January 1997 – September 1997
I anchored afternoon newscasts for the Virginia News Network, which was heard on 55 affiliate stations throughout the state, and was the Friday evening anchor for WRVA-AM 1140. The 50,000-watt powerhouse was among the top-rated stations in Richmond and at night could be heard in states throughout the region. At that time WRVA’s schedule was still made up of all local news and talk programs from the early morning until late at night, with the exception of Rush Limbaugh in middays.
The photo here captures the exact moment I decided I wanted to work for WRVA. It was taken in a production studio at the station in December 1995, about a year before I was finally hired there. My friend Mike Frontiero, who I had worked with at KARN in Little Rock, had been hired by WRVA in 1994. I stopped by to visit he and his wife while on a vacation driving up the east coast. At that point I was feeling kind of restless at KARN and had long been eager to work my way into larger markets.
I ended up going with Mike while he was working one day covering a Toys For Tots giveaway just before Christmas. Seeing the high-quality equipment he was supplied with, his company news van and the professional facilities back at the station made WRVA seem like a very appealing place to work. I also met a few of his co-workers who I liked. Richmond was an interesting old city with southern charm, yet also seemed hip with a lot of young people because several colleges were located there. It had a pace similar to Little Rock and just seemed like it would be a good place to live. It was also closer to Washington and New York, which I always enjoyed visiting. I guess I was also wanting to experience the drifter radio lifestyle of bouncing around to different markets.
Mike introduced me to News Director Deanna Malone who I communicated with several times over the following year, reminding her of my interest. I guess persistently pursuing a job is almost as exciting as chasing someone you’re interested in romantically. Once every few months I would send her a tape with recent reports I had done for KARN or CBS Radio News, along with an updated resume. Then I would be excited when I’d get a response on WRVA letterhead. Deanna was always good about responding. In the days before e-mail, there was a much more formal way of applying for a radio job and gauging your prospects partly by whether the news director or program director went through the trouble of writing back.
If you’re interested in reading what our exchanges were like, I’ve scanned the letters I got back, which you can read on the links. After sending my first resume, Deanna wrote back on January 3, 1996. Mike left WRVA early that year to try his hand at TV reporting and I started pursuing his old position. But in a letter on February 5, 1996 Deanna said that while she could fill the position, she couldn’t be guaranteed by management that it would still exist in six months, so she explained that she was opting not to fill it at that point. I was disappointed and went into a bit of a holding pattern with WRVA. I then began sending tapes and resumes to news stations in Miami, Florida, which I had also started visiting thanks to a friend who had gotten a radio job in that market.
In August 1996 I came through Richmond again. This time Mike introduced me to Kevin Hall, news director of the Virginia News Network. It was a state network similar to what KARN had with the Arkansas Radio Network. It operated in a separate newsroom downstairs from WRVA and was heard on 55 affiliates. VNN had an open position that I was hoping to fill, but Kevin wrote me on September 23, 1996 saying that he couldn’t fill it for another six months. As he wrote, “No one is more frustrated than me… since I have to figure out a way to re-configure my current staff to absorb those full-time responsibilities.” But I kept checking back with Kevin and Deanna and eventually worked my way in.
Two months later Deanna called me, as she was ready to fill Mike’s old position in her newsroom, so I wrote back and sent a tape with some of my most recent work. I didn’t end up getting that position, but would be hired part-time by VNN in January 1997 and that eventually led to me also anchoring some on WRVA. It wasn’t a definite job offer when I moved to Richmond, but was promising enough that I put in my two weeks notice at KARN and prepared to move.
I loaded up my car with clothes and other necessities that I’d need to survive and started the 16 hour drive to Richmond. At that point Kevin Hall was telling me he was ready to hire an anchor and that we could talk once I got there. It was certainly a risky move, but Mike Frontiero and his wife were very graciously willing to let me stay at their place while I learned whether things would pan out. I was also ready to pursue other jobs like being a waiter, which I had done briefly when I lived in Washington, DC, if things didn’t work out in radio. Mike didn’t really like his brief time in television and had returned to radio by the time I moved and was working for VNN.
Fortunately in my first meeting with Kevin he offered me 24 hours a week anchoring afternoon newscasts for the network. I worked alongside Mike everyday and began to learn things about the area pretty quickly. One of the hardest aspects of being a reporter moving to a new, unfamiliar city is that you’ve got to do a lot of homework to get up to speed about the background of the region, who the players are, the keys issues and even pronunciations of place names.
I worked four days a week for VNN anchoring two newscasts an hour, a five-minute cast of state news at the bottom of every hour, and a one-minute cast including state and national news at 53 minutes after the hour. In between newscasts I would chase stories over the phone, taping interviews and putting together reports. It was enjoyable, but I wasn’t making enough money to survive. I had moved into an apartment within a few weeks of arriving, so rent and my monthly bills were tough to handle on a part-time salary. So I would regularly go upstairs to the WRVA newsroom and pester Deanna Malone about any work I could do for the station. Eventually when a shift came open I started anchoring on Friday nights for WRVA from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. during programs by longtime local hosts Lou Dean and Jerry Lund.
AUDIO: One of my last newscasts for WRVA, August 29, 1997, 6:30 p.m., during the program Newsroom with Lou Dean.
AUDIO: A VNN newscast from August 30, 1997, filling in on a Saturday morning. This was my last day working in Richmond.
One of the greatest things about anchoring on WRVA was that the broadcast studios had large windows looking out on Richmond. At that time the station was located at 200 North 22nd Street, which provided a stunning, panoramic view. In the moments before my newscasts began I could look out at traffic on I-95 and activity on the side streets and really get a sense of who I was broadcasting to. VNN on the other hand was essentially in the basement of the building with no windows. Being one floor above gave me a totally different perspective.
It really was a cool building that had been designed by renowned architect Phillip Johnson and had housed the station since 1968. It featured a brick tower behind the building with a spiral staircase inside leading up to the microwave antennas that sent the signals of WRVA and sister station WRNL, an all sports station, to the transmitters. It was a classy facility that was designed to be a showplace for WRVA and signify the importance the station held among Richmond’s top businesses. It had also been the home of WRVQ-FM 94.5, which had started as WRVA-FM, simulcasting the AM station, but eventually evolved into a major top 40 station, which in 1974 began calling itself Q-94. But by the time I started with WRVA, it had been moved to a facility on Basie Road with other Clear Channel stations. WRNL, which had once been a competing news station for WRVA, with call letters standing for Richmond’s News Leader, was by 1997 housed in what had been the WRVQ air studio.
I was disappointed when Clear Channel announced in June 1997 that it would be leaving the building so that it could consolidate all of its stations on Basie Road. It epitomizes one of the saddest aspects of modern corporate radio; how national companies so readily abandon the history and heritage of their stations to save money. They also, as Clear Channel did at WRVA, were willing to replace local talent, who are often market legends, with national shows just to have another outlet for those programs on their roster, even if it means lower ratings. But it’s certainly much cheaper. The WRVA building ended up sitting empty for a while with various ideas being considered by companies that pondered buying it. In 2008, an organization called ChildSavers, which helps children in the area, moved into the building.
Another cool thing about WRVA for those of us working there at the time was that it had a large collection of songs recorded on carts lining the walls. Carts were the standard for playing sound bites, reports, commercials, jingles and songs at radio stations for many decades. But by the time I was there, music was no longer being played on WRVA, so this large music collection was no longer in use. Most news people, especially downstairs at VNN, had large piles of carts with their favorite songs stacked on the sides of their desks. Each desk had a cart machine so that we could listen to cuts and reports as we were writing, but for many like me, it was also nice just to help clear my head occasionally by throwing in a song or two. On my last day working there I wanted to note the songs I had been listening to over and over, which weren’t necessarily favorites, but at least songs I found interesting. I took the couple of stacks of carts I had to our copier and set them up with their labels against the glass. I just did it to remember the song titles, but years later, with carts long gone from radio stations, I find it fascinating to recall what labels looked like and the effort it took for stations to record, label and number carts. If you want to see the four pages I had copied, here’s a PDF of the file.
I’ve barely touched on WRVA’s rich history, which started more than 70 years before I got there, going on the air in 1925. Wikipedia has an interesting detailed history the station. Also, you can watch a 1997 profile via You Tube of WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance, a hugely popular weekly program that aired between 1946 and 1957 and was typical of the kinds of programs that were airing on stations in the south.
By March of 1997 I was working 30 hours a week for VNN and WRVA, still unable to get full-time status. So I took a second job, which was full-time, working as a traffic anchor and producer for Metro Networks. Between both jobs, I was totaling a grueling 70 hours a week. I had a serious girlfriend in Miami, Florida and eventually transferred within Metro to its office there. I really liked Richmond and the people I was working with, but the circumstances weren’t so good and it seemed like the right time to leave. My only regret is that I only worked as an in-studio anchor and never got out on the streets reporting, which is by far the best way to learn about a city. Within six months of leaving Richmond, I would be doing news again, this time as a reporter at Clear Channel’s WIOD in Miami.