As the story goes, Lester Etter and a few other guys took a trip to North Carolina. At a time when they were wrapping up their college studies, it was suggested that they start a radio station.
“They did just that – they started a radio station,” said Gordon Weise, news director for that station, WLBR (1270 AM) in Lebanon County.
On his way home to Lebanon County, Etter stopped in Washington, D.C., and filed the necessary paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission.
WLBR debuted in 1948. Etter’s son, Robert, owns and operates news/talk WLBR and sister station Soft Rock 100.1 (WQIC-FM) under the banner of Lebanon Broadcasting Co. WLBR operates at 5,000 watts during the day and 1,000 at night.
The station’s geographic reach is expansive: Harrisburg, Manheim, Reading toward Pottsville, sometimes all the way to Philadelphia.
A communications major at what was then Shippensburg State College, Weise got his first taste of radio on the college station.
“It’s what I liked to do,” he said. “I hung out with all the radio people, and that’s what turned into a career.”
He was a disc jockey who got into news when an opening occurred at WHAT (now WWSM) in Lebanon in 1981.
“Knew nothing about news,” Weise said. “It was a frightful experience because people would really call you up and give you a hard time if you were wrong. And a newbie in a newsroom is wrong a lot. You don’t know what questions to ask. You constantly are second-guessing yourself.”
Storytelling became a bigger part of his job five or six years into his news career. Weise said he began employing language and grammar typically found in non-fiction writing to tell news stories.
“I try to make people feel as though they are there, or give them some sort of emotional impact to a story,” he said.
Like just about every traditional news outlet these days, WLBR finds itself trying to do more with less. Besides Weise, WLBR’s full-time news staff comprises Laura LeBeau, who hosts the midday “On Air” talk show in addition to general assignment reporting duties.
Weise labels as “one of the great failures” WLBR’s underestimating the scope of the 2012 flooding that deluged central Pennsylvania in September 2012.
“The unfortunate thing about that was the situation called for a far greater response than we gave it,” Weise said. “There are a lot of reasons that that happened, but the bottom line is the responsibility was my call. … We got hit on publicly, and I can certainly tell you it was absolutely on the mark.”
Challenge of social media
While most news organizations have gone multi-media, WLRB does not not have a website nor a social media presence of its own; LeBeau is active on Twitter. Weise illustrates the challenge posed by social media.
” … [T]he Lebanon mayor does the State of the City address, the [Lebanon] Daily News has a photographer and two reporters there,” he said. “They’re live-streaming the speech and tweeting at the same time. It’s difficult to compete with that.
“It used to be that radio had the immediacy. And part of that was because we did news twice an hour. And now we’re living in an a la carte world where just a mouse click away you can get anything you want any time you want, 24/7.”
But WLBR listeners remain “incredibly faithful to this station,” Weise said, turning to it for information about Lebanon County.
Ultimately, radio success is determined by the number of people tuning in. WLBR is holding its own, based on Nielsen Radio data provided to me by Maureen Royer of Monarch Media Solutions in Dillsburg, a multi-media planning and placement firm. WLBR ranks third behind WHP and WHGB for listeners among AM stations in the Harrisburg Metro market, which comprises Cumberland, Dauphin and Lebanon counties.
“In my opinion at least, radio’s value is grabbing what immediacy you can grab but becoming your companion, the person you talk to, you hear, which is something that a newspaper can never do,” Weise said. “Truly not even a TV station can do that on a regular basis.”