WINCHESTER — The future of the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s oldest radio station is uncertain as it approaches its 80th anniversary.
WINC-AM 1400 began broadcasting on June 26, 1941, under ownership by the Lewis family. It was purchased by North Carolina-based Centennial Broadcasting II in 2007.
Most of the station’s current programming is syndicated call-in talk shows with hosts leaning toward a conservative viewpoint.
However, WINC-AM “hasn’t had great financial success” lately, said Centennial President and CEO Allen Shaw.
That especially has been the case since Rush Limbaugh’s show ended after he died in February.
After premiering in 1988, The Rush Limbaugh Show became the nation’s highest-rated talk radio program, Shaw noted. It aired each afternoon on WINC-AM.
But “AM radio isn’t thriving” today, Shaw said, except in larger cities where some stations have found success with unique formats such as all-news or all-sports.
“Most listening is on FM,” he said. FM stations have a higher frequency range and broader bandwidth, so music played over the airwaves sounds better on them than on AM stations.
Having more listeners basically means it’s easier to sell commercial spots, and more advertising results in better financial stability for a station. FM stations often attract more advertisers than AM stations, especially those in lesser-populated areas and which have weaker signals.
WINC-AM operates with a 1,000-watt signal that may not be easily listenable beyond Strasburg or Inwood, West Virginia, according to a map on radio-locator.com, a website providing details of radio stations nationwide. In contrast, many FM stations today operate with 100,000-watt signals and can easily be heard at distances of 60 to 70 miles or more.
Five years after signing on, and shortly after World War II, the Lewis family launched WINC-FM 92.5. It was one of the nation’s first FM stations — AM was still the main broadcasting medium at the time.
Centennial is selling WINC-FM and its sister station, WZFC-FM 104.9, licensed to Strasburg, to Fairfax-based Metro Radio Inc. for $225,000. Financial considerations are among reasons for that decision.
The two WINCs have their places in both music and radio history.
For instance, the late country music legend Patsy Cline, a Winchester native, first appeared on-air at WINC-AM in 1948. About a decade later, Philip Whitney, the stations’ chief engineer, designed a CONELRAD alarm to help FM stations warn listeners during emergencies, sources of historical information show. CONELRAD was the forerunner to the Emergency Broadcast System, which in the late 1990s was modernized into the Emergency Alert System.
Whitney also is credited for having developed many remote control systems used by radio stations.
WINC-AM is not on the market, at least not officially.
“We offered it practically for nothing to Metro,” but the firm didn’t want the station, Shaw said.
Prospective buyers have looked at the station a few times but made no offers, he said.
“Absolutely, I think we would sell it” if the right offer comes along, he added of Centennial.
Some AM stations around the country over the years have surrendered their licenses to the Federal Communications Commission and left the airways, or “gone dark” as broadcasters refer to it.
“We’d hate for that to happen” to WINC-AM, Shaw said. “But I can’t rule it out,” he said, if AM radio doesn’t become more sustainable.
Before Centennial would let the station go dark, he said it would at least try to donate the station to a nonprofit entity. An example might be a college or university that teaches students broadcasting skills or a religious group.