Welcome to a special edition of The Weekend Stream for the long Labor Day weekend! Longtime readers might have noticed that adorable owl perched comfortably atop The Second Disc. He's the mascot for WIWS Radio, an online radio station dedicated to '50s and '60s classics in authentic AM radio sound. We'd like to introduce you to John and Chrissy Sellards, the couple behind WIWS. John is already well known to Second Disc readers for his design work on most of our Second Disc Records releases. With WIWS, John and Chrissy have created a thriving online community not unlike ours at The Second Disc. We're streaming WIWS for our Labor Day get-together here at Second Disc HQ, and hope you might tune in, too, as you discover a bit more about how this singular station came to life. Please welcome John and Chrissy to The Second Disc!
John and Chrissy, I know you're both incredibly busy people. When did you first imagine WIWS, and when did you take the plunge in bringing it to life? How have you found the time for such a labor-intensive project?
John: I suppose on some level I've been daydreaming about this for years, but while having COVID in winter 2020 I had some kind of brain-fog epiphany as to how I might be able to make it all work - specifically creating the sound of AM radio without actually having a station and transmitter. It took about 6 months from that point - a lot of experimenting, having custom code written, etc. I'm lucky that I work from home since I could just take a five-minute break and tweak a little, then listen for hours as I worked, take another break and adjust, and so on. That's really how it all has come about - learning how to do as much as possible in a short period of time, and then outsourcing the rest. Now we have apps for both Android and iOS available via their respective app stores, so it's pretty easy to listen to the result!
Chrissy: I really admire John's vision and resolve. The effort actually started years ago as he had been dubbing our record collections to digital. At first, John had set us up so we could listen to our internal server of music on the go from anywhere. Over time, as he had mentioned this to his friends, it seemed like there would be some greater interest. It was probably two years of on and off research, then discounting the idea as cost prohibitive until John landed on Live365. Fun fact: initially he was considering a classic country station. I thought we had more to offer in terms of a general mid-century AM pop station. Little by little, our ideas evolved from there and the logistics came together.
We held a soft launch in September 2021 for friends and family. Then we announced our station publicly in January 2022 with the help of our pal Deke Dickerson. It was a fantastic initial response and we've earned some dedicated listeners and Patreon Patrons!
John: We've really only begun to hit our stride this year, which we're thankful for.
What era does the channel focus on? What should listeners expect when they tune in?
Chrissy: Listeners should expect to be transported back in time! We hope that people will relive great memories or feel for the first time the thrill of experiencing this music as it was actually heard on the radio back in the day! We have gone through extraordinary lengths to make the listening experience as accurate as possible. In addition to the music selection, the whole "AM glow" which includes the reverb, the compression and even the static was very carefully thought-out. It's not just a filter that was slapped onto the feed. John painstakingly tweaked the processing until it sounded just like how he remembered.
John: As far as the music goes, when we started, it was almost exclusively 1955-1965, all early rock and roll and R&B with a little early British Invasion. As time has passed I've realized the power of having a lot of the later '60s records included for many reasons. So while our mission statement still says "Imagine it's 1962, give or take," that has expanded a little since we started. I don't think we're playing anything past 1970 and very little before 1955.
Essentially, we are trying to reflect what top 40 and other radio stations of the era might play...which is to say, just about everything. I hesitate to say this since I think it's generally a red flag when people say, "Oh, we play it all, we'll appeal to everybody!" since it doesn't really work that way, but we have some rather advanced programming tools that help streamline what you hear so it really isn't jarring to hear, you know Teresa Brewer and The Doors within 10 minutes of each other. I think we've gotten to a place as listeners that there are people who, you know, only are fans of 1997 alt-grunge with songs about penguins in drop D-tuning, and lo and behold, you can find playlists of exactly that. It's a real challenge to say, you know, "we play it all" without sounding like we're out of touch.
We try to make a true immersion experience...there's very little modern you'll hear other than the voicers we've done, and occasional references to Facebook or Patreon or such, and I think those are done in a way that just shoehorns with all the vintage materials. We're not trying to be ironic, preachy, teachy, or cute; we're just playing music of the era, in context. It's meant to just listen to casually and enjoy.
Were there any unexpected challenges in starting the channel? And unexpected rewards?
John: The biggest challenge has truly been finding ways to get across that this isn't just another dude in his basement calling himself "Oldies Ollie!" or whatever and talking about what The Beatles ate for lunch this week in 1967. It's a really different experience. Driving people to listen is a big hurdle because there are SO many other options; we've realized people just categorize us instantly without listening. But when we get them there, they usually love it, and stay!
Chrissy: I think the biggest challenge is that our expectations as music consumers have changed. It seems like many people have literally forgotten how to listen to music. Our society is so used to on-demand culture now, that when people want to listen to music, they're more likely to search for exactly what artist or genre they're in the mood to hear....and that likely means they'll land on a play list on a streaming service. I call us "real radio, not a playlist" as it's the closest thing to what "real radio" used to be known for. Even in terrestrial radio nowadays, you're likely to hear the same narrow playlist and many stations have gone to a DJ-less format. We're really trying to bring back the whole radio experience!
AM radio may well be an alien concept to younger listeners. How would you describe what WIWS offers to younger people who are just discovering this era?
John: It's funny that you ask that as Chrissy always says, "This IS your grandmother's radio," and not in a negative way. It really is what your grandparents heard, presuming they were hip and not interested in only sea shanties. The music is really diverse, but the magic really is in the sound itself. I was just talking about this with Greg Martin of The Kentucky Headhunters, who is a fan, and we were discussing how the combination of low fidelity and tons of compression sounds like a bad idea, and yet, in practice, it's magical. Like listening to music coming in from another planet.
Chrissy: I think there is definitely a nostalgia brewing among Gen-Xers and Boomers and not surprisingly, an interest from millennials and Gen-Z. All we have to look at is the resurgence in vinyl, and now cassettes, and even VHS to see that older generations want to dip back in time to their "good old days" and younger generations are curious and hungry for something new to them! Why not AM radio too?
What does WIWS offer that may be difficult to find elsewhere?
John: Again, context is the big thing - you'll hear vintage jingles, spots, voices, etc., all wrapping around these songs that you may or may not've heard before. We also play a lot of deep cuts...B-sides, album tracks, even a few unissued vintage demo recordings you can't hear elsewhere. Some of it is from CDs and reissues, of course, but lots of things are from vinyl. Between us we have a pretty big collection and have just been chipping away at digitizing it over the last few years.
Chrissy: Hands down, it's the experience. It's the ambiance. Morning coffee and reading the news? Having friends over for cocktails? Pool party? Going for a cruise around town with the top down? Just want to clean the house and bop around to swinging tunes? We're the internet station that is going to bring you the right vintage vibe. We also invite car shows, diners, restaurants, and shops to stream us. However, we would kindly ask that any businesses who stream us sign up to be a Patreon Patron to offset our costs. And of course, we appreciate any of our listeners that regularly enjoy listening to WIWS to support us through Patreon as well!
Could you share a bit about your respective backgrounds? And specifically in music and radio?
John: I've always been into music, having been raised by parents who both loved it. They were both teens in the '50s and never stopped listening to their high school music so in the mid-late 70s I was hearing Mom play The Platters, Johnny Mathis, Martin Denny, and on and on, and Dad on the other end of the house with his bluegrass records and George Jones, Conway Twitty, and others, but not the then-current stuff, the mid-century records they made.
I went to work at WJLS here in Beckley, West Virginia in the mid-'80s at 13 years old, working the board on the weekends. It's amazing to me now that they trusted me at that age to do that, and in hindsight there were probably some times they regretted it! I went on to work at the former AM powerhouse here WWNR, then WFNR and WROV in Virginia. I got out of working in radio in the mid-'90s but continued to do voiceover work for years after, so I definitely have some experience in this realm, although there's been some cobweb-dusting of my abilities since it'd been years since I worked in this field.
Chrissy: In a nutshell, my family rarely remodeled. We used everything until it wasn't fixable anymore. Many of my family's homes still enjoy their original mid-century furniture and appliances. I grew up with a '50s Hotpoint stove that my parents used until I was in high school. My father's father had a few careers. He worked for Watertown Manufacturing which made Watertown Lifetimeware, a brand of Melmac dishes. All of our houses were overflowing with sets of Melmac. Later, he and his brothers owned a television and radio shop back in the day and was a big record collector. So I just grew up around the whole aesthetic and still cherish it.
Musically, my grandfather was a talented singer. There was always music playing in his house. A lot of country records. My mother's father also had a beautiful singing voice. I have so many warm memories of sleepovers at their house while my grandfather crooned along with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole on the local "oldies" AM radio station WATR as he played solitaire for hours. I can still imagine the smell of his pipe.
My father and his mother are musicians. Singing is all I ever wanted to do. While I was in high school, there was a small ice cream and coffee shop next to the studio where I took piano and voice lessons. It was owned by an antique dealer. It was the real deal, no reproductions. The soda fountain came out of an old Woolworth's. All of the furniture and signage was authentic. And so was the jukebox and boxes and boxes of 45s. My father would hang out there while I was in my weekly lessons. Eventually, we became regulars, then friends and then I worked as a server there for a few years until I left for college. That's really where I learned the chart toppers from the '50s and '60s!
John, many readers of The Second Disc know you from your incredible design work which has graced the majority of our Second Disc Records releases on CD and vinyl including our recent releases from Liza Minnelli, Stoney & Meatloaf, and Darlene Love. WIWS showcases a different aspect of your talent but with the same laser focus on, and fidelity to, period authenticity. What captivates you most, even today, about the era you recreate on WIWS and in your design/art direction work? Chrissy, I know that you, too, are a fan of the mid-century aesthetic. What about it still speaks so profoundly to you in this very different world today?
John: That's such a difficult question to answer as I don't really know - I think those of us that love it just do, without it being anything other than second nature. I grew up at a time when there were still vestiges of that era around, whether it was businesses still going a couple of decades later, building that hadn't been renovated, or just the people still talking about those times in positive and reflective ways not long after the fact. But really, it was a time where people had to learn how to communicate and project what they were doing with much simpler means and tools, and I love that - it's a very commercial era, both musically and in design, but clean and simple at the same time. That really resonates with me.
Chrissy: It just feels good. It's real. It's something you can touch and hold in your hand. It's the vinyl, the shellac, the labels, the picture sleeves, the chrome, the formica, the bakelite. It's real wood that was crafted with care and finished by hand. It's the shapes. It's the homey classic colonial furniture spindle style and the sweeping boomerangs and curves emulating the aerodynamic achievements. It's the cars that you had to actually work to close the door and beep the horn. And it all lasted. Today, we're surrounded by so much particle board. Fast fashion, fast furniture. Modern interiors are grey and bland. WIWS brings us back to the time when science evolved past black and white and we started watching TV in color.
John, how did your roots in Beckley shape your passion for this music, and how does this music impact your relationship with your community today? Likewise, Chrissy, could you share how your own upbringing has dovetailed with landing in Beckley and creating this wonderful station?
John: Well, it was the classic small-town life for a lot of people. Now, it's a shell of what it was, but we just go on as if it's still the mid-'60s and a vibrant, thriving downtown community since that's the headspace the station lives in. The big thing is how forward-thinking the town's taste was as reflected in the charts that have survived; one week "Nothing Takes the Place of You" by Toussaint McCall is No. 1, right the with The Monkees and other acts. Billy Vera's "With Pen in Hand" was a top 10 here. We had taste, and I'd hope that influenced me as a young boy growing up here!
I'd intended to have the station just have an anonymous location or a Springfield-type address but Chrissy insisted we make where we are are a real part of the experience, and I'm really glad she pushed me to do that.
Chrissy: I graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston and my boyfriend all through college is from Beckley. I had been visiting this town since the late '90s and had met John then. He was my boyfriend's friend and colleague. Life went in different directions. Twenty years later, we reconnected and realized we had so many common interests and appreciations that we had never had with anyone else.
It truly is a small world!
Beckley is comfortable. It's like a smaller version of my hometown, Waterbury, CT. Beckley was built on coal mining. Family members were miners, neighbors are miners. Waterbury was an industrial town. At one point, it was the "Brass Capital of the World." Several of my family members worked in the brass mills. It feels quite similar.
Let's talk about your on-air personas, Ray Ford and Dottie Greco. Part of the charm of the station are the personas you've created. Did you base Ray and Dottie on any figures that inspired you?
John: This was all Dottie, really. My experience being Ray Ford goes back to a fake aircheck I did for a friend in the mid-'90s that took on a life of its own. I think the persona really just goes back to the Hunter Hancock Cruisin' 1959 record, which I wore out as a kid. Big, big influence on me.
Chrissy: From the beginning, I insisted that our station have DJs. The personalities used to be rock stars in their own right! As I mentioned, I went to college in Boston and 25 years ago, Boston radio was amazing. I was very attached to our local DJ's but one by one, stations started changing formats to talk or sports radio, or going DJ-less. If we were going to strive for authenticity, that had to include affable personalities as well.
I knew John had created the Ray Ford character back in the 90s. His tapes were so believable, so convincing, that there is still an internet presence in forums and blog posts where people cite John's tape as a real vintage aircheck and Ray Ford as a real personality on WJLS. I thought, "You have to be Ray Ford again!" There's already a history there.
To follow suit, I created the Dottie Greco personality. It's a family name and I drew on the experience of my family members to shape who Dottie is and how she sounds. As a trained vocalist, it isn't a big leap to character voices and bringing back the old-fashioned media accent. John has a trove of old bumpers and jingle bits and pieces. So, we've brought my father Rick Almeida along for the ride. He plays Rick Peters and he reads the daily news and sports briefings. His cousin Gary Peters (RIP) was a DJ on Long Island decades ago and as my dad was quite close to him, it's a nod to his name.
We also have a fantastic copywriter, Donna Spencer, who researches in historical newspapers and writes the news and sports copy for us, seven days a week.
Tell us more about those vintage jingles and period ads that really add to the WIWS experience.
John: I love them; we wouldn't have a station without them. They're doing now what they did then, creating a mood and brand that really helps define who we are and what we're doing. We have some new ones coming up that'll feature Chrissy's voice, as she's a Berklee vocal grad...I've intended to have more sung jingles for a while but as with everything we're tackling a piece at a time until we get wherever it is we're going!
Chrissy: Well, you're hearing both true vintage and new material. We have a collection of actual vintage radio ads. Additionally, we'll make up our own. John has old phone books and newspapers. He will literally flip through them and find an old business and cut an advertisement. As for the jingles, some are authentic donut recordings that we've recorded my voice into. And some were custom-written for us. It all pretty seamlessly blends together and sometimes people can't tell which ones are the modern voicers we've recorded.
What kind of research, preservation, and technology goes into presenting the music in this authentic AM fashion?
Chrissy: Our station is run by top secret, proprietary technology that I've named the "Ray-O-Matic!" For the most part, the Ray-O-Matic keeps the day-to-day running. We manually cue up the news and sports each day. We kick off whatever tunes we're in the mood for, or that we have requests for. We can actually dial into the station from our phone and cue up songs on the fly from anywhere. The Ray-O-Matic fills in the rest of the day.
John: We aren't really making any pretense that this is a real station; it's run out of our office at home and is several computers linked together with custom-code that handles the different pieces and allows the interaction of the various elements. This is what allows it to NOT be a playlist, and for it to be dynamic...in theory you won't hear the same songs in a row, and I think that's lost on a lot of people. It's about as much like real 1962 radio as we can make it without actually getting old Gates and sitting here spinning 45s while Camels burn off to the side.
Obviously, all the advances in restoration technology have helped greatly in the last few years, too - it's feasible now to transfer vinyl and add it to our rotation with a very minimum of time involvement on my end, which is critical given how busy my design shop stays. And too, we can do things now that are amazing. We'll have a new "local legends" feature coming up soon and we used de-mixing to remove The Cowsills from under a DJ so we can have his voice in the clear for our short shout out, which is really amazing.
Chrissy: We have held several request nights, and John will dig out a record and get it on the turntable and into the computer and be able to run the request during the program. It's that quick.
Radio today is largely confined to tight playlists determined by algorithms and questionable market research. WIWS is the opposite of that. How deep is your playlist?
Chrissy: How deep? There's tens of thousands of songs in the library. What do you hear on a typical streaming playlist? 25-50-100? Even most terrestrial radio stations I've dialed into play the same tunes throughout the day. Top of the hour even.
John: I've been a record collector all my life. Chrissy not only had her own stuff coming in (we're playing the first Beatles album off her mono copy), but her grandfather had a huge collection of really clean late '50s pop/rock 45s, and then her father contributed a lot of '60s stuff. So between us, there's a lot of vinyl, in addition to a lifetime's worth of CD collecting, just like many of my fellow collectors. We keep adding to it all the time as we can get things transferred. I'm really trying to get as many of the hits off actual 45s as possible, too, which is shaping up the overall sound of the station. It's amazing how so many of these mixes are more or less lost to time otherwise.
Lastly, what are your goals for WIWS and how have the first few months shaped up to your expectations? And how can our readers help support the station?
Chrissy: What we'd really like our listeners to know is that we are real people, not a glitzy corporation. We are funding this station entirely out of pocket because we believe that the best decades in popular music should continue to be available and accessible for all generations! We have no corporate sponsors and no paid advertising. We do have a number of devoted Patreon patrons that send us monthly financial support to help defray our costs. If anyone enjoys the mid-century tunes, and the AM experience as much as we do, we humbly appreciate all contributions. You can sign up via our website: www.WIWSradio.com. Click on "Support WIWS" at the bottom of the page to be taken to our secure Patreon site. Every dollar helps offset the hosting and licensing fees and enables us to continue to add to our library and work on future projects. We've just launched our very own custom smartphone app and are designing branded merchandise.
I can't wait for merchandise with the WIWS owl!
We love to interact with our listeners too! We invite everyone to like and follow us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/WIWSRadio and Instagram: @WIWSRadio. We get into all kinds of discussions on the music and the era, and we love chatting with everyone!
As for goals, we truly hope that we'll inspire people to slow down, tune in, and just enjoy listening to music again!
John: I think in the bigger picture I've always seen this more as a community, where those of us who love this stuff just weave in and out day and and day out and have the station on as we live our lives. As I mentioned earlier we now have apps for both iPhone and Android that really help to make it easy to tune in...they even show vintage transistor radios on your screen so you can get the total experience while listening. My goal is that people all have it on all day long!
Thank you both for taking the time to talk with us at The Second Disc. We're big fans, and WIWS is often playing here at Second Disc HQ. We hope our readers will check out your app at Google Play or the Apple App Store. Note that WIWS is available in the U.S., U.K., and Canada but the app is currently U.S.-only.
John: Thank so much, Joe - we really appreciate you and your continued interest and support!
Chrissy: We heart you, Joe!