WJHU airwaves aren't as choppy as they seem Radio: Hopkins station's ratings climb, even in the face of personnel turnover and some listener complaints.

August 24, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach and Holly Selby | Chris Kaltenbach and Holly Selby,SUN STAFF Staff writer Laura Lippman contributed to this story.

It's been a rough year for WJHU-FM (88.1), the Johns Hopkins University radio station that surprised listeners last June by yanking classical music off the air and replacing it with a news and talk format that leans heavily on syndicated programming.

Longtime listeners are complaining, some decrying the loss of classical music, others insisting WJHU relies too much on syndication and not enough on its own resources. The station ran up a $130,000 deficit last year. And, in three short months, it has lost its general manager, program director and one of its best-known on-air personalities.

Given all the turmoil at WJHU, it would be easy to conclude the station is heading straight down the tubes. But the numbers tell a different story. Listenership is up. Pledge drives are bringing in more money. And the budget deficit, while substantial, is no more than what station management had figured on when they abandoned Bach, Beethoven and Brahms for Diane Rehm and Terry Gross.

So, has the format change been a boon or a bust? It depends whom you ask.

Station officials say they knew the switch would generate controversy.

"Change is hard for people," says Chris Wienk, the program director who will be leaving WJHU next month for a job in Connecticut. "Radio is very personal."

Still, they consider the new format a success.

"A public radio station is one that serves the interest of the public," Wienk says. "When you've got people listening to you, then obviously you're serving them."

Others say the ratings may be better, but the product falls short of what it could be.

"I miss listening to mid-day classical music that is now replaced by talk radio," wrote one long-time listener. "Do you really think NPR listeners want to hear the same programs available on commercial radio, only without the commercials?"

In February, 260 Hopkins professors and employees signed a petition urging the station to put more of Hopkins and Baltimore into its daily lineup.

"I would like to see more local-oriented programming, more local issues discussed," says Robert H. Kargon, a history of science professor on the Homewood campus who signed the petition. "I thought we could have saved at least some of the classical music during the week."

Walter B. Michael, a Hopkins English professor, agrees: "The desire was for the station to be more of a site for expression of ideas and views that came out of Johns Hopkins and out of the community."

Partly in answer to the petition, Hopkins has created an advisory committee to work with station personnel on programming decisions. But if other public radio stations throughout the country are any indication, WJHU won't become the sort of cerebral, issues-oriented meeting place some might hope for.

Measuring up

A random sampling of East Coast public radio stations shows WJHU has more local programming than some, less than others. WPSU, Penn State University's station, broadcasts a news and information block from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with another 30-minute show airing twice a week. WDUQ, the voice of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, produces a show called "The Complex Society," in which university president John Murray Jr. spends a half hour weekly discussing topics of current interest.

The fact that WJHU is following the same pattern as other public radio stations doesn't impress its two most vocal critics, Lisa Simeone and Mark Crispin Miller.

"It's bad programming, it's unimaginative, and it's not in the best interests of the community," says Simeone, who is leaving WJHU after more than a decade on the air.

"The standard for a successful radio station should not be ratings," adds Miller, a Hopkins professor and media critic who often appeared on Simeone's Sunday morning show. "A Hopkins radio station should do more than just pull in big numbers."

It was Miller who circulated the petition decrying the lack of local and Hopkins-oriented programming on the station.

Simeone did not sign the petition, but agrees with its intent. She paints a picture of a demoralized, leaderless station where loyalty and innovation mean nothing and the bottom line is the bottom line.

Nonsense, say Hopkins and station officials. Both Wienk and Dennis Kita, the former general manager, insist they were happy at the station and decided to leave only because they were offered better jobs elsewhere.

The quest for a new general manager is under way, with a search committee in place and a deadline of Sept. 30 set for applicants to submit their resumes.

Kita, who guided the station through its change of identity, then left in July for a job with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, likes what he did with WJHU. He likes how the station has performed. And he likes where the station is headed.

The key, he says, was finding a niche and filling it. Baltimore has other classical music stations -- WBJC-FM (91.5), for one. What it didn't have was what WJHU is now giving it.

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