Home Conservative talk-show host takes over Staunton’s WTON: Is there money in local radio?
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Conservative talk-show host takes over Staunton’s WTON: Is there money in local radio?

Chris Graham
brian kilmeade joe thomas
Joe Thomas, right, talks with Fox News personality Brian Kilmeade. Photo courtesy Joe Thomas.

You know what we don’t have nearly enough of these days? Conservative talk radio. (I’m being facetious.)

The Augusta County-Staunton-Waynesboro media landscape, to that end, seems very much ripe for the picking.

Disgraced ex-president Donald Trump, whose first criminal trial, this one involving hush-money payments paid to a porn actress, begins today, received 63.5 percent of the votes cast in our little corner of the world in the 2020 election, the one, you know, that he still refuses to acknowledge he lost.

(He did. Emphatically.)

And yet you can drive to work, to the grocery store, to the Moose Lodge, to the country club, and you’d have to have a satellite radio subscription to be able to get your fix of Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Brian Kilmeade and the like, and you wouldn’t have a local conservative talker to help you make conservative sense of things at the local level.

Which gets us to Joe Thomas.

Thomas, who hosted a conservative morning talk show on WCHV in Charlottesville for 17 years, is taking over the Staunton-based WTON, which has been on the air since 1946, but had been, in recent years, run into the ground as an almost-forgotten ESPN affiliate with limited local-sports programming, and nothing in the way of local news or news talk.

Things had gotten so bad at the local station that Stu-Comm Inc., the parent company of WNRN, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit radio station, was able to buy WTON-1240AM and its sister FM station, Star-94.3, at a reported purchase price of $550,000, just to get access to the FM station’s transmitter, which it wanted to use to be able to strengthen WNRN’s reach in the Shenandoah Valley.

Thomas Media LLC has since purchased WTON for a reported $275,000, with plans to broadcast at 1240 on the AM dial, at 101.1FM in the Augusta County-Staunton-Waynesboro market, and 98.9FM in the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County market.

Thomas had hoped to be able to continue as a talk-show host and as the program director at WCHV, but the Monticello Media owners balked, for probably obvious reasons.

“It’s kind of like managing a Burger King and going and owning McDonald’s and still wanting to manage Burger King,” Monticello Media Director of Operations PJ Styles told NBC29. “We had to let him know back in January, that wasn’t something we were really interested in doing.”

Thomas told me last week that his thinking was to “create a synergy” between WCHV east of the Blue Ridge and WTON in the Valley that would give WCHV the opportunity to share its programming from Central Virginia to the Virginia/West Virginia state line, “but they had different ideas.”

To get a sense, then, of what Thomas was envisioning in terms of programming “synergy,” WCHV, where he had served as the program director since 2007, is heavy on the far-right conservative talk, with a weekday lineup that features the likes of Mike Gallagher, Brian Kilmeade, Charlie Kirk and Lars Larson.

I asked Thomas about his plans for WTON programming now that he won’t be partnering with WCHV, and he talked up wanting to have local news and local sports with a mix of nationally-syndicated programs, though the only one of those national programs that he mentioned by name was “The Dan Patrick Show,” a light-fare daily sports show featuring the former ESPN and NBC personality.

I noticed that Thomas also specifically referenced his interest in Dan Patrick to my former writing, radio and podcast colleague Patrick Hite in an interview for a story in the News Leader that ran over the weekend.

My thinking here is, Thomas was treading lightly, hoping to get what he could in positive press, which, credit there, that’s just smart PR.

I know that in my case, Thomas reached out to me to pitch having me do a story on his purchase of WTON, and I even started our interview by asking him, Are you sure you want me to do a story on you?

“You know, if somebody said to me, Oh, don’t talk to Chris, because he’s thus and such, and if I didn’t take time to vet that, I might just fall prey to it and say, Oh, don’t read the Augusta Free Press,” Thomas said. “We have to stop isolating ourselves from each other. Otherwise, we’re just going to keep falling prey to some guy who wants to start a dumpster fire to make themselves popular. And so, that’s what I do in radio, I know what you do with the paper, and you know, we’ve got to stick together.”

That came across to me as genuine, though I’ll also say, I’d still be surprised if Thomas doesn’t end up programming WTON the way he programmed WCHV, which, hey, no problem with that, same as it doesn’t bother me if people have a problem with the editorial focus of AFP.

To be honest, I’d welcome Thomas following through with the idea of doing local news, even if there is a far-right slant.

AFP has been around since 2002, and it continues to surprise me that there’s no other truly local news outlet that has popped up in the 22 years since we launched.

For a local media market with a population in the range of 125,000, for us to have one local news outlet, and two flailing legacy newspapers owned by out-of-town interests that I fully expect to be closing up shop on their local properties any day now, there would seem to be plenty of room for more players.

To that end, Thomas is gambling his and his investors’ money on the idea that there’s a place for local radio, in a wider over-the-air radio marketplace that has, in the past couple of decades, been dominated by the national conglomerates.

“I think local radio is coming back,” Thomas said. “This was an epiphany I had in the process of developing the team to make this purchase. Some of the folks had approached some investment banker types, who looked at my business plan, which I thought was a fairly conservative one, and they said, Well, gosh, we can make more money in T-bills.

“A little light went on in my head,” Thomas said. “I said, Hold it, what’s wrong with these companies, like, you know, Lee and Gannett and iHeartMedia, is they’re being driven by these people who say, Well, if it’s not making me 10 percent, what’s the point? Yeah, and they’re constantly cutting back constantly, cutting back the things that make people want to utilize their product. And I think that leads to that opportunity, where I think you’re gonna find more and more towns are going to have more and more stations like this that are available.”

The availability is one thing; using the local stations that are coming back on the market for local players like Thomas who want to put the focus back on local is quite another.

Thomas said he wants to build a local news team, but as I observed to him in our chat last week, local news is expensive, just because you have to have warm bodies at local city council, board of supervisors and school board meetings to keep tabs on what’s going on.

And then there’s the really hard part: finding enough advertising to keep the bills paid.

My read on that is, our particular local market is a tough nut to crack.

The local businesses that would be your backbone are themselves struggling to get market share against the national chains.

The reality of our business situation is, AFP doesn’t make it on local ads, and hasn’t for years.

That’s my only word of warning here for Joe Thomas. He’ll have no problem finding an audience for local news mixed with conservative talk in a part of the world that is nearly two-thirds MAGA.

The key to whether he’s successful with this venture or not is, as is true with just about everything else in the world, the money side of things.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].