WBCU: Small Town Radio in Union Since 1949

In an age when radio is dominated by syndicated shows and pre-programmed content, radio stations with live DJs are becoming a rarity—and rarer still are stations with purely local content. But in downtown Union, WBCU has been broadcasting from the same location since 1949, and just as it did in its early days, the station still has a focus on local news, sports, and weather, mixed into its country music format.

When the planning for the station began in the late 1940s, financial backer Fred Symmes had three criteria for the station that he insisted on if he was putting his money into it: It needed enough power to cover the entire county, it needed to be on night and day, and it needed to broadcast from downtown Union. Those first two were a tall order, as the FCC struggled to meet demand for the burgeoning airspace, but the criteria were met after a few lobbying trips to Washington, DC.

An old dairy store on Main Street was chosen for the site for the broadcast studio and station offices, and manager Milton Scarboro hired engineer Tommy Weathers to get it up and running—offering him a bonus of $300 if he could get it on the air by October 1. He beat that deadline by over a month, with the first broadcast heard on August 27, 1949, when listeners heard the voice of Bill “Strib” Stribling.

The first three managers—Scarboro, Stribling, and Bud Hullick—were radio men, but they were performers, not businessmen. It was Ed Osborne, the fourth manager, who made the station a profitable enterprise, raising advertising rates to a level that would cover expenses, but doing it with a view to helping local businesses rather than selling them something.

In the early years of the station, network entertainment shows such as The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Superman were staples, but Osborne also programmed a number of local shows, including a popular show for women hosted by his mother, that were just as popular. So when TV began to replace the radio for entertainment shows in homes in the 1950s, WBCU’s audience still tuned in to hear local news, sports, and other home-grown shows.

Current WBCU owner Chris Woodson came on board as station manager in 2003, and then, in 2006, he and his wife, Ashley Graham, purchased the station from former owner Art Sutton. Since he purchased the station, Woodson says, “I have tried to be true to the history of the station as far as serving the community.”

That goes beyond just broadcasting high school sports and covering local news—although that’s an important part of what the station does. “People want to hear their grandson’s name on the radio when he wins the spelling bee, or when their daughter on the tennis team won her match,” Woodson says. “It’s important to this community to keep that local focus.” But in addition to informing listeners of sports scores and local news items, the station engages in community outreach events such as food, coat, and toy drives.

As an example of community engagement, Woodson tells a story from this past July, when the local Miracle League was trying to raise money to build all-inclusive playground. They had been given $75,000, which would be doubled if they raised the same amount by the end of the month. When they were near the deadline, they were $3800–4000 short, so they approached Woodson to see if they could raise the rest of the money on the air. “We had almost no notice to pull this off,” Woodson says, “But by the time they went off the air, they had raised $10,000 in less than 2 hours. That’s the power of the community and this radio station.”

Throughout the election season this year, local political candidates have had a chance to let listeners get to know them through live interviews and debates that are available as podcasts so people can listen any time. Those podcasts represent a huge shift in the technology in radio, and although the station has adapted by having an online presence through social media and mobile apps, an ongoing challenge for a station in a small market is keeping up with the technology.

Woodson is confident the station will survive, though, as long as it stays true to the mission of serving the community. “We are proud to be here in Union,” he says. “It’s a wonderful community, and they’ve supported this station since 1949. Without their support, we wouldn’t be here—and because of that support, we’ve been able to do some things that have made a difference in people’s lives.”

Photos courtesy of WBCU. Historical information for this article was taken from Bob Doll's book, A Perfect Union: 50 Years in a Small Town and its Radio Station: A Love Story.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.