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Ron Stutts

As part of WCHL Morning News’ Money Tree contest, Ron Stutts, right, spoke with Edward Holmes, president and CEO of Holmes Oil/Cruizers Convenience Marketplace and Eatery in Durham.

photo: WCHL

Smooth operator

Ron Stutts broadcasts local news for loyal listeners

by Bill Stockard


Ron Stutts can seek inspiration from Superman every day.


Granted, the five-inch figure of the Kryptonian superhero is standing in the window of an adjacent radio studio and is facing the other direction. But the miniature red cape remains visible as Stutts navigates through weather and traffic updates, as well as the latest news of the day.


As the host of “WCHL Morning News with Ron Stutts” from 6-9 a.m. weekdays, Chapel Hill’s legendary radio personality leaps from one subject to the next, stopping only sporadically to converse with other station personnel, then quickly turning on his microphone for the next live weather update. All the while, he maintains a superhuman energy at a time when most of his listeners are staggering toward their first cup of coffee.


It’s a routine that Stutts describes as organized chaos. As the station’s program director, he’s up at 5:05 a.m. each day and in the studio in time to update listeners on the latest headlines. But he says he’s still only as human as the rest of us.


“I wake up sometimes and can barely move,” he jokes during a commercial break. “But after I take a shower, I feel better.”


He then signals that he’s going back on the air. He dons his earphones and speaks into the microphone: “Partly sunny today and cold. It’s 8 o’clock.”


A community resource

Such is a typical show for Stutts, who’s been with WCHL for 33 years and in the radio business for even longer. He got his start in Rockingham and then Rocky Mount, until he got a call from WCHL owner Jim Heavner to come to Chapel Hill.


“He was looking for someone who would work long hours for little pay and who would get up early,” Stutts says.


He’s kept at this pace ever since. And on this recent day, over the course of less than five minutes, Stutts covers everything from the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority’s latest public comment period on clear-cutting to the University of North Carolina’s upcoming basketball game. During a break, news director Walter Storholt updates Stutts on an automobile accident on Interstate 40 near Mebane. Stutts then switches gears to conduct a live on-air phone interview with Perri Kersh to discuss an upcoming Habitat for Humanity fundraiser.


Listeners and visitors to his studio wouldn’t know it, but Stutts actually is tired today. He attended a benefit on behalf of the ARC at the Sheraton Hotel until 10 p.m. the night before. He credits the station’s staff with helping him keep the show running smoothly.


“I’m not the most organized person,” he says. “But luckily I have people around who are.”


After previewing an interview that he’ll conduct later with Joe Kilby, Cedar Ridge High School’s football coach, Stutts pauses to reflect on WCHL’s significance to Chapel Hill and Orange County.


“Everybody here works really hard,” he says. “They’re passionate about the community and are visible in the community. And we work hard to get results for our advertisers.”


The station helps foster this local involvement by hosting a monthly luncheon with community leaders. According to Stutts, these events help the station stay connected and generate story ideas for what WCHL needs to get on the air.


Heavner relocated WCHL to Chapel Hill in late 2002 after years of broadcasting from Durham. Mother Nature quickly helped reintroduce the community to its local station.


“We had been back on the air for nine days before the ice storm,” Stutts recalls, referring to the December 2002 weather event that downed trees and knocked out power in most of the area for days.


Radio became one of the few outlets for residents, and Stutts found himself on the air with regular updates from town and utility officials. Listeners rediscovered WCHL as a reliable source for what was occurring outside their doors.


A wedding officiator

The station continues to think of new ways to involve listeners. During a recent staff brainstorming session, someone suggested a contest in which the ultimate prize was a $30,000 wedding ceremony to be conducted by Stutts himself.


Stutts quickly discovered that it was surprisingly easy to obtain a license to officiate weddings. He researched state law and contacted Orange County officials to be sure that he could conduct the ceremony legally.


The “Marry Me, Ron Stutts” contest — which Stutts first had to explain to his wife of 28 years — generated entries from young couples planning their weddings to more established couples looking to renew their vows.


The prize winners, Ryan and Celeste Evans, originally had planned a large, private wedding but were forced to change those plans when they both lost their jobs. Stutts pulled the couple’s names from a random drawing at the Siena Hotel and later married them during a ceremony at the Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery that was broadcast live on WCHL.


“I was so elated that we had such deserving winners,” Stutts says.


It was such a success, in fact, that the station is planning a similar contest.


On this day, however, Stutts has shifted gears once again, welcoming in-studio guest Margaret Cannell, executive director of the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce, to discuss a downtown Hillsborough parade. After the interview, he removes his earphones and cues up a recorded interview with a local high school teacher who’s been named one of the station’s daily “Hometown Heroes.”


Stutts says he’s proud of the station’s commitment to covering local news.


“There are no other radio stations that do what we do,” he says. “And I pride myself on knowing the community.” 


Bill Stockard is a freelance writer based in Durham.