MONROE First call came from a listener complaining the station had suddenly gone silent.
Second call came from a neighbor reporting the radio tower was splashed all over the ground.
And when he stuck his head out to see, Archie Morgan says his stomach plunged. Yep, there it lay, his tower a tangle of metal and his business at a standstill.
“I've seen that tower many times but never at that angle,” say Morgan, owner of WIXE-AM (1190), one of those throwbacks to the era of pre-corporate broadcasting. High school football, local obituaries and a blend of music ranging from classic country to gospel to beach fills his airwaves.
There are no consultants telling him how to do it, no playlists designed by survey, no orders from New York telling him to find more advertisers.
There's just Morgan, his staff of about 15 and on July 10, a disaster on the lawn after his promotions truck snagged one of the wires holding up the tower, bringing it down in an instant.
Not about the money
In the 1990s, deregulation changed the radio industry. Companies were allowed to operate multiple stations in a single city. Independents were snapped up by giants of the industry like CBS Radio and Clear Channel.
Small stations like WIXE, accustomed to serving their small communities, were routinely moved to nearby metropolitan areas and took on a cookie-cutter format designed to raise ad revenue, often at the expense of local programming.
Over the years, Morgan has been told repeatedly he should sell out and let a new owner move WIXE into Charlotte. It all came back to him that day on the lawn.
“There's no better time to consider moving,” he says, “when you're faced with that kind of stuff.”
Getting the radio bug
Morgan was a route salesman for Frito-Lay when a friend bought a small radio station, which years later became the Spanish station WXNC-AM (1060). He started helping out in 1988, then got on the air, then became part of the morning show.
“It was tons of fun compared with my regular job,” says Morgan.
In 1990, Morgan and a partner bought WIXE, founded in 1968. It was a dilapidated property with equipment that was considered antique even then.
Morgan's formula, like many small-town broadcasters, was local, local, local.
It still is.
Local talk shows, local advertising and 21/2 hours of local classifieds called in by listeners on weekdays. People call in nonstop, hawking chickens, wigs, potbellied pigs, farm equipment and everything else a garage can contain.
“It's cornpone,” admits Morgan, “but we've always been swap-shoppy. What works for us is doing the things Charlotte radio can't do. Charlotte radio isn't going to do a swap shop because they're above all that.”
WIXE prospered in fast-growing Union County. In 2000, Morgan bought out his partner.
Call it cornpone, but it works. When the station's tower fell, the phone rang for weeks with people complaining they couldn't get WIXE.
Roots run deep
Morgan is a native of Marshville. When he was 3 months old, his father died of a heart attack on his 37th birthday. His mother remarried and the family moved to Monroe.
He attended classes at Central Piedmont Community College and Wingate College, but was more drawn to the world of commerce than academics. He went into the restaurant business, which provided its own education. “I lost my shirt. I was down to borrowing gas money to find a job.”
WIXE has made him an important part of the business community in Monroe now, and that suits him fine. He grew up there and loves the place. Two decades ago, his young daughter once did a commercial for a cookie drive. He's still got that recording and a million other memories.
Getting back on air
After the tower fell, a wire was rigged up from a power pole to the station's building on Buena Vista Road. WIXE's signal didn't reach far, but was audible in Monroe.
Advertisers stuck with him and after three months and about $125,000 in repairs – insurance should cover at least some of it – a new 180-foot tower carries WIXE's 5,000-watt daytime signal to nine counties, roughly Albemarle to Gastonia.
J.J. Roper's sports reporting, Bob Rogers' gospel shows, Shane Greene with the Breakfast Club, Britt Pope's afternoon talk show are all back on “The Mighty 1190,” as the station calls itself. Union County has 13 cities, and mayors and other community leaders are frequent guests. Nobody else can fill that role but WIXE, says Morgan.
Small stations are vitally important in the radio landscape, says FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, interviewed during an October visit to Charlotte for a public hearing.
“Broadcasting still plays a unique role in those kinds of communities because they provide local news,” says Martin, who grew up near Waxhaw and has pushed an agenda of localism in the fast-changing industry. “I hope they'll continue to provide a different outlet for discussing issues.”
He plans to stay put
Rebuilding rather than selling WIXE was an easy decision in retrospect, says Morgan.
“There is much more at stake here than a balance sheet … I'm not willing to abandon the community I grew up in. I was born here, all my relatives are here. People would lynch me.”
Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007; email@example.com