Columbus' Alt-Rock Radio Station Survives Another Move Down the Dial
How Randy Malloy and his band of alternative radio loyalists refused to let a beloved Columbus station die
The darkness settles around Randy Malloy, as if mirroring the story he’s unfurling. The owner and president of WWCD—the FM radio station formerly known as CD101 and CD102.5, recently reborn as CD92.9—is spending his 57th birthday retelling his most challenging trip around the sun. In the green room behind the stage at the Big Room Bar, the intimate concert venue inside his station’s Brewery District headquarters, Malloy gestures and digresses from a socially distant seat in the corner, shrouded in shadows. As the December afternoon fades into evening, leaving only the glow of the beverage fridge to light the room, he gives a blow-by-blow of a year defined by death, disorder and apparent defeat.
The story has a happy ending, but Malloy never pauses to switch the lights on, even when things take a positive turn. Once he gets talking, the anecdotes and ideas keep flowing—a gusher of conversation. This is not surprising—the tall, broad-shouldered New Jerseyan is among this city’s most gregarious people—but it’s especially true when Malloy details the challenges his team faced in 2020. In the spring, COVID-19 upended their business model. As summer began, death struck their tight-knit staff. By fall, they went off the air after 30 years and were still figuring out how to exist as an online-only entity.
Yet somehow, entering 2021, WWCD’s future looks bright (or at least brighter). In a stunning turnaround, less than a month after going off the air, the station returned to the FM dial at 92.9. The COVID vaccine rollout portends the eventual return of concerts, festivals and the myriad local events that represent the station’s lifeblood. It’s far from certain, but Malloy believes he can establish funding to buy the new signal outright, keeping WWCD on the air indefinitely. Against the odds, “Central Ohio’s Alternative” lives on.
On Halloween, CD102.5 shared some spooky news. “Recently, we were unable to reach an agreement with the owner of the FCC license, and at 12:01 AM on Nov. 1, CD102.5 will leave the FM airwaves,” read a statement on Facebook. “Make no mistake: We plan to move forward and continue broadcasting in the digital realm.” When former owner Roger Vaughn sold the 101.1 frequency to Ohio State in 2010, WWCD’s future looked tenuous, but a lease on the 102.5 signal and Malloy’s purchase of the station in 2011 kept it on the air. This time, no such solution had emerged.
At midnight, 102.5 FM went dark after one last song, Tegan and Sara and the Lonely Island’s “Everything Is AWESOME!!!” from “The Lego Movie.” Some might detect bitter sarcasm in that pick, but Malloy chose the song partially to reflect his stubborn optimism. Not everyone shared the sentiment. Though Malloy assured his staff the station could thrive online and some listeners pledged to follow them into the streaming realm, many felt like a pillar of the local culture had vanished.
Thanks to corporate consolidation, American radio is becoming uniform and impersonal. WWCD—which claims to be the only independently owned commercial alt-rock station in a market of 100,000 or larger—stands out for its quirky, personality-driven approach. “I like to think that it’s not just a radio station,” says music director Tom Butler, who’s been with WWCD since 1998. Adds drive-time DJ Grayson Kelly, who left town for a few years after high school before returning home for college: “I couldn’t really find something like this station in any other city.” Programming director Laura Lee, who joined the staff in July after bouncing around the radio industry for two decades, long admired CD102.5 from afar. “It’s one of the last radio outlets to actually truly be local, have fun,” she says. WWCD regularly spins music by Columbus artists and prides itself on being deeply embedded in the community. “There are real people here that I can meet, I can run into at the supermarket, I can see at the concerts,” Malloy says. “You listen to these people, and they become part of your life.”
For Colin Gawel of Watershed, a band whose history is intertwined with WWCD’s, that personal connection matters most. Running errands in his car while WWCD was off the air, Gawel felt a sense of loss—not just for the music but for the personalities. “I really did feel like my friends were gone,” he says. Still, the station’s presence in Columbus goes beyond the FM dial. “I’ve been to so many amazing shows that they’ve been a part of bringing through Columbus,” says Ty Owen of the hardcore band Unchipped. He fondly remembers a $5 “Low Dough Show” featuring They Might Be Giants on Red, White & Boom! night. What’s more, “I don’t know anybody else from any other radio station in town that I’ll see out at local shows,” Owen says.
The thought of such an institution leaving the airwaves did not go over well. “The outcry was immediate,” Malloy remembers. “It was insane. We had like a million engagements in like a week’s time. So many people were so mad.” Some of WWCD’s 10 full-time staffers and dozen part-timers interpreted the listener response as positive. “Radio stations come and go, but when we went off the air, the messages and the support and the outcry from the listeners and the community sort of helped me to realize we do more than just play records on the radio,” says Butler, who spotlights a different local artist every weeknight in his Frontstage showcase and co-hosts the indie-focused Independent Playground broadcast on Sunday nights. “It’s like a community gathering place, almost. We can all kind of band together over this music that we like.”
Yet the disappointed feedback was tough for Malloy, who has allowed WWCD to consume his identity. After working his way up from an internship in 1991 to buying the station from founder Roger Vaughn in 2011, Malloy has invested his whole self into the business. He is a fixture at station-sponsored events. He personally remodeled the former Swiss Chalet Party House when WWCD moved in from its prior studio just up Front Street; he’ll eagerly point out where he built a bottle of Jameson into the wall or the secret “Scooby Doo room” he constructed for the fun of it. Lately he’s been single-handedly running local bands’ livestreamed performances from the Big Room: “I am, in fact, your host,” he announced ahead of Damn the Witch Siren’s performance in December, “as well as your producer, editor, director, camera operator and all the other things that I have to do because we are virtual and quarantined because it is a pandemic.”
To keep the station afloat over the years, Malloy even took out a second mortgage on his home and cashed out his retirement account, all while somehow remaining married to his wife of more than two decades. “This is my life,” he says. “I’ve let it define me in every respect.” So when listeners expressed frustration, he ached. “In a year of ‘everything sucks,’ I felt personally responsible. It was really, really hard,” Malloy says. “I don’t want to be the guy behind the wheel when the train goes off the tracks. And I was. And it was everything that I wanted it not to be.”
Among the 15 top-rated frequencies in the Columbus market, about half of the top stations are controlled by industry behemoth iHeartRadio. Many other signals belong to big networks like Radio One, Tegna and Saga Communications, as well as the local group North American Broadcasting. Even several smaller stations rooted in the suburbs belong to conglomerates.
So WWCD’s independent status is fairly anomalous in its market, but even more so within the alternative rock format nationwide. “The players there do tend to be some of the larger conglomerates,” says Kevin Rutherford, an Ohio native who covers alternative radio for Billboard. The consolidation of the alt-rock format often leads to homogeneous playlists nationwide, Rutherford says. Entercom, America’s second-largest radio conglomerate, recently opted to syndicate Kevan Kenney’s nightly broadcast for New York’s WNYL in 15 markets. “You will hear him in New York, and you will also hear him on KROQ out in Los Angeles, and you will hear the exact same programming,” Rutherford says. “When you have a station like CD92.9 that is not part of that, that almost becomes more important for not just a listener but also for a promoter,” he adds.
WWCD is not immune to alt-rock radio’s drift toward glossy bands who seemingly aspire to Top 40 rotation. But their playlists have character because Butler and Lee are not beholden to anyone but their listeners. “I’ve never been able to program at a station where I truly feel like I’m getting to program the station,” Lee says. She and Butler still aim for radio-friendliness—vocals within the first 30 seconds, nothing too abrasive—but that doesn’t preclude them from taking chances on artists few other stations are spinning, like the Australian slacker-rocker Courtney Barnett or the catchy young British guitar band Sports Team. And on his Independent Playground show with Rudy Gerdeman, Butler explores scuzzier, more art-damaged corners of the underground.
What keeps WWCD’s playlists truly unique, though, is their commitment to local artists. “Versus other stations in the format, they have been very good with a local presence,” Rutherford says. He remembers receiving a list of alternative radio’s top 200 songs nationwide and being perplexed about some of the names near the bottom. “I’d be like, ‘Who the heck is playing Earwig?’” he says, referring to the Ohio pop-rock group whose hyperlocal “Used Kids” became a WWCD mainstay in 2007. Columbus acts such as Angela Perley, Hello Emerson and Snarls have since entered rotation.
That ethos dates to the station’s early days. Gawel submitted Watershed’s first single to WWCD’s late, great programming director and then-night-DJ John Andrew “Andyman” Davis in 1993, and was stunned to hear the track mixed in alongside the Replacements and the Ramones. “It was just treated like a regular song,” Gawel says. This began a long relationship between the station and the band, which signed to Epic Records in part thanks to local radio support. “Whatever semblance of what Watershed’s done,” Gawel says, “without CD102.5, it’s one-tenth that.”
Even bands that defy conventional notions of accessibility get spins on WWCD thanks to boutique broadcasts like Independent Playground. Owen says the show was a crucial influence during his teen years in Lancaster and remains “appointment listening” two decades later, so he was thrilled when Unchipped cracked Independent Playground’s year-end countdown: “As a really heavy band, I didn’t have aspirations that we could get FM radio airplay on this.” But as Butler sees it, amplifying cool music in Columbus—even when that music is extremely niche—is one of the most important ways the station can serve its community. “That’s what I can do as far as music director goes,” Butler says. “I can champion Columbus bands.”
On March 13, 2020, Malloy closed the CD102.5 office and the Big Room Bar. Normal life was canceled indefinitely due to the burgeoning pandemic. Instead of dispatching his events team to a slew of concerts and community functions, Malloy sent his DJs home to work remotely—an unprecedented process of trial and error resulting in “live-ish” broadcasts. Only Malloy and programming director Mason “Mase” Brazelle kept coming in. At first it was fun, but by April, the days dragged. Then Brazelle’s health began to deteriorate.
In February, Brazelle returned from an industry conference in Las Vegas sick. The illness quickly spread through much of the staff. Malloy believes it was COVID; he says he’s tested positive for antibodies. Whether it was related to Brazelle’s subsequent decline is unclear. As spring progressed, the Georgia native began experiencing symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue and dry eyes. He slurred his words and passed out in the middle of daily activities. One day, it got so bad that Malloy drove him to the hospital, where doctors quickly moved him to the ICU as his organs failed from apparent sepsis. Two days later, on June 18, Brazelle was dead at the age of 53.
For Malloy, the shock and grief were sadly familiar. Ten years earlier, Andyman had drowned on vacation with his family, marking the end of an era at WWCD. “I was unfortunately all too prepared to know what I had to do,” Malloy says. He assembled his staff on a Saturday morning and shared the news. “It was an emotional blow at a time when none of us could seem to handle that,” Kelly says. “But Randy fortunately had the presence of mind to keep the show running.” That involved assigning Kelly to take over Brazelle’s drive-time shift, a dream job for a young staffer who’d enthused his way into an internship just two years earlier.
On July 3, assistant programming director Rachael Gordon resigned, leaving the station in dire need of a programmer. Malloy called up Lee, Brazelle’s close friend, who’d been laid off from her job in Wilmington the year before. “I was literally living in my parents’ basement,” Lee says. “I couldn’t find a job because of COVID.” Now she was being summoned to take over for her old pal. On July 4, Lee drove nine hours from Georgia and began to program CD102.5. By July 10, her birthday, Malloy officially offered her the job.
He presented Lee with one caveat: WWCD’s lease on the 102.5 frequency was expiring soon, and he was struggling to work out a deal to buy the signal from Zanesville-based WHIZ Media Group to secure the station’s future. “I couldn’t rent anymore,” Malloy explains, lamenting his inability to negotiate a purchase. CD102.5’s approaching expiration date cast a pall over an already difficult year: “As it gets closer, it looms larger and larger in your viewfinder,” Malloy says. When the time came, he put on a brave face and got his staff psyched about their glorious online future free from FCC regulations: Cursing! Ad dollars from the weed industry! “He was very gung-ho about it,” Butler recalls. Yet when radio engineer Joe Ternovan called a few days later suggesting a path back to terrestrial radio might exist, Malloy leapt at it.
Ternovan put Malloy in touch with Mark Litton and Brent Casagrande, local broadcasting veterans who each own a handful of small stations. A shared services agreement aligns Litton’s ICS Communications and Casagrande’s Delmar Communications. “We’re independent, but we share facilities, telephone costs, things like that,” Litton explains. The duo was compiling a cluster of stations in hopes of eventually selling them as a sort of retirement plan. “But then when Randy’s situation came along,” Casagrande says, “we thought that might be something that would benefit all of us.”
Litton had just purchased 1580 AM and its broadcast relay station 92.9 FM, which transmits from a tower on the Huntington building Downtown. He bought it specifically because Casagrande owns 1550 AM out of Delaware, which also simulcasts to 92.9 FM. The signals butt up against each other north of Columbus, but through a new technology called SynchroCast, they can combine into one. “That was what the original plan was when I acquired that station,” Litton says, “to basically take two stations that were bumping heads against each other and create an entity.”
When Malloy came calling, they approved a different plan: a three-year license management agreement renting both the Columbus and Delaware towers to WWCD, with the option to purchase them outright during the lease. Litton and Casagrande profit either way, but they say they partially struck the deal for the good of local radio. “One of the virtues of radio is companionship and listener bonding,” Litton says. “Radio as a jukebox is not a real good competitive medium. But radio when you tune in and hear people you know talking about community events, that is what sets us apart.”
In keeping with that ethos, Litton and Casagrande say they reorganized their portfolio of stations without laying anyone off. Meanwhile, Malloy and company were back on the air with a simulcast in Delaware (on the newly minted WQCD) and a path to permanent ownership. Malloy also schemed to retain the WWCD call sign: “When we went off the air, I held those call letters, but I could only hold them for five days and then they had to go back to the queue. And they would have been gone forever. Luckily, my FCC attorney had a client in Mississippi who was in a transition of a radio station … so we moved WWCD to Mississippi for two weeks so I wouldn’t lose it because that branding was so important to us.” They announced their return on YouTube; Malloy spray-painted over the old logo as LL Cool J’s voice proclaimed, “Don’t call it a comeback!”
When WWCD jumped from 101.1 to 102.5 about a decade ago, the station spent a year alerting listeners to the switch. The rebirth at 92.9 was so abrupt that ratings inevitably suffered; unless you follow the station on social media, you might not know WWCD has reemerged. Meanwhile, Malloy says he’ll have to raise about $1.5 million to buy the towers. How he intends to get the money is unclear—a 2015 attempt to crowdfund $1 million to buy the 102.5 signal raised just $200,393, an experience Malloy calls “demoralizing”—but he is dead set on it. “My goal is to buy it sooner rather than later,” he says. “I don’t want to buy it in three years or in six years. I want to buy it now, in three months or six months. So I’m working on whatever financing I can or finding ways to get that purchased. Because I don’t want to do this again. I’m too old, and it takes up way too much time. I’m not a house flipper. I don’t want to flip radio stations for profit. That’s not what my goal is here. My goal is to have the ability to do something that I enjoy, that I think matters to people—that now I know matters to people.”
Two nights after Malloy’s birthday, CD92.9’s studio buzzes with more people than it has contained in months. The Andyman-A-Thon, an annual telethon supporting the station’s affiliated children’s charity, is about to launch in modified form. Instead of packing in downstairs, masked volunteers take pledges at socially distanced tables upstairs in the Big Room while Butler kicks off the “Thon” in the broadcast booth below. Because so few concerts happened last year, the station accumulated very little memorabilia from touring bands to auction off. No local artists are on-site to perform on the air. Still, the event ends up raising $36,838 for organizations such as Special Olympics Ohio and the Ronald McDonald House.
The event is a bit off-kilter for reasons other than the pandemic. After moving to 92.9, Butler isn’t sure whether the station’s phone number still ends in 1025. (It does.) The Big Room house speakers remain tuned to 102.5. Even the charity itself is still called CD102.5 For The Kids. Despite the state of limbo, some semblance of normalcy remains. Masked employees and friends of the station mill about, including Andyman’s family. Conversations unfold. Jameson is poured. It’s the closest thing to a party they’ve experienced in months.
Behind the glass, Butler plays the weekend’s first request, “Red Eyes” by the War On Drugs. Outside the booth are countless posters for local shows at the Big Room Bar: Counterfeit Madison, All Dogs, Connections. Plaques from national and international artists abound, including a gold record presented to Malloy by Brooklyn duo Matt and Kim. Andyman’s portrait hangs over the bar across from a shrine honoring him, which now includes monuments to Brazelle, too. Upstairs, the Big Room overflows with incredible finds. A signed U2 poster! An autographed Soundgarden setlist!
To peruse the station’s walls is to behold its storied history. Inside those walls tonight, the core of a community persists despite its most trying year in recent memory. Malloy intends to preserve this thing as long as he can. “I want to do what I did for the last 30 years,” he says. “I don’t care if that job doesn’t exist anymore. I’ll make it exist.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that North American Broadcasting is locally owned.