On a rainy night in late March, the studio of WTMD (89.7 FM) looked more like the buzzing set of a classic variety show than home to Towson University's public radio station.
Members of the Baltimore indie-rock group Celebration checked the sounds of their instruments as three actors from the Single Carrot Theatre rehearsed a scene from a new production. Sam Sessa, the show's host and a former Baltimore Sun editor, practiced introductions. Elsewhere, Wham City Comedy's Ben O'Brien went over lines to a monologue he would perform that night.
The stage was set for "Baltimore Hit Parade Live," a free-to-the-public showcase of Baltimore's music and performing arts scenes. The all-ages crowd quickly ballooned to more than 100 people, leaving only standing room for latecomers. The relaxed, hourlong show went off without a problem, while garnering applause and laughs along the way.
"A way to make the 'Baltimore Hit Parade' relative to the greater public radio listening community — and [the staff] may not like it — but I've been telling people that it's very '[A Prairie] Home Companion for hipsters,' " said WTMD general manager Steve Yasko.
Most importantly, the show served as one example of the new era WTMD entered last June when it moved from a 1,800-square-foot basement on campus to an 8,000-square-foot facility in Towson City Center. With the station's First Thursdays concert series' debut at Canton Waterfront Park on Thursday and the new studio's one-year anniversary approaching, it's impossible to ignore the major changes that have come with WTMD's relocation to its $3.8 million state-of-the-art new home.
Not coincidentally, the whimsical space — which is filled with original, brightly colored art by local artists and has an overall aesthetic of Atomic Books-meets-kids' playground — has re-energized the WTMD staff, said program director Scott Mullins.
"You feel like you're working in a professional environment, but it's still absolutely fun," Mullins said. "It's made a huge difference in everybody's morale. We deliver a better product."
As a whole, the WTMD product (which has had its current rock-oriented format since 2003) is also expanding, in part because its new home affords the opportunity. There is an open room that houses local art installations available for purchase, each Friday the "Live Lunch" program hosts a free concert, and other events — such as a film series, author readings and summer barbecues on the patio — are in the works. Multiple, various-size studios allow simultaneous recording sessions to take place.
"The ideas were always there," Mullins said, adding that the studio "enables us to fulfill the visions we have."
Making the new location a destination "was a primary part of the vision," Yasko said, partly because the radio industry has changed with the popularity of Internet "radio" services like Pandora, Google Play Music and others. Yasko points out these online applications are not true radio stations because they lack human-to-human interaction. ("The fact that they call themselves 'Pandora Radio' is an insult to the hardworking men and women who make radio, which is community-oriented," he said.)
"Radio is fragmented media business right now," Yasko said. "In order for public radio stations ... to survive, thrive and grow, you have to become a community cultural institution. You just can't be music out of your car speakers. So every decision that we make [asks], 'What else can we do?' "
There is a clear sense of optimism and excitement among WTMD staff members. The station has 4,500 donating members, Yasko said, and the goal, which he said is attainable, is to increase membership to 7,500 in the next two years.
The most obvious way WTMD could achieve it is through reaching new ears. When the station relocated, it replaced its old antenna with a more efficient one atop Towson City Center, a much higher point. The result is a strong radio reception in areas WTMD previously could not reach: Bethesda, Rockville and other towns toward Washington, Yasko said.
"I can't say that we're penetrating the D.C. market in any great way, but I can say some people will hear us on the air and hopefully it will encourage some Internet listening when they get home," Yasko said.
Streaming Internet music services are not likely to disappear soon, so it is up to the WTMD staff to create a product that offers listeners reasons to return. Dave Einstein, the former operations manager of Baltimore's WHFS, said the thought and care WTMD puts into its programs is obvious when you listen.
"They take what they do very seriously, and they address Baltimore directly," Einstein said. "The new facility ... will allow them to upgrade what they do on a daily level. Very honestly, I don't see a lot of their competition stepping up to the plate the way they do."
For Yasko, the significant changes have come at a whirlwind pace. The strategic plan to get to this point is complete, he said, and now WTMD will go back to the drawing board to build on the foundation. In the meantime, he hopes the public will familiarize itself with the new studio.
"We really want TMD to be more than just the music you hear on your radio," he said. "We want it to be something that you visit regularly. It's like the YMCA of music."
If you go
WTMD is located at 1 Olympic Place in Towson. The station's First Thursdays concert series starts this week at Canton Waterfront Park, 3001 Boston St. in Canton. Joan Osborne, Joseph Arthur and Marah are scheduled to perform. Free. For more information, go to wtmd.org.