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THE LITTLE STATION THAT COULD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

7:29 a.m. In the airwaves southwest of Frederick, near the quiet Potomac River community of Brunswick, population 5,000, the only voice coming over the car radio at 1520 on the AM dial is the strident sneer of shock-jock announcer Howard Stern. Thanks to the magic of electromagnetism, his bilious attitude has filtered all the way down through the ether from WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y. Somewhere, the great radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi is spinning in his grave.

7:30 a.m. A piercing signal emanates from the radio, followed by the crisp tones of banjo music. It's as if Howard Stern has been hit by a well-aimed phaser and blasted into antimatter. The deep voice of Tom Whalen booms over the bluegrass, announcing that WTRI, Brunswick's daring little 1520-AM, dawn-to-dusk, 500-watt station, is on the air.

7:37 a.m. Tom, who spent 15 years in New York as an actor and truck driver before retreating to the charm of small-town radio, reads a list of school buses delayed because of an overnight dusting of snow. He then urges listeners to get on down to the Sheetz gas station and eatery, "where you can see your sandwich being made."

7:50 a.m. Reading from the sports page of the Frederick $H newspaper, Tom recaps basketball scores from the previous night. He is alone in the station, a single-story, cement-block bungalow whose living room is the lobby and whose bedrooms are the studios. The front door bears a homey brass knocker and the stoop has a mat -- as do the rows of split-level homes in the typically neat suburban neighborhood that starts just across the street.

In a field out back of the bungalow stands the station's antenna. It carries Tom's voice over a 50-mile radius, extending into a tri-state area bounded by Hagerstown, Frederick and Gaithersburg in Maryland; Leesburg and Herndon in Virginia; and Martinsburg in West Virginia.

Station owner Liz Roberts, who bought the near-bankrupt country-music station a year ago from associates of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., hopes to take delivery soon of new equipment to boost the power to 10,000 watts. When she does, she will have two reasons to celebrate.

First, the station will have a new transmitter to replace the ancient monster that sits a few feet from Tom's microphone. It emits a steady thrum during the day and puts out so much heat that the back door of the bungalow must remain open -- allowing heat to escape, but also letting frigid outdoor air seep inside. In the summer, the sound of lawn mowers and crickets comes through that doorway and combines with the thrum for an interesting background symphony to all announcements.

Second, it will mean that Liz Roberts' grand broadcasting experiment -- in which the veteran producer for the British Broadcasting Corp. and National Public Radio gambled with a format shunned by other stations -- will have survived against heavy odds. Her plan is simple: WTRI plays only local music, most of it country, folk and bluegrass, some of it recorded, and much of it performed live right in those tiny bedroom studios.

Because her definition of "local" is loose enough to include the richly endowed music scene in the Washington-Baltimore region, hundreds of guitar pickers, songwriters and singers have found their way to the remote bungalow, hauling in everything from banjos to jaw's harps.

In the meantime, Liz has invited church choirs and schoolchildren into her station; she has brought in horn players from high school bands to talk of their musical goals; she has even had area writers read their short stories over the air. Several times the station has broadcast community events, including the annual Railroad Days festival that Brunswick is noted for and a Halloween party for 400 children.

While many feared that a station with such a narrowly defined format would go over like an endless amateur hour, WTRI in its first 12 months has surprised the doubters. It has managed to win awards, raise eyebrows in the radio industry and even draw praise from broadcasting critics. More importantly, it appears to have won the acceptance of the locals.

"She really is trying to involve the community," says Bobbie Wilkinson, a listener from nearby Hamilton, Va. "When she gets people from the community involved, other people listen because they look on her as a friend. How many radio station presidents are that accessible to the public?"

Still, Brunswick's mayor, Richard E. Goodrich, notes there was a difficult adjustment period. "One of the things Liz had to overcome was the fact WTRI was once affiliated with that group out of Leesburg," he says, referring to the unpredictable and often unpopular LaRouche political organization.

"So Liz walked into a situation with a credibility problem," he says. "But she did her homework and has been very hard-working. She has shown her commitment to be part of the community. It's so nice to say to people, 'I'm from Brunswick -- and by the way, do you listen to our local radio station?' "

10 a.m. The front door -- which was always locked under the previous ownership -- opens and Margie Rylatt, a young folk singer-songwriter out of Frederick, enters shyly with her guitar.

"It's just wonderful to be able to come up here," she says, grinning excitedly. "There are a lot of musicians who record on independent labels, and it's hard for them to be heard on a big station or a Top-40 station. This gives us a chance to be heard."

10:10 a.m. Andrea Kershaw, the station's music director, adjusts Margie's microphone and closes the back door to the bungalow so the studio feels just slightly less like the Arctic. She screens the hundreds of tapes sent in by musicians, and in the summer she also mows the station's lawn. "We all wear three or four hats here because there are so few of us," she says. She also sells ads and keeps watch over Sidney, Liz's shaggy sheep dog, who is a fixture at the station.

"I did a degree in psychology," says Andrea, a native of Britain whose mother was a BBC colleague of Liz Roberts. "But the fact is, in England there were not that many people crying out for psychology majors. So I came here."

10:15 a.m. Margie Rylatt strums a tune called "It's a Hard Life." Out in the living room, Sidney stretches out, taking up most of the floor space. Liz emerges from her bedroom office and steps over him, reading from a Country magazine press release that describes a recent readers' poll naming WTRI announcers as the best in several categories.

"I think this says folks are listening to local music," she says, "and they like it a whole lot more than the experts who say Top 40 is the way to go."

10:20 a.m. In the main studio Tom is engaged in a heady conversation with Margie about the hidden meaning of "It's a Hard Life." Sidney softly groans in his slumber.

"When I came up here looking to buy a station, I listened to every one in the area and visited many," says Liz. "Everyone was replicating everyone else. There are just a few set formats: Basically you don't offend anyone, and keep it soft and gentle. It's all elevator music. Some stations don't even have announcers in the building. It's getting to the point where there is no local identity at all."

She and her husband, Peter, a patent attorney, emigrated from Birmingham, England, in 1982, itching for a change in their lives. She worked at NPR for several years, but grew restless for her own operation and jumped at the chance to buy the failing WTRI. It wasn't until she'd come to the Brunswick-Leesburg area, though, that she stumbled onto the idea of using the station to showcase area talent. Until then, she'd vaguely thought of converting WTRI's format from country to all-oldies.

"At several parties I was invited to," she says, "I noticed that sooner or later a guitar would come out of a case and people would retreat to the kitchen and sing. Every party developed into a musical experience. There's a strong tradition of that in this area."

Then, a Lovettsville, Va., gas station operator asked if she would play the music of his bluegrass band once she'd taken over WTRI. She agreed, and decided for the first day or so to highlight musicians from the Maryland and Virginia listening area. Word of her intentions spread so quickly along the musicians' grapevine that by the time the sale of the station was made final in February 1992, she had received more than 100 tapes from hopeful singers.

"We started playing local music and we have never run out of material," she says. To date, she has collected almost 600 recordings, including one sent by a baker in nearby Shepherdstown, W. Va., along with three loaves of his bread.

10:45 a.m. Janet Arey, the third British employee at WTRI, fills a glass jar on her desk, just inside the front door, with large dog biscuits. Officially the office manager, she is also the station's photographer, snapping candids of each guest. She brings singers that crucial glass of water before they go on the air, cooks them small pizzas in a microwave oven, answers the phones, and even fills in when an extra voice is needed for a chorus.

When Janet, who lives only three blocks from the station, applied for a job, Liz initially turned her down. "I didn't want to be seen as a British Mafia," Liz says. "But later that day, the phones were ringing off the hook. I called Janet back and said, 'Just come up and help us out for a day.' And she did and we all fell in love with her."

"It's just one big happy family," says Janet, handing Sidney a dog biscuit.

10:55 a.m. Asked why Tom seems to be the only person at the station without a British accent, Janet quips in a Cockney accent, "Well, it's because he doesn't work at it."

Tom, overhearing, shoots back, "I have to keep reminding them who won the American Revolution."

11:10 a.m. Liz seems unfazed that a current issue of Broadcasting magazine says radio broadcasting is in an

irreversible decline. She is used to ignoring gloomy forecasts. "She certainly has shown there are no obstacles in her way," says Mayor Goodrich.

Indeed, Monitoring Times, a broadcasting-industry publication, wrote in an editorial: "Three cheers for Liz Roberts' courageous new format: local music." Alex Zavistovich, editor of Radio World magazine, also had words of encouragement: "If you're a local station you should try to reflect that interest in all aspects of your programming, including music."

Still, the ultimate question is, do people listen?

"Local music is a radical format," says Tom. "Radio becomes comforting background music to a lot of people. But with this format, people have to stop and say, 'What is this?' "

Liz says she bases her belief that she is reaching her audience on faith and a few encouraging events. There was the day not long after Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida, when a Brunswick man drove his empty truck trailer to the station and challenged Liz to get listeners to fill it up with clothing items that he would then haul south.

She did just that, broadcasting the appeal for disaster-relief items. For a solid week listeners trooped up to the station to deposit everything from mattresses to diapers to canned goods. On another occasion, a woman arrived with a lost dog. A few minutes after the station announced its find, the pooch was reunited with its owner.

"The only way you know you've got listeners is if they act," Liz says. "Far from not giving a damn what they listen to, I think people adore what we are doing. We took a survey when we started and asked, 'If you heard someone local playing music, would you listen?' And 98 percent said, 'Absolutely. We'd love to hear what Joe's boy is doing.' "

In fact, Susan Planck, who operates Wheatland Vegetable Farms on Route 287 near Lovettsville, was so keen on the idea that she and her husband, Chris, donated $300 to the station even before it went on the air.

"We just loved what Liz was planning," says Susan. "People like to hear local people on the radio. Liz has shown you can be local and please your listeners."

11:20 a.m. Baltimore singers Jane Brody and Julia Vanek knock timidly on the station's front door. Liz swings it open and flings her arm around their necks, hugging and welcoming them. She has never met them before.

Inside, Julia looks around the homey station, taking in the large sheep dog. "You get a sense that this is the way the world is supposed to be," she says. Her partner, Jane Brody, nods in awe. "It's home-grown. It's organic."

11:45 a.m. As Jane and Julia begin singing one of their original, folky, bluesy compositions, Liz watches through a studio window.

"I like to get people in here to play, so that when you play their tapes it means much more to you that you know the people," she says. "We say to everyone we will play you one time. If they are absolutely excruciating -- and about 1 percent are -- we still give them one play."

Once a singer forgot his lyrics in the middle of his song.

"Listeners called up immediately and said they sympathized and knew just how bad he felt, and asked that he be given another chance. So we gave him another go."

12:15 p.m. Charlie Donelon, a Western Maryland bluesman, has hauled his three guitars into the main studio. Kate Buck, a Frederick folk music guru, has taken over now from Tom and sits behind the studio mike. In the living room, Jane and Julia and Margie Rylatt are in animated conversation with Pete Papageorge, yet another singer-songwriter who has stopped by. Some performers are invited in on a regular basis and some just drop in. The only rule of thumb is that if there is time, they get to go on the air. The mood now is festive. Janet rushes about, snapping photos and serving up slices of homemade zucchini bread.

1:30 p.m. Sidney paws open the door and takes off down the street. Andrea yelps and gives chase. Janet serves tea.

2:05 p.m. Bluegrass guitarist Paul Adkins arrives to host his weekly bluegrass show. During a commercial he says, "I've never heard anything like this station in my entire career, and I've been traveling around the country on the bluegrass circuit for 15 years. There's no one else out there playing local styles like this."

4:15 p.m. Liz plunges into her "drive time" segment. Unlike disc jockeys who offer traffic updates and news, Liz today recites a recipe for homemade dog biscuits.

Off the air she adds, "So many stations have cards that tell the deejay exactly what to say. I think listeners more prefer a chatty style. They feel we are talking to them."

4:25 p.m. Slim Harrison, perhaps the most unusual musician in WTRI's vast repertoire, plops down on a stool next to Liz in the main studio. Employed part time by the Maryland Arts Council to teach folk music to children and teachers, Slim is also well-known for his workshops on "How to Play Your Mouth."

This afternoon he pulls from his pocket a simple jaw's harp and to its twangy drone sings a dog ditty:

"Everytime I go to town,

The boys keep kicking my dog around;

Makes no difference if he is a hound,

You gotta quit kicking my dog around."

5:05 p.m. The phone rings. A listener says the radio sounds like a country store. Everybody takes it as a good sign.

5:15 p.m. Until it can be powered up to a 24-hour-a-day station, WTRI must sign off with sundown each day. "We'll be back bright and early tomorrow," Liz announces cheerily. Then, eyeing Andrea and Janet, she adds, "Right now it's time for all of us to say . . . " And with a stiff upper lip, three British voices echo in unison: " 'Nite!"

5:25 p.m. Janet looks horrified. "Oh gosh, Sidney's water dish is empty." She fills it and then hauls the day's rubbish to the curb for tomorrow's trash pickup.

L Andrea is on the phone, meanwhile, closing a deal for an ad.

Liz, looking tired, takes a seat behind Janet's desk, where Janet seldom has been all day. Liz talks about the volume of advertisers she's built up. "We do have ourselves in the black, but our noses are just above the water line," she says. "We've worked hard to show we are not just a garage-band station. But the key to it all is if we can't sell this, then it was just a fun idea."

Somewhere, no doubt, Guglielmo Marconi is resting a little easier.

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