College station dials up variety

WHFC radio volunteers program eclectic mix

October 05, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Bel Air's radio station, 91.1 WHFC-FM, operates out of four rooms in the west wing of Joppa Hall at Harford Community College.

Its on-air hosts, almost all volunteers, broadcast from an 80-square-foot studio, next to two like-size rooms - one for interviews and another for production. A storage room converted into the station manager's office is a few steps away down a short hall.

Licensed and owned by the college, Harford Community Radio might be a small operation by some standards, but it's not short on ambition or goals.

It's on a mission to raise $15,000 through two fund-raisers, one of which begins Oct. 20 and will last two weeks. The second will take place in the spring.

Like many university-affiliated radio stations, WHFC receives most of its funding from the college. But the station also seeks underwriting from local businesses and holds fund-raisers to maintain and increase service as operating expenses go up and state funding declines in a slow economy.

"We put out a really admirable product and have a good professional training environment in the context of frugality," said station manager Gary Helton.

For fiscal 2004, the college has provided about $65,000, of which $17,000 is the operating budget. The rest covers salaries, benefits and incidental expenses, Helton said.

Helton is the only full-time employee at Harford Community Radio. Other staff includes a part-time assistant station manager, an on-call engineer and about 60 volunteers, an almost equal mix of students and community residents working on the air and behind the scenes.

WHFC was established in the early 1970s as a closed-circuit station, broadcasting only within the college. In 1983 the station expanded its reach and became a full-fledged community radio station, Helton said.

Since Helton was hired as the station manager in January 2000, the station has become a round-the-clock operation, increased the number of weekly listeners more than sevenfold to 7,500 and increased student participation: 45 percent of the staff is made up of students, compared with 20 percent in 2000.

On top of that, Helton has stressed professional standards.

"We have come of age," said Helton, who began his radio career in 1972 as a student at Baltimore City Community College. "When I started, the station was signing on at 9 a.m. and signing off at various times in the evening. There was a great deal of inconsistency in the operating hours. ... It sounded pretty disorganized and more like a student lab than a radio station."

The staff prides itself on catering to an eclectic mix of listeners. From classical and jazz to shows featuring Native American music and Japanese pop, the station serves a niche market, said John Hagy, the assistant station manager.

Hagy joined the station as a volunteer three years ago and was hired part time in January. The Bel Air resident is the host of Bygone Radio, which features old radio shows such as The Shadow on Saturday mornings.

"We're diverse, with quality instead of quantity," Hagy said. "[The listeners] don't get that kind of music and shows on other radio stations. I feel like I give a service that doesn't exist anymore."

Added Helton, "Public radio serves the disenfranchised listeners that commercial radio has abandoned."

For WHFC, that means reflecting and serving the community, Helton said. Although most listeners are from Harford County, the radio station reaches into Baltimore, Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne's counties as well as parts of York and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania, Helton said.

About 90 percent of the station's programming is locally produced.

One of those shows is Morning Classics, which features classical music with rotating hosts Monday through Friday.

Fred Garfinkel, 72, of Abingdon serves as host for the Friday show. He began volunteering about six years ago after answering an advertisement in a local newspaper. Sitting behind the broadcast mixing board last week, Garfinkel spoke into the microphone, introducing a musical selection.

"Since it's Halloween soon, it's fitting that we play something scary and eerie," Garfinkel told his listeners as he started the CD player and pressed a few buttons on the sliding board.

Franz Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" (or "The Devil's Dance") begins. In the meantime, Garfinkel readies his next selection and sifts through a binder that contains public announcements from the college and the community to be broadcast.

"I do it because I love classical music," Garfinkel said after giving the weather report. "Hopefully, there are people out there who do, too."

In addition to giving music lovers like Garfinkel an outlet, the radio station also provides hands-on experience to students such as Chris Heidel.

The 22-year-old Bel Air resident, who joined the station two years ago, is the producer for Harford Sports Hour on Thursday nights and also is the host for The Crossroad, an adult contemporary music show that airs Wednesdays.

"It gives you an opportunity to practice and get on air and makes you feel like you could do it," said Heidel, who's pursuing a career in sports broadcasting. "I wasn't sure if I had the talent, but someone told me a week ago that I was a natural."

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