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Charleston Public Library changes its tune on WYLA, shutting down the community radio station

97.5, Signing Off

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On Mon. May 14, the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL) sent out a press release announcing that after three years on the air, its radio station, WYLA 97.5, would discontinue operations. Fri. May 18 is the last day you'll hear the weird and wonderful sounds of one of the only local stations that dare to champion local music.

The press release cited that "while the station has certainly provided a resource for local artists to share their music, it has not served a primary function of supporting the library's most crucial role — fostering the flow of information and education."

Local listeners beg to differ, saying that more than just musicians benefited from the station's output, which was arguably educational. "It provided an education in and preservation of Charleston modern rock history," says comedian Jessica Mickey. "Where else could you hear mostly forgotten gems from retired Lowcountry bands from 15 years ago? With everything changing at a gross, rapid rate around us, the playlists made my heart sing with nostalgia of a quiet, sleepy downtown where the artsy weirdos once reigned late at night. I will miss tuning in while stuck in traffic, slowly passing all the old haunts."

The City Paper first learned of WYLA when perusing stations, in traffic, during its first week on the air. The station at that time had employed a common radio gimmick called stunting, which happens when a radio station changes format. WYLA's schtick? America's first all-Shovels & Rope radio station. That obviously got our attention, but what really made us sit up straight and give WYLA a Critics' Pick back in the spring of 2016 was not just the gimmicky plethora of local darlings, ShoRo, but a diverse playlist you couldn't find anywhere else: something like Kraftwerk, followed by bluegrass, then punk, hip-hop, metal, indie, or country.  By the fall, WYLA had ushered in the music of scores of local artists present and past and become a firm favorite on many a radio dials, earning the station a spot on our cover in September 2016, which was among the nominees voted in by our readers for Best Cover Story in the City Paper's Best of Charleston issue the following year.

Station director Kevin Crothers made it his mission to, via those sacred old-school airwaves, to document the history of local Charleston music through consistently great, informative programming: Resident country music historian Roger Bellow's Vintage Country hour, June Murray's The Doo-Wop Queen Presents Cruising Down Doo-Wap Lane, Noodle McDoodle's The Swing Shift, Hans Teder's 80s at 8 Alternative Flashback, and Grant's Rebel Souls Road Show, to name a few — not to mention The Charleston Time Machine with historian Nic Butler. The latter used "stories and facts from the rich, deep, colorful history of Charleston, South Carolina as a means to educate, inspire, amuse, and even amaze the minds of the community," the CCPL website says. "By exploring the stories of our shared past, we can better understand our present world and plan more effectively for the future."

So why is the CCPL suddenly changing its tune? Public relations manager Natalie Caula Hauff says that the library's strategic mission has shifted due to the opening or replacement of several new branches, in addition to the increased need to reach vulnerable populations, create new programming that meets the needs of each of its 16 branches, and, ultimately, focus on literacy. "This is our No. 1 priority," says Hauff. "I know that it is a special place for musicians, and those musicians value having that avenue. But again, when it comes down to it, literacy is our No. 1 concern. Education. And if we have to pick between the two, we're always going to pick literacy. As a library, that's our core value, and, again, how we can affect the most people with the greatest mission aligned with what we do at the library."

Hauff added that the community impact of WYLA was measurable, for one, through testing the station's effect as a promotional arm. "As far as promotion, we did a survey last year after our programs and asked several questions about programming but also, how did they find out about the event, and zero respondents said WYLA," she says. "But then again, when we say community impact, community impact aligning with our mission. We know that it's made an impact in the community of musicians — that's clear. But again, it's the audience that we are trying to reach as a library and what the core of our mission is."

Hauff adds that as far as listenership went, the WYLA couldn't be measured via Nielsen. On streaming, however, it appeared that there were only an average 1,000 listeners a week. "But we don't know if that's unique individuals or if that's 500 listening to it twice a day," she says. "The app we were using wouldn't provide that."

Numbers or not, judging from the stream of feedback we've received at the news of the station's demise, it would seem that the station will be missed by everyone from music industry folks to, simply, music lovers looking for something different on the radio.

Music journalist (Charleston Magazine) Devin Grant co-hosted WYLA's Rebel Souls Road Show with Lua Wells, playing mostly rock and Americana from their own record collections. Grant says Crothers' diversity in styles on the various shows and programming serves as proof that music can bring a community together. "I'm disappointed in the library's decision to silence WYLA, as much of what passes for radio on other stations around town is pretty horrible stuff thanks to automated playlists and voice tracking by jocks in other cities," he says. "Stations such as WYLA and OHM Radio are much-needed musical and informational islands in a sea of mediocrity."

Americana artist Chris Boone echoes the sentiment that by tuning into the station, he felt connected to the local community, saying that the loss of locally focused radio like WYLA makes it difficult to discover new (and old) local music for those who can't leave their homes late at night. "... Not all folks can get out to the bars and venues to hear live music, especially at the hours live music is often being played," he says. "I really appreciated everything Kevin had done for the local music community and bridging that to the residence. What a loss to lose that bandwidth."

WYLA was also involved with local schools, getting some of the kids — musicians as well as a high school chorus — to perform on the air. "WYLA provided a fantastic opportunity for seventh and eighth-grade vocalists and strings players from Charleston County's School of the Arts," Amy Horwitz says. "They took a during-school field trip to the library where they performed some holiday songs that were broadcast live and sounded great."

But don't despair completely, dear readers. You still have a couple other local music radio options: Box in the Morning, formerly on The Bridge 105.5, has moved to an online stream (go to boxinthemorning.com), where you can hear local hip-hop artist Benjamin Starr back-to-back with new stuff by Wolfgang Zimmerman. And Ohm Radio 96.3, the other community radio station, is on the up and up, with recently announced plans to move operations to Workshop by the end of summer in order to be even more accessible to the community. So, you'll still have local music pumping through the radio. They too commented on the station's departure from local airwaves. "Ohm is very sad that WYLA is shutting down," says president Vikki Matsis. "We love their station and always had our dials set between 96.3 and 97.5. They will be greatly missed."

Monster Music & Movies owner Galen Hudson is disappointed to hear WYLA will sign off this week as well. "It takes chances," he says of the station. "It gives local artists not just airplay but a timeslot. That they allow people like Noodle from the V-Tones or Roger Bellow, or music journalists like Grant, to have their own shows where they genuinely attempt to educate their listenership — as opposed to most amateur DJs who just try to show off — is a clear example of community outreach. The movement to community radio that has been happening over the last several years nationwide should be a clear example to the library management that they're on the crest of a wave, and they need to ride it."

Hauff says Crothers has been offered another position at the library. We asked Crothers to comment but he referred us back to Hauff, who handles all communication for the CCPL.

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