2024-07-15 8:10 PM

WFAX Radio Fully Shifted From Christian Talk to Latino Pop

To tunes from Mariachi trumpets, the WFAX AM/FM radio station, a Little City presence since 1948, has completed the transition announced a year ago, switching from Christian talk to regional Mexican/Spanish programming.

Pedro Biaggi, D.C. president for Costa Media Boston, gave the News-Press an upbeat forecast for the station branded as “La Pantera” (The Panther) now sending music (such as the electronic genre “Reggaeton”) and talk signals from the studio at Tower Square on Hillwood Ave. “There’s a huge Latino community in Falls Church and around the area in Virginia, a solid audience that provides a great deal of opportunity for growth,” said the Puerto Rico-born, newly hired veteran of 40 years in the radio industry.

The company run by his boss, Jose Villafañe, bought the station (1220 AM/100.7 FM) for $800,000 from the local Newcomb Broadcasting Corp. and made the midnight conversion to Spanish-language broadcasting last July 1.

“They’re doing a good job,” said former owner and longtime Falls Church notable Doris Newcomb. “I occasionally tune in, though I don’t speak Spanish. They’re fine broadcasters just serving the area in a different way.”

Costa Media D.C. President Pedro Biaggi. (Photo: Charlie Clark)

Newcomb, though retired (and honored in 2021 as a grand marshal in the Memorial Day parade), continues as landlord at the Tower Square shopping strip. She helped provide a recap of WFAX’s history.

The first Christian station in the D.C. area was founded by her parents 75 years ago in a self-built studio above a gas station at Seven Corners. Lamar Newcomb was a field engineer for the Federal Communications Commission, and wife Genevieve was a classically trained pianist and church soloist. “They didn’t start with Christian music but with classical, then middle of the road music,” Doris recalls. Labeled “Pleasuradio,” the old fare included popular standards (instrumentals, Mantovani). The talk portions were religious, with a call-in show.  “They built a tile dance floor underneath the studio and the kids came in to dance,” she said.

But the early years were a financial struggle, as the Newcombs survived on “peas and Spam.” With success, they received studio visits from the likes of French singer Maurice Chevalier and singer-actor Nelson Eddy. In 1956 they could afford to move to Tower Square (which the family purchased in 1979). Wattage was upgraded from 1,000 to today’s 5,000. Program Director Roy Martin, who would serve the station for 50 years, and Operations Director R.C. Woolfenden took WFAX from the era of 78 rpm records to reel-to-reel tapes to tape cartridges that in the 1960s eased the call-up of advertisements and public service announcements.

In 1969, John Bisset, a student doing school P.A. announcements at Arlington’s Washington-Lee (now Liberty) High, got his first career break working part-time at the Falls Church station. As he recently told the News-Press, he got interested while witnessing what was a regular remote WFAX broadcast from a sewing shop at Seven Corners. He began as a summer-relief announcer, though first the teenager had to pass an FCC licensing test. “I owe my career to Roy Martin,” said Bisset, who went on to become WFAX’s chief engineer and is still in the industry doing radio product sales for Telos Alliance. 

Beginning in 1998, News-Press owner-editor Nick Benton joined Chamber of Commerce chief Robert “Hap” Day and accountant Mike Diener in WFAX city affairs broadcasts. That same year, the station won the Milestone Award from the National Religious Broadcasters for 50 years on the air and the only D.C. station still in the hands of its original owners. In 2013, the News-Press reported WFAX’s hiring of Sandra Swann as marketing director.

To remain a player in the nation’s sixth-largest radio market, WFAX—available worldwide via website WFAX.com—has broadened its fare, broadcasting, for example, the World Cup Soccer match in Spanish and coordinating with community affairs in the District of Columbia. “I’m community-driven,” said Biaggi, who also deejays at Bethesda, Md., station La Nueva. “The station participates in any event we’re asked to by the community.”

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