While Dr. Kovarik was away the first week of October researching how the coal mines have affected the environment in West Virginia, a guest speaker was invited to the COMS 300 class Media History on Tuesday, October 3. John Sidote and his wife, Vivian, were once co-owners of WELC radio station in Welch, West Virginia. It was a family business, began by his mother Mary and his father Sam in 1950, nearly two years before John was born. They operated WELC for fifty-eight years until they sold the small business to West Virginia Holding Company in 2008.
Perhaps, to understand the importance of what the Sidote family has given to so many people, one has to understand the history of the area they continue to live in.
Welch is located in McDowell County, with a dwindling population of around 2,000 people. It has a rich American history, named after Isaiah A. Welch, a confederate Army Captain. As coal mines opened up through the region in the early-to-mid twentieth century, the city boomed to a population of 100,000 by the 1940s. It’s an occupation with a feast-or-famine cycle, usually in famine as of late, and changes in coal production after WWII brought unemployment to many families in the city. People who could afford to leave did and the ones left behind never fully recovered.
It’s also an area of steep terrain, as many places in West Virginia tend to be. Welch is a hollow, or a “holler,” depending on how southern the speaker is. The city is a strip of lowland and surrounded by mountains. “We pipe in three hours of sunlight every day,” John joked with the students, but it may not have been much of a joke. The place where the sun rarely shines has a history of flash floods, mudslides, and heavy snowfall. It’s the area John has known for most of his life.
Working at the radio station wasn’t his first choice for an occupation. He wanted to be a studio musician in the late 1960s and earned a degree in music education in Morgantown at West Virginia University. “I had an instructor who would tell me I could go to New York and drive a taxi for five years before I would be good enough to go into a studio because there was so much competition,” John said. His education gave him the opportunity to teach music in Welch for 2 1/2 years, but he fell into another profession out of necessity when his family needed help at the radio station. “We just couldn’t find people to work,” he explained. From an uncertain future began his commitment to serve the community. “As I’ve said, you never know where you’ll end up,” John said.
For thirty-eight years, he worked at WELC with his family, broadcasting news, commercials, public service announcements, sports, music, religious programming, and anything else local listeners wanted, or often needed, to hear. He didn’t, or couldn’t, specialize in one area. John became a jack-of-all-trades, working in public relations, advertising, and journalism. Whatever job needed to be done was what he did. “I would be outside mowing the grass,” he remembered with a laugh.
WELC is a small station, but the impact it had on the community is still remembered. It was local when the word “local” still had to mean. The importance of having local information in an isolated area cannot be stressed highly enough. Even a report of an accident means so much to residents because the roads through Welch are narrow and traffic delays affect many commuters traveling in and out of the city to work. “I always thought, and I still do believe, that when you say you’re life and local that’s what you should be,” John said.
And there’s the weather. The flood of 1977 nearly destroyed McDowell County. People didn’t have electricity for days, but the Sidote family remained on the air at WELC to keep people informed of emergency services available to them. They repeated their community work during the floods in 2001 and 2002. (John’s father, Sam, who died in 2014, won two Broadcaster of the Year Awards from the Broadcaster’s Association for the family’s efforts.) Locals with nothing more than a cheap radio and batteries found a way to stay informed during times of crises.
“How many of you would turn the radio on if something happened in this area?” John asked the class. The students remained silent. “How many of you even have a radio?” asked Dr. Bruce Brown, who was sitting in the classroom to listen to the guest speaker. The students fell silent again. “Well, you have one in your car, if you have a car,” John said. Unfortunately, most students don’t have a car. He reminded them of the storms that devastated Florida and people didn’t have electricity for days. The electricity goes out, then the internet follows. “If cell phones go down, you have to have something to keep you going,” John advised. “The tragedies that we see in other places can easily happen here.”
There’s also another critical reason to support radio-to keep the voice of the independent observer. “If there is anything you learn in college, it is ‘think for yourself,’” Dr. Kovarik said before he left for West Virginia. Dr. Brown asked the class if they ever heard of the book “The Hidden Persuaders,” written by journalist Vance Packard in 1957. He said there are just a handful of mega and media conglomerates who can control what we think is real through manipulative techniques like advertising and fake news. “I don’t know what you can believe,” Dr. Brown said.
Although jobs in radio are scarce, they are out there, and John advised students on how to get one. “I looked at your curriculum, and one thing that caught my eye was internships,” he said. Getting some experience before graduating from college will stand out on a resume. He also said a good form of networking is common courtesy. “When you see someone, tell them ‘thank-you.’ When Vivian and I are at the animal shelter (they operate a no-kill animal shelter in Welch), she always sends out thank you letters. People like to be thanked. And they like to be remembered.” John said the students at Radford were very polite and kind to him during his visit. That kind of consideration stays with people.
John still believes there is a future for radio. Nine years after selling WELC, he still proudly wears the blue polo shirt with the call letters emblazoned on his left shoulder. “Radio needs the interest of a younger generation if it’s to survive,” he said. The lack of interest in radio by the students in the room did not seem to dampen his spirits. After all, look at the history of media and how much has changed by making old technology new again. “Currently, the radio must not be the thing of the future, but we’re going to make it be,” John concluded with a smile.