Mignon Clyburn gave the opening remarks at a late February Federal Communications Commission hearing at the South Carolina State Museum.
U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., also attended the FCC's quadrennial review of broadcast ownership rules.
Clyburn, the oldest daughter of House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., is one of five commissioners on the FCC board, and she listened to waves of bad news from radio panelists.
It's a chorus so familiar these days, like that of an overplayed top 40 song: The radio industry is struggling.
Steve Varholy didn't commiserate when he was given two minutes to speak.
"I've got some good news," he recalled telling the panel. "We're doing well."
Varholy, the managing director of WXRY-FM 99.3, is an anomaly in the industry.
"He was invited to testify since he is one of the few who is making it work," said Chuck McKay, general manager of country station WWNU-FM New 92.1. "A noncommercial station making money in this environment is a rarity."
WXRY, which turned five 10 days ago, has taken off through turbulent air. When it began broadcasting in 2005, Howard Stern was still on terrestrial radio, Pandora wasn't recommending playlists and Shazam wasn't yet identifying songs on mobile phones.
Locally, "The Morning Rush" was still on WNOK-FM 104.7 (it's now on WCOS-FM 97.5). Clear Channel had yet to flip WLTY-FM 96.7 to Steve FM and Charlie James was still on WCOS. (James has since been on WVOC-AM 560; currently he hosts New 92's morning show.)
WXRY, which, promotes itself as the independent alternative, is, programming wise, somewhere between WUSC-FM 90.5's pre-commercial buzz bands and WARQ-FM Rock 93.5's modern rock.
WXRY has steadily built success because Varholy continues to ask questions of himself and his peers.
"Are we in the aggregating ears and selling time to people or are we into being entertaining and doing service?" he said.
The first song was an error in transmission.
At 5 p.m. March 18, 2005, Cake's "Love You Madly" was broadcast.
"I didn't intend for it to be that," Varholy, 39, said during a recent lunch at Thirsty Fellow, the new bar near the Colonial Life Arena. "We had a technical issues."
The first song was supposed to be "Video Killed the Radio Star." That Saturday, WXRY began a St. Patrick's Day (the day observed by the St. Pat's in Five Points party) tradition: "The Beautiful Day," 24 hours of U2.
Local listeners can thank Kevin Bush, whom Varholy says came up with the concept.
"We were just throwing ideas around," Bush, a founding board member, said when deflecting credit. "It also fed into the idea of what the station is about, appealing to people our age, at first, who were not being served by commercial radio."
Bush, the marketing director for theater and dance at USC, helped with the visual and marketing identity of the station. Varholy also said Bush created the station's jingle.
Bush disputes that, too, though he recalled sitting in founding member Angel Tolentino's basement recording voice-overs and intros for the station before it debuted.
"I was just playing around on the mic and did this horrible little melody that Steve took to the jingle company," Bush said.
Here's one thing Bush won't challenge: "WXRY started with something very personal, and (Varholy) called on his friends to help," Bush said.
"I was just friends with these people who were starting a radio station," Bush continued. "I helped them do a lot with no money."
WXRY, known in the industry as a low power station, is in the 100 watts license class. For comparison, the market's No. 1 station, WWDM-FM The Big DM 101.3, broadcasts at 100,000 watts. WXRY, operated by Gamecock Alumni Broadcasters, reaches about 25,000 listeners at any one time, primarily in the downtown area.
If you meet him just once, you will know Varholy is a radio guy. You know, the kind with encyclopedic knowledge of radio history and trends. He was an established voice in this city before he started WXRY.
Varholy, a former WUSC program director, began working at WARQ while he was in college. He was there in 1992 when the station flipped formats from the lite rock of Star 93.5 to the stuck-out-tongues rock of Rock 93.5.
"I was awful and the station was even worse," Varholy said.
"When Steven first started, he sounded like an announcer," said McKay, a former owner of Rock 93.5. "After six months, he sounded like a person. As a rock personality, he was unbeatable."
To get Varholy to sound less plastic, McKay said he kept telling Varholy that he sounded phony. And that ticked Varholy off.
"He got angry, and he took that on the air with him," McKay said. "He stopped being formal.
"Now he would fit on a country station. You put him on a jazz station, and he'll make you believe that jazz is his favorite music in the world. He became relatable."
On the air he's known simply as Varholy.
From 3 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, you can hear him on the air with biased (their word) news reader Kris Esgar, who also directs the station's promotions and underwriting.
A few weeks ago, the sole window in the station, housed on the second floor of the Barringer Building on Main Street, was propped open.
The station isn't much larger than a dorm room, the tall storage cabinets and futon adding to the feel.
One wall is painted movie-sky blue, the color in the station's logo. The use of the space is an in-kind grant from Capitol Places, which owns the building.
Angie Aparo, who was performing that evening at the White Mule, walked in carrying a tattered guitar case. His cuffed cargo pants dragged the floor.
"What's been going on Columbia?" Aparo said before giving Esgar a hug. "I came straight here, and I have to go over to sound-check."
"The nice thing about the White Mule, there's no rush to get down there," Varholy said of the bar and listening room also on Main. He swiveled in his chair, shoes off, his white-sock feet causing the motion.
The sun was going down, dimming the room. The only other light was from the bank of screens in front of Esgar and Varholy, who talked Tim McGraw and Nashville with Aparo.
"It's about to hit the fan," Aparo said about the city as he tuned his guitar, hinting that McGraw's rumored label plans will upset the country capital's balance.
Aparo, who wrote "Cry," a song made famous by Faith Hill, McGraw's wife, has been spending time in Nashville. He shared a story of taking shots with John Rich, half of country duo Big & Rich, which led to a later gig playing in "Entourage" cast member Jeremy Piven's living room. Cindy Crawford and Dane Cook watched him from a couch.
And there's a TV show about lost albums in the works.
"It's sort of exploring that and I host it," said Aparo, who "lost" an album, when he chose to follow Clive Davis after he was ousted at RCA Music Group in 2008.
Varholy remarked that the off-air commentary was better than the on-air interview while putting on his headphones.
Then he said, "It's 5:24 in the capital city. Varholy here ..."
Three years ago, Varholy was practicing law at a D.C. firm, specializing in litigation, trademark and copyright work. He drove to Columbia almost every weekend.
He questioned himself. Was WXRY going to be an expensive hobby? Was he going to grow the station to serve the community?
"That's a big mission Steve promotes, that everybody who works for the station get out and do remotes," Esgar said.
WXRY, which hosted an unofficial stage at Jake's during this year's St. Pat's in Five Points festival, is a very visible station. You'll see Esgar and Varholy broadcasting from the sidewalk in front of various events such as Artista Vista, Indie Grits Film Festival and the SC Pride Parade.
"WXRY Unsigned," the Sunday-night show hosted by Brent Lundy and Randy Borawski, is broadcast from the top of the Sheraton Hotel Downtown. The show, which recently featured live performances by Villanova and Treadmill Trackstar, is a must listen for local music fans.
For a brief period, WXRY aired the "Tyler & Ken" morning show, which was formerly on New 92. (Ken Huron took a radio job in Alabama, and Tyler Ryan now records the news for WXRY.)
WXRY is a noncommercial radio station, which means it can't accept traditional advertising like its competitors. Its programming has to be underwritten like, say, ETV Radio's shows.
One of the WXRY's earliest and biggest underwriters is Wild Wing Cafe.
"They've been great to us," Varholy, a 1994 USC graduate, said. "They understood very quickly what we did and what our audience is. It's been a great relationship."
Jeff Condon, marketing director of Wings Over America, Wild Wing's parent company, said the partnership with the station was a chance occurrence.
Condon, who is based in Mount Pleasant, was in Columbia when heard the station.
"I listened to it and I liked it," he said. "They played what I liked to hear."
Condon thought the station's alternative playlist, which does incorporate well-known songs, was what the core Wild Wing base would want to hear.
By chance, he ran into the WXRY crew who were eating dinner at the Vista location of the chain.
"It pretty much just started that way," Condon said. "It's worked out great, hopefully in their favor as well."
The recession has caused WXRY to grow slower than Varholy hoped.
"I don't even know if we've seen it that bad because we're still a value buy for most underwriters," Esgar, a 1990 graduate of USC's law school, added. "We've had some people come to us because we were more affordable.
"The financial situation has slowed our growth. It hasn't stopped it or made it fall off."
By now, Varholy would have liked to have two other full-time DJs on the air, as well as a news department. On the other hand, WXRY isn't strapped with debt like radio giants such as Clear Channel, Citadel Broadcasting and Inner City Broadcasting, each of which has had staff reductions and changes that have affected the local market.
"We were in the black after our first year of operations," Varholy said. Next month, WXRY will pay off the operation credit line it opened five years ago to purchase software.
The financial stability doesn't suggest that competitors, such as Inner City, which owns Rock 93.5, will get nervous.
"Although Steven is doing things very well, he still has a small signal," McKay said of WXRY's reach.
But they are listening - if not to his station, then to his message.
After he spoke at the FCC hearing last month, Varholy said one local executive told him he would have to take some of his money.
The FCC and the industry thermometers, like http://Radio-Info.com, have also noticed.
"If they're doing well, then obviously they're satisfying a need," said Tom Taylor, a veteran broadcast journalist who writes a daily newsletter for Radio-Info. "And that's the kind of the most basic thing you can do in radio.
"There are so many other avenues for people to discover music, we forget how important radio is."
At least one person around here hasn't.
On the air: 99.3 FM
Owner: Gamecock Alumni Broadcasters Ltd.
Debut: March 18, 2005
Coverage area: Primarily downtown, Lexington and immediate surrounding areas
Listen online: http://wxryfm.org
Listen on your mobile device: Go to the Web site for link.