If you listen to local radio stations in much of rural America, you may hear a host bantering with a caller in search of help installing an oil pump in a Chevy engine. Another caller may be trying to trade a few bales of hay for a wheelchair lift. Perhaps even a burial plot for a cat.
These are “tradio” programs (a portmanteau of “trade” and “radio”), where people buy, sell and swap items or services — and, through such offers and transactions, give small glimpses of their lives.
In the age of sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, tradio — also called “swap shops,” “auction barns” and “super-trading posts” — adds an incredibly personal touch to the give-and-take of goods and services that’s both a throwback to the days of bartering and a cementing of community ties.
“On tradio, it’s one step closer to a trust relationship being built,” said Ethan Moore, 39, a tradio host of WSKV in Stanton, Ky., who remembers listening to a tradio program when his family moved to eastern Kentucky in 1992. “It gives you an extra layer of comfort to be able to buy individual to individual.”
The mechanics of a tradio program are simple: People call in with an item or a service to sell, swap or find; the tradio D.J. lets them make their pitches; and in voices often tinged with regional accents, they describe their items and provide a phone number or a pickup address to discuss more specifics with any listeners who may be interested.
Birthday announcements, prayer requests, yard sale notifications and the date and time of upcoming Kiwanis Club pancake breakfasts are also frequently phoned in, adding to the portrait of communities.
“It’s a little old-fashioned when you stop and think about it,” said Mark Lefler, the general manager of WYXI in Athens, Tenn., and host of its trading post. “But that’s the way communities are built, and that’s the way you help each other.”
Many tradios have been around for decades, with some dating back to the 1930s. The success of these programs is tied to a few factors, including charismatic hosts that people can run into, live and hot, at the local grocery store, and the eternal pull of hearing your neighbors (and being heard) on the radio.
In Athens, for example, Mr. Lefler, 72, or “Cousin Mark” as he is known locally, has for decades treated his listeners like family, referring to them as cousins, aunts or uncles, depending on their age. “I’ve got thousands and thousands of radio cousins!” he said.
And tradio provides an extra layer of confidence and comfort than posting into the ether of the internet, where scams, dead ends and ghostings can be all too common.
“We’re a farming community, and these kids, as they start to grow up, know that this is how Grandpa got rid of things, or this is how Grandpa found what he needed when he was in a pinch and couldn’t get it somewhere else,” said Deb Jackson, a trading post host in Effingham, Ill.
“It’s a great way to meet new friends, and there’s always a bargain to be had,” said Ralph Rockwell, 71, a longtime tradio listener from Wolcott, Vt. “It bothers me to pay the list price for anything. I’m always looking for a deal, what I call the diamond in the rough.”
The familial nature of these radio programs also means that they are places where people, perhaps with few other resources, can come in a time of crisis.
“Maybe their house caught on fire, and they lost everything, and we just stop right there,” said Mr. Lefler, who says heartbreaking calls of catastrophic loss come in several times a year. “We give them as much airtime as possible. We say, ‘OK, trading post family. It’s time for you to go grab a little cash out of your wallet or look in your closet. How about a couple of pots and pans for these folks?’”
Many items sought after and sold on tradio are tied to the seasons. Mr. Moore said that if you didn’t know when a trading post episode was broadcast, it would be easy to tell by the items.
Early fall in east Tennessee brings glass jars and a bounty of produce for “putting up” (canning) season; spring is filled with requests for help cleaning up weedy fence rows and ads for lawn mowing in Kentucky; and in Indiana, campers pop up frequently during the middle of summer. Microwaves and other small appliances, along with car parts, furniture, firewood and clothes are year-round frequent fliers on the shows.
Each program has its own rules about what can and cannot be sold. Some allow the sale of firearms, but not alcohol and water beds. Others closely monitor the type of critters that can be called in. In Illinois, when fall tips into winter, kittens are frequently matched with local barns to become farm cats, while puppies see the most action at the start of summer.
“Whether you’re from here and want to listen to it for the actual commerce value, or whether you’re just fascinated by, ‘Wow, people, really want to trade two rabbits for a shotgun,’ the whole barter system is still very alive on tradio,” Mr. Moore said.
Occasionally, callers phone in with off-the-wall items. Burial plots have been up for grabs on KOFO in Ottawa, Kan. In Monticello, Ind., Jaime Valle and Brandi Page, who are sisters and the hosts of Super Trading Post, recall when their father bought a parrot, which turned out to be more trouble than it was worth.
“It hated men,” Ms. Valle said. “My dad would let it out and it would bite his ears. A terrible mascot for the radio station.”
Tradio seems to appeal to younger people as well. Some stations use new tools to draw in a listening audience, and millennials are increasingly seeking out more affordable (and plentiful) living space in Middle America. Mr. Moore says that about 110 to 130 people participate per day via tradio, using calling and text messaging as a way to field submissions while also placing each episode on Apple podcast. He credits the area’s burgeoning rock-climbing community as fuel for the next generation of tradio callers and listeners.
“We are seeing people use tradio who don’t necessarily talk like the region, so you instantly know they aren’t from here, which used to be bad, because they were getting ready to prank you,” Mr. Moore said, noting that his program has been pranked by “The Howard Stern Show” on SiriusXM.
The core listener population skews older, however, and hosts are sensitive to what a how important their programs have become for individuals who may feel alone and isolated as they age.
“For some of these people, this is more than just buying and selling something,” Mr. Moore said. “This is the community they’re getting, this is how they’re getting to talk to somebody, and this is how people are calling and talking to them.”
Mike Henderson, 69, is a frequent trading post swapper in Niota, Tenn., who has listened to WYXI for 30 years. He said it all comes down to the connections he builds.
“There are a lot of characters who call in on the show. You get a mental picture of what they look like, and you form opinions about aspects of the people,” he said. “It’s a human interest show, really.”
Audio produced by Sarah Diamond.