Bill Wolfenbarger didn’t mean to have the perfect voice for radio broadcasting. In fact, if he had his druthers, he’d spend all day fiddling with radio equipment and being an engineer.
But when he was younger, nobody wanted just a radio engineer. They wanted someone who could split time between running a few records and making sure the radio station actually worked. And his voice, combined with his fascination with the equipment, is what got him started in the business.
Known to both friends and employees as “Boss Bill,” the 67-year-old is the president and owner of Jodesha Broadcasting, Inc., which counts among its radio stations KBKW, The Jet and Sunny 102.1.
“One of the common things that happens is I will say I’m in radio and they’ll say, ‘You have a voice for it,’ but that’s not why I”m in this business,” Wolfenbarger said. “The other common thing they say is you sound much taller on the radio.”
Wolfenbarger was born and grew up in Raymond. He always likes to joke that he discovered a love for electronics long before he discovered girls.
“In junior high, I would crank up my miniature radio transmitter, put on some records, and ride my bicycle around town with a transistor radio attached, checking to see how far my signal would go,” he said.
His grandfather Joseph Wolfenbarger settled in the Willapa Valley about 90 years ago. His grandfather Bill Gurr came to the Harbor a few years later and settled in Raymond.
“The first thing Grandpa Gurr did was help construct a bridge over the Willapa River. He operated an alder mill and later built a successful contracting business.”
Gurr became so popular that he was elected mayor of Raymond, a position he held for 15 years until his death in 1955.
“My mother was a homemaker, my father a carpenter,” Wolfenbarger said.
When he was 5, his family moved in next door to his Grandfather Gurr. Mother Helen, 85, and father Dave, 83, are still living in Raymond in that same house, next door to the elementary school he went to, which is now a branch campus of Grays Harbor College.
He remembers even at a young age being fascinated with the radio.
“My grandpa and I would listen to the radio station sign off the air,” he said. “If that wasn’t obsessive behavior, I don’t know what is. Nobody listened to the signoffs.”
Wolfenbarger said his dad operated a contracting business, served on the School Board and became Pacific County commissioner for one term, serving as a Democrat in the early 1980s.
“My dad always gave me advice that if I were to go into business, never go into politics because I would always make half of the people angry at me,” he said.
As a teenager, Wolfenbarger said he and some friends would hang around the local Raymond radio station, KAPA — an AM station that disappeared long ago.
“Some of my friends wanted to be disc jockeys, but I was fascinated by the flashing lights and the wiggling of the meters on the transmitter,” Wolfenbarger said. “Eventually, I had the opportunity to spend the last couple of my high school years on the air, obtained my required radio license, installed a brand-new transmitter and built some tape cartridge machines. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
After college, Wolfenbarger remained in radio from 1965 to 1981 and took his first big job at a radio station in the Tri-Cities, where he served as DJ and chief engineer.
“To be honest, I would have been happier just as engineer,” he says. “Luckily, that job came up and I left for Seattle for about 10 years.”
Following that, he left the broadcast business and operated Nifty Costume Company, a uniform rental and retail dry cleaning service. He says the company did very well for seven out of the 10 years he ran it, but he needed to get out and he wanted to get back into broadcasting.
“For several years, I sold electronic equipment to other radio and television stations in the Northwest,” he said.
Going to all of the radio shows made him long for the days of being on air, tinkering with equipment and getting the signal just right.
OWNS FIRST STATION
By 1996, he applied for a construction permit in Aberdeen and started his first radio station. Then he bought another station in Raymond in 1997.
“Really, this was all an excuse to move home,” Wolfenbarger said. “I loved radio. And I loved the Twin Harbors. Putting the station in Aberdeen was the best fit for me. For me, it’s the closest thing I can do to staying home and being able to have a viable business operation.”
Today, Jodesha Broadcasting owns and operates The Quake 107.9, The Jet 105.7, KBKW on AM 1450 and FM 94.7, Sunny 102.1 and 93.7 KANY Bigfoot Country.
For a while, Wolfenbarger said he was worried about the radio industry because the FCC had relaxed ownership rules and “big boys were gobbling everyone up and I had to make sure they didn’t gobble me up.” He said larger companies were buying up hundreds of stations and moving them from smaller markets to larger ones.
A few years back, Wolfenbarger said he did sell off an FM station, which would go on to become the FM bandwidth for KOMO radio. The money he earned there helped him buy up a different station and helped ensure his operations continued to thrive.
“The economy affects us like it affects everyone, but we’re solvent,” Wolfenbarger said. “We have no debt.”
In fact, Wolfenbarger said he’s donating a good chunk of the profits he makes right back into the community.
“Percentage-wise more of our profits go into community organizations than most broadcast owners,” he said. “I can’t take it with me. One of these days there will be this money left on the table when I die and my kids will get it, but I prefer they get a little bit of it now when they need the help.”
Wolfenbarger is a big fan of the United Way of Grays Harbor, the YMCA of Grays Harbor, the Aberdeen Rotary Club and many other civic groups.
RADIO ALWAYS FIRST
At home, Wolfenbarger said he doesn’t like to watch much television. His ears are usually perked on his radio stations and he’s always thinking of ways to improve.
Wolfenbarger says he’s hoping to launch a digital upgrade of one of his stations within the next six to 12 months. The HD radio programming is becoming more popular in larger markets, but users need an HD radio receiver to get it. The signal is cleaner, and music is almost like listening to a CD.
He’s also hoping to build a new 300-foot tower to host a few of his stations. That will give a longer range and better signal, but it will also save him money in the long run. He says he owns towers in Montesano and Raymond, but he just leases the land underneath. He also leases someone else’s tower on Cosi Hill.
“That’s going to be a capital investment, like owning a house instead of renting it,” he said.
Where does he see radio five to 10 years from now?
“Didn’t you hear, radio died when people got television sets?” Wolfenbarger jokes. “Seriously, radio has been predicted to be dead many times. The latest death announcement will be when everyone will have Internet in their car. Before, it was Sirius Satellite and XM radio. I didn’t think that would impact us so much because they have subscribers and penetration has stabilized. I felt that XM and Sirius were transitional mediums. The downside for radio in the future is Internet appliances in cars. But the upside is providing local content …
“The problem with Internet radio in your car is you have the choice of how many thousands of programs but how will you know they’re local to the area you’re in? With terestrial radio at least you know. The upside is you’ll be able to listen to KBKW in Nebraska in your car but most of the people in Omaha won’t care about that. And what do you do for the local advertisers, for Selmer’s Furniture, how will that target customers when every radio station in the world is available anywhere? I think that’s where terestrial radio will still shine and I think that’s the same with local newspapers, too.”
Wolfenbarger said he’s proud of the local content on his radio stations. And, more specifically, the live programming that occurs weekdays every morning.
On Sunny 102.1, Rhys Davis hosts four hours live in the morning. On 105.7 The Jet, Johnny Manson hosts five hours of live programming and on KBKW’s Coffee Talk, Doug McDowell hosts four hours of live talk radio followed by two hours of live music on 93.7 KANY.
“When there is something that happens on a Sunday afternoon, whether it be a World Series event or a bombing, I think the disc jockey on duty ought to talk about that,” Wolfenbarger said. “If you listen to any of our stations, you know they are talking about something.”
In fact, when the Weyerhaeuser Co. announced the closure of its mills in Aberdeen and Cosmopolis, many of the workers heard it from Rhys Davis on Sunny 102.1 because his station was playing while they were at work.
Wolfenbarger said the recent tsunami scare had four of his workers at the station in minutes, prepared to give updates with what was going on.
“We could do things remotely, but I’ve made a commitment to this community,” he said. “I think in smaller, rural areas we do a better job covering our communities than the stations in the big markets. They’ve got clusters of radio stations and staffs in the morning and maybe even staffs in the afternoon but we’re more likely to be here on an event happening Saturday afternoon than they are.”
During the December 2007 storm, though, things didn’t work out as planned. All of his stations went off the air after his generator for his transmitter failed and the power went out in Aberdeen. Wolfenbarger said they couldn’t get to the generator because of all the downed trees. He’s since bought a new generator and invested in “redundant everything” to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Recently, Wolfenbarger has been stepping back from being in control of pretty much everything at his radio stations.
Last fall, he promoted Gabby Jordan to be his general manager. And last month, he promoted Tony Halekakis to be his vice president of sales.
Wolfenbarger says he doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon, but he notes his true love has never been on the managing or sales side, but on the engineering side, making sure his stations are working right.
“I went to my last class reunion and everyone but me was retired, but no, retirement’s not on the horizon,” he said. “If I was doing something I didn’t like to do, I would be so anxious to retire. but I love doing this.”
Halekakis has worked at Jodesha for five years and has a lifetime of sales experience. He’s currently president of the Ocean Shores/North Beach Chamber of Commerce.
Halekakis says Wolfenbarger talked him into the promotion.
“I’ve wanted him to take it for a while now,” Wolfenbarger said.
Jordan, 34, has worked at the station for about 15 years, since she was out of high school.
“She knows what I think and as general manager, she’s in a position to say, ‘No, Bill, you should do it this way,’” he said.
“I always say that Bill has ruined us to work for anybody else, he’s such a good boss,” Jordan said. “Community first and foremost is in his mind. He’s very involved in Relay for Life, United Way and local charities. Plus, he has a wonderful radio voice and we try to get him to do more spots, but he’s shying away from it. He’s taught us all to run the place for him. In fact, just look around and you’ll see everyone who has worked here has been here for quite a number of years. And that says a lot about Bill and the company. To us, he’ll always be Boss Bill.”
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at (360) 537-3927 or by email at email@example.com.