Radio With Vision

BY Ashley Talley

Local art gallery. Independent film supporter. Cultural historian. Political forum. Book club organizer. Social commentator. Promoter of public events. Connection to local and global information. Oh yeah and a radio station too.

WHQR 91.3 is the Azalea Coast’s local public radio station but its impact stretches far beyond the airwaves. Reaching more than 320 000 people from Jacksonville to North Myrtle Beach every day to provide news entertainment and classical music the National Public Radio affiliate station is truly part of the “cultural fabric” of southeastern North Carolina and it connects residents on a personal local national and global level.

“Radio with vision ” says the tagline often broadcast on the station. “Listen and see.” Since the days of its inception as a project of the Friends of Opera that first broadcasted from a converted pub in a Wilmington strip mall in 1984 WHQR has never let go of that vision and it continues to evolve into the dream of a community-inspired production.

“For a long time it was sort of like that old children’s story of the little steam engine that could ” says Jemila Ericson who has been with the station on and off for more than 13 years. “We were like the little station that could. It was a risky thing to create a public radio station in this small of a market. It was a huge leap of faith but the community really supported it.”

From her master control booth in studio one Ericson is warm and soft-spoken obviously comfortable with the dials decks buttons and lights that surround her. A trained actress she continues to perform and be heartily involved in the theater while hosting WHQR’s morning classical music program from 9 a.m. until noon every weekday. Reflecting on the station’s past Ericson says “I think the community is a huge part of any nonprofit but particularly a station that is trying to do the breadth of things that we are. That takes a tremendous amount of work; we simply can’t do it without volunteers.”

In 1994 10 years to the day after it first broadcast WHQR moved to its current studios downtown on Front Street into a historic building that is both cozy and professional with exposed brick high ceilings and wide open rooms and hallways. Ericson tells stories of the early days when space in WHQR’s current offices were still being used as costume storage for Thalian Hall productions. “I would go back and raid the costume storage and I would pull out these silly hats — 1920s bowlers and cloches you know and big sombreros — and walk around during the pledge drives. It would cheer people up ” she says laughing. The personality and public interaction of that image is a large part of what the station is all about.

WHQR broadcasts syndicated programs like Morning Edition This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion interspersed with very specific regional news and features such as the recent Welcome Home series produced by news director Catherine Welch which focused on affordable housing in the area.

“We have a lot of people who tell us we’re their primary news source ” says Welch “and we’ve doubled newscasts in a conscious effort … to bring more local news. We’ve realized people are commuting. This is no longer just a sleepy beach town but really a professional place now too.”

For many residents and visitors to the Wrightsville Beach and Wilmington area NPR is the constant soundtrack of their lives. Morning routines often include coffee breakfast toothbrushes and lunchboxes with the informative voices of WHQR narrating the day’s beginning. In fact points out new general manager John Milligan NPR’s Morning Edition is “the most listened to broadcast in the U.S. with 14.9 million listeners. More people listen to it than all the other radio and TV morning shows combined.”

Classical music continues throughout the day. The afternoon and evening bring other popular syndicated shows like Terry Gross’ award-winning Fresh Air and the news and financial programs All Things Considered and Marketplace respectively. “The station’s ratings are the highest they’ve ever been ” Milligan says.

But Milligan a native New Zealander and longtime veteran of public radio is quick to draw a comprehensive portrait of the station’s function. “We like to think of WHQR as a community resource; only about 50 percent of [the station] is our on-air presence. We are very involved in the community.”

The extent to which this is true is hard to fathom though its public programs and partnerships begin to show how far WHQR goes to connect the people of the Cape Fear region. It is equal partners with Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts in bringing local residents Cinematique a series of classic foreign and notable films that show three times a week and Cultural Calendar is a staple of its Web site that keeps the public informed about events and activities throughout the listening area.

Before the recent mayoral election WHQR partnered with the Star-News and TV station WECT to co-sponsor a forum for the candidates at its studio. The space also plays host to numerous public events such as jazz concerts university readings YWCA meetings silent auctions and the book group Prologue which discusses notable works by local and regional writers. The main area of the office houses the WHQR Gallery which is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. and features monthly exhibits from local artists in a wide variety of mediums and styles. It also participates in Fourth Friday Gallery Nights when local art galleries are open for tours free of charge.

Efforts such as these not only create a shared space for cultural enthusiasts but also initiate connection between people who might otherwise never come together. In its outreach efforts WHQR is actually helping to create and foster the community which it represents and seeks to inform and entertain.

Beyond the local scope the station aids in locating the Cape Fear region’s place in the increasingly connected global society. And it’s making a name for itself with some nationally recognized programming. “Season’s Griot ” for example is a holiday event produced by WHQR public affairs coordinator Megan Williams that has found prominence across the country as the only nationally syndicated Kwanzaa program in existence. Hosted for the last 15 years by acclaimed storyteller Madafo Lloyd Wilson  this annual one-hour special is distributed by Public Radio International and last year aired on 53 stations around the country including San Francisco Chicago and Boston.

Williams mentions another major event in December. “Every holiday season we do Holiday Shorts which is a live broadcast with people who read poems or stories originals or classics. This year we’re going really big with it; we’ve got Carl Kassell coming ” she says obviously excited for the well-known NPR newscaster to headline the event traditionally held the first Friday in December.

And while it is proud of the station’s accomplishments the staff of WHQR is quick to point out the new directions it sees it taking in the future. “The whole public radio world is evolving very fast ” says Milligan. “In fact all media is going through phenomenal changes but there’s a role for print media a role for radio and the Internet of course. It’s a matter of us making a decision as to what elements of this technology we want to embrace.”

“What we’re seeing now is a real convergence of Internet and radio ” says Catherine Welch. “Radio is a one-way medium and by merging it putting it in a blender with the Internet it becomes a two-way conversation.” By utilizing its own Web site as a source of extensive detailed information and encouraging listener feedback WHQR fosters dialogue and a connection between the station and its supporters.

Broadcasts also stream live from the site and can be heard around the world. “We monitor the streaming ” says Milligan “and every week we’ll get listeners from Japan Norway Australia. So that’s an important element.”

Another major change that is launching soon is radio in high definition (HD). “We’re in the process of transitioning to digital broadcasting ” Milligan explains. “For those who have the new digital receivers we’ll have our HD signal out and we can put more than one channel on 91.3. So we can run our host channel and then you could push H2 which could be all talk radio and HD 3 could be something completely different. We’re still talking about the specifics but it’s an exciting step.”

Acknowledging that it has huge competitors like XM and satellite radio WHQR is also aware of the strengths it brings to the table. “They don’t have local coverage and that’s what brings our listeners back and sets us apart ” Milligan says.

A nonprofit organization is only as strong as its supporters and contributors and WHQR is always working to increase its membership which currently numbers about 4 300. Corporate and private donations are essential ways public radio enthusiasts can help the station as it derives 50 percent of its revenue from these contributions. Milligan also points out “We’re always looking for volunteers to help out with pledge drives and to run the Gallery evenings so there are multiple ways in which people can get involved with the station.”

And who knows what sort of relationships may be formed? In a story seemingly straight out of a promotional pamphlet — or an NPR feature — Star-News writer Ben Steelman met his wife current WHQR development manager Beth White while both were volunteering at a pledge drive years ago.

The possibilities of connections fostered by the local public radio station are endless and as it continues to grow so do its efforts to bring people together. If WHQR and public radio aren’t yet a part of your day tune in to 91.3 for a taste of what you’re missing. It truly is radio with a vision and as they say “Listen and you’ll see for yourself.”

HD Evolution

By Michelle Billman

In addition to the other 200 NPR stations across the country that have transitioned to high definition (HD) radio WHQR is close to completing the process and offering its listeners improved audio quality and more programming choices than it ever could before. WHQR general manager John Milligan describes the transition from analog to HD transmission as “a major step in the evolution of radio ” adding that “our new transmitter will be an analog and a digital transmitter so it will broadcast both — to the current listener it will make no difference and to the new digital listener they’ll get all the new digital goodies.” What goodies? With high definition radio a technology developed solely by iBiquity Digital Corporation listeners will enjoy better sound quality without the hisses pops signal fades and static expected of AM and FM radio broadcasts.

HD Radio will also provide convenient technological advances like scrolling text with song titles artist names traffic updates weather forecasts and sports scores right on the HD Radio receiver. In addition to these upgrades HD Radio will divide WHQR’s bandwidth at 91.3 FM into several additional digital channels. In the next few years WHQR plans to explore its second and third channels as opportunities to expand its music news and local content to appeal to more diverse audiences.

So far WHQR has received some grant monies and federal funding for the transition to HD. Even with that help Milligan explains “We most likely have to do a special campaign early next year to take care of our transmitter because that’s the major dollar. It’s more than $200 000 just for that one piece of equipment.”

HD Radio receivers range in price from about $70 to several hundred dollars and can be purchased at most electronics stores. Milligan says that about 850 000 receivers have already been sold in the U.S. It is expected that by the end of 2009 10 million people in the U.S. will own an HD Radio receiver.

If you love the programming on WHQR and want to learn more about its transition to HD call the station at (910) 343-1640.