Chris Roth purchased WNAV for a simple reason, though his explanation invokes the wrong game show: “The price was right this time,” he says. On the market for years, the Annapolis radio station—1430 on the AM dial—had always been too expensive for Roth to acquire. But in October, he was able to make a deal at a cost he could afford, and now the 46-year-old employee of DC station WTOP finds himself in possession of a tiny outlet that was previously the property of somebody better known for turning a giant wheel on TV than for spinning records on the radio: Pat Sajak.
WNAV, which went on the air April 22, 1949, has been at the same location for the past 72 years, a modest brick building with vintage 1430 WNAV RADIO PARK lettering on the front. Sajak, a resident of nearby Severna Park, started out as an audio guy, having worked as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio when he was stationed in Saigon during the war. (He was one of the voices that signed on with “Good morning, Vietnam!”) His company, Sajak Broadcasting, bought WNAV in 1998 from the late Jake Einstein, best known for his role in building WHFS. WNAV had been for sale since 2013, with no takers.
Roth made his offer in 2021: A thousand dollars for the station—and Sajak would have to put up $100,000 to move it to a new building nearby, because the current land is being sold to developers. Roth was ready to get laughed at. But ten days later, he got a response: Offer accepted.
There was a reason Sajak’s company took Roth’s small offer, of course. Like plenty of other AM stations, WNAV has a dwindling listenership and is losing money. The most local of local media, it broadcasts news, Naval Academy sports, songs from ’70s hit-makers such as Elton John, religious fare, and weekly programs like The Boat Show with Captain Rick Franke. Buying WNAV in 2022 feels a bit like sizing up the Netflix-saturated streaming landscape and then deciding, for some reason, to acquire a VHS factory. When Roth learned that the station would soon be his, he experienced a moment of sudden dread. “What now?” he thought.
Inside WNAV’s small office, you can’t miss Sajak’s presence, whether it’s the framed professional headshots on the walls or the curling Sajak-focused newspaper clippings pinned to a bulletin board in the single narrow hallway. The space feels decidedly retro, with antiquated equipment and floor-to-ceiling midcentury wood paneling. “Reminds me of Grandma’s house,” Roth said during a recent visit, his mellifluous voice instantly identifying him as a radio professional.
The scene was markedly different from Roth’s usual environs at local news powerhouse WTOP, one of DC’s most popular radio staples. He’s currently WTOP’s production director, a position he intends to keep while running his new station. Roth, who grew up in Olney, got his full-time start in radio at WNAV in 1996, and even when his career took him to other local outlets, he still occasionally filled in as a guest DJ at WNAV. Now he’s hosting the station’s morning program, at least temporarily.
Roth is buying the station with a business partner—fellow WNAV veteran Frank Brady, who will handle ad sales and prefers to stay behind the scenes. Together, they’ll need to figure out how to stem the hemorrhaging. They don’t plan to change the programming too much, although they’d like to find ways to attract younger listeners. (Their demographic is “death to funeral,” Roth jokes. “We’re hoping to lower it to age 50.”) But don’t expect anything radical. “We never want you to turn on the radio and not recognize a song,” Roth says. WNAV will continue to identify itself closely with the Naval Academy, starting with those call letters and extending to its long-running live broadcasts of football and basketball games. “We’re going all in on Navy,” says Roth. “We’re getting new jingles and they end with ‘Go, Navy!’ ”
There have already been cutbacks, Roth acknowledges. (The station’s staff of about 25 was laid off by the previous owner shortly before the deal closed on January 1, 2022; Roth has hired only a handful of them back so far.) He also plans to reduce expenses by updating the technology, including the still-used antique main transmitter—a meat-freezer-size monstrosity that was purchased when WNAV first went on the air during the Truman administration. While touring the station, Roth gestured to the spot where it takes up nearly the entire length of one wall of the back room. “The power bill for that transmitter would blow your mind,” he said—a fact he discovered after a recent line-by-line review of the budget. “Sajak has been funneling a lot of money into this station for years.” Roth and Brady just want to break even. “It’s like going to Vegas,” Roth says. “If you go over with a thousand in your pocket and you come home with a thousand in your pocket, you won.”
WNAV is hardly Roth’s first gamble. He previously owned small stations in Tennessee and Alabama. (He sold both years ago.) He’s also part owner of two duckpin bowling alleys, one in northern Baltimore and another in Glen Burnie. Roth explains these ventures with a short phrase and a slight smile: “I like things that are dying.”
Whether WNAV fits into that category remains to be seen, but Roth is highly attuned to the challenges ahead. “The AM market is dead,” he says. “It’s all about digital now.” The station does already broadcast digitally, and Roth plans to invest in efforts to attract listeners who aren’t much aware of the AM dial. Yet the bigger question is what a station like WNAV should actually be in 2022. Do you keep things more or less the same and ride out a diminishing asset? Or do you try to rethink the whole enterprise? Roth says it’s too soon to discuss specifics, but with a fresh owner and new facilities in place, this could be the last moment to reposition the business. “Moving to a new building will be a major change, but we’ll have the opportunity to create new historical narratives in a new location,” says Dan O’Neil, WNAV’s sales manager. “WNAV is the only full-time, full-power radio station, AM or FM, licensed to Maryland’s state-capital city. That’s a hefty responsibility.”
Roth is already feeling that weight, but he’s also enjoying the chance to run something that has meant so much to him throughout his career. And he’s had a great time getting to know Sajak as well, of course. Hasn’t he? Actually, Roth says he has yet to encounter the Wheel of Fortune star: “But I made [the general manager] promise that before all of this is done, I get at least to talk to him on the phone.”
This article appears in the February 2022 issue of Washingtonian.