Graham a staple of local radio scene

Mar. 5—JENKINS TWP. — George Graham found himself in the right place at the right time.

Fifty years later, he's still there.

Shortly after graduating from Duke University in North Carolina with a degree in electrical engineering, Graham returned home to Carbondale in 1972 and was tasked with constructing the radio station for WVIA.

Graham's extensive experience in college prepared him for the role.

"I had an interest in radio going back to high school, but I really got seriously involved in college," said Graham, 72. "We had a great radio station. It was very creative and there was almost no faculty involvement. While I was there, we negotiated a deal to buy an existing commercial radio station. I had the experience of actually putting a radio station on the air."

When WVIA obtained the license for 89.9 FM, the nonprofit turned to Graham to get the organization on the air starting in April 1973.

"For the first several months, I was involved with the actual engineering and construction of the radio station and then went on the air a couple times a week," he said.

Graham, a producer and host at WVIA, will receive the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters Radio Broadcaster of the Year Award in May in honor of his contributions to the industry.

"It was a wonderful surprise," he said. "I don't consider myself a very high-profile guy because I don't do a lot of networking. I guess getting through 50 years of the turmoil of broadcasting means I have some kind of gumption."

While commercial radio stations undergo many ownership changes, Graham has appreciated the stability at the station in Jenkins Twp.

"As a public radio station, we've been able to stay true to our founding principles and that's a rare thing," he said. "WVIA is a locally owned radio operation and that has insulated us from some of the changes in the media turmoil that has taken place."

Graham prides himself on playing a variety of music on Mixed Bag, the station's longest running program.

"I like to play new music every day," he said. "It may not be the material at the top of the charts but there is a lot of interesting music being created all around the country and world."

He also introduced Homegrown Music in 1976, a program which spotlights talented regional artists in performances from the station's studio and hosts an hour of jazz programming each weeknight.

One of the biggest changes Graham has witnessed in the industry is the shift in the distribution of music to radio stations from major record labels to independent labels.

"It's made my job a little more difficult because there isn't the gatekeeper anymore that the record companies used to be," he said. "If a bad band walked into a record label, they would be shown the door right away. Now, anybody with a laptop and a bedroom can put out a really bad album and it gets distributed. There is a lot of bad music out there that I have to sift through, but it's worth it to find the gems."

He cherishes the relationships formed with loyal listeners over the years.

"Radio is an intimate form of media more so than television because people can listen and form their own pictures," Graham said. "I like to think I've developed a rapport with some of the listeners. Every year when I go to a jazz festival, I just walk on stage and I get a round of applause. It's pretty cool."

WVIA Radio Program Manager Larry Vojtko credits Graham for elevating the brand.

"There really wouldn't be a WVIA Radio without George Graham," he said. "George has been instrumental in just about every technical improvement in the station. He's the resident consultant on everything that goes into running the radio station."

Vojtko feels Graham created a mutual bond with many musicians due to his attention to detail and knowledge of the industry.

"When he does a recording, you can hear the difference because he has golden ears," Vojtko said. "The musicians in the area know anything George presents on the air is going to put them in the best possible light and their artistry is going to shine."

Graham didn't initially envision spending five decades at the station, but found his niche and never left.

"I figured I'd be here a couple years and see if I can build something or move on to a bigger market," he said. "I stayed here, and I live in the same house."

He plans to stick around as long as he's feeling well and enjoying the job.

"I tell people I'll keep doing it as long as it's fun, and up to this point it's been fun," Graham said. "Fortunately, my health is good and there is still exciting music to be discovered."

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