Browse through the radio dial in the Baltimore area looking for college stations and you might not recognize them right away.
A few areas offer student-run stations with the rock, alternative and independent music often associated with college disc jockeys.
More common is the adult alternative music of 91.1 FM, WHFC, based at Harford Community College, the smooth jazz broadcast at 89.7 FM from Towson University's WTMD or the jazz and public affairs programming of 88.9 FM, WEAA, at Morgan State University.
These public radio stations combine university affiliations with professional standards. Students mix with paid staff and community volunteers, and the goal of education exists alongside the need to draw an audience, attract funding and compete in the radio market.
Most important, says Jerry Houston, morning show producer at WPOC-FM, Baltimore's commercial country station, they offer young people experience. That "is probably the most important thing in the world" for breaking into the radio business, he says.
While at Towson University, Houston was an intern in the promotions department at WPOC and worked at WTMD as "more of an opportunity to be on the air, to work on that skill." Both activities prepared him for a full-time job in commercial radio.
Sixty percent of the noncommercial public radio stations in the country are licensed to colleges and universities, says John Turner, associate professor of electronic media and film at Towson University and general manger of WTMD. But, he says, "some have more student involvement than others."
WBJC-FM, which is licensed and owned by Baltimore City Community College, is a professional classical station that does not use students beyond the occasional internship. And last fall, the Johns Hopkins University sold WJHU-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate with mostly professional staff, to a local not-for-profit corporation.
Still, several university-affiliated public radio stations throughout the area are prime training grounds for future broadcasters - on the air and behind the scenes in production, marketing and managerial roles.
"The experience is great," says Wilson Knight, a first-year student at Harford Community College and a WHFC on-air personality. "It puts you ahead of the pack."
At WHFC, "you can go right on and get your experience," he says.
Station manager Gary Helton, the only full-time employee at Harford Community Radio, has worked to bring the number of students up to 48 percent of the staff from 20 percent. Fifty-nine staff members work on the air or behind the scenes. Twenty-nine of them are students.
"We're like a Triple-A ball team," says Helton. "We've got young people going to the majors and old people hanging around for the love of it."
Like other public radio stations, WHFC seeks underwriting from businesses, accepts audience donations and holds fund-raisers. That means targeting an audience beyond the student body.
But the staff has a fair amount of freedom to accomplish that. They stay away from punk, metal and hip-hop, which are less popular in their area. But no set list exists for the weekday "adult album alternative" segments, and other shows feature doo-wop, classical, pop, gospel and even music from Japanese anime.
"That's really the mission of public radio," says Helton, "to reach out to disenfranchised audience members. ... It's a small audience, but no less valuable."
Towson University's station has also focused on a specific community audience. It used to play rock and alternative music aimed at college listeners. But in the early 1990s, the university decided to change the format to adult contemporary, also called "smooth jazz," to attract listeners and dollars.
Under the guidance of three professional staff members, a few paid on-air personalities anchor the daily programming. Students fill a variety of positions on-air and behind the scenes.
"It plays an integral role in the students' education to provide them with practical experience to support what they learn in the classroom," says Turner.
Towson also supports a campus-based station, XTSR, which can be heard on the university's cable system and on the Internet. That station has a more open, student-guided format. It maintains a professional atmosphere under the direction of WTMD managers, but accommodates young people who want to participate in radio solely for enjoyment.
At Morgan State University, WEAA's staff takes pride in its role as a station for the broader community. "We try very hard to avoid the connotation of college radio as something that is not professional, where the format is at the whims of the student." says Maxie C Jackson III, acting general manager.
An affiliate of National Public Radio and the Associated Press news service, with six full-time and seven part-time employees, WEAA has found its niche. It provides African-American public affairs programming, a spectrum of jazz, Caribbean, African and world beat music, 13 hours of gospel on Sundays and other uncommon programs.
Within a culture dominated by professionals, the station takes on 15 students each semester as interns and volunteers. "They learn the fundamentals of radio broadcasting," says Jackson, including a range of technical skills "from older equipment to modern technology."
At WEAA and other stations, students can benefit from the mentoring relationships that develop with staff and skilled community volunteers.
A few area stations still fit the image of a university-funded operation where young people call the shots. The University of Maryland's student-run WMUC-FM can be heard in a 15-mile radius around the College Park campus, and "it's pretty much free choice of the DJs what to play," says station manager David Goldberg, a junior English education major. Student volunteers take responsibility for every aspect of the station.
WMUC Operations Manager Michael Tyler, a University of Maryland senior, says he's sad that student-run stations are diminishing across the country. He sees his station as a great opportunity to learn and a place where a diverse range of artists, including local and lesser-known bands, can get attention
"I think it's important that colleges fund [stations] for the advancement of music as an art form," says Tyler.
Regardless of the format or organization, Houston says aspiring broadcasters need to take advantage of as many hands-on opportunities as possible.
"The only way to learn the radio is to be on the radio," he says.