While visiting Washington, D.C. this Spring, I made some time to visit a few college radio stations. My first stop was to see the student-run streaming radio/HD 3 station at Howard University, WHBC. When I arrived on campus on the morning of Thursday, April 2, things were pretty quiet, as it was right before Easter weekend. As I walked from the Metro station to the university, I passed by Howard’s more well-known station, WHUR-FM. It was impossible to miss, as signs outside the low-slung building were adorned with station logos and several vehicles with WHUR branding (including a van) were parked in the adjacent parking lot. The parent station of WHBC, WHUR is a professionally-run commercial radio station that’s been owned by Howard University since 1971.
Just past WHUR is the School of Communications building, home to WHBC. Tucked away in the basement, WHBC has much humbler digs than its parent station. Just outside the station door, there was maintenance work going on when I visited and the smell of fresh paint wafted through the halls. Once inside the station, I was warmly greeted by WHBC General Manager, Howard University junior Jasmine Catchings.
Catchings told me that she loves WHBC and it was the first organization that she joined on campus. Before she even arrived at Howard University, while a senior in high school, she noticed a post on Facebook about WHBC. She reached out to the poster to ask for more information and then when she got to Howard she approached a radio station “tent” at a campus sporting event. Her enthusiasm for the station had led to a passion for radio in general and Catchings told me, “I know I’m going to work in radio,” revealing that she hope to own a radio station some day.
In explaining her love for college radio, Catchings told me, “We’re more than an org, we’re a business” and added that on top of that, the station has a “family atmosphere,” saying that she’s met some of her closest friends at WHBC.
It’s always fun taking in the sights and sounds of different college radio stations, as it reveals a lot about their distinct personalities. While at WHBC, I noticed that the walls were adorned with an amazing collection of signed artist photos, hand-made WHBC signage with station “do’s” and “don’ts,” and a huge banner featuring notes from station alumni.
Meanwhile, Catchings filled me in a bit about the station’s history, telling me that WHBC was founded by a student in 1975. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this fall, it’s hoped that there will be some special events to honor the occasion during a reunion in October. When I visited, the station was in the midst of interviewing new potential managers for next year and Catchings said that they would all work together to plan out activities for the station’s anniversary. Summertime is actually a busy time at WHBC, with student managers sticking around the station to begin planning for the upcoming school year.
Although it occupies a small space, which Catchings referred to as “our little home,” more than 100 students volunteer and DJ at WHBC, working in various departments led by 7 student managers. Each manager has a mentor at WHUR and many of them are interested in pursuing a career in radio. Catchings is paired with her General Manager counterpart at WHUR and she told me that it’s been “inspiring” because she’s been able to see “the possibilities” of working at a commercial radio station. She added, “My counterpart…has an open-door policy” and told me that because of that, she’s been able to sit in on meetings and conference calls, which has given her a deeper appreciation for the inner-workings of WHUR. Catchings said, “Nothing is really a secret.” Those deep connections that are being established between WHUR and WHBC often lead to future job opportunities at WHUR for many WHBC participants.
Although WHBC started out as a campus-only AM carrier current radio station in the 1970s (much of its branding still contains its former 830 AM spot on the dial), today it streams, broadcasts on HD3 (as part of a promotion, HD radios were given to students), runs over both iPhone and Android apps, and has a videostream over a campus cable channel. Catchings told me that the apps are attracting a lot of attention, with more and more listeners tuning in that way. She said that with around 10,000 students on campus, the videostream was also pretty popular, in fact it used to be THE most common way to listen to the station, as it is available on campus cable in all of the dorms.
There are around 30 DJs at WHBC, but when I visited there wasn’t a live DJ in the studio due to illness. Typically shows are in 2-hour blocks, with hosts usually doing their programs twice a week. During the spring semester there were 9 programs, according to Catchings. When there isn’t a live DJ, the station plays automation.
Catchings told me that different styles of music are played during specific times of day, even when the station is running on automation. She explained that in the morning the station usually broadcasts fast-paced hip hop and R&B, transitions into more “chilled out” music in the middle of the day and then moves into “sexier” music during the late night.
The weekends are a bit different and over the course of the entire weekly schedule one can expect to hear a range of genres, including hip hop, neo soul, R&B, gospel, Caribbean, and Christian music. Catchings characterized WHBC as playing “a lot of different urban sounds.” She contrasted the station with WHUR, saying that WHUR is “contemporary” music that’s more akin to what one’s parents would listen to, with the caveat that WHUR’s six HD channels provide a wide array of listening options, including world music.
One thing that I didn’t see at WHBC was a library of physical music. A few discarded LPs were stacked on a window sill in the studio and random CDs were also in a few places, but there wasn’t a large collection of music that DJs could pull from. The music library is digital and unlike many college radio stations, WHBC’s playlist is planned in advance by its Music Directors. Anyone can join the music department and that team prepares playlists several days ahead of time. On-air DJs play the tracks that have been chosen by the Music Directors and are also allowed to play requests.
In addition to music, WHBC does a lot of sports coverage, including broadcasting football and basketball games. On top of that, the station has a live DJ team that spins music during half-time at various sporting events, including basketball, football, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball games. When broadcasting those games, half-time over the air typically includes interviews and a mix of music.
Finally, there are also news, talk and public affairs shows, including the Sunday night talk show Internal Affairs, which also runs over the HBCU SiriusXM satellite radio station, which is programmed by Howard University and airs material from other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The WHBC website also contains a collection of podcasts of various student-produced news stories.
Also somewhat unusual for college radio, WHBC operates as a commercial radio station, much like its terrestrial counterpart WHUR. A team of people work to sell various forms of advertising, including commercials, on-air liners, several types of sponsorships (both on and off-air), and even TV slides during the station’s videostream on campus cable.
Thanks so much to Jasmine Catchings for the tour of WHBC. I look forward to hearing more about the station’s 40th anniversary festivities this fall. This is my 86th station tour report. In future posts I will write about a few more visits to stations in D.C. and Virginia. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.