Tuning in to WELW -"Voice of Croatia"
Plain Dealer Reporter
You know how radio stations brag about caring for the community? How they're close to home and right in your back yard (even though they're controlled by corporations thousands of miles away)?
WELW is in someone's back yard. Literally. It's behind a tool shed, actually, down a long driveway in a tiny, lonely building that can best be described as a shack.
The shack hides out in a residential neighborhood in Willoughby (and Eastlake), which also explains its call letters: ELW stands for "EastLakeWilloughby."
In an era of suffocating consolidation, when most stations are controlled by distant giants such as Clear Channel, Infinity, Radio One and Salem, locally owned WELW AM/1330 is as unassuming as its home.
It primarily offers "oldies," rock 'n' roll gems from the '50s, '60s and '70s.
But if you tune in at 5:45 a.m., you'll hear a priest praying the rosary. Click on at 3 in the afternoon, and you'll catch Tony Petkovsek's "PolkaRadio." Nights are filled with Lake County Captains' baseball games and high school sports. On weekends, it's "Health Talk," a philosophical show called "Visions," "The Italian Hour," "Voice of Croatia" and "Shalom America."
"We're really here for people over 50," said Ray Somich, the station's president and principal owner. "People in their 50s don't get a lot of respect from radio stations and advertisers. But we know that someone turns 50 every seven seconds." WELW signed on in 1965 as a religious station. It also has been Top 40, Country and Talk. Sadly, it no longer airs one of its signature shows, "Swap Shop," which allowed Maggie in Mentor to try to unload a set of dishes, while Earl in Euclid expressed his desire for a semidecent, secondhand lawn mower.
The Somich strategy is simple: Keep it local, air as much community information as possible and be omnipresent at local events and promotions. WELW even has a mission statement.
Mention a "Mission Statement" in most radio circles, and it probably would read something like: "To squeeze every miserable dime out of this station, trim budgets and staff, and make corporate headquarters smile."
WELW's mission statement reads: "To continuously provide superior communication service, in accordance with the Ultimate Truth, to add value to the life of anyone whom we encounter, in an environment that unconditionally nurtures Respect, Integrity and Love."
When asked what the "Ultimate Truth" is, Somich says, "We are here to add value to the universe and the God that is in all of us. We're not all of one religion, but everyone here understands there is more to life than punching a time clock."
That would include morning man Allan Parrish, "Dean of the Dusty Discs"; midday host and music director Ravenna Miceli; and Scott "The Scottster" Howitt, the mad rhymer who is on afternoons before and after polka.
Miceli and Howitt were both formerly big-time jocks with big- time ratings at Majic (WMJI FM/105.7). It's akin to jumping from the QE2 cruise ship to a dinghy. They like the dinghy.
"I'm blown away that people have found me here, it's really humbling," said Miceli. "The biggest difference is we're not controlled by corporate America. We're giving people what is not available on conventional radio."
WELW boasts a much larger playlist than most oldies stations; the jocks will find and play that obscure request you call in, and, more importantly, they say they have the freedom to play and say anything they want.
"We play the original hits," says Somich, "not the remix, not the shortened version, not the speeded-up version. The way they sounded before the conglomerates owned all the stations."
On a recent afternoon, Howitt spun "She Ain't Lovin You" by the Distant Cousins ("one of those WIXY records") and "The Little Black Egg" by the Nightcrawlers ("an old WHK record"). They were not huge national hits, but they were Cleveland hits.
Howitt's musical frame of reference is not necessarily bands and singles but the defunct Top 40 AM stations that played them: WIXY (as in Wicksy-1260), WHK, KYW and CKLW out of Canada. Back when listeners had extreme loyalty to a particular station.
"Cleveland has this rich music and radio history," says Howitt. "That's what makes a station like this more precious. If you can make even a few people feel better, give them an escape feature from paying a buck-80 for gas, then you've done something."
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© 2004 The Plain Dealer.