In the wasteland that is 21st-century commercial radio, blandness and conformity rule the roost. “Everything’s the same now,” says “Lonesome” Larry Williams, station manager of WWHP, or the Whip, which is at 98.3 on your FM dial and broadcasts from Williams’ modest home/studio in Farmer City, Illinois (about 25 miles west of Champaign-Urbana). Williams has been fighting the good fight against corporate radio for the past dozen years with his station’s eclectic mix of country, blues, bluegrass, comedy, rock, gospel, farm market coverage, and who knows what else. “We were doing Americana before they came up with a label for it, ” Williams noted. “Pretty much anything with a twang to it, we play.”
And play they do. While the quality and variety of music is impressive, the quantity of music is also noteworthy. The Whip takes very infrequent commercial breaks, and neither Williams nor WWHP’s other on-air personality, Lori Allen, interrupt the flow any more often than necessary. The end result is that there is more than 50 minutes of music in each hour that the station is on the air, which is nearly unheard of for a commercial station.
Not only does the Whip broadcast great music, but they also work to bring many of those artists to local venues for live performances through The Whip Music Series. For example, Fred Eaglesmith & The Salvation Army will be performing tonight at the Highdive as part of the series, and Justin Townes Earle and Wayne Hancock will be coming through in October. “Nobody can get to it all,” said Williams, “we’re just scratching the surface. There’s a lot of good music out there, and we want to help them get the credit they deserve.” In addition to promoting shows in C-U, WWHP also helps to bring concerts to Bloomington-Normal, since Farmer City is about midway between the communities.
The Whip’s main challenge is exposure. “We don’t have a big promotional budget, so we can’t put up billboards everywhere, and we’re not going to appeal to everyone,” Williams explained. I’m embarrassed to say that I’d lived in C-U for more than nine months before I stumbled across WWHP, and I’m pretty close to their target demographic. “We offer a wide variety of music, and that’s our main goal,” he continued. “We’ll never be the number one or number two station in town, but that’s all right.”
Another challenge is producing a signal that can penetrate effectively into both C-U and Bloomington-Normal, and the Whip has recently taken a big step in that direction. “We used to have a 3,000-watt transmitter, now we have a 6,000-watt on a cell phone tower 11.9 miles north of Farmer City,” Williams noted. “That location gives us a better signal to Bloomington. It’s worked out as good as we expected. We’ve got both towns (Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal) surrounded in either direction. You can listen to us from Atlanta to Pontiac on 55 and Tuscola to Paxton on 57 – Charleston if the weather’s right. On 74, you can hear us from Morton to just this side of Danville. The land is just so flat, the signal carries a long way.” My experience has been that WWHP comes in pretty clear from our car radio, depending on where we’re at in C-U, but we need a strategically-positioned antenna to get the station to come in on our home stereo.
For those who have trouble receiving 98.3 through the airwaves, the Whip offers another solution: streaming audio through the wonders of the Interwebs. “We have a large internet audience, we sell t-shirts online, and we sell them all over the world,” Williams explained. “I love small-market radio. I really think that’s where the niche on the internet is. There are a lot of people who went to school around here and moved away or people who lived here and retired to Florida or whatever that keep in touch by listening online.” WWHP uses all Mac computers (Williams swears by their reliability), but the service that they use to stream doesn’t allow the Mac to broacast the title and artist of each song as it plays.Williams is working with WarpRadio to get past that obstacle.
Williams was already an experienced hand at radio broadcasting by the time he arrived at the Whip. “I’ve worked in radio on and off since high school,” he said. “I’ve worked in Quincy, practically all of the stations in Springfield, and two or three in Florida,” mostly at well-funded, high-powered stations. “When radio changed in the ‘80s [due to deregulation and the subsequent corporate consolidation], I got out of it. They really had no need for a program director.”
After kicking around for a few years, the opportunity arose to buy WWHP, which was an existing station, and Williams and his business partner found some investors and bought the station. “We’ve been struggling along for 12 years now,” he said. “We do all the commercials, selling, writing and producing with just two people. We do a good job of keeping our overhead down, and that’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I don’t know what I would have done if Lori hadn’t come along.”
I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, and the local radio station played the news, the markets, and some pretty awful country music, but it was our preferred source for information in a lot of ways. The Whip fills that role in east-central Illinois, except the music is good.”The thrill is when it works, people are loyal and everybody’s happy,” says Williams. ” We get calls and emails every day, thanking us for turning them on to good music.” Those calls and emails will continue to pour in as long as the Whip is on the air, because they care about their listeners and it shines through in everything they do.