By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A chance meeting between one of the owners of an Atmore radio station and a college instructor who had no classes to teach during the summer has apparently provided the missing component of a plan to restore and enhance the station’s hometown flavor.
Larry White, one of three principals in Tri-County Broadcasting, recounted this week how the eventual hiring of Phil Johnson, a well-known personality in Atmore, to help run the station came about.
“We had an opening at the station, and I happened to run into Phil in a store,” White said. “Of course, I had been knowing him for years, but I told him we needed somebody to sort of manage the station and manage sales, so I asked him if he would be interested. He called in a few days, we met and everybody decided he would be a good fit.”
Johnson, a former reporter for Atmore News and currently the artistic director for Greater Escambia Council for the Arts and an instructor at Coastal Alabama Community College, is expected to provide a familiar voice and more live local programming for listeners.
The station’s signal bounces across a circular area that includes Atmore, Brewton, Monroeville and Bay Minette. It also reaches the fringes of Jackson and Mobile, as well as West Pensacola and much of Alabama’s coastal area.
“Phil is an Atmore guy; he’s involved in so many things and he loves Atmore, so he’ll do a good job of promoting it,” said White, who owns the local station with his brother, Earnest (Ernie), and his son-in-law, Ronnie Hammond.
Johnson, who started his new career this week, admitted that his prior radio experience is limited. Very limited.
“I was looking for a new opportunity when I ran into Larry,” he recalled. “This is my first time in radio, except the times when I’ve been interviewed. I’m being thrown in the deep end rather quickly.”
The station, which has an effective radiated power of 5,500 watts but is currently employing only about a third of that, broadcasts as “Hot Country 105.9.” Classic country music from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s is provided through a national network, and WBZR currently features only one hour a day of local programming. Johnson hopes to change that.
“We’re only live an hour a day — for the Swap Shop — right now,” he said. “I hope to eventually work that into three hours, including an hour during the main drive time. I want to do local news and cover things about Atmore and the area that you can’t find anywhere else.
“I’m hoping to line up a show during the local drive time that has special guests, like maybe a great local cook telling how to make a special dish and things like that.”
He said he hopes to also add radio dramas, hopefully live, at least once a year to help generate memories among the more seasoned people who tune in and who grew up listening to such fare.
“A lot of folks with gray hair like to step back in time, to the radio of the 1940s and 50s, at least a couple of times a year,” Johnson explained.
White said the company has recently made a major investment in new equipment and technology and added that he, his brother and son-in-law are open to any programming suggestions Johnson might come up with.
“As far as new programming, we’re in discussions about what additional programs we can add for the benefit of our listening audience and to help us be a better hometown radio station,” he said. “Sports, especially local sports, will continue to be our top programming.
“We’ve already put quite an investment in equipment, and we are installing a new tube this week that will get us back to 100-percent power.”
According to several online sources, the station’s first local owner was Atmore’s Gehman family, which began operations in 1991 as Alabama Native American Broadcasting. It changed hands several times, often amid controversy, before the Whites purchased it in 2014.
“It does have a rather colorful background,” Johnson agreed. “But the Whites have brought some stability that wasn’t there before they bought it.”
White said he and the other Tri-County Broadcasting officers feel that their new employee will help them continue their effort to maintain that stability and to again provide quality radio programming for local and area listeners.
“This opens up new opportunities for new programming, and we’re really looking forward to working with Phil,” he said. “I think this is going to work out well.”