Dialing In With Leonard Wheeler

July 21, 2017

Around springtime, much like every town in America, high school students in Roanoke, Va. dress up in their finest and attend the prom. After the disco balls fade and the DJs go home, 35 schools in Roanoke power up the party again and hold “after-proms.” The goal of after-proms, which usually involve continued entertainment at the same location as the prom, is to give students an alternative to unsafe party situations that could involve drinking and driving.

Leonard Wheeler, Free Radio Alliance Member

The effort is a classic example of Leonard Wheeler’s commitment to community service. His radio broadcasting company, Mel Wheeler, Inc., has sponsored after-proms, together with community partners, for more than 10 years. But this is just a tiny slice of what this company does in the community.

These radio stations also fundraise to fight homelessness, childhood disease and breast cancer. They even employ a full-time director of Community Development to assist local non-profits: the backbone of social support in communities like Roanoke.

All this is part of what, according to Wheeler, makes radio different than any other medium. In his view, it is all about community.

To “Entertain, Inform and Support”

“Radio has the ability to build emotional connections with our audiences and community like no other medium,” Wheeler told the Free Radio Alliance. And, he believes, this ability gives radio a unique responsibility. “Our role is to entertain, inform and support the communities and listeners we serve.”

Wheeler’s stations employee five full-time and four part-time news staffers and produce over 30 hours a week of local news programming. They also air five live morning shows and feature predominantly live staff all day. All this represents an extraordinary investment considering many stations syndicate their news and entertainment content. Leonard Wheeler’s stations instead employ local people and create uniquely local content.

However, all this could be at risk if proponents of a performance tax get their way in Congress. Such a tax would charge radio stations even more than they already pay in royalties. Leonard Wheeler said these fees would change everything for his radio stations.

A Performance Royalty Would “Dramatically Impact” Operations

“If a performance royalty came about, it would dramatically impact our ability to employ the staff we do that is so critical to the service we provide our community,” Wheeler said. He points out that proponents of performance fee proposals say any royalties to News stations for instance would be “modest,” but any amount put on the back of Wheeler’s music stations, which are key to support such vibrant News and Local staffing, would be on top of hundreds and thousands of dollars the stations already pay in royalties. Any fee would dip into the same pot the radio station uses to support local community service and news programming.

“In our case, we would no longer be able to support the level of local commitment we do overall and our strong level of local news.” If a fee were implemented, the stations might even have to go to national syndication to cut expenses, Wheeler points out.

Record labels support performance taxes because it would channel more money into an industry struggling to adapt to the new music ecosystem of on-demand streaming. They have their sights set on squeezing more money out of radio. Yet, Wheeler’s stations are a good example of how radio already provides inestimable value in free promotion for artists, both local and national.

Up to 200 Weekly Requests from Labels to Play Their Music

Record labels contact Wheeler’s music director or program director by phone, text and email up to 200 times a week asking their stations to play songs from the record labels’ artists. And the radio stations do feature new music. In fact, they produce original intros to brand new songs and run 30-second promotions to help listeners get familiar with new music. The stations also inform Roanoke listeners about concerts in the area.

Wheeler’s stations are creating new fans for artists. A performance tax would make it harder for his stations to promote both national artists and more than 100 local community service efforts in Roanoke.

Despite the looming cloud of a performance tax, Wheeler hopes other stations will continue to prioritize community service.  He emphasizes, “funding the position of a dedicated director of Community Development deserves repeating.”