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Black college radio fights to pay the bills.

In the black? 

When Shaw University's WSHA (88.9 FM) hit the airwaves in 1968, it wasn't just a voice for the college; it was a voice for all the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) nationwide. Although 1968 seems late, the tiny station in Raleigh was the first radio station to broadcast from a black college in the United States.

Decades after the pioneers laid the foundation, North Carolina still stands out in radio history. As the state with the second largest number of HBCUs, North Carolina also has the most black college radio stations. Seven of the 11 now operate stations: Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. Central University, St. Augustine's College, Shaw University, and Winston-Salem State University.

While the history of black radio in North Carolina is impressive, today's stations face the ever-present shortage of funds, evolving trends, uneven community support, and in a unique local case, allegations of mismanagement.

WNCU (90.7 FM) is the new kid on the block. Formed in 1995, this 50,000-watt station's signal covers part of 13 counties. In five years, WNCU has built a following of 34,000 with jazz-oriented programming. That audience is almost equal parts white and black, a success in a business that's still divided by race.

But despite its enthusiastic following, WNCU is dogged by rumors that it's closing or that the station is in trouble.

It's before 11 a.m., and Donald Baker, general manager of WNCU, has just put on a CD of smooth jazz riffs. When the request line rings, Baker picks up the receiver, listens for a moment and tells the caller the name of the artist. Another pause, and he says, "No. We'll be around."

After the phone conversation, Baker says, "I've only just begun to hear the rumors. To my knowledge, the radio station has no plans to close. From all indicators, the university and the community are still interested."

While Baker asserts that WNCU will remain on the air, he won't be at the helm. Baker resigned this summer "to pursue independent projects," and his last day will be Sept. 30.

Combine Baker's departure with the number of staff vacancies at WNCU, and the future looks grim. While a full crew has five employees, WNCU is missing three of its staff members: the news and public affairs director, an operations manager (ultimately to be merged with the program director position), and a development director. A program director has been appointed on an interim basis, and the only other full-time staff member is the administrative assistant.

Baker looks at this ghost staff as a chance to rebuild. "Whoever comes in has the opportunity to hire the whole team," he says.

This team-building must include working on what Baker calls WNCU's "image problems," some of them stemming from a 1998 consultant's report that was extensively reported in The News & Observer. In December 1998, Howard University professor Ernest Fears Jr., spent three days at WNCU to examine its operations. His conclusions? WNCU's programming was "hodgepodge," there was considerable discontent among staff, and the station's overall management was poor.

In response, N.C. Central Chancellor Julius Chambers created an internal advisory committee. Its report hinted that Fears' short stay and over-reliance on commercial radio standards may have been factors in the unfavorable report. Yet the committee also pinpointed numerous areas in need of improvement, including staff training and lack of policy documentation.

Another major issue for the committee was fundraising. A noncommercial station, WNCU doesn't earn revenue through advertising and relies heavily on federal funds.

WNCU, one of a few black-oriented stations to partner with National Public Radio, has a budget in the $400,000 range. That's a wealth of riches for smaller stations, but Baker estimates that the station needs at least half a million dollars annually.

But even with 34,000 pairs of ears tuning in, the listener-supported station has struggled to raise $30,000 during the on-air phase of its campaigns.

Though Baker says "public radio in white colleges and institutions has the same resource issues," he attributes the low levels of giving, in part, to the dominance of WUNC (91.5 FM). A well-established powerhouse, WUNC draws many WNCU listeners, and its development department of four full-time employees almost equals WNCU's entire staff.

For Tony Welbourne, general manager at WNAA in Greensboro, lack of financial support from the community and the state render his missions of providing a listening alternative and training opportunities for students difficult.

WNAA, a noncommercial 10,000-watt station, has been at N.C. A&T State University since 1969. WNAA has changed with the times, now spinning a diverse menu of news, R&B, house and go-go music, reggae, and even gospel rap.

In 1991, times changed for the worse when the N.C. General Assembly withdrew state funds from public radio.

Welbourne says, "The people in Raleigh felt that the state should not support radio that the community supported. And they were looking at stations like WUNC," which raised more than $400,000 from listeners during a recent fundraiser.

Many stations were impacted, but Welbourne believes that HBCU radio was harder hit. "You're talking about stations having an annual budget upon which they could depend--for salaries and equipment--going to zero."

WNAA appealed to its listeners to donate $65,000, or WNAA would close. The station was kept afloat, but potential donors have short memories, says Welbourne.

"People think that because we are owned by a college, we get funds from them. It's hard to get people to understand that the university gives us space and no financial support. They also think that if they pay taxes, they are giving to us, but it's just not so."

Becoming part of the public broadcasting system like WNCU isn't a choice for WNAA, says Welbourne, even with the financial perks.

"Public broadcasting requires that a minimum amount of the budget come from nonfederal sources, like student fees, and they must have at least five staff people. That eliminates a lot of stations. And we're in the middle of two powerful public stations, WFDD at Wake Forest and WUNC."

Other money-making options include bringing popular shows to WNAA, such as "The Tom Joyner Morning Show." But the show's heavy commercial content would jeopardize stations' noncommercial licensing. And efforts to seek underwriting have also brought mixed results. Though black college stations' rates are lower and they serve a special ethnic niche, Welbourne says that big corporations have been slow to invest in HBCU radio.

Jerry O'Brien, who sells underwriting for Charlotte's WFAE, doesn't know if that's true, but he says: "It's hard to get underwriting for all or predominantly music formats. Today it's nothing more than a business. If you offer a product that your customers think will bring a return, they'll buy."

At 750 AM, St. Augustine's College's WAUG is the only AM station among the 11 HBCU stations, and it's also the only for-profit business.

The ticket to self-sufficiency for 500-watt WAUG, says general manager Carol Jones Hunter, has been gospel music. The station changed to a contemporary gospel/news schedule in 1991 after examining its feedback and national trends. In 1998, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, sales of religious music increased by 40 percent.

Radio advertising sales are up locally, largely because of the RTP industries, and WAUG is capitalizing on the increase.

WAUG also broadcasts from its Web site. Listeners can also hear WNCU on its Web site, but WAUG may choose to sell advertising, like banner ads, to supplement its earnings.

Yet even as WAUG benefits from its philosophy that, as Hunter notes, "broadcasting is a business" as well as a service and training ground, it still encounters issues common to HBCU radio. Although Hunter declines to discuss WAUG's budget, she admits that it varies from year to year. Some of the WAUG budget comes from student fees, and when enrollment slides, as it has done across HBCUs in North Carolina, that pool shrinks.

"Our fortunes," say Hunter, "rise and fall with enrollment." Since St. Aug's 2000 freshman class is one of the largest in recent years, those fortunes may be on the upswing.

In the end, Jones says, "the beautiful thing about being affiliated with a college is that we have the flexibility to be cutting-edge. There are many challenges when working with black college radio; there's the perception that if you are an all-black school or institution, you're less than. And there are fewer resources, no huge endowments or large development offices.

"Yet there's not a challenge when it comes to talent, integrity, service or the desire to be the best you can." EndBlock

  • Black college radio fights to pay the bills.

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