Meet the guy who bought Pat Sajak’s radio station


Chris Roth bought WNAV for one simple reason, although 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 strike a deal at a price he could afford, and now the 46-year-old DC station employee WTOP finds himself in possession of a tiny outlet that was previously owned by someone better known for turning a giant wheel on TV than spinning records on the radio: Pat Sajak.

WNAV, which aired on April 22, 1949, has been in the same location for 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 audioman, having worked as a disc jockey on the Armed Forces Radio when he was stationed in Saigon during the war. (He was one of the voices that signed off with “Hello, 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 on sale since 2013, with no takers.

Roth made his offer in 2021: $1,000 for the station, and Sajak would have to shell out $100,000 to move it to a new building nearby, as the current land is being sold to developers. Roth was ready to scoff. But ten days later, he got an answer: offer accepted.

There was, of course, a reason why Sajak’s company had accepted Roth’s small offer. Like many other AM stations, WNAV has a declining audience and is losing money. The most local of local media, it carries news, Naval Academy sports, songs from 70s hitmakers like Elton John, religious fare and weekly programs like The boat show with Captain Rick Franke. Buying WNAV in 2022 is a bit like assessing Netflix’s saturated streaming landscape and then deciding, for whatever reason, to acquire a VHS factory. When Roth learned that the station would soon be his, he felt a moment of sudden dread. “And now?” he was thinking.


Inside WNAV’s small office, you can’t miss Sajak’s presence, whether it’s the framed professional portraits on the walls or the Sajak-centric newspaper clippings pinned to a bulletin board in the only narrow corridor. The space is decidedly retro, with outdated amenities and floor-to-ceiling mid-century woodwork. “Reminds me of grandma’s house,” Roth said on a recent visit, his melodious voice instantly identifying him as a radio professional.

The scene was markedly different from Roth’s usual surroundings at the local news powerhouse WTOP, one of DC’s most popular radio stations. He is currently the production manager of WTOP, a position he intends to keep while running his new station. Roth, who grew up in Olney, made his full-time radio debut at WNAV in 1996, and even when his career took him to other local outlets, he still occasionally filled in as a DJ. guest at WNAV. Now he hosts the station’s morning program, at least temporarily.

Roth buys the station with a business partner, WNAV veteran Frank Brady, who will handle ad sales and prefers to stay behind the scenes. Together, they will have to find a way to stem the bleeding. They don’t plan to change the programming too much, although they would like to find ways to attract young listeners. (Their demographic is “dead at funeral,” Roth jokes. “We hope to lower it to 50.”) But don’t expect anything drastic. “We never want you to turn on the radio and not recognize a song,” says Roth. WNAV will continue to identify closely with the Naval Academy, beginning with these call letters and expanding to its long-running live broadcasts of football and basketball games. “We’re all going to the Navy,” Roth says. “We get new jingles and they end with ‘Go, Navy!’ ”

There have already been cuts, acknowledges Roth. (The station’s staff of around 25 were laid off by the former owner shortly before the deal was completed on Jan. 1, 2022; Roth has only hired a handful so far.) He also plans to cut expenses by updating technology, including the still-used antique master transmitter – a meat-freezer-sized monstrosity that was purchased when WNAV first aired under the hood. Truman administration. Touring the station, Roth gestured to where it takes up almost the entire length of a back room wall. “The electric bill for this transmitter would blow your mind,” he said, a fact he discovered after a recent line-by-line review of the budget. “Sajak has funneled a lot of money into this station for years.” Roth and Brady just want to break even. “It’s like going to Las Vegas,” says Roth. “If you leave with a thousand in your pocket and come home with a thousand in your pocket, you’ve won.”

WNAV is not Roth’s first bet. It previously owned small stations in Tennessee and Alabama. (He sold both years.) He also co-owns two bowling alleys, one in North Baltimore and another in Glen Burnie. Roth explains these adventures with a short sentence and a slight smile: “I like things that die.


It remains to be seen whether WNAV fits into this category, but Roth is keenly aware of the challenges ahead. “The AM market is dead,” he says. “It’s all about digital now.” The station already broadcasts digitally, and Roth plans to invest in efforts to attract listeners unfamiliar with the AM dial. Still, the big question is what a station like WNAV should actually to be in 2022. Are you keeping things more or less unchanged and exiting a declining asset? Or are you trying to rethink the whole business? Roth says it’s too early to discuss specifics, but with a new 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 will have the opportunity to create new historical stories in a new location,” said Dan O’Neil, WNAV Sales Director. “WNAV is the only full-time, full-power AM or FM radio station licensed to the Maryland State Capitol. It is a heavy responsibility.

Roth is already feeling that weight, but he’s also relishing the chance to lead something that has meant so much to him throughout his career. And he also had a great time getting to know Sajak, of course. Is not it? In fact, Roth says he has yet to meet the Wheel of Fortune star: “But I did [the general manager] promise that before all this is done, i can at least talk to him on the phone.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Washingtonian.

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