WJHU: a classical failure


WJHU-FM radio station's recent decision to drastically reduce its classical music programming came as no surprise to those who have followed its fortunes. Frankly, it never fulfilled its early boastful promises.

For many years it had been a student-run, 10-watt station on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. Then, in mid-1986, the university created enormous expectations when it entered the radio wars. It was a new kid on the block with more than $1 million invested in state-of-the-art equipment, a recording studio, 10,000-watt signal and "luxurious" new quarters on North Charles Street.

It also raided WBJC, the city's oldest classical FM radio station for talent. Among the trophies were Bob Benson, who will continue his weekend classical music programs under the new talk-radio format, and Lisa Simeone, a former weekday announcer who now will only be heard on an hourlong Sunday morning interview show, to debut later this year.

In addition to new equipment and quarters, the station was backed by the prestige of Johns Hopkins University, as opposed to the hard-scrabble existence of WBJC -- its call letters stand for Baltimore Junior College, the forerunner of the Community College of Baltimore. WJHU also had a much-touted program manager. He boasted he could attract more corporate money than WBJC.

But the station never had a format better than that offered by WBJC.

Day after day, week after week, it was the same old platter pushing -- from albums to tapes to CDs. It was not what one would really call high-quality programming. It failed to lure the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts away from WBJC. And while it will continue to produce the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra broadcasts at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, as it has done since the 1985-86 season, these will most likely continue to be heard in Baltimore over WBJC.

With all its fancy equipment, high-priced talent, state-of-the-art studio, WJHU showed no originality in its musical programming. It had talk shows, such as the Marc Steiner Show, cloyingly promoted almost ad nauseam by Ms. Simeone every afternoon -- but its boast was to overtake WBJC on that station's turf, classical music. The most recent ratings ranked WJHU a distant second to WBJC.

The station's failure to meet its goals may be blamed either on a lack of originality or imagination.

Some 18 blocks or so south of the studio on Charles Street is the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music, which is also a branch of the Johns Hopkins University. At Peabody, there is live talent galore in many musical aspects -- symphony, opera, ballet, quintets, quartets, octets, old music, new music, and with instrumental expertise itching to be heard. But it was never heard on WJHU.

Just think what they missed. Ballet music, heavy operas, light operas, military music, Gilbert & Sullivan, instrumental music, even the harmonica with Larry Adler. Gad! the mind boggles at what they missed.

So, we are back to one classical music station in Baltimore. As the only game in town, one hopes that WBJC will not rest on its oars. After all, some of us get good reception of the good classical music programs offered by WETA-FM in Washington.

Geoffrey Fielding writes from Baltimore.

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