WJHU Staff Ready to Catch "Spring Fever" By Mike Field It's spring. Warm weather is returning. Daffodils bloom, magnolia trees revel in their showy ornaments, students throw Frisbees on the lawn. And at Baltimore's WJHU, FM radio 88.1, staff members gear up for another on-the-air fund-raising drive. They call it Spring Fever. "I think when we're on the air and the sound is good and the challenge grants are exciting and the premiums are good people get into a kind of a festive mood," said Nan Rosenthal, manager of membership and community outreach and organizer of the annual drive. It is Rosenthal who offers the spring fever description, almost as an afterthought as she explains the intricacies of raising money over the airwaves. "These things peak--usually right in the middle of the drive--and that's when we generally raise the largest amounts of money." It is then, she says, when phones are ring-ing, DJs are hoarse with talking and volunteers are scrambling back and forth through the studios that the frenzy of the drive becomes, well, sort of fun. "We try to make our fund-raisers really exciting," she said. "People will give money if they like what they hear during the rest of the year. When people make the case over the air, people will call. People will call." This year WJHU hopes to raise more than $100,000 from listeners during the spring fund-raising drive, which begins March 24. The Hopkins-affiliated station offers a unique variety of classical music, jazz and community issues oriented programming as well as National Public Radio's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Its listeners have proven remarkably loyal over the years, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the non-profit, non-commercial station annually. Their generosity has consistently placed WJHU within the top 10 percent of all public radio stations nationwide ranked in order of listener support. And yet, like public radio stations everywhere, estimates suggest that no more than one in 10 listeners donates money to keep the station on the air. Now management must seriously consider just how loyal those listeners are, and how they can be persuaded to become even more supportive of WJHU. Faced with the almost certain reduction of some or all of the roughly 20 percent of WJHU's $1 million annual operating budget that comes from the federal government, fans of WJHU--and public radio stations across the country--will be asked to dig a little deeper and give a little more frequently than in the past. "I usually offer an analogy to a typical household," said WJHU general manager Dennis Kita. "If your household payments were suddenly decreased by 20 percent you could probably still manage to pay the mortgage--but that would be about it. It's all the extras that make public radio so unique." The extras Kita points to with evident pride include the creation of nationally distributed radio programs such as Soundprint and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Concert series, as well as the thrice-weekly Marc Steiner Show which discusses local and national issues in a radio call-in format. "It's a talk show, but I don't put it anywhere on the political spectrum," said Steiner of his 2-year-old show. "I think it's thoughtful without being boring, a place that centers on a thorough discussion of ideas without invective or grandstanding." Steiner's shows have focused on issues ranging from the Hubble telescope to charges of mismanagement in the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. One recent show brought advocates and opponents of affirmative action together to debate the merits of current federal policies aimed at correcting past injustices. "That show allowed us to have a concrete discussion about the real issue," Steiner said. "It was a dialogue on race, the kind which we need to have and are just not having." Some contend this is precisely the kind of programming that conservatives in Congress are trying to cut off --or at least stop paying for. Current discussions in the Republican-controlled Congress call for eliminating most or all federal funding to public radio and television over a three-year period. They call it a "glide path" to self-sufficiency. "If we have zero percent federal funding within three years that's not a glide path, it's a mid-air explosion," quipped Kita of the more draconian of the proposals. Even so, he remains optimistic about the long-term health of the station. "You have to understand that for many years public radio stations received all their funding from the government," he said. Then, in 1982 the government began reducing funding and shifting more and more responsibility for financing to the stations, while easing FCC regulations concerning corporate sponsorship. "The first year the regulations were changed we experienced a 30 percent increase in business funding and we were able to sustain that increase the next year," Kita said. "Now more than a quarter of our budget comes from that sector. I am sure we will be able to find the money to run this station. The only question is how."
Go to Gazette Homepage