JENKINS TWP. – Can you tell if your favorite disc jockey isn’t feeling well just from the sound of his or her voice?
Many people who listen to the region’s public radio station can, according to its radio hosts.
“We have the best audience you could ever hope for,” said Lisa Mazzarella, the early morning voice on WVIA-FM since 1993. “They are so dedicated and devoted to public radio. They know when you’re not feeling well, they know when you’re going to be playing a piece. They’re so in-tune and well connected with their public radio station and it’s almost as if we’re a friend in their … kitchens or cars.”
And the audience support that the seasoned on-air staff has enjoyed over their years at the station is a major reason they point to behind the station’s success as WVIA radio celebrates 40 years on the air.
The station first hit the airwaves in 1973 from the Public Broadcasting Center — the new studios that WVIA built in Jenkins Township to house its existing public television station and the new radio station.
George Graham, an on-air personality and the station’s most-tenured employee, was there from day one. An electrical engineer with radio broadcast experience, Graham was hired to wire and set up the radio station.
And when the stations went digital a few years ago, Graham supervised that changeover for the radio station as well.
Decades of changes
Many things have changed at the station in four decades, most of them technology-associated.
“No more cutting reel-to-reel tape with a razor blade” and splicing it together, said senior producer and classical music host Erika Funke. “Digital editing is the way to go.”
Funke, a WVIA veteran employee of 34 years, said turntables are also considered “historical equipment,” even though they’re occasionally still used at the station, especially for playing pieces on request nights that haven’t yet been recorded into the station’s computer system.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that — unlike show hosts at many commercial radio stations — WVIA hosts choose all of their own music.
“At most stations today in commercial radio and even some classical radio, a music director picks all the music and creates a playlist. And a lot of times they’re aided by computers, and a computer program using parameters will generate a playlist for that day and the host or DJ gets handed that playlist,” explained Chris Norton, WVIA’s vice president of radio.
“Well, we don’t do it that way,” he said. “Each host picks his or her own music. It’s all hand-picked, handmade programming. And so the personalities of the hosts come out not only in presentation, but in the actual music choices.”
Making it personal
The staff obviously appreciates the opportunity to express themselves in their programming.
“When a staff is 20, 31, 34 and 40-plus years here, that tells you something,” said Funke.
“Part of this longevity is because not only are we working with material and people and music and so forth that we love, but our creative abilities are respected and honored,” she said. “People trust our creative instincts. And that’s a lovely thing, to work in a place where your sense of what you do is trusted so you can be creative.”
Mazzarella said it’s hard for her to believe she will have been at the station 20 years in August. For her, it’s her dream job.
“I had jobs, but I didn’t have a career. This is what I studied, this is what I’ve always wanted to do since I was in the seventh grade,” said Mazzarella. “Any time I was on I-81 and passed WVIA, I always had that hope that I’d work here some day.”
Prior to WVIA, she worked as an admissions counselor, a volunteer director for the American Red Cross and a bank employee who worked on repossessing cars and foreclosing on houses.
“All of these things, even though they weren’t career-oriented, they certainly did lend a personality and a knowledge that helped me in this career,” she said. “I found that having all this experience and meeting all these different types of people helped me with my on-air presentation, making it much more human. And that’s the whole gist of what I do, try to relate to people who maybe don’t know a whole lot about classical music, we just like the sound of it.”
Musical menu offered
Listeners hear a variety, with the station playing a mix of classical, jazz, adult contemporary and news shows each weekday. Some specialty shows are broadcast on weekends.
“They know the difference between this kind of radio and commercial radio, which dominates the airwaves,” Norton said.
“Four times a year, we have direct audience feedback through membership drives,” he said. “If they don’t like what we’re doing in terms of classical music or news or anything else, they don’t have to support the station financially. You can listen to radio for free, but they voluntarily make contributions that keep the radio station going.”
And keeping both the radio and TV stations operating hasn’t been any easy task after a longstanding state grant — about $900,000, or about 18 percent of the station’s revenue — disappeared more than three years ago and has not been reinstated.
“So we have been kind of struggling on reduced revenues since then, but our audience, our membership have really stepped up and helped keep this radio station going for four decades now,” Norton said.
Sitting in the broadcast studio with some of her colleagues, Funke pointed to some of the proof on the walls.
Holding her hands about a foot apart to show the height of a stack of LPs the station had its first year, Funke pointed out the station’s library has grown to shelves upon shelves of records and CDs. “Because people took that risk and invested, that’s how we had more money to invest and could build that library,” Funke said.
The staff has had to adjust too, with employees of both radio and TV stations working together on projects, Mazzarella notes.
“The nice part about WVIA, at least in recent years, simply because of desire but more importantly necessity, lots of walls have come down so that everything kind of dovetails into each department,” Mazzarella said.
“Radio will work very closely with education, which will work very closely with television, so we’re all hooked into that tapestry, we’re all hooked into that weave so we’re all doing our own respective thing in promoting a specific thing, but we’re all in it together. That’s the bottom line.”