If you're strolling near J.C. Penney in the West End, it's hard not to notice the live radio jocks. That's because Boomtown, a new independent station, is set up behind large glass walls. The foyer's colorful floor, named Tie Dye Way, feels positively mind altering compared to the mall's browns and creams.
You might even recognize the hosts, by voice or face. Richmond radio legend Jeff McKee, of "Jeff and Jeff" fame, plays host to a morning show with Robyn Bentley, another airwaves veteran. McKee is Boomtown's program director, and his vision has been pulling in fans since the March launch. The station's slogan is "Timeless Rock n Roll, Pop and Soul." But after a few listens, you realize the station is more than the sum of the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s.
"We take you into the emerald city of great music," McKee says. "Each song has a story, comes from a different place and has different sound. It reflected the people and changed the times, or spoke about what was happening. People don't want to say goodbye to that. There's this humanity frozen in time."
McKee says he's been sitting on the Boomtown concept for 30 years. He quotes from Kurt Vonnegut's "Time Quake": "A plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, 'The Beatles did.'"
Four stations carry the one signal of Boomtown, and if you drive across Richmond a lot, it helps to put in presets. South Siders should try WBTL at 1540 AM and its FM translator at 94.1, while North Siders will have better luck with WUVN at 1450 AM and its FM translator at 92.9. Or, you know, you can just dial in via the interwebs.
"One lady was listening on her phone, and started dancing in the window while I was playing Chubby Checker's 'The Twist,'" Bentley says. "We have a huge window. I wondered how I would feel about that. Some people think we're playing the mall music."
For the love of Lennon, anything but mall Muzak! Zzz. A marketing director with Regency would seem to agree. "Their presence in the center fits perfectly with our plans for experiential retail and community engagement," says Julie Gordon. "We look forward to all the future events we have planned together."
Boomtown's open house May 24 brought out a surprising number of people, say McKee and Bentley. Sharon Wingfield keeps fans fed midday, and Kay Thomas hosts the 3 to7 p.m. weekday show. Station owner Mike Mazurksy says he wants to build a listener community through on-air, online and in-person venues.
"Boomtown Richmond has a presence on many social channels and has plans to reach out to listeners, followers and users to find out what events are happening in the community so we can support those in a multitude of ways," Mazurksy says. "In other words, we are going back to the old days of radio when the management, staff and on-air personalities cared about the music, the listeners and their community."
Mazursky also plans to help local businesses advertise through a Boomtown Merchants Association. Or you can hear mom-and-pop business owners shooting the breeze on air. Recently, the Barrel Thief's owner Booth Hardy stopped by with wine. That's one way to spice up the slice-of-life morning show genre.
"We give our reactions over the air, about what we think of the wine," Bentley says. "Neither Jeff or I drink a lot. But the first time that Booth came, Jeff drank the whole sample. I drove him home, and his daughter said, 'This is the first time I've seen you wasted, dad!'"
There's a palpable sense that McKee is hitting the right buttons with listeners. Younger people express their admiration in person as much as boomers. The station's Facebook reviews are veritable doctoral dissertations.
"OMG, I've gone back in time and am listening to an independent radio station where the DJs choose and play their favorite music regardless of year or genre," says Debra in one excerpt. "I am hearing the soundtrack of my life from the time I was a child listening to Elvis, to music that has informed my growing up politically and socially."
But the biggest fans may be Boomtown staff.
"We're laid-back, relaxed, noncorporate. Music and life are the focus," Bentley says. "It's amazing to watch [Jeff]. He's got extensive knowledge. If you're on a classic rock station, they play the same 200 to 300 songs. We're up to 3,000 songs and still adding."
For his part, McKee continues to chase a radio dragon. He's transfixed by the perfect segue from one song to another. "Your endorphins are released when there's a great segue," he says. "And you go, 'Ah, yeah, that's nice.'"