The dean of West Virginia radio, Hoppy Kercheval, marks four decades on the airwaves.
Hoppy’s studio has state-of-the-art equipment. “I love my job,” he says. “I love that we are a West Virginia company owned and operated by West Virginians for West Virginians.”
For 40 years, Hoppy Kercheval—perhaps the most widely heard radio personality in West Virginia—has been “on.” The intro to his daily talk show brings to mind a boxer, pumped and primed, jogging into the ring. The subject matter of the day can range from politics to race to West Virginia University sports—so it’s no wonder that when Kercheval leaves his studio, he sometimes feels as if he has been through a round or two. Good thing the walls are padded.
From 10 a.m. to noon, five days a week, listeners from around the state tune in as Kercheval tackles tough and timely issues. He has worked at West Virginia Radio Corporation since he began his career in 1976 as a news anchor. Since then his career has taken him from the news desk at WAJR in Morgantown to the role of vice president of operations and his own talk show, MetroNews Talkline. Not bad for a kid from Jefferson County who grew up on a dairy farm.
“When I was young, we were pretty isolated. We had a big radio and at night I would listen to it, turning the dial to radio stations across the country like WCFL in Chicago and WKBW in Buffalo,” he says. “The radio was my first contact with the outside world, and I was intrigued by it. When I was 12 years old, I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Although his parents named him Harvey Holbert Kercheval III—and there are only two people in the world who can call him that, his boss Dale Miller and Tony Caridi—it was Kercheval’s brother who first called him Hoppy. “My brother is four years older, and back in the 1950s there was a cowboy on television called Hopalong Cassidy. My brother wanted me to be a cowboy, so he called me Hoppy.”
As a young man he thought he wanted to be a disc jockey. His first job was at the local radio station WXVA in Charles Town. He was 19 years old. “When I went to work as a disc jockey, the first day, the guy I was taking over for handed me a file folder of phone numbers—police department, fire department, prosecutor’s office, etcetera. He said, ‘By the way, you are also the news director.’ I didn’t know anything about news, but he told me to just call those people on the list. I started doing that and got really interested in it. When you are a disc jockey, the records play over and over, but the news changes every day.” From that moment on, he’d found his passion.
Kercheval is no AM radio ideologue. He is admittedly conservative, but he isn’t militant about it. Although, according to the message boards on Talkline, one listener writes, “Hoppy Kercheval in Swahili really means Rush Limbaugh. Every time WVU scores a touchdown there is a subliminal message to vote Republican. That is why West Virginia is now voting red. Because we’ve scored so many touchdowns over the past 10 years.”
Politicians dream of having that kind of power. But if you ask Kercheval to describe himself, he’ll say, “I’m professional, serious, insecure—like most people—hardworking, and fair. My wife says I like to say I’m tough but fair. I joke with her that when I retire, I want to go work at Disney World, and she says, ‘Yeah, that’s what Disney needs. Tough but fair people.’”
He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Mel Burka Award, given annually by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association to the state’s top broadcaster. But listeners keep him humble. “A couple of years ago, I received a Christmas card from a listener. I keep it close by. It says, ‘Hoppy, you are wrong about everything.’” As a result, he has developed a pretty thick skin over the years. “I’m fairly confident in what I’m doing. I’m going to make mistakes. I’m not cocky, but I’m confident. The confidence helps with criticism,” he says. “But there are times when at the end of the show I feel like I’ve had my wisdom teeth pulled out without Novocain.”
Kercheval spends at least three hours preparing for each show. He doesn’t have a team of researchers or interns. He chuckles when people contact him and tell him to have “his people” check a particular story out. “What? I am my people.” He reads digital editions of national publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, as well as all the major newspapers in the state. He plans out the subject matter for each day’s show and lines up his guests. Walk into his office you’ll see neatly stacked piles of information lined up on the floor from his desk to the door. Chances are Kercheval will be on the phone—or maybe on two phones at once—calling contacts, texting sources, and replying to emails.
“In some ways, technology has made our job more demanding. It isn’t just a radio station anymore; you have a website, you have photos, and you have video,” he says. “But in some ways it has made it a heck of lot easier. The execution of the show is much easier and simpler now.”
And then there is social media. Kercheval has become a master at managing non-stop connectivity. During his shows he constantly checks his phone and reads the tweets that fly in. “Social media has really increased the ability to connect to your audience,” he says. “You don’t have to wait for the angry phone call. People can access you instantly. There’s instant feedback on what you are doing. Keeps it really interesting, that’s for sure.”
Kercheval agrees it is unusual for a broadcaster to stay with the same company his entire career, but he has never been tempted to go elsewhere. “I work for a great company that is committed to doing quality radio using the latest technology. When I started there were only two radio stations. Now we have 29. I didn’t have to leave for new opportunities. The new opportunities came here as our company grew,” he says.
“Working for West Virginia Radio has been, and continues to be, a blessing. This is a wonderful company that strives for excellence and appreciates loyalty and hard work. It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years, and I hope I still have a few good years left behind the microphone.” To mark Kercheval’s 40 years of service, West Virginia Radio Corporation recently announced the establishment of the Hoppy Kercheval Endowed Scholarship for a Jefferson High School student to attend WVU.
Kercheval sees it as his mission to keep people informed. Whether he’s talking about the state’s education legislation or the budget crisis, his natural curiosity shines through. “I choose topics I think people would be interested in. I like talking about things that are a little bit tricky. I like talking about race relations. It is good to have honest discussions. I like to talk about politics—that’s probably my favorite subject. Then sports.”
In recent months, Kercheval has had a ringside seat as Governor Jim Justice’s new administration collided with Republican legislative leadership over the $500 million budget shortfall. “It’s fascinating,” Kercheval says. “It is the worst budget crisis I’ve seen since 1989, when Caperton was elected and the state was having problems paying bills. Caperton proposed $400 million dollars in new taxes and some cuts, but the Democrats controlled the Legislature and he was able to push through his agenda. This crisis feels tougher. It’s more than cuts and new taxes. It’s about the decline of the coal industry. Justice is proposing $450 million in new taxes but he doesn’t have control of the Legislature. Republicans feel strongly about cutting. This crisis feels more substantial.”
Kercheval has covered several administrative changes throughout his career, but admits this one feels different. There’s a sense of urgency and the governor’s folksy approach keeps things entertaining. “Justice doesn’t have a filter. He says what is on his mind, which is refreshing, but it can also get him in trouble.” Kercheval likes that Justice is thinking big. “Justice has a private sector mentality. Entrepreneurs spend money expecting a return. And I think that is what Justice is trying to bring to the government.”
Even though Kercheval spends a good deal of time addressing complicated issues in the state, he is proud to be a West Virginian. “I feel about West Virginia the way I feel about an immediate family member. And that is: I love them, I’ll protect them, and I’ll cherish them, but then I can also get really mad at them and not speak to them for a while. What aggravates me is the attitude you frequently run into when you try to do something differently, and the response is, ‘That isn’t the way we do it. We’ve always done it this way.’ When you meet ideas that way, it is hard to progress. That attitude is an impediment to improvement. But I’m optimistic. We have a lot going for us.”
After long days spent “on” and racing against daily deadlines, Kercheval says it’s important to recalibrate, although he has a very limited amount of free time. When he leaves the office, he lays low. “The most influential person in my life is my wife Karin. She centers me. She has my back. I’m really not that interesting of a person. I don’t go out much. My home life is very low-key and quiet.”
Karin says Kercheval has a side that many of his followers don’t see. “He seems like he is as serious as a heart attack. And he is a pretty serious guy. He is allergic to fiction. He can be pretty buttoned up. But at home, he isn’t really like that,” she says. “He is very sweet and very patient. He is just a good guy with a great sense of humor. He isn’t afraid to play devil’s advocate and he isn’t afraid to give both sides. And I think that is what his listeners appreciate because that kind of fairness is often missing today.”