If you could launch a radio station, what song would you play first? For many, making that call could result in a slight spiral into insanity. But for Kevin Crothers, station manager at the Charleston County Public Library's (CCPL) WYLA 97.5 FM, there wasn't much deliberation on how he'd kick things off — he knew, undoubtedly, that the station's first steps would be taken with 1978's "Radio Radio" by Elvis Costello & the Attractions. "That was my intent all along, to play that song," he says. "Then I played 'Radio Radio' backwards, just so people would tune in and go, 'What is that?' — you know, and talk about it a little bit."
It didn't take long for a buzz to flourish that week, with a new station no one had ever heard of suddenly cranking out tons of music by local acts. Confusion really set in that following weekend when WYLA commercials began declaring it "America's first all-Shovels & Rope radio station." If you're thinking, "What the what?" — well, so were we.
Crothers says he'd employed a radio technique called stunting, which happens when a radio station wants to change formats, switch over, or just get the listener's attention in an amusing fashion. "I've always wanted to do radio where they stunt," says Crothers, in-between live broadcasts from the CCPL's onsite studio. "So for the first day, we did all Weird Al. And then for the weekend, I cut a couple of quick IDs saying it was the nation's only all-Shovels & Rope radio station. And so we did that for the weekend until Monday, when I was ready to roll with the regular format. That was never the intent, to be a full-time thing, but it was something that caught people's attention."
Though it launched on March 1, WYLA wasn't prepared to speak with the press about the station until recently. "Everybody was waiting for the concept to develop and for everyone to get comfortable with what we're doing," he says. Now, the station is fulfilling its goal from the beginning, which is to get local music on the air. "In the course of an hour, I'd say we play at least 10 local acts, but there's also oldies stuff that plays — the entirety of recorded music. I might have a 1920s Lead Belly recording, or it might be something from 2005. Then I try to play more current underground indie artists once or twice an hour as well, but I think it's a fun mix. And the local stuff, by and large, sounds like it should fit on the radio. It's not an out-of-tune guitar player in his garage. It's pro-sounding music."
Crothers, who's worked as an AV specialist with the library for over 14 years, suggested the idea for the station himself in 2013, and before long he'd applied for a frequency. It wasn't until November 6, 2014 that it was granted, but the build-out of the station was further delayed when WYLA decided to apply for a $25,000 grant from the state library, which allowed the station to purchase its necessary equipment. All he had to do in return is provide a service for the local arts community.
So last year, Crothers dug further than ever before into the local music scene. "When I started assembling the playlist a year ago, I was astonished by the number of bands I hadn't heard of locally and how good they were," he says. "Charleston is really well-known for a certain subset of musicians, but there are a hundred others out there doing equally interesting and good work, and I'm really, really happy to be able to promote those folks. It's very satisfying to see their response to hearing themselves on the radio."
And Crothers can relate. He heard himself on the radio for the first time in 1984. "I was in a project that ended up on local college radio," he remembers. "And that first time, you stop the car, you pull over, you turn it up, you dance around the car — that sort of thing. The band gets out, high-fiving each other and all that sort of stuff. And so I empathize with folks hearing themselves on the radio — and not hearing themselves on the radio, too. So many good bands in this town could jump right in the playlist of big promotional stations around here and not sound out of place. They'd slide right in."
One local artist who got that radio euphoria thanks to WYLA is Eden Fonvielle of the V-Tones of Charleston and the Amazing Mittens. "I have never before been able to hear The V-Tones of Charleston or the Amazing Mittens actually on the radio, so you can imagine I get a big kick outta that," she says. "Kevin has done so much for the local music scene. Most of what he plays is from Charleston artists. I hear everything from blues, swing, and Afro-pop to punk and folk. WYLA is a variety show."
The library, with or without the station, has always supported local arts, Crothers says. For example, each year the library hosts a Christmas extravaganza in its auditorium with the V-Tones, and bands like A Fragile Tomorrow have performed there in the past, too. In fact, when A Fragile Tomorrow moved to the city several years ago, the library hosted their first gig. Coincidentally, the band was performing live on the air when we stopped by to check out the station a few weeks back, and Crothers hopes to see more of those kinds of live performances on the air in the near future.
Another low-power FM station that loves putting locals on the air is OHM Radio 96.3, which debuted last year. So how is WYLA different from OHM? Unlike OHM Radio, which is community-supported, WYLA's operating expenses are funded by the CCPL's budget, which is a combination of county and state funding, and by the Friends of the Library, which provides much of the financial support for library programs.
But the two stations are alike in that they are both commercial-free and feature programs helmed by locals. Though WYLA only has a few programs lined up as of yet, Crothers hopes more folks will come forward in the coming weeks with ideas on new shows produced by locals. "I'm open to a world of ideas. Public affairs, news — those people need to contact me, and we'll get them on the air doing something interesting," he says. "We want the public to use this as a public station, in a sense. And education is something the library does, so I'm hoping to teach skills to people that they can use in other aspects of their lives."
Until then, the 8 p.m. slot is filled with the CCPL's archivist and public historian Nic Butler and his Charleston Time Machine on Mondays, which is a look at fascinating local history. Electronic Escape (downtempo, melodic electronica) plays on Tuesdays, Image-Free Radio (world music) on Wednesdays, the Vinyl Vault (vinyl obscurities) on Thursdays, Cruisin' Down Doo-Wop Lane on Fridays, World Wide Saturday (beach, soul, R&B) for two hours on Saturdays, and Rebel Souls Road Show (Americana) on Sunday nights.
Regardless of the station's lack of publicity until now, WYLA — ever since its first week of radio stunts — has gotten plenty of word-of-mouth referrals and praise from locals who say they love the randomness of the station — though Crothers promises that, behind the scenes, the format is absolutely deliberate. He says, "I call them my car crashes, because of the seemingly random nature of it, where a bluegrass band might segue into a punk band."
But it's that supposed randomness and the station's dedication to Charleston music that have folks hooked and listening every day, like Greg Elias, founder of local label Academia Tapes Plus. "Since the station started up, it is all I listen to in the car, and every time something from someone I know comes on, I get a real kick," Elias says. "I love the format, just a massive Charleston playlist with a few out-of-town gems mixed in, and I love how accessible it has been. Kevin is proactive about having a living archive of Charleston music and, even if you tune in for just a few minutes, you experience a real, unfiltered moment of Charleston's musical identity. As such, I think it is a hugely important part of the public library and Charleston, as it documents our local music identity, past and present, without limit. You can tune into Charleston's musical stream of consciousness, and it is a really beautiful thing."