Randy Malloy has made independent radio his life—as in second mortgage, no retirement or bust. The city is better for it.

Mid-life crisis can happen to anyone, but it’s rougher on the rock ’n’ rollers who grew up on radio and rebellion. Randy Malloy turned 55 and cut his hair, saying goodbye to the locks that tumbled to his shoulders for most of his adult life. “I went into the barbershop, and I had a pair of dice, and I said, ‘Whatever I roll, that’s how many inches you take off.’ ” Ten inches later, Malloy looked like a respectable middle-aged man. Well, almost.

Malloy’s other concession to age and respectability is a suit jacket. He wears it over his jeans and T-shirt and it’s really the only thing that marks him as the boss. In the laid-back offices and studios of WWCD, a jacketless Malloy would be indistinguishable from the scruffy sorts who tend to inhabit the world of alternative rock radio. “World” is probably the wrong word. There’s not a lot of alt-rock on the radio. There are not many stations like WWCD. And there are very few guys left in radio like Randy Malloy.

He’s one of the last of his kind–owner/operator of an independent commercial radio station in a big market relying on niche alternative rock programming. He can’t say for certain his station will be around in five years, but it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything else. Malloy beams when he explains why the music that lit him up as a kid dictated his life’s path. “Music elicits such a passion in people. You know which song was playing when you had your first kiss. You were probably listening to music when you had your first car accident, and you remember, and that was 30 years ago, 40 years ago. I hear that song by the B-52s, and I’m right back on the beach in New Jersey in the summer of ’77. To be part of something that transports people, that has so much meaning to their lives.”

Keeping the rock ’n’ roll faith is one thing but keeping a small independent radio station open and transmitting is another in an age when the radio industry looks nothing like it did when Malloy first jammed to the Ramones. From corporate consolidation in the 1970s, to 1996 when the federal government raised limits on how many stations one could own, to the present day when even monolithic companies like iHeart Radio struggle to stay profitable, radio is tough.

Malloy has put more than his career on the line in his commitment to keeping WWCD viable. He tried to use crowdfunding several years ago to buy the station’s broadcasting license. To keep WWCD going, he has taken out a second mortgage on his house, cashed in his retirement account and, even more remarkably, kept his 20-year marriage intact. (“She kind of looked at me like I was crazy,” Malloy says.) WWCD says it is the only independently owned commercial alternative rock station in a U.S. city with a population over 100,000. That illustrates the precarious future it faces.

“It has to be a labor of love” to steer an enterprise the way Malloy has run WWCD, says Alex DeMers of Philadelphia-based DeMers Programming, a radio consultant who’s worked in Columbus in the past. Indeed, he describes WWCD as “a passion format. It’s just pure love for the music.”

Malloy’s life could be a song lyric. In fact, a fellow New York native wrote it. To paraphrase Lou Reed: “One fine morning he heard that New York station, couldn’t believe what he heard at all. Started dancing to that fine, fine music, his life was saved by rock and roll.” Born in Manhattan, raised in New Jersey in the ’60s and ’70s, Malloy was at the epicenter of rock ’n’ roll.

“My misspent youth was spent in New York City, going to concerts,” Malloy says. “I saw hundreds of concerts. [Legendary punk club] CBGB, Bruce Springsteen, you name it. There were little clubs all the way to Madison Square Garden. You took the train into the city, and there was music everywhere. I saw the Ramones playing in concert at Rutgers University. I grew up listening to the radio—WNEW, WAPP. I grew up listening to everything from the Doors to the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin to Styx, Boston to the Charlie Daniels Band. Southern-fried rock to Deep Purple. I listened to it all.”

For two years after high school, Malloy was an ambulance driver: “Trashed bodies and heart attacks, sick people and old people and dying people—it was exciting. It was an adrenaline junkie’s delight. But it was so taxing. I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s ripping my soul out.’ I changed what my career thoughts were gonna be.”

Traveling west to see a girlfriend attending Ohio University, Malloy landed in Columbus on the way. All he knew about the city was what he learned from a couple of Ohio State University wrestlers he befriended in New Jersey. (“They were hilarious.”) He liked what he saw enough to enroll at OSU. “It’s not that far [from home] and Ohio State—it’s big, and it’s right in the city, and I thought you can be whatever you want to be and nobody’s going to look at you like this strange guy from New Jersey. On a small campus I would have stuck out like a sore thumb. I’m gregarious, which is a polite way of saying obnoxious.”

While studying communications at Ohio State, Malloy plunged into the nightlife on High Street, working as a bouncer at Newport Music Hall and tending bar. The kid from New Jersey fit right in: He joined the Ski Club and became its chairman, which led him directly to where he is now. The Ski Club was doing an event with WWCD, and Malloy met station marketing director Wendy Steele not long after the station’s debut in the fall of 1990. Approaching graduation, Malloy had a sudden jolt of ambition—this was rock ’n’ roll radio, man! “They didn’t even have interns yet! I said, ‘I’d love to be an intern.’ ” What did that internship entail? “I said, ‘So basically I get to hang out with rock stars and someone pays for my beers? I’m in.’ I did that until I graduated the following year in 1992. That Friday they said, ‘Do you want a job?’ I said, ‘So now you’re gonna pay me to hang out with rock stars and someone pays for my beers?’ ”

Working for Steele, Malloy cut his teeth on marketing and promotions and learned his glamorous notions of the job were notions, not reality: 80-hour weeks, endless nights and weekends, a life that revolves around the station. “When they hired me I said, ‘I’m going to learn everything there is to know about this business so they’ll never be able to get rid of me. I love this.’ I started in a marketing role, doing promotions, and I realized, ‘Yeah, I’m good at that.’ It came naturally to me. So what, I just need to create stuff and go to events and make things happen? I can do that in my sleep.”

CD101, as the station was known then, was the perfect training ground. The 101.1 frequency was bought by local businessman and rock music fan Roger Vaughn, who launched a station that played stuff—They Might Be Giants, Something Happens—found nowhere else on the Columbus radio dial. CD101 established its niche quickly, led by DJ Andy “Andyman” Davis, who became the face of the station as it fostered a reputation for live events and connections to the music industry. It was one of the first stations in the country to live stream its content. In 2006 the Radio & Records trade publication named CD101 the No. 4 alternative rock radio station in the country. Along the way, Malloy made the move up from marketing to management.

Malloy became the man-in-charge during a time of crisis for the station. As revenue fell in recession recovery and ratings dipped during the awkward transition from 101.1 to 102.5 (Vaughn had sold the former frequency to Ohio State University), Davis suddenly died while on vacation.

So Malloy bought WWCD. He bought the intellectual property, took on the station’s debt and put several hundred thousand dollars into equipment and the new building. All he had to do was take out a second mortgage, the first step in tying his fortunes indelibly to the station. Later, he would cash in his retirement fund. He says his wife was on board. “We agreed that if anyone was going to do it, I had to be the one. No one else was going to come and do it. There was going to be no shining white knight. I truly believe in radio. It’s such an integral part of my life. I couldn’t walk away from it.” (Vaughn still holds a piece of the company.)

Malloy doesn’t deny he’s put himself in scary financial straits: “Of course I have. You know, on my tombstone, there’s three words that will never be printed—would’ve, could’ve and should’ve. I don’t have regrets when it comes to that. I get to do something that I love and I love it every day. Is it stressful? Absolutely. In every way, shape and form I deal with stress, from financial stress to personnel stress. So does everybody.”

“The thing about Randy is he’s very positive,” says DJ Brian Phillips, who’s been with WWCD for 25 years. “He’s not the kind who stomps and yells. He doesn’t bring the heat down on somebody because he’s having a bad day. Maybe he’ll be a little more quiet. But he tries his darnedest to make sure everybody feels good.”

Malloy moved the station into a Brewery District spot, the historic Swiss Helvetia Mannerchor building, renovating it to create the Big Room concert venue, later adding a bar and food. Malloy says the venue serves as a fine spot for promotions but doesn’t add much in the way of revenue. His crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo failed to get the $1 million he sought as leverage for a loan to buy the station license (about $160,000 was raised), so he continues to rent the space.

A new storm cloud gathered this year when a developer announced plans to raze the Swiss chalet-style building for an apartment complex. Malloy waves the prospect away. “It’s way too soon to worry about that.”

To call the future bleak would be wrong, says radio consultant DeMers. WWCD is one of the few places in radio where they have a huge playlist that’s generated locally—virtually unheard of nowadays—by people who have the respect of the music industry. “I mean, he won’t ever make much money. But that station is such a part of the community, it’s to the point where people have grown up with it. Because of them, Columbus has a rock market people pay attention to.”

Malloy’s die was cast the day he “started dancing to that fine, fine music” and his life was saved by rock ’n’ roll. If WWCD goes down, he’ll go with it. “I’m just a 55-year-old guy who nobody would normally pay any attention to. In high school I learned to play the clarinet and later the tuba, but I stunk. I don’t have any musical skills. But as long as I’m attached to this radio station I’m a rock star. This isn’t work—it’s rock ’n’ roll, man!”

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Q&A

How does WWCD’s listenership break down between on-air and internet? Is streaming more or less profitable?
Mostly on-air. I’d say 10 percent online, 80 to 90 percent is still terrestrial. Some years back, when we were one of the first radio stations to stream, we had a huge number. We were ahead of the curve. Then the industry caught up, and we had the recording industry say, “Hey we’re going to charge royalties for streaming as well as for terrestrial.” It was really expensive. Now you’re talking six figures-plus for streaming on top of the royalties you’re already paying. So we stopped streaming for a few years. When we came back to streaming, I was paranoid we were going to have these huge fees. But it became less of a financial burden and less of a concern.

Radio has become an industry in peril in the span of a generation. Is it difficult to attract talent to a career that’s less alluring than it was?
No—you’d be surprised. People still want to get into it. It still has that allure of rock ’n’ roll. We have an army of interns that are constantly flowing through here. We have no shortage of people who want to get involved in the radio industry. It’s not just your DJs. You’ve got management, you’ve got sales, you’ve got promotion, you’ve got marketing, you’ve got social media. The thing is that radio still works. We were the original social media. We were and still are immediate. And we’re free. And transportable. Advertisers pay for us.

How do you go from intern to general manager to owner-operator?
By outliving and outlasting everyone, unfortunately. That’s the harsh reality of it. My boss when I was hired was Wendy Steele, she was director of marketing. When we moved to South Front Street, she just couldn’t do it anymore. She was burned out. The station grew, and it required a lot of work. You had to go to all the concerts, you had to go and do the setup at every event. And sell the commercials and you’re working five, six, seven nights a week and putting in 70- or 80- or 100-hour weeks. I can absolutely tell you I’ve worked 100-hour weeks.

Jeff Long is a freelance writer.