The most enjoyable gig I ever had in commercial radio was working for WEVA Emporia, a small daytime-only AM station in southern Virginia, in the 1990s. It wasn’t the music that made it enjoyable. As a matter of fact, I quickly grew bored with its bland mix of Michael Bolton, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Lionel Richie and the like, and would often try to sneak in songs by people like Toad the Wet Sprocket or the Rembrandts whenever possible. It wasn’t even the fact that I was given total creative control over the popular Sunday Afternoon Oldies show, although I did enjoy the opportunity to implement some programming theories that I had been kicking around in my head for years.
No, what made working at WEVA special was its owner, Willis Stone. Will, as everyone knew him, had spent his entire life at WEVA. His father Maxey had founded the station on November 2, 1952, just in time to cover the presidential election that saw Eisenhower become the first Republican president since the beginning of the Great Depression.
Will began working at WEVA while still a high school student in the mid-50s, covering airshifts after school. Back in those days, small-town stations were not dedicated to a particular format. I remember Will telling me about running back-to-back 15 minute shows of local news, country and western music, black gospel, farm news, big band music, and even a nightly rock and roll show. After the station signed off at sunset, he would occasionally take his high school sweetheart Eleanor to a rock and roll show up in Richmond.
When Will was 22 his father died suddenly, and Will the newlywed became Will the President and General Manager of WEVA, a position he held for the rest of the century. Much like the fictional George Bailey, Will never left Emporia, but his influence extended well beyond Southside Virginia through the numerous newscasters, engineers and disc jockeys that either started out at or passed through the WEVA studios on the way to successful careers in the industry. He was on the board of directors of the Virginia Association of Broadcasters and even served as President of that organization during the 1970s. Locally, he served terms as president of a variety of organizations, including the Rotary Club, the Jaycees, the Emporia Chamber of Commerce and the local Industrial Development Corporation.
Will Stone was not a greedy man. In fact, he had to occasionally ask us to hold off on cashing paychecks for a day or two because a client was behind on payments. Nor was he an arrogant man. Despite being sole owner of the primary media outlet in the community (the only other one being a weekly newspaper), he was always accessible to anyone that cared to approach him. By all accounts Will was the best-known and best-liked person in town.
The aspect of Will Stone that most impressed me, though, was this: from the very beginning Will put serving the community ahead of making a profit, and never wavered from that commitment. Even into the 90s, when most AM stations were converting to news/talk or sports programming, Will kept WEVA a full-service station, taking on multiple roles as station manager, news director, and program director, and handling a good number of sales accounts as well in order to keep the station afloat. He did the morning drive himself, signing on the station at sunrise seven days a week and staying on the air until 10 every morning. He wrote and read his own newscasts, most of which he gathered himself, tirelessly attending every city council meeting for years on end, and stopping by the local police station on the way to work every morning to check the blotter. Whenever there was a major traffic accident on I-95, he’d go out there himself to get a firsthand view of the scene, interviewing witnesses and taking notes, then heading back to the station to write the story.
Will Stone outlasted virtually all of his contemporaries, whose stations were gobbled up by corporate buyers in the wake of the deregulation binge of the early 90s. Sadly, the new owners were, by and large, more interested in the bottom line than any mandate to serve the community. As more and more commercial radio stations came under corporate ownership, the concept of a full-service radio station became obsolete, replaced by niche stations catering to carefully targeted segments of the listening audience.
Shortly after I left Emporia in 1999, Eleanor Stone was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. As Eleanor’s condition worsened, Will Stone, always the family man first and foremost, sold WEVA in order to be able to spend as much time with her as possible. After her death in November 2000, Will spent the next few years indulging his own hobbies of collecting arrowheads and participating in E-bay auctions.
Last year I got word that Will himself had passed away at the age of 71. I think it’s safe to say that we won’t see another one like him again.
Goodbye Will Stone. You will be missed.