With new rockin' lineup, WJHU battles for listeners

By Megan Waitkoff | February 5, 2004

Random holographic stickers flashing band names such as "The Jesus Lizard" line the walls of McCoy in the hidden offices of WJHU, Hopkins student-run Internet radio station. The door leading to the production room is besieged by permanent marker declarations. One of the only ones paired with an illustration reads, "Courteous Sal says I loved you so much I ate your body."

Despite the cramped quarters and seconds-away-from-defunct equipment (save the brand new mixing board which allows tracks to be played and the microphone to fade in and out), Executive Board members and die-hard deejays make the radio station a Hopkins gem.

Ever since their first day on the air, Hopkins radio struggled to remain a staple of the Hopkins community. Whether it was the battle for FM broadcasting, censorship from the administration as to what's acceptable to air, or the most recent fight for increased listenership, WJHU jumps through hoops to bring entertainment and information to the public.

"It's important that the station become something that is integral [to the campus]," Rahayu Ramli, station manager, said.

In order to appreciate the importance of interactive broadcasting, controversial programs, and the all-encompassing preview and review of music, you have to start at the beginning.

A Brief Remixed History

Before Internet, before FM stations, the prehistoric dinosaur of AM ruled the airwaves, and Hopkins jumped on-board as station 830 in the mid-1940s. After a brief stint in Levering Hall, the station relocated to AMR II. According the Shannon Chang, Assistant Station Manager, while the ideas for the station have expanded, the technical side has failed to keep up with the times.

"I think we probably still have some of the old original equipment," she said.

To reach more listeners than those on what's now the Freshman Quad, the station decided to dive into FM broadcasting. After a gut-wrenching battle with the FCC, WJHU 88.1-FM was officially approved in 1979, but unforeseen problems started impeading student broadcasting. With an approved increase in power (watts), the station reached as far as Washington, D.C., and the Hopkins administration began to censor what was aired.

"FM got so good that they were bought out," Chang explained.

Most of the positions for the "student-run" station went to professional, full-time employees, and the word on the street was that Hopkins students who wanted to work for the station had to apply and interview for an internship.

The students in the late 1980s and early 1990s were outraged, and eventually separated from WJHU and formed WHAT (or WHSR, Hopkins Student Radio) in the early "90s.

The creation of the station was an enormous success, but sustaining the station was a struggle. The programs aired to limited listeners through a carrier current, passing signals through phone lines in buildings on campus. The staff worked with a restricted budget from the Student Activities Commission to broadcast seven days a week for 14 hours each day, barely getting by on their yearly allotment. Yann Brandt, current program director, was on staff at the tail end of WHSR.

"We realized that we [the station and SAC] were just not meant to be together," Brandt said.

According to Brandt, the funds provided by the SAC could only cover the phone bills. And the station, run by a select few in early 2000, wasn't attracting the students.

"They were running it because they had fun doing it, not because anyone was listening to it," Chang said.

In the summer of 2002, then-sophomores Brandt and Chang worked with senior Ryan Tabone to bring WJHU back to life. Through hard work and a strong devotion to Hopkins and college radio in general, Special Assistant to the Dean of Student Life, Dr. William Smedick, agreed to sponsor the station, and funds were provided by Susan Boswell, Dean of Student Life.

A new soundboard from LPB Communications, Inc. gave the hopefuls the digs to lay the licks, and after interviewing students for positions on the Executive Board in January of 2003, WJHU was reborn in March, broadcasting through the Internet at http://www.hopkinsradio.com.

"It just happened very quickly," Brandt said. "It was Monday night at midnight. And that's all I know."

Hopkins radio was once-again the "baby" of the students (as Ramli puts it). Now all they needed were listeners.

So What's on the Air Now?

WJHU members encourage their staff of 80 or 90 Deejays and co-hosts to remain tasteful, but without concrete restrictions (other than no cuss words), some of the shows can get a little wild.

"It can get dirty," Chang said. "People have a lot of ways to express themselves."

Indie, alternative, hard rock, etc., take one or two-hour slots, but in the late evening hours, when most faculty are sleeping and most students are starting to study, shows like the Hopkins version of " Loveline " seep through the airwaves. Aired last semester on Wednesday nights, Karina Schumacher Villasante and Angelo Santiago offered relationship advice to more than 80 listeners at a time.

People seeking advice could instant message the host at screen name WJHUDEEJAY, or call in on the air at 410-516-3835, and despite the lack of an actual AM or FM station, Loveline reached as far as Massachusetts. According to Brandt, one of the listeners kept sending in detailed e-mail responses to callers' questions. Turns out the listener was from Harvard's Med School.

"We had a Dr. Drew," Brandt said.

With CD giveaways and prizes from local Charles Village businesses, the station is trying to raise the hype and grab more listeners. Music directors for each genre call up record labels for free demos to preview new artists, and based on the station's affiliation with the College Media Journal (CMJ), up-and-coming artists now send their demos to the station in the hopes that they'll get aired.

"We're trying to play new music," Chris Merchant, head of music directors, said.

An increased amount of material lets the directors be more picky. A CD by a group called "The Dick Panthers," mailed to the station in a Ziplock plastic bag, is thankfully weeded out.

Even shows like Dr. Smedick's hour of Classic Rock (Thursdays, 12-2 p.m.) can only go so far, however, without listeners tuning in and giving feedback.

"Sometimes people feel like no one's listening," Chang said.

Brandt agrees.

"It's got a lot of potential," he said. "It's just so hidden now."

When WJHU got back on its feet in 2003, a consultant from LPB drew up plans for a new studio for the station, including floor to ceiling glass windows surrounding the production room so passersby could see the broadcasters in action. But with a limited amount of money, the building only exists on paper on the shelves of the office.

Brand new digs would be an amazing boost to the station, but the staff right now is addressing problems with realistic solutions: mainly, making WJHU a household name.

"A lot of people have kind of forgotten we exist," Ramli said.

So what's the preview?

The station is back this week, with normal 10-2 a.m. scheduling starting next week. Slots for shows are still available, and students can sign up at any time to host their own show. WJHU also is hoping to have another local-bands concert this spring, along with multiple fundraisers to save some money and increase awareness.

"Pretty much everyone on campus could do something for the radio station," Brandt said.

Brandt hopes to add a "Best of Baltimore" and hard-core sports show to the list of programs, but he's still looking for hosts. Chang and Brandt also are working with the athletic department in the hopes of broadcasting the women's lacrosse games, but the details haven't been finalized, and it might be pushed to next year.

Right now, short-term goals focus around recruitment of staff and listeners, and Ramli and Brandt are working toward their personal dogma of making the radio station a vital source of information to Hopkins.

"You get so attached to the person on the station, even though you don't know what they look like," Ramli said. "Even if nobody listens, this is a cool concept."

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