Stations flip formats
MUSIC: "Dire Ghost" by Blue Dot Sessions.
MARIA BROOM: This is Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios, a monthly podcast series made possible by PNC Bank. I’m your host Maria Broom.
The 80s and 90s were a time when many local radio stations were coming into their own. Building, reorganizing, working out the kinks. It was also a time when many stations changed formats. You’ll hear more about that on today’s episode.
Last month we looked at how stations provided opportunities for emerging talent in 70s. That’s also true about WEAA in the 80s says Dr. Baruti Kopano, chair and professor of Morgan State University’s Department of Multiplatform Production. He says the ability to get hands-on experience prepared a future generation of media professionals, several of whom you may be familiar with.
DR. BARUTI KOPANO: We look at a person like an April Ryan, who most people know her as a White House correspondent. An African American woman who was my classmate, we were classmates at Morgan. Literally we sat in the same classes together. She spent time at WEAA. We look at a person we can find in the D.C. market now on air–that’s been on the air for many years–Earl Fisher. Earl Fisher was on WEAA when I was at WEAA. A lot of people don’t know this but the playwright and filmmaker Dave Talbert also had a stint at WEAA. WEAA recognized that we want to train our folks to go out all over the world. And I just really want to emphasize that historic role and how important it was to providing us quite frankly with some of the most important media players even today. It was not uncommon for commercial program directors, mostly program directors, but commercial radio station program directors to tune into WEAA to find out who's the next person that’s ready out of that station.
BROOM: As Dr. Kopano mentioned, he was a Morgan State University student and in 1985, he got his shot to go on the air.
KOPANO: WEAA announced that it was having quote on quote try-outs. This was my first semester at Morgan. And I guess back in the day they just put up flyers or something along those lines before all the digital stuff was here, that’s what we did. And indeed I went out to the audition and these were all undergraduate students and I knew most of the folks who were there. And a few of us were offered positions and I was blessed to be one of those who was offered a position on-air, immediately. I was an on-air announcer, I had a show, it was one day a week. It was called The Last Radio Show from 7 PM until midnight. And it was an eclectic taste of music, but it was mostly music-based, jazz-based, format. And then also I was the producer of some special content based on some of my interests. So one of the things I did was produce a radio feature, a long form radio feature, a documentary on Malcom X. And I was a board op for the Left Bank Jazz Society along with other folks. I wasn’t the only one, there were many of us who board opped. The Left Bank Jazz Society was one of the most famous jazz organizations on the East Coast and they were really committed to preserving the music and culture of jazz. So WEAA extended an opportunity to The Left Bank Jazz Society members to come in and not just play the music but to talk about the music. Sometimes to invite those folks who actually were producing the music on, into the studio, on the phone to talk about. So it was no thing for us to see a Gary Bartz to come in or to call in and talk about what was happening in the jazz scene. The Grio we called her, the incredible storyteller Marie Carter Smith, I had the privilege of being a board operator for one of her shows. A spellbinding opportunity to listen and grow.
BROOM: WEAA listeners could also tune in during the 80s to hear James “Big Jim” Staton play the blues and oldies on Blues in the Night and Turning Back the Hands of Time. “Big Jim” tells the story of how he got his first break at the station in 1985.
JAMES “BIG JIM” STATON: I was working at the Arch Social one night and this lady walked up to me, she came up on stage and she said “How would you like to go to work for WEAA?” And I thought ‘Lord, this woman has had too much to drink.’ [Laughs] And I said “OK.” And she said “Well, we can’t afford to pay you any money, we don’t have any money, but I’m asking you if you would volunteer." So I said “Sure.” I just wanted to get people to hear me and what I did and everything. So I went in there Tuesday night and worked with Joe Lee and at the end of the night he said things went well. Friday night, they called me and said “My DJ can’t come in tomorrow morning so can you come in?” I said “No, I don’t think I have enough training yet.” They said “Yeah, you can do it, I know you can do it.” So I went in that Saturday morning and after the show was over, the other DJ, I don’t know, he never come back. That was my beginning. I stayed there from then on. I went on for 32 years. I was there every Saturday and later on I moved up to Thursday nights with the blues so I had a special blues show that I played and I played the blues the last hour of my Saturday morning. And of course I had to put a little gospel in there so I put a little gospel in there. But most of all this music I was playing was like oldies. I liked the oldies so I played the oldies. Starting out there with BB King and Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy, all those guys.
BROOM: Big Jim’s show ended in 2017. He says he still hears from people who say they miss it.
STATON: I really had–got joy in people coming up to me saying “Hey man you really put on a nice show and my grandparents–I remember my grandparents, my mother and father they sit around and they loved that music man and my mother is still living and she just loves to listen to oldies and everything,” you know. So that was my pride and joy.
MUSIC: OC Smith, "If the World Would End Tomorrow"
STATON: I go to Double T twice a week for breakfast and people come in and say “Man I sure miss you.” I had a theme song that I go off with every morning. I would start off every morning when I go off I would go off with a song called “It’s All Over Now.” And then I would play “Big Mabel Stay As Sweet as You Are.” And then I would play OC Smith, “If the World Would End Tomorrow.”
BROOM: Isisara Bey was a host at WEAA from 1980 to 1985. Her show was called Daybreak Delights and it featured a wide range of content.
ISISARA BEY: I was the first show on the air so when I got to the station it was completely dark and I was turning everything on and I remember feeling in the dark people listening. So I started the show in the morning from 6 to 6:15 doing a guided meditation and affirmations. And then I would start with the music. And our format was music, breaks for news, and then PSAs. But the other thing I did too in the morning was I would have a couple of interviews on. I had someone come on and interview about different things around psychology: How to have difficult conversations, how to have more patience, tips on raising kids. And I also had someone come on and talk about holistic healing things that one could do at home. Either treatments you could find in your kitchen that you could use for things or herbal remedies because natural healing, metaphysics was part of my own personal avocation so I enjoyed weaving it into the show as well. We were really experimental in some ways. We were able to convey a wide range of African American musical styles from gospel to reggae to jazz to R & B. I remember playing one of the first hip hop songs when I was on the air there.
BROOM: John Wesley was working in Community Relations at WEAA in the late 80s. He remembers it as a time when the station solidified its position as a community asset.
JOHN WESLEY: One of the things that I built on was the fact that WEAA radio was the best source of informing the African American community, in particular of issues of importance that were immediate. Et cetera, et cetera. And I used that by showing that when we were doing programs on hypertension, high blood pressure, lack of stress, poor diet, we could show from our ratings that those were some of our most listened to programs. So the role that WEAA played as a voice of the community to a population that did not trust a lot of sources of information. That piece of it alone, and then the other thing is the education piece, the education piece. I mean, an example: Jesse Jackson ran for president twice. He ran in 1984, and he ran again in 1988. When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988, there was also an African American sister who ran for president: Dr. Lenora Fulani. Now what we did on WEAA—and only we could do this—I had Jesse to call in and because nowhere had Jesse Jackson and Lenora Fulani, two African Americans running for president been together at any place in the country. So, I invited Jesse to call in to be my guest on the show. And he didn't realize that Lenora Fulani was in the studio with me. So the first time the both of them talked to the country simultaneously was at WEAA together. So how, how does Morgan work? That’s the kind of thing that public radio can do when the community and the radio station works together.
BROOM: Over at WBJC, station leaders decided to stop carrying NPR programming and transition to an all-classical format. Longtime BJC program director Jonathan Palevsky says some listeners were not fans of that decision.
JONATHAN PALEVSKY: It was really funny because we took a lot of phone calls and a lot of people were upset. But NPR was so well served in the market. WJHU which became WYPR, they were doing NPR. WETA was doing NPR. WAMU in Washington was doing NPR. So we had two Washington stations plus two Baltimore stations and we thought, you know, why don't we just go for the classical music market? And it was the general manager Cary Smith's decision. And he had a good thought–his thought was basically look, why fight with WYPR because we were classical music, jazz, and NPR and they came on the air as classical music, jazz, and NPR. So you know, we would rather switch than fight as they say. So we decided and the reason we could do this is that he had an on air staff that had an expertise in classical music. And classical music is a very efficient and not very expensive format in contrast to NPR which is very expensive. So we decided that we would go with classical music at the time. And we became an all classical music station I think December 1, 1986 and have never looked back since.
BROOM: We’ll be back in a minute. Stay with us.
BROOM: Welcome back to Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey. I’m your host, Maria Broom. On this month’s episode, we’re looking at changes to local public radio in the 80s and 90s.
Starting in the late 80s, several stations transitioned from being student-run to having professional staff manage operations.
Andy Bienstock, Vice President and Program Director for WYPR, was working at what was then WJHU in 1986. He says there were signs that the station was about to evolve into a news and talk format, which it ultimately did in 1995.
ANDY BIENSTOCK: When we went on the air in 1986, the original general manager who passed away a few years ago, a wonderful guy named Dave Cray, and his remit was to turn this into a major producer of public radio and make this into a major news studio. So when we began in 1986, we had a six or seven person news team. We did a half hour newscast every night. And we had a big dish in the back because Dave brought in Bill Siemering, who is one of the resident geniuses in the public radio system. He brought in Bill Siemering to devise a documentary program which was called Soundprint, which we would distribute, and we were going to distribute much more than that. We were going to become a major player. That ended a few years later. There were changes at Hopkins campus, budget was cut, and a lot of people were laid off, but that was the idea in 1986.
BROOM: Ellen Beth Levitt led the news department at WJHU from 1987 to 1988. She says this was a time when other local stations were reducing their news coverage.
ELLEN BETH LEVITT: When Johns Hopkins University had a budget deficit and they made a significant cut to WJHU, so the decision was made to eliminate the news department, and that’s why I left. But while being there, it was really fantastic. We had a six person news team with people who specialized in different areas, such as the arts, and we had a great opportunity to tell some really good stories. We had a half hour block every afternoon, five days a week from 4:30-5:00 and so we had a great opportunity to tell some local news stories as well as cut-ins during Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
BROOM: Longtime radio personality Bob Benson first came to Baltimore in 1950. One of his first stints in radio was as a volunteer announcer at WBJC. He was a weekend host in the mid 1990s at WJHU and remembers his time as a period of experimentation.
BOB BENSON: Nobody ever really told me what to do, what music to play, I could play whatever I wanted, and I did. And I played a lot of unusual music and sometimes historic recordings and stuff like that. I think that most people who really enjoy music enjoyed listening to what I did because it was so different from what is usually done on public radio. You know, Beethoven's symphonies and Brahm’s and stuff like that. Not that I have anything against them, I played them on occasion, but I did unusual things. People seemed to like it, and we raised a lot of money during their fundraisers and all that. And then JHU became—they decided to go all news. So then I was out there, but I did have a number of very happy years with WJHU.
BROOM: As stations began to hire professional staff, volunteers were heard on the air less and less. Towson State University owned-WCVT became professional in 1988. Jim Armstrong, who was on staff at WCVT, WBJC, and several other stations, reflects on the loss of volunteer opportunities.
JIM ARMSTRONG: At the beginning, both public and commercial radio stations leaned on volunteers, one to keep their costs down. You know, free labor and cheap help, that kind of stuff. But yeah, there weren’t a lot of broadcasting schools around, so, you know, it was a lot of on the job training. Insurance companies and lawyers and, you know, FCC rules and regulations and, and those sorts of things came on and that kind of knocked volunteer opportunities back as far as on-air is concerned. And as more of the upper management, that is especially at universities, began to understand what a marketing tool the radio station could be, began taking it over. You will find a lot of radio stations, [W]YPR included, that were started at universities who then began to understand it was a marketing thing, and you know, we got to get the right people in, we can't use students because they don't know what they're doing. You know, they might play something that upsets people. And so the opportunities for students began to dwindle, the opportunity for volunteers on-air began to dwindle.
BROOM: In 1991, WCVT became WTMD. Jim was TMD’s program director at the time and tells the story.
ARMSTRONG: Not only did we change call letters, we changed programming. And that was a whole ‘nother thing, you know, because the students used to run the radio station and the university, it caused an issue that brought the university under the FCC’s radar. And that was what prompted the switch to hire a program director and change the format. There’s still some people around who hate my guts because I changed the format at the station. When they let me change the programming when we switched from [W]CVT to [W]TMD, and at the time, it was a lot of, it was a rock station pretty much. In fact, their slogan was “From Bach to Rock” because they had rock and roll programs, they had classical music programs. A lot of the early public radio stations had, even [W]BJC had weekend programs that were designed for ethnic programming. So there was an Irish show, there was a polka show, there was a folk music show, and [W]TMD also had those shows on as well. Some of those shows were more popular than the normal programming through the week. And so when I changed the programming, the weekday programming from rock and roll, where every student did whatever they wanted to do, you know, didn’t always understand ramifications for some things. Like there was one student who was taking music from YouTube and playing it on the air, and we got a cease and desist order from that. So we decided to change the format through the week to a contemporary jazz format. We call it the smooth jazz format and named it “The Breeze.” It was, it was great. It was the first smooth jazz station in the market because Morgan [State University] was on at the time, but they were doing more traditional jazz. And that was great for as long as it lasted, when we changed formats to a Triple A format, because that's what public radio was moving towards at the time.
BROOM: In 1990, Wendy Williams—not the radio and television gossip host—started as WEAA’s development director and became acting General Manager in 1992. She says the station grew during the early 90s.
WENDY WILLIAMS: Now at that time, I would say we had about five staff, and then I began to bring on staff because as I learned about public radio, I decided we needed to expand. So I brought in a marketing director, we had a membership director when I was there, we had a news director of course, because of the rich, you know, history of news there at WEAA. So we were able to really begin staffing the station. And so what I decided is that we want to be, we want to show the university, at that time, that we’re able to be funded, you know, a little bit independently. Of course we had a budget that came from the state of Maryland. But like other public stations, we were also dependent on membership support. So my goal was to really create a vibrant and strong membership department, and I also wanted to go along with that and create an underwriting department because I had learned that you could actually go out and sell underwriting in public radio. Who knew?! So I was the first person to establish that, the first general manager to establish underwriting and corporate support at WEAA. And it turned out to be an untapped mine that was really on the verge of really, really blossoming when I was there.
BROOM: As I sit here recording this in a studio with all digital components, I’d like us to take a minute to explore the vastly-different technology and resources available during the 80s and 90s. We’ll hear from Wendy Williams, Ellen Beth Levitt, and then Jonathan Palevsky.
WILLIAMS: This was at a time where there was no computers or databases to capture member data on. We kept everybody’s information on a card file in a box. So everything was pretty much done by paper, I mean, you know, and nothing was automated at that time, everything was live at that time.
LEVITT: When I started there, we were using typewriters, of course, to type out our news stories. The general manager came into my office shorty after I started there and he said, “We’re going all computer.” It was sort of like learning how to fly the plane while you are flying, if you know what I mean.
PALEVSKY: When I came we were playing LPs still. When I came, cassettes were still around, and we even had this vacuum machine to clean LPs which was hilarious. You would spray water all over the LP and then this machine would suck it all up, I mean, it was insane. And CDs then came in and CDs were the most exciting thing in the world. And when we moved here, we were burning our own CDs for interviews and putting them on CD, and now everything, everything is on the computer. Now the computer is the device. Oh my gosh, oh, and editing editing tape with razor blades, which I did for years and years and years and I'm sure you did too. I never cut myself, amazingly enough. I mean, editing tape with razor blades and grease pencils, and I will say you really learn how to edit, and then editing on computer was such a, such a breeze and so much faster and you could do so much more and you didn't have pieces of tape hanging around the studio everywhere. It changed radically. Incredible changes in audio.
MUSIC: "Dire Ghost" by Blue Dot Sessions.
BROOM: We’ll discuss more changes to public radio in the early 2000s on our next episode. You’ve been listening to Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios. I’m Maria Broom.
Production and support for this podcast and WYPR’s 20th Anniversary was brought to you in part by the PNC Bank.
Jamyla Krempel is the executive producer of Wavelength. Anne Kramer is our producer. Katie Marquette is our audio editor. Production and engineering support by Spencer Bryant. Research and production assistance by Maddie Bristowe.
Andy Bienstock is WYPR’s Vice President and Program Director. Michele Williams is the Director of Underwriting.
You can learn more about the podcast at wypr.org/wavelength.