+ By Leah Weiss + Photos by Emily Karcher Schmitt
A small item on the front page of the April 20, 1949 edition of the Evening Capital, titled “To Dedicate Station WNAV,” announced the upcoming first broadcast of Annapolis’ third radio station. Seventy years later, WNAV is still transmitting from the same tower on Admiral Drive, using some of the same technology from its early days.
“Talk about rare,” says Steve Hopp, WNAV’s general manager, musing over the station’s longevity. “It’s moved around just slightly within the music genres, but being the local station, providing local news and public affairs and sports . . . doing that since it’s conception, and with the same call letters—that’s really rare, these days.”
“Some things have changed over the years,” he admits. “We once carried Baltimore Colts football. Well, that certainly went away. Then we went to the Redskins for a while, and now it’s the Ravens.”
Unlike WANN and WYRE, AM stations that had to sign off at sundown, the new station, located in Carvel Hall (now the Paca House), aired first as an FM station, at 99.1—initially intended to play music to special receivers in grocery stores—and then, a couple of months later, was granted a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license allowing nighttime AM broadcasting at 1430. “Our current FM signal [at 99.9] is a low-power translator like the FCC has allowed a number of AM stations to utilize,” explains Hopp. At night, WNAV reconfigures its AM signal so as not to interfere with other stations in New Jersey and Ohio that share that same frequency.
The station on Admiral Drive was built circa 1951, starting with the transmitter room. It was added onto as needed, the latest “new wing” built in 1974, and has a cozy, retro feel. The decades-old, peacock blue RCA transmitters are a sight to behold. Vast open space surrounds the small rectangular brick building, lending a pastoral quality. “We have to have the ground for AM—that’s why there is typically acreage around AM stations,” says Hopp, referring to the buried ground radials placed every five degrees around the tower, each measuring half the tower’s height in length.
“Back in the day, you had to have a First Class license to operate a directional station,” he says. “Now they’ve relaxed the rules, as long as you have an engineer on call. I think we lost something, when the operators don’t have to worry what’s on the meter out in the transmitter room.”
Hopp went to broadcasting school and the Radio Engineering Institute, and has always been in broadcasting. He joined the WNAV staff in 1971, first as a part-time announcer. Over time, he moved through the ranks, working in sales and serving as program director, operations manager, and general manager, the latter position under two station owners.
Television personality and Severna Park resident Pat Sajak, who began his broadcast career in radio, currently owns the station. “I’ve Been Thinking About,” a minutes-long weekly commentary, is his sole on-air presence. “He’s the perfect owner,” says Hopp. “He helps us when we need help, and has been extremely supportive over these 20 years. The whole reason he bought the station was that he knew what it was, and he liked what it did and wanted to keep it that way.”
Under its FCC license, the station is required to service the needs and interests of its community, something Hopp says is easy to fulfill. “It’s gotten very compartmentalized in our industry, now,” he says. Many stations are single format, airing primarily sports, news, or music. WNAV, whose tagline is “Your Hometown Station,” is full service, writing and reporting local news, producing public affairs programs, airing public service announcements for community organizations, broadcasting local and regional sports events, and playing music mapped out by program director Bill Lusby and augmented by listener requests. “We trust our on-air people. We’re not that prescriptive,” says Hopp, explaining how WNAV announcers have freedom in their presentations. Such practices are becoming less common because of the associated costs: “It’s a lot easier to bring in music over the satellite and put it in the automation system,” he says.
WNAV ascertains which social issues are most important to its listening audience through semiannual reports issued by Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues. “It’s wonderful,” says Hopp, “because they’re talking to 500 or more people. We can use that to direct our talk shows.” While the major topics of concern don’t vary much from year to year, they tend to shift positions in terms of priority.
One of the station’s public affairs programs, “Talk With,” originated as “Talk with the Mayor.” Over time, it evolved, branching out into conversations with other officials such as the Annapolis police chief and heads of other agencies and organizations. Recently, WNAV has been focusing on the opioid crisis and suicides, which have increased in the area. “I feel that our job is to get the word out,” says Hopp. “If we can help organizations get their messages to the public, then I feel that’s what we need to do. We try to keep all the doors and windows open, so that when the ideas come in, we can grab them and work with them.”
Sports fill much of the evening programming, with broadcasts of Orioles and Ravens games and Navy football, basketball, and lacrosse. Bowie Baysox games are either streamed online or on the air, depending on the Orioles’ schedule. Local high school sports are also covered. “We’re the only station still doing that,” exclaims Hopp. “This year was great, because we had a girls team and a boys team that went to the finals from Anne Arundel County. It was wonderful.” Wiley Baker’s coverage includes stories about team participants, coaches, and athletic directors.
Hopp admits that the 24-hour news cycle is painfully fast. “It’s nice to be first with a news story, but I’d rather be correct,” he says. “We always say that our news pyramid is upside down, because typically it’s international, national, regional, local. We turn that right around and make local most important.” Most time spent is talking to local newsmakers and first responders. “In turn, when they want to get the word out about something, they contact us.” Over the years, the news staff has received Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association awards, something that brings recognition to the news staff as individuals as well as to the station.
WNAV’s staff is relatively small, with 12 full-time and roughly two dozen part-time employees—some have been with the station for 20 years. The iconic WNAV van is often seen around the city, at local parades, fairs, and fundraisers, at election night parties, at Navy pre-game tailgates, and more. Once, the van was stolen from the parking lot. “Unfortunately, we had kept some equipment in it, so I guess they were interested in that. But I’m thinking, it’s got the call letters on the side,” says Hopp, smiling, questioning the practicality of the robber’s acquisition. “There are days when we wish we could clone ourselves and our van!”
As for the station’s future, Hopp hopes that WNAV continues to be relevant. While many media outlets are downsizing and relying more on corporate support, WNAV receives funding primarily from local advertisers, aligning with its local focus. Businesswise, it’s challenging. “But we keep trying to do the right thing,” says Hopp. “People find value in what we do, and we just want to keep doing it.” █