Skip to main content

Lifelong Batavian takes on ownership of WBTA as one way to 'give back'

By Joanne Beck
Jim Ernst at WBTA
New WBTA station owner Jim Ernst celebrates signing the official paperwork Friday after talks began a year ago between him and former station owner Dan Fischer. 
Photo by Howard Owens.

For a 1986 Batavia High School grad who has lived in Batavia all of his life, it seemed only natural that Jim Ernst would celebrate his ownership of the city’s staple radio station Friday with a visit to a downtown bartender challenge and then to a concert at Batavia Downs.

After all, that was a large part of why the 54-year-old Batavia native and versed salesman wanted to take on WBTA’s airwaves: to serve and support the community at large.

“I love the community of Batavia, and I see this as an opportunity to make a difference and give back,” he said late Friday afternoon after signing official paperwork to transfer ownership of WBTA from Dan and Debbie Fischer to Ernst. “I grew up listening to WBTA, of course. And when I was a kid, I didn't like it much. But I used to listen to school closings, and I got hooked on it. The first time, in the old days when school would be canceled, the first place that would have it would be the radio. And then, as you get older, you start caring about the community and then listening. And by the time I was in my 30s, I started listening to it a lot.”

After high school graduation, Ernst went to Genesee Community College for business administration. He always had that dream of running his own business, he said, the first vision is a sports park with batting cages and such.

While those thoughts percolated, he began to work on a Schwann truck selling food products and doing well, moving up to manager in Syracuse. That position was cut in 2009, and he returned to Batavia, where he was working in sales and met General Sales Manager Lorne Way. They struck up a conversation, and while Way was complaining about the lack of sales at the station, Ernst suggested  that “you should just hire me.”

And that’s exactly what the manager did. Ernst joined WBTA in 2014 and never left.

“We’ve been ripping it up in sales,” he said. “Dan, Debbie, Lorne and me were the core. Around a year ago, Dan hinted around that he wanted someone from the station to buy it.”

While it may have seemed a more obvious fit for Way, who had 30 years with the company, he had plans to retire, so Ernst picked up that ball and made a pitch.

“I approached Dan a year ago now. Today was the signing. It went from a dream to reality; it almost seemed like, is it ever going to happen?” he said. “It was a euphoric moment.”

He’s been gradually preparing for this, taking business classes throughout the years and learning the ropes “as I go.” A big plus will be having Dan Fischer as an ongoing consultant.

Most of the programs will remain in place for now, with one major and significant exception, he said. Station staff member Nicole Johnson has been hired for the morning show, making her the first female to obtain that coveted role.

A trusted member of the WBTA team, Johnson has produced, worked the 10 to 2 shift, done live remotes at Batavia Downs and “always been there for things we need,” Ernst said. She will replace former morning announcer Chris Kalen, who has taken a promotion with SiriusXM.

The Fischers filed for the sale in February, and it became public on Feb. 21 when then-advertising executive Jim Ernst, aka Majic Tones LLC, purchased the station, officially titled HPL Communications, for $425,000.

Dan Fischer had said the couple was happy that the station was remaining in local hands and that Ernst was a familiar face around town and someone with no intentions to radically alter what listeners have grown accustomed to after so many years.

As for the music, “we might spice it up a bit,” Ernst said, but nothing major.

“We don’t want to lose the faith of the listeners we do have. We will enhance our sports coverage … for football, hockey, baseball, with a WBTA game of the week every week,” he said. “I’m learning as I go. I’ll use the next six months to learn and grow in the position.”

Ernst has a fiancee, Rachel, three children, five grandchildren and one Great Pyrenees who even got involved at the station during a naming contest. The winning name was slightly tweaked for Konzie.

Authentically Local