Radio classics


September 10, 2001|By Antero Pietila

Radio classics

THERE WAS a period in the 1970s, when three Baltimore radio stations broadcast classical music. That golden era ended in 1977. Within days, two commercial FM stations changed call letters, quit Bach and Beethoven and went rock 'n' roll.

Although WBJC-FM (91.5) stuck to its classical format, music fans disputed the loss of choices. Some wanted then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer to intervene. Hizzoner did nothing. "Public outcry wasn't what we expected," his press secretary explained.

As prices of FM licenses skyrocketed over the past two decades, commercial broadcasters in other cities also went for more profitable formats. But that's not all the bad news. In the past decade, about 175 noncommercial stations have dumped classical music, usually in favor of National Public Radio news and talk feeds.

The Baltimore-Washington region has not been immune to those changes. Baltimore's WBJC-FM is the only noncommercial full-time broadcaster of classical music in the whole two-city market.

Washington still has a commercial classical music station, WGMS-FM (103.5). It belongs to the broadcast empire of the Mormon Church.

In May, that station shocked devotees by dropping live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, a tradition for four decades. Washington fans who want to hear Otello and Don Giovanni have to tune to Baltimore on Saturdays.

WBJC-FM is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, although it has made no big deal about it. The station started as a 250-watt weakling at 88.1 on the dial, the spot that WJHU-FM occupies today.

The FM format was new in those days, so few Baltimoreans could receive it. WBJC-FM was on the air just two hours a day during the school year of the old Baltimore Junior College. (That's the BJC in the call letters.)

Today, WBJC-FM's studios are at the Baltimore City Community College's Liberty Heights campus. The station's 50,000-watt signal can be heard from Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania.

Over the past five decades. WBJC-FM has had its ups and downs. There have been disputes about personnel and programming. Classical music fans are a hard bunch to satisfy.

In 1951, it cost $4,600 to set up WBJC-FM. These days the station may collect that much in a couple of hours of fund raising. Whatever. As investments go, it was a steal.

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