Durham News: Opinion

Troon: Radio for the community – John Svara

John Svara
John Svara

The home of Troon Radio (www.troonradio.com) is an angular modern house in northwest Durham. With its back deck and pool overlooking Troon Lake, it’s an ideal location to gather with friends and family. Our friends Chuck Adams and Bob Donaghey have hosted us there numerous times for birthdays and holidays.

On a recent mid-summer afternoon I went to Troon to talk with Bob about his new station. Sitting in his gazebo, the eclectic sounds of Troon Radio – blues, bluegrass, big-band jazz and swing, early rock’n’roll – mingling with birdsong and the buzzing of insects from trees around the lake, I asked him how he first became involved with broadcasting.

In 1958, while still in high school, Bob helped a friend develop programming for a new FM station – FM itself was a new phenomenon – in Detroit. At 18 he was invited to Hartford, Connecticut, to design programming for WSCH. He helped to pioneer a system called on-air radio relay, receiving signals from stations in Boston and New York and distributing them to a wider regional audience.

Bob and his colleagues created a loose consortium of affiliated stations, filling their rosters with live music programs like the Boston Pops, the Hartford Philharmonic, and the Marine Corps band in Washington.

“Then,” he tells me, “Fidel Castro came along.”

Bob and a group of East Coast radio broadcasters were meeting in Philadelphia in October, 1962, to discuss the rapidly growing network they had formed. On a conference room television they watched Castro, Kennedy, and Krushchev play their roles in what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Afterward Bob and fellow attendees, including eventual PBS founder Hartford Gunn, decided they could do a better job of disseminating information than the commercial TV and radio stations of the day. Their resulting 72-hour news marathon set the tone for the networks that later became National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System.

Graduating from college with a degree in theater, Bob took a job at CBS, starting as a page and working his way up to director of evening programming. Once, ushering the Rolling Stones to the stage as an assistant on the Ed Sullivan Show, he was caught up in a crush of fans pursuing the band from the street. Mick Jagger was pushed through a plate-glass door, lacerating his wrist (the bandage can be seen in a video clip of the episode).

“I wasn’t hurt,” Bob says. “My main concern was that I had to stand up in front of the stage with cue cards and my pants were dirty.”

After retiring from CBS, he turned again to radio and attempted to establish a public station in Danville, Virginia. “We had equipment, funding, everything set up, but we couldn’t get a signal frequency from the FCC. Bush was in office, and his administration didn’t want to be criticized.”

Bob and Chuck Adams, his partner of 48 years, moved to Durham in 2014. Bob sees Durham as a cultural hub in need of a unifying voice.

“We’re not here to entertain the city of Durham. Our intention is to take what’s being done here in Durham and use it to entertain the rest of the world.”

The station’s first original content is “Book Bar,” a 30-minute weekly program in which my wife, author Haven Kimmel, drinks wine and discusses writing and publishing with Chuck, her editor at Algonquin Books.

The future of radio is in online streaming, rather than traditional signal broadcasting, claims Bob.

“Durham has a public radio station, but it’s affiliated with a university, and has to kowtow to it. We can say anything we want. And we can reach anyone on the planet with access to the internet.”

Through the Troon Radio app, listeners can even hope to ward off the Zica virus: the app emits an ultrasonic frequency thought to discourage mosquitoes.

Bob believes that streaming will soon eclipse terrestrial broadcasting in the same way that FM largely supplanted AM radio years ago.

He sees his station as a platform from which local musicians and local voices might be heard. “We want Troon Radio to be of the community and for the community.” He plans soon to begin broadcasting live music from local clubs, and he’s seeking volunteers to lend a hand with announcing and programming. Area musicians are encouraged to submit their recordings to add to the playlist.

Since his early days in radio, Bob Donaghey has been an innovator in using the medium to bring people together. Troon Radio, a not-for- profit, commercial-free station and a member of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, is on the air, and is ready to spread the news – and the music – from the Bull City to the world.

John Svara lives in Durham. To see more of his work go to www.formandflaw.com