tferan@plaind.com Phone: 216-999-5433

Copyright 2001, WKHR Inc. - 17425 Snyder Road - Chagrin Falls, Oh 44023 -- Office Phone (440)543-9646 -- Request Line (440)708-0915