Who was let go? Why did they change the format? What does the future hold for the station?
Exactly what went on inside the Ebenezer studios of WLBR-WQIC late last month raises more questions than it answers about the status of local AM and FM radio stations.
What better way to shed some light on things than to get a glimpse of them through the eyes of an insider?
LebTown recently spoke with renowned reporter Gordon Weise, formerly of WLBR-WQIC.
Weise was relieved of his duties as WLBR-WQIC’s news director on Monday, April 27. The day after his termination, WLBR became the Big WiLBuR, changing its talk radio format to the greatest hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s, and eliminating the popular local call-in show, “On Air with Laura LeBeau.”
As the news circulated, it was received on social media with a mixture of shock, disappointment, and even some sardonic delight by Lebanon County residents.
Big-picture-wise, the changes seem to represent the continuing evolution of the medium itself, the transformation of a family-owned radio station into a corporate-owned radio station, the shift from a unique local station to cookie-cutter corporate radio, and, perhaps most tragically, the weakening of yet another local news source.
As time marches on, it is not always kind.
“I went to work around one o’clock and when I first walked in they said to me, ‘Let’s establish social distancing,’” said Weise. “Then [a manager for Forever Media] said, ‘I’m sorry, your position needs to be terminated.’ I signed a contract and he went and made copies. I didn’t hold it against him. I was just taken aback by how abrupt it was.”
Weise said he was thanked by a sales manager for his 30 years of service before a Forever Media manager released him and allowed him to say his goodbyes.
“I said to Laura [LeBeau], ‘It’s been good working with you. I’ve been terminated,'” Weise said. “I cleared my stuff out and I was out of there by 1:15. There was no small talk. There was no drama.”
Weise, WLBR-WQIC’s news director for the past 22 years, said to the best of his knowledge he was the only employee fired. Other WLBR-WQIC employees declined to speak with LebTown for this story.
The day the news broke, LeBeau posted the following on Facebook:
Well, I didn’t get the chance to have a proper show sendoff, since I didn’t know yesterday was my last as host of the four-hour daily extravaganza known as “On Air with Laura LeBeau.” It’s been a wild ride these past 14 or so years together. Some “spirited” debates, to say the least! But new owners have new visions, and mine is not to question why! So, thanks for the memories and sharing a piece of yourself with me. I always tried to do the same with you! Be well, friends. Best……Laura.
Established in 1946 by Lester Etter, WLBR-WQIC had been family-owned for more than 70 years. In August 2019, WLBR-WQIC owner Robert Etter announced the sale of the stations to Forever Media of Holidaysburg. Forever Media operates more than 60 radio stations in 11 markets, mostly in Pennsylvania and some in surrounding states.
Forever Media has not responded to multiple interview requests from LebTown. The company posted a statement to its Facebook page on May 1, noting that LeBeau would continue reporting the news, Jim McKay would continue as morning host, and Phillies baseball and high school football and high school basketball, as well as Hershey Bears hockey, would all remain part of the broadcast lineup. “While the sound of the station will be different moving forward, WLBR is committed to being here in the Lebanon Valley and serving you,” said the post.
It is not yet clear how Lebanon County listeners will react long-term to the format switch to “classic hits.”
“If you’re changing your whole philosophy, you’re not going to keep your old audience, you’re going to get a new audience and eventually things will swing around,” said Weise, 64. “If you do it right, you’ll make money. Now, Laura had sponsors. I think you can sell local talk. But if that’s not your vision, you don’t change it to make a couple of bucks.
“These guys are professionals,” added Weise. “They don’t put a lot of this stuff to chance. Forever Media has had a successful run. I would put them on a higher plane than some of the [other] organizations that have multiple properties.”
Perhaps the biggest question for Lebanon County is whether the Big WiLBuR and WQIC will continue to be one of the key news-gathering organizations in Lebanon County.
“Do I think that’s a shame? Yes,” said Weise, of the possible loss to local journalism. “But how do you expect me to feel? I hope Laura is going to be able to present as much relevant news as she possibly can. That will depend on [Forever Media] and depend on Laura. I think the news and content for the morning show will be enough to do it. But I’m just going on what makes sense to me.
“This is radio. This is what happens,” continued Weise. “Being able to stay in the same role for 26 years doesn’t happen. I don’t think you can tie that to Forever Media. I am not a radio expert. It’s something I did for a living. But the news aspect is something I came to love.”
Weise made a point of not painting Forever Media as the ‘bad guy’ in the current climate of change. It could be that once local residents get over the initial shock they will warm to Big WiLBuR’s new position in the community.
Time also heals all wounds.
“You have people saying, ‘I’m not going to listen to WLBR ever again.’ But they will,” said Weise. “WLBR is the local radio station. It was almost the land that time forgot, and not everybody is upset by it. They have local advertising account executives. Unless you are in a major market, it’s hard to get agency stuff. I know those guys work hard and they take a lot of hits. I think they [Forever Media] believe local advertising is important.”
How that will manifest, Weise said, is a question he can’t answer.
“I didn’t fit into their vision of the future,” Weise said. “I can accept that. As employers, [Forever Media] paid us on time and they were, for the most part, easy to deal with. It’s the solid gray of a corporation. They’re protecting themselves. They’re not bad people. When a new radio station takes over, they’re going to do what’s best for them, and that’s make money.”
Perhaps lost in all of this conjecture is the human side of the story of people like Weise. He is, at his core, a Lebanon County native and resident who did the best he could to serve his community.
“You always knew it was possible,” said Weise, a 1973 graduate of Lebanon High, of the sale of the stations. Weise noted that former owner Robert Etter didn’t have any family members interested in entering the industry.
Weise said that since the time the sale was announced he had concerns that the new owners would release him. “It certainly did go through my mind. When they came in, we had good meetings and I was pleased with Forever Media as an employer,” he said. “You can’t hold anything against a business if you’re not part of their future.”
Empathetic? Don’t feel sorry for Weise. Feel sorry for the loss of local talk radio as we once knew it.
“I went in and did my job, and unfortunately my services were no longer needed. You move on,” said Weise. “As for me, I’ll be an after-thought in two or three months. People I know might remember what I did. I won’t have any lasting fame here. For some people, I was the person on the radio when they went to school.”
For now, Weise is just wishing his industry peers well in an ever-changing environment.
“I want my compatriots to succeed and to be safe,” concluded Weise. “They need to be able to work. I don’t know what effect this has on them. I’m no longer part of that inner sanctum.”
After all, the only constant is change.
Read more stories about WLBR’s past
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