Spring Drive II, Week 4


Baltimore's newest kid-on-the-block of public radio, WJHU-FM, was born five years ago with a lusty cry of great promise; today it has taken on the attributes of an abandoned child.

It suffers from neglect, malnutrition and lack of a role model. And now it is reduced to begging in the streets. Probably it will survive its present crisis; whether it lives to grow into productive adulthood, however, depends upon its ability to offer a useful service which can't be readily obtained from more experienced hands.

WJHU-FM went on the air in October of 1986 when Johns Hopkins University committed a substantial sum of money to upgrade the 10-watt campus radio station to a full-fledged, full-service FM station. In retrospect, it's safe to say that the station's mission was not thought through carefully, and that almost everyone involved in its creation probably regrets today they ever touched the project.

The first error, perhaps, was in abandoning the plan to broadcas at 50,000 watts, which would have given the station a vastly bigger audience -- and hence listener-support constituency -- than the 10,000 watts that was finally settled upon.

Unable to draw from the dry well of the usual government, foundation and listener support, the station quickly became a financial drain on Johns Hopkins, which decided after a couple of years to cut its losses. In a desperate bid to find a new role, WJHU's staff and supporters came up with the sound proposal to make the station the flagship of a statewide public radio network along the lines of Maryland Public Television. That concept died when the General Assembly last year refused to fund that enterprise, and for a time it looked as if WJHU would go silent. Then Johns Hopkins agreed to continue making the mortgage payments, so to speak, with the stipulation that the station had to raise its own operating costs.

So it was swim-or-sink, and at the moment the station is struggling mightily to stay afloat. After all the usual government, corporate and foundation sources were milked for every possible dollar, the station launched its spring fund drive to persuade listeners to ante up the remaining $135,000 needed to provide the $910,000 operating budget. The drive fell $25,000 short, and the station is now into its fourth week of a second drive to raise that amount. It's still $7,000 short, and there is a ring of desperation in the appeals. The question is, are listeners getting so weary of the clamor for more funds that they are switching to another station?

Certainly switching is easy. There's virtually nothing offered on WJHU that can't be found on another Washington-Baltimore area public radio station. The prestige news programs, "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered," are found on two other stations. To be sure, WJHU-FM offers different classical music for most of the day, but obviously it's not sufficiently different that its listeners were willing to cough up the extra money.

Most likely WJHU will get the final $7,000 to keep operating for another year. But when that new lease on life is obtained, if the station goes on with business-as-usual, we're certain to see a repeat performance year after year, until the station forfeits its claim to being commercial-free broadcasting.

If there is a niche for WJHU, it seems to me it lies in public affairs broadcasting. Why not make WJHU the local equivalent of cable television's C-SPAN, which covers live public events from congressional hearings to speeches by visiting queens?

Just look at any bulletin board on any day on the campus of Johns Hopkins, both at Homewood and the medical institutions, and you'll see an incredibly rich fare of lectures, concerts, readings and the like.

In addition, the Hopkins faculty offers a limitless source of expertise which could supply interviews on topics of the day -- a Supreme Court decision of great import, a new peace proposal in the Middle East, or the elections in India.

Would listeners more readily support such a format than the present one? I don't know. But I am fairly certain the station will not continue to survive indefinitely by offering what is already available on other stations. Perhaps the most telling clue is my own reaction: During the present desperate fund drive, I switched my radio from WJHU to a Washington-area station.

If WJHU makes its current goal, it will have around nine months in which to switch to a heavier fare of public affairs broadcasting, then submit the result to listeners for support in next spring's fund drive. If it works, the area will have a new service. If it doesn't, it will have lost little that can't be replaced by a flick of a switch.

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