Randy Malloy: Raised on Radio
CD92.9 FM owner and president Randy Malloy discusses how the 'local gem' evolved from a startup to a singular slice of Columbus culture.
Growing up in the ’80s and becoming an adult in the early ’90s, much of what I learned about music and the industry came from the airwaves. I was the only teenager I knew who ran to HMV once a week to read the latest singles and albums charts in Billboard magazine so I could predict where my favorite records would land on our local pop station’s countdown. I’d fill stacks of blank Memorex tapes with syndicated shows from the U.S. like Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 and The World’s Greatest Hits that would play after-hours on Friday and Saturday nights, which would often introduce me to tracks that never made it to our modest prairie market.
While radio has undoubtedly entertained me over the years, it later served as an anchor for so many of my big life transitions when I eventually moved away from home. Vancouver’s Z95 and 99.3 The Fox fueled almost every 7 a.m. wake-up call and late-night study session when I was in college. KIIS-FM quelled my anxiety in between earthquakes and apartment ant infestations during my whirlwind summer-of-’98 internship in Los Angeles. And Seattle’s 97.7 The End was the perpetual soundtrack of the first full-time job I took in Washington, helping me to muck through a tough and awkward few years in the early aughts.
It’s not surprising, then, that when I moved to Columbus eight years ago, the station formerly known as CD102.5 became one of the reasons I fell in love with the city. Its eclecticism, humor, and can-do ethos are synonymous with the values that have helped to grow our little 3,169 square-mile patch of earth.
Like me, WWCD’s Jersey-born station owner and president Randy Malloy was also entranced by the radio as a kid, although his musical upbringing was ever slightly more cosmopolitan.
“I grew up listening to WNEW in New York. Then I listened to WSOU from South Orange, New Jersey at Seton Hall [University],” Malloy says. “In high school, I saw Black Sabbath play at the Garden, and I’d seen the Ramones at CBGB’s. We were listening to The Doors, and we watched Jimmy Buffet play at the Garden State Art Center. You name it, we saw it, because New York was right there.
“It took me years working at [WWCD] to see more shows than I did growing up. We would go to the Ticketmaster in Rahway, New Jersey, and we would sleep on the sidewalk at night. You know, you’d camp out at night, and wake up in the morning and someone would go get coffee. We’d be fourth in line and we’d get front row seats, because back then when you got the tickets, you got the tickets! They weren’t pre-sold to scalpers and there weren’t all sorts of pre-sales or fan sales. 10 a.m. was when they went on sale, and you had to get there.”
Malloy and I met in early June at the station, where he greeted me at the door and led me into the darkened Big Room Bar which, before pandemic times, had welcomed a stunning list of live sets from Muse, Ben Harper, Guster, Flaming Lips, Noel Gallagher, Elvis Costello, Juliana Hatfield, The Black Keys, and Tegan and Sara. But it’s perhaps been most important to Columbus as a champion of its live music and events over the past two decades.
WWCD’s fierce localism stems from its modest beginnings, which were in a vacant field in Grove City.
“It was very funny, because it was sort of this rag-tag startup,” says Malloy. “It started from a company out of New Jersey called Video Services. And what they did was they would look for underutilized signals and markets. There was enough populace in the metro to build a radio station, because you have to have a per capita thing. So, they started constructing, with FCC approval, this radio station of 101.1 FM at three-thousand watts. But literally the moment they got the construction permit, they put it up for sale.”
The station’s first broadcast day was August 21, 1990. The on-air talent that launched it were just as green as the infrastructure.
“[They were] people who basically said ‘Okay, cool – I’ll be on the radio!’ They were placeholders,” Malloy recalls. “It wasn’t that they weren’t professional, and it wasn’t that they weren’t trying hard, but the company was just, like, ‘Great! We’re gonna put you in this thing, because our job is to build something and sell it’ – like a house flipper.”
WWCD was soon bought by Roger Vaughan, a Columbus-bred entrepreneur and Kenyon College graduate.
“He loved music,” explains Malloy. “He lived out in Colorado, in Boulder, and he listened to KBCO, which was what you would consider like a Jack FM format now – they played a little of everything. They could do anything they wanted and played very eclectic stuff, from Lou Reed to the Indigo Girls – and just in-between stuff all over the map. He always wanted to get into music. So, when he came back to Ohio, he saw [the station] was available and he bought it. It had only been on the air for eight or nine months before.”
Shortly after his big purchase, Vaughan made significant changes to the station’s management – one of which was hiring the late Wendy Steele as marketing director, who had been working on-air at QFM96 since the ’80s. A chance meeting with Steele during an on-campus event at OSU while he was a student opened the door, albeit unwittingly at the time, to Malloy’s future career in radio.
“I discovered the station when it went on the air because I was finishing up school at Ohio State,” he recalls. “Wendy’s mom, Marion, actually used to own Press Grill – and before it was the hip Press Grill, it was the dive bar Press Grill in the Short North. Wendy was a fuckin’ rock chick. When I was in my last year at Ohio State, in the spring of that year, [the station] did something with the Ski Club, and I was the president.
“We did this Warren Miller film thing, and I said to her ‘Hey, if you’re even going to have an opportunity to do internships, I’d love to know.’ So, lo and behold, I was one of the very first station interns. I was like, ‘Alright, so I basically get to hang out with rock stars and someone buys me beer? Alright! I can do this!’ So, I became a promotions intern.”
The following summer, Malloy’s volunteer position turned into a full-time gig.
“When I graduated in the spring of ‘92, they said ‘Hey! D’ya wanna job?’ And I was, like, ‘Yes! Sure!” So, now you’re gonna pay me to hang out with rock stars and someone else is gonna buy my beer? Cool! I’ll be hired. I’ll be the assistant promotions director,'” Malloy says. “There was no promotions director. Wendy was the marketing director, so I was the assistant to no-one.
“For me, promotions was easy. I came from New York, so, you know, hustlin’? Shit! Going out until 11 o’clock every night going to shows and concerts? And the DJs weren’t really doing stuff, so I got to go out and emcee things. It was a crazy adventure. I was twenty years old and having the time of my life.”
Malloy remembers the first few fledgling years of the station being “like a startup. Roger [Vaughan] had owned a company before, but never a radio station. He was an absent landlord – he had an office in LeVeque Tower. We were at 1721 S. High St., which if you drive by it today it’s now next to the Midas muffler shop. It’s now a phone reselling place. It’s teeny. It’s a little bomb shelter, you know?
“We kind of did shit by the seat of our pants. We weren’t established. We had no history. We looked at other [stations] and said ‘Oh, my God, I wanna be like [Washington’s] DC101, or I wanna be like 99X out of Atlanta, or WNEW out of New York.’ You know – these classic radio stations that had alternative leanings.”
The station’s original format was also eschewed, which Malloy characterizes as a “sort of free-form punk rock ‘fuck-the-man’ kind of thing.” Vaughan’s decision to steer their on-air programming in favor of something more accessible, and profitable, spurred a revolt among his current roster of DJs.
“He had to make money and had to make this thing work, and he’d looked at research, and this, this, and this,” Malloy says. “And these guys were, like, ‘Fuck this, no way!’ And he said ‘Well, then, yeah…we’re gonna part ways.’”
But even as changes ensued, Malloy insists the station “never lost our alternative roots. Never. They always kept that because we had a loyal audience but they were a teeny little loyal audience.”
The physical location of the station edged nearer to its current home in the Brewery District.
“For a few years, we were at 503 S. Front St., which is the other half of where Shadowbox is,” Malloy says. “There was a lot going on in the Brewery District because, at the time, the Arena District didn’t exist yet. There were 21 bars [there]. Where they’re putting the new hotel now across from Shadowbox, there was Gibby’s, Howl at the Moon, Hagen’s, and [Tommy] Keegan’s – all right there. And there were events, festivals, and concerts – all this stuff. There was so much stuff. And we dealt with very eclectic backgrounds, which has never changed. The faces and the names have changed over 30 years, but the one thing that’s sort of always kept people around was their connection to music. The glue that bound everyone together was the love of music.”
Three decades later, the station has come an awfully long way – as has Malloy, who is now its northstar. As we discuss his leadership of WWCD, the strangeness and sadness of the past 18 months inevitably surfaces.
“With the pandemic, everything was just…there was so much sameness,” he reflects. “There were no real tent-poles to discern from one day to the next. They just kind of blended.”
But among the monotony, the station took some heavy hits. Last October, an FCC licensing dispute pulled the station off the air for almost a month, forcing them to shift their broadcast to a streaming-only format. Last June, program director and beloved afternoon drive DJ Mason “Mase” Brazelle passed away suddenly.
“A year ago, Mase died,” Malloy remarks. “It was one year ago. So, today is the day that I dragged him kicking and screaming to the hospital…rushing him to Grant [Medical Center] thinking ‘What the fuck’s going on?!’ And then [a year ago] at 8 p.m. tonight would be the time I talked to him last, and then talked to the nurse. Then at three o’clock in the morning, I got the phone call saying, ‘He’s crashing and we don’t know why.’
“But it doesn’t seem like it was a year ago. It just seems like…I don’t know if it feels shorter or longer. That’s the thing. Because it’s, like, shit – I didn’t go see my mom, I didn’t travel, I didn’t go to New York, I didn’t go to New Jersey. I didn’t get any junkets. There were no concerts, no Lollapalooza, no Summerfest. We didn’t celebrate our birthdays, there were no football games…so, it’s just this compression of time.”
Despite the challenges, there were also some big wins. The station returned to the FM dial just before Thanksgiving last year, en route to permanently owning its broadcast license in short order. At the start of 2021, it expanded its reach with simulcasts in Delaware and Marysville. Its entire staff has remained gainfully employed without layoffs or cutbacks. And when pandemic restrictions limited its typical avenues of engagement with the Columbus community last year, it initiated the CD102.5 Cares program, which offered free advertising to small businesses throughout the city, using their reach to urge listeners to spend, eat, and give locally.
Since last August, the station has also offered an outlet for area artists looking to escape the confines of their homes to play music to stream live sets from Big Room Bar.
“Our first show was with Willie Phoenix, and tonight we have a hip-hop show,” Malloy says, pointing to the stage behind us. “And we’ve played every genre in between during that time, from hip-hop to heavy metal, to country, to reggae, to alternative. And it’s all to promote the music scene in Columbus. The bands get to play, they hopefully get heard, hopefully sell some merch – we’re not making any money from it. I don’t have an audience in here yet. But, you know, the bands want to come out. Just to get on stage…they’ll go ‘Oh, thank God. We haven’t played except in our garage for 14 months. So, this is the best thing ever just to play on stage virtually!’”
As for how everything evolves from here, Malloy is cautiously optimistic about WWCD’s forward path.
“Yeah, I mean we’re surviving,” he says. “I’m not going to say we’re thriving, you know, because the world is still slowly coming out. I feel like a bear out of a long hibernation that’s poking its head out and going ‘Whoo! I’ve lost a lot of weight. It’s been a long winter. I guess I have to get out and eat at some point.’ But the berries aren’t on the trees yet.
“My other analogy for the pandemic for what we do in marketing is that it wasn’t that the fruit trees weren’t harvestable, you know? There was a drought, they died, then there was a fire and it burned them – and they’re gone. And now, we have to replant them and they’ve got to regrow before they even bear fruit. It’s not like, you know, ‘Oh, we just skipped a year and it was a cold winter, and now the fruit’s back!’ It’s more like ‘Uh, can we hurry this along please?’”
Malloy acknowledges the station’s on-air personalities – local folks with humble roots who, in his words, possess a ‘Fuck, yeah!’ approach to their work – have been key to its ongoing success.
“It’s a bonus for some people,” he says. “You can put in a request and someone will say ‘Oh! I can get that on the air.’ Really? Yes! Because there are human beings here. You could see [DJ] Brian Phillips in a store and be like, ‘Wait! You do mornings!’ Yes! And he’ll have a conversation with you.
“People feel like they know Brian, and they listen to him every morning and they love him because he’s so witty and smart. And they ask ‘How does he come up with all of that stuff?’ It’s because he works hard. He researches the crap out of it. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and gets down here by 6 a.m., and he’s already worked a couple of hours the night before to find all the trending topics and all the weird shit that went on the night before. And you get to know Grayson [Kelly], and you get to know Laura [Lee] and that she has a horrible apartment.”
92.9’s musical diversity is another one of its aces – partially driven by a dedicated, opinionated audience.
“Music discovery is everything and anything. It really is. And it comes to us from a really wide swath of arenas,” explains Malloy. “We’ll have listeners say, ‘Hey, have you heard of this really great band?’ And they’ll send music. ‘Here’s a band I was listening to while I was in California…’ or ‘I was in Canada…,’ or ‘I was surfing the web and heard this crazy song. Have you heard of this band?’ And we’ll say ‘No, we haven’t. But, let’s try it.’
“And the audience absolutely lets us know if they hate something. We do ‘Discover and Download’ now – and we’ve always been doing that where we play stuff and ask listeners, and they’ll go ‘Oh my God, we hate it!’ But, you’re gonna have [that]. And it’s okay. At least you’re listening. I’d rather have somebody say, ‘You’re the best!’ or ‘You’re the worst!’ than somebody saying ‘Ehh. I don’t care.’ Indifference is the worst.”
Sometimes, other factors come into play in determining playlists.
“Well, it’s funny. As a program director, you’re supposed to be impartial, like a judge. But, I don’t know if you know any judges, but it turns out they’re not that impartial [laughs],” Malloy says. “Each programmer has their own peccadillos and personalities that they like or don’t like – bands or sounds, or artists and genres. So, the alternative genre has that, because…what’s alternative? Alternative to what? That’s where it kind of gets really muddy. I try to stay very detached from certain bands or songs, but I’d be disingenuous if I said I didn’t have my favorites or personal hates. I try not to let my own personal tastes get involved.”
Record labels are in the mix, too.
“They’re salespeople,” says Malloy. “Then there’s us – people in the programming department searching out new music. We get sent a lot of music. Just tons and tons. CDs and downloads and stuff. If you go look in [music director] Tom [Butler]’s office, there are just rows and rows of CDs, and he’ll listen to them.”
And every once in a while, the station will discover talent on its own.
“Sometimes, we’ll be at a show. We were at someplace like A&R Music Bar and one of the opening bands was just punk as fuck,” Malloy recalls. “I said, ‘Oh my God, these guys are great! Who are they?’ We put them on the next day. Found their record, downloaded it, and put it on. There was no label support or anything. They were just stupendous. Then there are bands that just have heritage. We look at the charts and determine what’s trending, too.”
Malloy affirms the station’s ongoing commitment to promote and support Columbus-area artists, frequently selecting ‘Local Gems’ that get airplay alongside wider-known acts.
“My belief is that every band was a local band at one point,” he asserts. “Nirvana was a local band. Pearl Jam was a local band. The Beatles were a local band. Somebody had to give them a shot to go somewhere. That’s always what I’ve said we have to be and continue to be. We’ve gotta give these bands a shot. If we only played bands that had 500,000 downloads and a million streams, then you know what? We’re a jukebox. We’re Spotify.”
As corporate radio conglomerates take over markets in cities across the country and prefab stations continually pop up and crank out standardized programming that seems to be driven by cash rather than artistic substance, Malloy is unfazed by WWCD’s ability to stay buoyant.
“We don’t battle that,” he says. “We used to years and years ago. iHeart came after us with a vengeance. When it was Jacor [Communications], I mean, they would come by and tape the ratings to the windshields of our trucks and promotions. We would come out and they would have plastered the windshields of the truck with the ratings highlighted. ‘You’re number 11 and we’re number 4!’ They would try to demoralize us. And, we’d just crinkle it up and go ‘Fuck you.’ It was, like, ‘We’re not gonna stop. All you’re doing is emboldening us. We don’t care.’ So, I don’t really think we fight that. We fight ourselves.”
In a world where streams, clicks, and scrolls rule our daily routines, radio still has efficacy among all the media noise.
“We’re immediate,” says Malloy. “‘Hey! There’s traffic! Watch out!’ TV doesn’t do that. If you’re in your car, you’re not watching TV. But radio does. What newspaper or magazine is saying ‘Watch out for traffic!’ None of them. We are. We’re going to tell you what the current weather is, and we’ll also tell you what’s happening tonight. ‘Hey! That show? It just sold out. So, if you didn’t get tickets, you’re screwed!’
“And, sure, social media’s doing that, but you have to be following how many thousands of things to see that stuff – and if you just happen to see it among the millions of bits of information. So, we’re immediate, we’re transportable. And we’re free.”
As an advertising medium, Malloy says the station has continued to help Columbus businesses find new customers.
“For advertisers to say ‘Yeah, you improve my business’ – wow. We did something for St. Patrick’s Day for an advertiser we’d known forever, and they said, ‘I’m going to advertise with you guys more. I really didn’t know if radio would work, but we were really busy and so many people said they’d heard about us on the radio. It really works!’ And that’s not some shameless plug, but it’s like ‘Yeah, we do.’ For certain businesses, we actually work really well. There are others that, you know, it takes time. But, you know, people do listen.”
All in all, Malloy has managed to keep perspective. Community support for the station and its staff have also helped.
“Half the time, I’m just happy to be here,” he says. “I’m just happy to be still doing this. Sometimes it’s very hard to have those cathartic moments to know that you mean something. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not changing the world. I’m not helping the racial divide. I play fucking music. I own a little radio station. I’m a mom-and-pop business. I really am. We’re not a mega-corporation.
“So, sometimes it’s hard to know if this means something. But then when we went off the air from 102, we sort of had this outpouring of sentiment on the internet, and with phone calls, faxes, and email, and this and this. And you kind of just sit back and become a little overwhelmed by it. People do care. It does matter. You know? It really becomes very emotional, because I put 30 years of my life into this thing.”
And what about the next 30?
“We want to continue to do good stuff,” Malloy says. “I want to continue to break bands. I want to continue to try and grow the music scene, working with the Columbus Music Commission and city leaders to expand [it]. It’s a viable production – it can make money for the city. When the city comes in and gets behind it, then it becomes real. When they believe in the commerce of music, then artists want to be here and live here when there’s production and facilities and infrastructure. I just want to have a unifying thing that music is and try to have a little fun while we do it.”
Stream and interact with CD92.9 via its official website.