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COLUMN ONE

In Ohio, a yard sale on the radio speaks volumes

The radio show takes callers selling everything from junk to personal treasures. In their voices you can hear the recession talking.

September 03, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

FINDLAY, OHIO — Deejay Chris Oaks hunched over a studio soundboard at WFIN-AM radio, ignoring the cramp in his lower back and the flashing lights from the phone lines.

He listened to the voice in his headphones: a man calling in to sell a pair of air conditioners for $60 each.

"I need the money more than I need to stay cool," the man said.

Oaks nodded. "I hope you're not selling all that you have," he said as the temperature outside hovered in the mid-90s. "You may need one."

For more than seven years, Oaks, a skinny, mustachioed man of 42 whose uniform is a rumpled plaid polo shirt and faded jeans, has broadcast radio want ads over the expanse of Ohio farmland.

Called Tradio, short for trade radio, the broadcast has taught him a lot about life on the farms and blue-collared factory towns dotting the rolling hills, although he's often left with more questions.

Every weekday at 11 a.m., he spends 30 minutes offering hope and the chance to make a few bucks off of old gifts, heirlooms, furniture and other unwanted items. His smooth Don Pardo voice carries for 100 miles in every direction.

"It's amazing how much you can find out from someone in 30 seconds or less," Oaks said. "You learn to piece things together through the hints and guess at the rest."

He never wanted the job -- he wanted to be a radio newscaster. Who wanted to be in charge of some garage sale?

"I remember the program director at the time explained to me the basics," Oaks said. "He told me, 'Now, don't take this too seriously.' I said, 'We're selling goats. It would be impossible for me to take it too seriously.' "

But over time, he relaxed and the voices of people selling pets, lawn mowers or old cars began to draw him in.

"The other day, a lady called up with cemetery plots. She had a pair of plots, so you don't get lonely," he said. "What's the story there? I think about it, though. Were they her family's? Is she down on her luck and trying to make some money? Or is this her job?"

The callers usually don't stay on long enough for him to find out.

Night-vision scope, fresh day lilies, Siberian husky-Lab mix to give away, chickens, a used toilet, a men's three-speed bicycle for $25. "It's got them brand-new tires I just stuck on her, with them fancy sidewalls on it," the caller said.

Oaks listened and moved on.

"Welcome to the program," he boomed across the miles of farmland. "It's Wednesday Tradio, 419-425-1346 or 888-458-1FIN. You know the rest. Help me out please. You're up."

It's one marker of the recession that Tradio, with a few thousand listeners a day, is the second most popular show on WFIN, following a morning talk show.

Oaks had no figures on the growth of the radio want ads, but he knows these are hard times. People are selling what they can to raise money.

"Three or four years ago, there used to be some days where the phones were dead," he said. "Now, we can't get everything in."

Findlay, the home of WFIN's Tradio, was once a center of oil and automotive parts manufacturing, but the industries shifted and jobs have trickled away. The unemployment rate in the county rose to nearly 11% in July, nearly double from the previous year.

The city, population 40,000, is about 40 miles south of Toledo. Known as "Flag City USA," Findlay's downtown streets are lined with flags that have faded to soft red and sky blue.

When Oaks started hosting Tradio in 2002, the show was already decades old, dating to the 1950s.

At the time, national radio networks were curtailing their programming, so stations in smaller markets found themselves with hours of airtime to fill.

Deejays read obituaries, wished kids happy birthday and congratulated couples on their wedding anniversaries. They also created the "classifieds of the airwaves."

"There are some people who look down their nose at the show," Oaks said. "They think it's only a certain section of the public that tune in. Poor people. . . . They're like how I used to be. I was wrong."

For years, trade radio shows -- a format spawned by small towns and big distances -- dotted the country.

In Denison, Iowa, listeners still clamor to get onto KDSN-AM's Trading Post to hawk sandboxes, vinyl shutters and the occasional herd of goats.

In Woodward, Okla., staff members at KWFX-FM take calls from people wanting a few extra bucks for cattle and empty storage buildings.

Oaks' weekdays show reaches across a six-county stretch of Ohio with a simple offer: Say what you want to buy, trade or sell, give your phone number and wait for someone to call. The service is free. Anything short of firearms or illegal goods can be put up on the block.

A man is selling a brand-new surround-sound speaker system for $150.

"I won them in bingo, so they're pretty good quality," he said. "They said they retailed for over $1,300."

The deejay took a breath. "OK, we'll put out the word."

Oaks moved on to other callers: "You're on Tradio."

Over time, Oaks learned that there is a story behind every ad.

He didn't hear them at first.

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