By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
GREENWOOD, SC — Notwithstanding that their accomplishments often go unheralded nationally, operators of radio properties in small markets are consistently responsible for some of the industry’s most exemplary programming.
These days, of course, it is difficult to find an operator in any market who is not scraping for literally every dollar and burning the candle at both ends.
Tremendous admiration is felt particularly for those owners endeavoring it in America’s multitude of small towns, with virtually each license-holder personally doing an air-shift; overseeing programming; and, most likely, the bulk – if not all – of the selling. Indeed, this dizzying juggling act by small-market radio station owners necessitates the wearing of many hats.
Talk show jewel
Several weeks ago (4/15 – 4/16), dozens of local and national talk radio hosts gathered at Washington, DC’s Phoenix Park Hotel for the annual “Hold Their Feet to the Fire.”
Along radio row, TALKERS founder/publisher Michael Harrison happened to be interviewed by an engaging woman he described as a “pistol” with a “contagious laugh.”
Consider that perfectly worded summation an introduction to WCRS, Greenwood, South Carolina owner Anne Eller, who not only handles a two-hour morning show on “The Voice of Greenwood,” but returns later in the afternoon for a one-hour interview program. “I have an on-air partner named ‘Peggy’ and we talk about news, interesting stories, fashion, and anything else that strikes our fancy,” Eller remarks about the 8:00 am – 10:00 am entity, which is sandwiched between Compass Media Networks’ “This Morning with Gordon Deal” (7:00 am – 8:00 am) and Courtside Entertainment Group-distributed “The Laura Ingraham Show”(10:00 am – 12:00 noon). “It is upbeat, positive and is not pre-planned. We just come in and start talking about the issues.”
Logistical transition is seamless, as her radio studio is in the back of the jewelry store, so as Eller beams, “I don’t have to go anywhere. We actually closed in the drive-through and my studio is quite different from the customary radio studio. It has windows, pictures, memorabilia, and all kinds of stuff. It is not the typical four walls in a confined space.”
Commute time from her home to the radio studio/jewelry store usually takes Eller 10-15 minutes. Of further convenience, the station is right across the street from Sharp Facets Gallery, located in an old bank building.
Familiar ring of home shopping
Maine native Eller attended prep school in western Massachusetts and at one point, she wanted to go into interior design but the University of North Carolina – Greensboro graduate switched her concentration to business. “When I met my husband Jeff, we actually imported baskets at a time when you could make good money doing that,” she recounts. “We made money on the exchange rate by sending chipped plastic to China and Hong Kong and taking baskets in payment.”
In addition, they imported jewelry, which as Eller explains, “Took up a whole lot less space than a big warehouse for baskets. That is how we eventually ended up with the jewelry store.”
When service merchandise and several large catalog stores began going out of business in the early-2000s, Anne and Jeff started to buy closeouts and overruns. “My husband had this wild idea that we could sell these types of items on the radio,” Eller recollects. “We bought some time from the station I now own WCRS and started the ‘I Love Anne Show,’ the same title as today. Jeff would buy any kind of overrun and we would sell them on the radio.”
Posted online were pictures of what the couple possessed in inventory and, as an example, they sold 1,000 units of a particular style of amethyst ring. “I was the queen of Swiss army knifes,” Eller proudly proclaims. “We talked about the products and events that were happening in the community.”
From talent to ownership
Common radio storyline eventuated though when WCRS was sold and the new owners decided they did not want to continue the “I Love Anne” show. “We had a lot of fun but after we went off the air, I thought that would be it,” Eller reasons. “In 2007, however, the owner of WLMA told Jeff that the FCC needed $25,000 or the station would be shut down. Jeff did not want to loan money to him but said he would buy the station. I asked Jeff what the heck he had done. He said I was good on the radio and we would be going into the radio business.”
Rather than a feel-good situation, the story turned sour. “The FCC assured us that, if we paid all the fines, we could get the license transferred,” Eller states. “The previous owner though was old, old, school and cagey. He had done things such as putting the tower where it wasn’t supposed to be, so my attorney said it probably would cost another $15,000 and we still might not get the license.”
By 2010, Anne’s Entertainment Vision, Inc. purchased WCRS and let WLMA go dark. Class C 1,000-watt WCRS is the community’s only talker.
Slotted one hour after former presidential candidate Herman Cain’s syndicated program (3:00 pm – 4:00 pm) and serving as a lead-in for a two-hour sports talk block is Eller’s one-hour “Meet Me at the Diner,” the interview program that has gained her “Radio Show of the Year” honors the past two years in statewide competition. “We won in our category the first time we entered – an unknown had never won their first time,” she points out. “We talk to politicians, people in nonprofit organizations, veterans, and celebrities. You will never hear a week of people from the same sphere. We program it so there is an interesting mix. One day could be about politics; the next an interesting character; and the next day, an interview with a musician who is in town. You never know what you are going to hear. If not for radio, I would never have had the opportunity to do one-on-one conversations with people like golfer Nancy Lopez, actor Harry Anderson [‘Dave’s World,’ ‘Night Court’], and Jim Bohannon whose Westwood One show airs on WCRS.”
Four-year assistant Democratic leader and representative for South Carolina’s sixth congressional district – Jim Clyburn – has been to Eller’s studio twice. “He said if I lived in his district, he would be on my station every week,” Eller notes. “I try to bring out all different sides. There is so much conversation that is good for everybody. The studio in the back is our lunch table when I am not on the air. Jeff won an award for the best ham biscuits in Greenwood – and they are quite delicious. We have a stove, a refrigerator, and all the other accompaniments for a small kitchen. ‘Meet Me at the Diner’ is a great place to have a cup of coffee and a conversation.”
Whether it is talk radio or talk television, it is Eller’s contention that the focus needs to become more localized. “All the big shows are hitting the same issues but they are missing that there are so many good stories out there on the local level,” she maintains. “We are becoming too homogenized. Every area is different and we have to hit on that. We have apps so people can listen on their smartphones; we have a website; stream on the internet; and we have a Facebook page. To put it all together is a time-consuming job. We do some of it very well – we can improve on some others.”
Extremely candid regarding the business side of WCRS, Eller succinctly stresses, “It is tough. We are doing decent, but we can always do better. WCRS airs syndicated shows, but because of what I do locally, we have the ability to reach area clients. From that standpoint, we do pretty well. Whenever there is a need in the community, we are right there.”
Gracie’s grateful dogs
More than 40,000 people generally come out for Greenwood’s July blues festival for which Eller will be on hand to anchor live broadcasts.
Community service involvement for WCRS does not end there: The Salvation Army is among the notable charities with which the station is involved. “In less than one week, we were able to place over 100 children who could not get adopted from their ‘Angel Trees’ program,” Eller remembers. “I had a list of the children and what they needed. With only one week until ‘Angel Trees’ was to conclude, we did it. The Salvation Army was amazed that we were able to get that much response from the community – I was amazed, too.”
An “old-time radio”-geared WCRS promotion helped generate over $5,000 for the area soup kitchen.
Situated approximately halfway between – and slightly to the west of – Greenville and Columbia is Greenwood, which like many other parts of the United States, endured a very harsh winter. Pens at the local Humane Society are all outside, so there was a genuine need for dog blankets when temperatures dipped. “Through my voice as dog ‘Gracie’, we were able to get our listeners to bring in hundreds of blankets to several drop-off points in the community,” Eller boasts. “If not for our constant promotion, we could have lost some dogs. As it turned out, we did not and they have blankets for next year as well. There is an overpopulation of animals here. We began a campaign to give out $20 coupons to those who had their pets spayed/neutered.”
Akin to baseball journalist/MLB Network contributor Ken Rosenthal, who is linked to sporting bowties, Eller the past four years has become “kind of famous” for modeling a hat collection. When Jeff Duncan was sworn in to represent South Carolina’s third congressional district, Eller went to Washington, DC to broadcast the ceremony from his office and to do interviews. “I spent several days there,” she acknowledges. “South Carolina Radio News picked up a good deal of my audio. I was wearing a hat at the time and I became known as ‘the gal with the hat.’ Whenever I want to do an interview with former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, I always send a picture and a note saying that I am the ‘girl with the hat.'”
This past September, WCRS celebrated its 73rd anniversary and the full senate gave Eller a commendation in recognition for her broadcasting efforts. The text reads, “Anne is not afraid to tackle difficult issues but always does so with humor, intelligence, and confidence.”
Quite often, people are influenced by how they grew up, but according to Eller, she no longer has any New England roots. “I think I am much more southern and accustomed to our traditions. Greenwood has a wonderful lake and many golf courses, so it is a huge place for retirees. This was a mill town but a lot of that industry left with NAFTA. Greenwood Mills still exists, but it is much smaller. There is a very big hospital system here [Self Regional Hospital] and Fujifilm put its first United States plant in Greenwood. I love this as my base of operation.”
For the person who figuratively and literally wears numerous hats, it is a bit difficult for Eller to choose a favorite between her two careers, but she emphasizes, “I love radio. I never thought this would be something that I would enjoy as much as I do. Sometimes it is hard because I have to pull myself back because there can be more money from the jewelry store. At the same time though, I love radio. I love talking to people and I love finding things out. I would like to be doing more with radio and perhaps be able to have a bigger stage. Some people take themselves entirely too seriously and miss the fact that – when done correctly – radio is great entertainment.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be reached at Kinosian@Talkers.com. Meet him at Talkers New York 2015 on Friday, June 12. For information and to register, phone 413-565-5413.