A Passion For News, Radio

Departing Beauchamp Took Wbal From Soft Music Format To Hard-edged Talk Programs

July 26, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Growing up in Baltimore, Jeff Beauchamp cherished WBAL radio. On chilly mornings, he would huddle around the radio listening intently, not for news, not for music, but solely for two words magical for a boy: snow day.

Beauchamp, who would one day lead the city's top news-talk station, wasn't born a journalism junkie. He never, as he puts it, wanted to change the world, but he realized very early on the power of local radio.

Beauchamp, who worked at WBAL for 34 years, transforming it from a place to hear soft music into the No. 1 station in Baltimore for hard news and talk, was asked to leave his job last week, another victim of the economy and the struggling media industry.

"It's been tough, we've had to try to do more with less, and we've had to make hard business decisions," the 58-year-old Beauchamp said Friday in his TV Hill office, adding dryly, "I can attest to that, now that I'm one of them."

Beauchamp started at the station as a news anchor and reporter when he was 25. He'd graduated just a few years earlier with a business degree from Towson. He might have gone with a communications major, but his dad felt he needed a backup because radio seemed so volatile.

Within four years, Beauchamp was the 50,000-watt station's news director. Then, he became program director. His first charge: Turn the wishy-washy station that flitted from adult contemporary music to farmland features into a news-talk station.

"It had to happen," he says of the change. FM stations were becoming the place people turned to for music. Who wanted to hear songs on a static-filled AM station when FM was so much smoother and clearer?

He had to remake WBAL, hiring reporters, editors and talk-show hosts - and, in many cases, teaching them the nature of the business from scratch.

Beauchamp, many say, had a keen eye for talent - even if a lot of it was raw.

There were people like Ron Smith and Dave Durian, former TV folks who thought their news careers were over. Or people like Clarence M. Mitchell IV, or "C4" as he's known on air, who hadn't hosted a show before.

"He molded and mentored them," says Mark Miller, WBAL's news director and a 30-year veteran of the station.

Though he worked to keep the news shows fair and opinion-free, as a conservative himself, Beauchamp enjoyed cultivating the station's editorial line through the talk programs.

During his tenure, WBAL won 19 national Edward R. Murrow Awards - more than any other local station in the country. And under his care, the station became almost a refuge for Maryland Republicans, including former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who thought other news outlets weren't giving them a fair shake.

Beauchamp's corner office is sparsely decorated, save for photos of his four grandkids, Ravens memorabilia and a framed poster that he says he looks at often - it's Vince Lombardi, with the quote, "What it takes to be Number One."

Everyone at the station knew that was his philosophy, says executive producer Mike Wellbrock, a 27-year WBAL employee.

"It's his passion that makes him great," Wellbrock says. "He's listening constantly. Some people wonder if he even sleeps, because he knows what's happening on the station 24 hours a day."

Miller called his boss a stickler for accuracy. Though speed became increasingly important with the advent of 24-hour cable news channels and then the Internet, Beauchamp always preached caution, Miller said, adding, "He wanted to be first but he always made sure we knew that being right was always more important."

As excited as he gets over news, he is a level-headed manager, person after person will say. He's tough, fair, straightforward and lets his hosts think and speak freely. When Ron Smith opposed the war in Iraq, angering scores of his listeners, Beauchamp didn't tell the host to take it back.

And WBAL's listeners and stable of commentators appreciate it.

Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric at Towson University who appears on WBAL regularly, says on other stations he's heard from managers if they weren't happy about his take on matters. But never on WBAL.

"A lot of shows are just interested in wild, crazy conversation. But if you listen carefully to WBAL, you'll hear a concern for fact-checking, a concern for getting it all right."

Marc Steiner, a longtime Baltimore radio man himself, but one with an unbashedly liberal viewpoint, calls Beauchamp's efforts "ideologically driven radio." And while he respects Beachamp for being able to see the talk-radio niche, he doesn't think it has served the city well.

"He's a part of a Baltimore that drives wedges in our community more than creates dialogue or understanding," says Steiner, who after being fired from WYPR last year, now hosts a show on WEAA (88.9).

"But people love the hot radio. People love getting angry. People love the fight."

Beauchamp disagrees. He thinks his shows provide a forum for discussion - albeit at times spirited.

"You'll find there isn't a lot of shouting on 'BAL. There isn't a lot of acrimony. We're open to diverse points of view."

One of his policies is to vault any caller with an opposing point of view to the front of the line. "Think about it," he says. "It's the most compelling thing to listen to."

Beauchamp's last day at work is this Friday. He says he got a "fair" compensation package from the company and that he'll be doing consulting work for WBAL.

Miller says though Beauchamp might be gone from the building, his influence will remain.

"Every decision I make for the rest of my life, I'll ask myself 'WWJD,' " he says, laughing a little. "What would Jeff do?"

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