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Station WJEJ, Staub turning 75

October 28, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

Back in the 1930s, the young son of a railroader in Brunswick, Md., would tune his crystal radio to Hagers-town's WJEJ, one of the few local stations that existed.

Come Monday, WJEJ will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Coincidentally, very soon, John Staub - that little boy who grew up into the radio business and eventually bought WJEJ - also will turn 75.

"The radio station is actually six weeks older than me. I made my first broadcast on Dec. 4, 1932, (when) I was born," Staub said with a laugh. "In January, I will celebrate 54 years in broadcasting."

WJEJ went on the air on Oct. 29, 1932. At the time, there were only 600 stations in the world, Staub said.

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When it started, WJEJ was at 1210 on the radio dial. A few years later, the Federal Communications Commission "opened up some additional frequencies and everybody had to go up, so that's how we wound up at 1240 on the dial," he said.

In the beginning, the station was owned by several stockholders and broadcast from the roof of the Alexander Hotel in downtown Hagerstown. There were no other stations in the area then, so its broadcast waves carried it as far as Baltimore and Washington.

Today, said Staub, who bought WJEJ in 1972, there are more than 8,000 other AM stations like WJEJ, plus about 8,000 others that are FM. The AM signals compete, so even though WJEJ has a larger transmitter at its current Haven Road site, its signal basically reaches no farther than Martinsburg, W.Va., and Chambersburg, Pa.

In its early days, there were no canned network programs or records to fill the air time. So early programming had to be live and WJEJ's first announcer, Earl Mentzer, who came to be known as "Earl the Early Bird," had to be able to sing as well, Staub said.

Mentzer, who was 74 in 1982 when the station celebrated its 50th anniversary, recalled in an interview then that the live format made creativity a must. To create sounds for on-air skits, cellophane from a cigarette pack was crumpled to mimic a crackling fire or sheet metal was flexed for the noise of a thunderstorm.

Staub said that Mentzer, who has since died, began a Smile Club, based on his use of "A Smile Goes a Long, Long Way" as his morning show's theme song. In all, 10,000 listeners joined the first year.

He gave it a try

Staub came to radio after a short time of working for the BF Goodrich rubber company in Waynesboro, Va. The manager of radio station WAYB there used to come around for advertising and one day, he told the young Staub about an opening for a nighttime DJ "and he said, 'Why don't you try it, John?'"

Staub did, and liked it. Later, he worked at WARK in Hagerstown, WFMD in Frederick and then, with two partners, built station WMHI in Braddock Heights, Md., in 1960.

Twelve years later, having sold out to his partners, he bought WJEJ.

Its technology, like the rest of the industry, has changed a lot since those early days.

"We no longer use tape to record something," Staub said. "Used to be you could cut and splice tape. Take out a breath if somebody flubbed their language. Now, you just cut it out by computer. It's just done on a screen with a squiggly little line on it."

And now, WJEJ has a music library of "somewhere around 8,000 songs that we can call up at any given time, and it's all stored in a computer," he said.

These days, too, the station broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On its first day in 1932, the broadcast lasted only a few hours. The early broadcasts were intermittent - the transmitter was turned on, or off, as WJEJ had something to say.

Nowadays, some radio stations are making use of the Internet, putting their programming on the Web, Staub said.

But not WJEJ.

"It would be very cost-prohibitive for a small station like ours to do something like that," because the music unions demand payment, in addition to what the station already pays them for putting their music out over the air, Staub said.

A point of pride

He is proud that WJEJ is different from many other stations.

In music selection, for instance.

He said the station still plays big band music and pop standards and some of the new music. "If it's music," he said, laying stress on 'music,' "we'll play it. And you can tune in and if it's you and your grandmother, neither of you will be embarrassed."

He's also proud that WJEJ is "very high into community service." It's Phone Party listener call-in program has been around since the 1940s. And, the station interviews people about community events and has a Good News Hagerstown program about just that.

The programming is like "your friend on the radio," he said.

Staub expressed pride that WJEJ is still independently owned.

So many others, even in the Tri-State, are now part of "big conglomerates ... that, essentially, put the same programming on in Frederick as they have in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and whatever. To me, that's not local broadcasting anymore."

Not that he hasn't had interest from others in buying WJEJ.

"I've had some tire-kickers," he said, "but I'm really not interested in selling or anything. My oldest daughter, Joanna, is the assistant manager and she's been doing well.

"We'll probably stay a small-town radio station. That's what we've been and that's what we are. We're kind of like the last of the Mohicans. There's not a lot of us anymore."

A few years ago, "to protect my family," Staub did sell WWMD, an FM station that previous WJEJ owners launched in 1946. He said he sold it after reading about the government reappraising a farmer's land after his death "to the point where the children couldn't afford to pay the taxes ... so they lost the farm."

Above all, Staub said, he is proud that WJEJ is the kind of station it is. And, he hopes it stays that way through its 100th anniversary and beyond.

"It has the kind of programming that deserves to be heard. It has the kind of music that deserves to be heard," he said. "We are a good service to the community."

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