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Harford's Eclectic, Easily Missed Voice


Where do Superman and Bach, Glenn Miller and Theolonius Monk, new age and gospel music live together?

On WHFC-FM, Harford Community College's eclectic and often-overlooked radio station. It's a hidden treasure, easily missed if your finger is not adept at fine-tuning the dial to exactly 91.1 megahertz.

The campus signal covers the entire county, and surrounding areas, but that small band of the radio dial is crowded with the frequencies of other public stations.

John Davlin, the radio veteran and mass communications professional who manages the station, is responsible for the programs and format, which aims to teach students while also trying to meet the needs of audiences too small to be served by commercial broadcasting.

Classical music rules every morning and weekends, student-run pop music is heard in the afternoon, and old-time radio dramas and specialty music such as jazz, big bands, new age and gospel is broadcast evenings.

Last year, the station produced a 52-week series on Broadway musicals, hosted by federal Judge David Harfeld, who used his own extensive record collection.

That series was sold to other public radio stations across the country. It even, as the saying goes, plays in Peoria.

With a blend of 30 college students and 20 community volunteers, WHFC stays on the air seven days a week, from 9 a.m. into the night, year-round. "If we closed down for school vacations, we'd risk losing our audience and we can't do that," Mr. Davlin said.

Actually, the 1,150-watt college station doesn't know exactly how many people listen. And it has virtually no budget for publicity and promotion. The college budget provides $20,000 a year and pays student managers from an activities fund, and the station raises about $6,000 in a limited direct-mail solicitation.

While some public radio stations have million-dollar budgets and devote weeks and weeks to on-air beg-a-thons, WHFC doesn't have the staff or the inclination to do that. A lot of that financing smacks of commercial radio, Mr. Davlin observed, adding: "Our audience might not like that and, besides, we are primarily supported by the college."

"We're running a teaching program, as well as a radio station for the county, so students can get a good introduction to the radio business," he noted.

About 100 students are in mass communications classes, many of them working on the radio station as an activity. The announcing, pronouncing and timing may be a little rough at times -- surprisingly few times -- because they're learning on the air.

Using older, experienced volunteers at the station helps students to learn more, Mr. Davlin said. It also makes WHFC much more than just another college radio station.

During a recent broadcast morning, Harry Branflick was spinning a Haydn CD in the control booth. A 10-year volunteer classical disc jockey, Mr. Branflick boasted of the station's extensive music collection -- "1,032 CDs as of this week, and we pay for them all." (That costs about $3,000 a year; jazz and pop music companies, on the other hand, send free copies to entice listeners to buy.)

In the news lounge, student program director Mindy Gepp was (( taking news stories from the Associated Press wire service machine and preparing the script for the noon newscast. News director Kelly Schene was helping out, with a kibitzer's eye on a card game. "We spend a lot of our time here, working on the station," the Bel Air student said.

Community volunteers, some with years of broadcast experience, provide an important continuity to the programming and add informed comment on their music. Mary Jo Pons, a former commercial announcer and head of a reading service for the blind, hosts the Sunday classics program. Joe Clingroth has been playing and interpreting his Big Bands music collection on the station since 1981, two years before WHFC boosted its power to 1,150 watts from the 10 watts that confined its range to Bel Air.

There are even two gospel music programs, one "black" and one "country," and an interview program aimed at the county's African-American community.

With no single format, the station expects to draw a fluctuating audience that doesn't stay tuned all day. That diversity also helps expand the audience, Mr. Davlin said, and allows the station to get its messages about Harford County happenings out to more people.

Along with eight other stations in the Maryland Public Radio Association, WHFC is pressing the state for money for a satellite connection that would allow shared network programming. The entire state allocation now goes to public television, although the authorization is supposed to be for radio and TV, Mr. Davlin said.

With a little more money, the station hopes to extend its "Curtain Up" series on musicals, he said.

That's a program that can be expected to play as well in Perryman as in Peoria.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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