By Ron Blumenfeld
Best estimates are that thousands of Fairfielders tune in to radio station WSHU-FM for news, music and talk. I've been a long-time daily listener, but it was early on that WSHU had the greatest impact on me.
The year was 1977, and although we had just moved into our new home on Stillson Road, we volunteered to put on the family Thanksgiving dinner. That morning, WSHU announced that they would be playing Arlo Guthrie's Thanksgiving classic, "Alice's Restaurant," at 4 p.m. Great! My own record -- (12-inch vinyl cassette tapes weren't even out yet) -- was in a box somewhere, so I gladly granted the privilege to WSHU.
A few minutes before 4, we tuned in as an embarrassed young radio host owned up that she ... uh ... couldn't find the station's copy of "Alice's Restaurant." I could fix that! I dug out my copy, and minutes later I was on campus, hustling it down a hallway toward the studio. The impact? That was when I collided with a plate glass doorway that I failed to see. Beyond the memorable stupidity of it, there was no damage to me, Arlo or the door. "Alice's Restaurant" aired a few minutes later, and I've been a regular WSHU listener ever since.
WSHU-FM was born in 1964 on the campus of Sacred Heart University, only a year old itself. The programming, overseen by the Diocese of Bridgeport, featured a daily mass, religious discussions and classical music. The financial pressure steadily mounted on SHU to support a non-commercial student radio station, but in 1984, it found a solution: WSHU would become an independent member station of National Public Radio and could remain on campus under SHU ownership -- provided the station was self-sustaining.
Many NPR stations are university-based but are in no way amateur operations. NPR stations must have at least five full-time staff members, must broadcast 18 hours a day every day of the year and must have a fiscally sound budget.
NPR stations receive federal funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but that money comes with restrictions: programming must be non-religious and non-political, there must be a community advisory board and fundraising must come from a respectable slice of the potential listening audience. Lest you think that WSHU coasts along on government largesse, CPB funding currently covers only 6 percent of the station's operating costs, a percentage that's been dropping steadily. The rest must come year after year from individual listeners, foundation grants, corporate underwriting, and fundraising events.
In addition to making good on overhead costs to Sacred Heart, WSHU currently pays about $800,000 annually to NPR for programs like the drive-time mainstays "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." About $200,000 of additional programming (such as "Prairie Home Companion," "Marketplace," and "This American Life") come from distributors like American Public Media and Public Radio International.
Twenty-five years ago, WSHU moved out of the main academic building with that scary glass door to a repurposed clapboard house at the edge of a campus parking lot. It is here that WSHU produces its own music and news programs. A tour left me amazed by what gets done in there, a warren of narrow hallways and low-ceilinged rooms crammed with equipment and desks. WSHU employees obviously understand that working at close quarters is a condition of employment.
NPR, APM, and PRI programs beamed to the station by satellite. Some programs are broadcast live, and it's up to a wall of electronic components to know which ones they are, and to record the others for later airing in among WSHU's home-grown programming.
At long last, I saw the faces behind very familiar voices. Kate Remington, classical music director and host, showed me the room beyond her broadcast booth that holds 15,000 CD's, each one numbered and logged into software that can locate specific pieces. Tom Kuser, program director, walked me through upcoming changes to WSHU's website at his cramped desk in a room he shares with two other staffers.
And I finally met George Lombardi. His voice is immediately recognizable to any WSHU listener, because he leads the on-air fundraising. Sure, he wants you to contribute, but his real job as general manager is to run the station, a position he has held for 31 years.
Now officially "the WSHU Public Radio Group" with several affiliate FM and AM stations, its broadcast range reaches beyond Fairfield to large swaths of southern Connecticut and eastern Long Island. The goal in assembling a family of overlapping FM and AM radio stations is to offer public radio choice within the listening area. For example, on weekday mornings, you can tune in to 91.1FM for Kate Remington's classical music, or 1260 AM for Diane Rehm's acclaimed talk show. On Sunday mornings, you can listen to nationally-syndicated "Sunday Baroque" on 91.1 FM hosted by Fairfield's own Susanne Bona, or a lineup of news and entertainment on 1260-AM.
Despite its reach, WSHU considers itself a community resource. Five full-time reporters gather news stories from around the town, county, and state that have local relevance. The station has introduced "Fairfield County Public Radio," stations "customized" for local communities with standard public radio programs but with a layer of community-focused news and information. It sponsors "Join the Conversation," a live lecture series that brings well-known authors to Fairfield.
WSHU is a priceless local asset, and earns the support of its listeners year in and year out. Are you one? George Lombardi would love to hear from you.
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Friday. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.