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On the dial

A. L. Goodies, at 112 Main St. in Annapolis, is the sort of tourist trap where you can find a hunk of fudge or a plastic captain's hat, develop your snapshots or pick up some Naval Academy-emblazoned clothing.

WRNR, the radio station housed upstairs from Goodies, is equally eclectic, though its devoted listeners would say its product is of a higher quality than Made in Taiwan rubber snakes and polyester-blend T-shirts.

"The one thing you can say about 'RNR is it's hard to say what will be on next," commented Alex Cortright, the progressive station's program director, afternoon disc jockey and self-described custodian. "It's like one long, 365-day mix tape."

In the mix, at any given moment on the FM dial at 103.1 and on the Internet at WRNR.com, might be folk, funk, zydeco, jazz, bluegrass or rhythm and blues. "If it sounds good, it is good," Cortright says, channeling Duke Ellington to describe the station's programming choices.

While many stations around the country have lost control over their programming after being bought by large conglomerates, WRNR prides itself on its freedom. As a free-format station, WRNR's DJs are given a large amount of control over the songs played on their shows.

The station only airs two shows a week that are not produced locally, the Putumayo World Music Hour and E-Town, a live music and interview show with an environmentalist bent.

On a recent weekday, WRNR's play list included Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco, Gomez and a reggae version of the Grateful Dead standard, "Cassidy."

"Other stations have announcers, 'RNR has DJs," Cortright, 35, boasts from his office overlooking downtown Annapolis, where he is surrounded by stacks of thousands of CDs, concert flyers and a Mr. T Chia Head.

Part of the station's unique feel comes from its small size. The DJs aren't trying to appeal to a mass audience and that's good since, at 6,000 watts, its signal barely stretches from the eastern border of D.C. to Northwest Baltimore and across the bay to Easton.

Like a family, WRNR contains several generations.

Cortright says he blames Damian Einstein, the station's evening DJ and elder statesman at 51, for "turning me on to a lot of good music."

As a Bethesda native and graduate of the University of Maryland, Cortright grew up listening to the old WHFS, which, with Einstein as a DJ, pioneered open format broadcasting in the early 1970s.

Einstein's father, Jake Einstein, founded both WHFS and WRNR.

Under new ownership, WHFS is now far more likely to play Limp Bizkit than Emmy Lou Harris, and WRNR, while also no longer owned by Einstein, has taken over the "free format" mantle.

It's the kind of radio station where a DJ, on signing off for the day, will tell listeners to meet him across the street at O'Brien's for a beer, as happened on a recent evening.

WRNR also prides itself on its local roots, devoting time each week to playing homegrown bands, while also putting on concerts and events in the Annapolis area.

Public service is also part of the package. Cortright says the station got a call recently from a woman who was new to the area. "She just called to thank us," he said. "She said she felt lost until she found us on the dial."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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