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WJH-Who?

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 4/4/2001

2001 has been a rocky year so far, what with the Seattle earthquake, hoof-and-mouth disease in Europe, and the stock market tanking. And now they tell us that WJHU (88.1 FM) is up for sale.

The Sun's TV/radio reporter, David Folkenflik, reported on March 17 that Johns Hopkins University, which owns WJHU, intends to sell the public-radio station. A few days after the initial story, Folkenflik back-pedaled a bit, reporting that the outright sale of the station is just one of several scenarios being considered by the university. Hopkins might opt to stick with the status quo, or retain ownership of the station but turn operations over to some other private entity. Proposals for what to do with the station are due to the school April 30.

The Sun, in a March 20 editorial, urged Hopkins to "look into developing WJHU into a powerhouse of programming production with syndication potential," with or without a production partner. A fine idea, but one Hopkins has disregarded for 15 years. In the words of one station employee (who asked to remain anonymous), "We've always felt like the bastard stepchildren here."

According to Dennis O'Shea, who is both a university spokesperson and WJHU's acting general manager, several events led up to the present uncertainty about the station's future. One was the abrupt departure last August of general manager Ray Dilley, who had spent four years improving the station's finances. Then came feelers from Maryland Public Television and the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio, which is building its own portfolio of syndicated programs. O'Shea adds that WJHU is long overdue for expensive technical upgrades, from digital studio equipment to a boost in transmission power, the university is reluctant to pay for.

Even before The Sun's March 17 article, station employees were aware that the ground was shifting under WJHU. The clearest signal was the university's March 9 decision to suspend its search for a new general manager. Soon afterward, talk-show host Marc Steiner and a few other station staffers started brainstorming strategies for life after Hopkins. A core group of staff and station listeners calling themselves Friends of Baltimore Public Radio is working to recruit what Steiner calls "heavy hitters" in the community "to build a consortium to keep the station local and manage it from here" at its studio in Lower Charles Village. "I see this as a huge opportunity," he says. "I don't see Hopkins as the enemy. . . . They just don't want to be in the radio business."

Steiner maintains that an independently owned, community-supported radio outlet would be able to raise more money than one attached to the Hopkins empire. Contrary to what listeners might believe, the wealthy private university contributes very little to WHJU's day-to-day operations. O'Shea says that roughly a third of the station's production budget comes from listener supporters, while slightly less than half is covered by program underwriters--that is, various businesses and foundations that get plugged on-air in exchange for financial support. Most of the remainder of the budget is covered by contributions from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Far from being a disaster, the university's divestiture could mean a fresh start--maybe even a foray into broadcasting worthy of syndication. The uncertainty, however, is worrisome for those who value the station's intelligent local programming. Steiner's daily public-affairs show, for example, is the only program of its kind in Baltimore, and one that's unlikely to find a home in commercial radio. This columnist, for one, dreads a takeover by Maryland Public Television, which has a history of bland local programming and an inexplicable devotion to British imports, regardless of quality. And the idea of selling one more homegrown institution to nonlocal owners is repugnant. For the moment, that leaves Steiner and his cohorts. I wish them luck.

Just Get My Name Right

I pretty much missed 1970s television, so references to The Brady Bunch Laverne and Shirley, and Welcome Back, Kotter are lost on me. Normally this isn't a problem, but you never know when life will throw you a trivia quiz.

I pondered this when a '70s-savvy colleague alerted me to a Feb. 13 story by Sun reporter Suzanne Loudermilk, concerning a band of hard-core anglers who fish at Loch Raven Reservoir, heedless of rain or snow. In early editions, one of the fishers was identified as "Edgewood resident Roscoe P. Koletraine, 53." My colleague gleefully pointed out that this was (at least phonetically) the name of the hapless sheriff on The Dukes of Hazzard--another TV show I never saw. Some Sunster hip to Hazzard apparently caught the hoax in a subsequent edit; Koletraine could not be found in later editions or in the paper's online archive. And, believe me, no dis of Loudermilk intended--there but for the grace of God, and fact-checkers, go I.

On the other hand, there's the reporter responsible for this correction, which appeared in the March 23 Sun: "In a Page 1A article about remedial education yesterday, the names of Melissa Bonomo, Shaun Saunders and Judith Ackerman were misspelled. The Sun regrets the errors."

Time to Fix the Motto

The Times-Herald, a biweekly community paper published in Lutherville, has been expanding its distribution in Northeast Baltimore of late, filling the neighborhood niche abandoned a few years back by the late, unlamented Rooster. After the latter's front-page harangues against vaccination and liberal subversion in the Catholic Church, I was vaguely relieved to see the motto that runs right over the Times-Herald nameplate: "Reporting, not Interpreting the News Since 1962."

Or not. A few inches below the slogan, the Times-Herald for the first half of March carried this front-page headline: "Community Legacy Bill Shuts Out Communities." The article, by reporter Diane Carliner, began, "Senate Bill 202 is a well-intentioned effort to enhance Maryland communities. But if it passes, it will create a layer of government bureaucracy while arguably guaranteeing that neighborhood associations or persons living in the targeted areas will have no say in any important changes to their living space." That's some reporting.

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