Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, owns WHUR(FM), one of the few university-owned commercial stations in the country.
Considered a standalone radio station because the school owns no other full-power stations, WHUR nevertheless consists of seven entities: the flagship FM, which is heard on 96.3 MHz; three additional HD Radio multicast channels; two SiriusXM channels; and GlassHouse Radio, a student-run podcast operation.
The original content for all these outlets is created in one building on campus that also houses the university’s public TV station WHUT.
While the stations play music that appeals to underserved segments of the Washington community, many hours each week are dedicated to community outreach and public service.
Because of its year-round dedication, WHUR this year received the NAB Crystal Heritage Award, an honor reserved for stations that have earned five Crystal Awards. Only 10 stations have been given the Crystal Heritage Award by the National Association of Broadcasters.
“Service is a huge part of what we do,” said General Manager Sean Plater.
“We hold an annual toy drive for kids in October and a coat drive in December. Then for the last 40 years we have dedicated a day’s programming to our Food2Feed event, during which we collect canned food and take donations over the phone and online for about 12 hours. We even ask students to go out with buckets to collect money. All proceeds go to the Capital Area Food Bank and Shabach Ministries.”
Denise McCain is executive director of the Family Justice Center of Prince George’s County in Maryland, an organization affiliated with the circuit court in that area.
“Over the last three years, WHUR donated 300 toys to families who would have otherwise been unable to provide presents for their families curing the Christmas holiday,” she said.
“We also received 60 boys’ and girls’ coats varying in sizes from newborn to adolescent to keep children warm. I can’t tell you how much this has meant to the survivors and children we serve in Family Justice Center.”
The station also has an ongoing event to assist Howard University students travel to various cities around the world to work on whatever the local communities need. It’s called Helping Hands, and WHUR runs it during spring break each year.
“We have some of the most giving listeners in the world, if you just tell them what you are trying to do,” said Plater. “For example, we held a radiothon, “Give Me Shelter,” to help build a house for women and children who deal with domestic violence, and we had people stopping our mobile vehicle on the street to donate cash.”
McCain also worked with Plater on Give Me Shelter.
“This initiative raised over $800,000, increasing the number of shelter beds from 18 to 42. We value our partnership with WHUR,” she said.
Another beneficiary of WHUR’s efforts is the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington.
“We worked together with Sean on opening up the totally rebuilt first African-American YMCA in the world, named after a slave called Anthony Bowen,” said Donnie Shaw, director of community relations-DC.
“Sean has remained accessible to the Y, always returning phone calls with a smile. He’s a Y Guy!”
In a Digital World
WHUR, which streams at www.whur.com, also was an early adopter of digital radio. On Jan. 21, 2004, it became the first commercial station in the D.C. area to deploy HD Radio.
Then in 2006 WHUR-World launched on its HD2 channel, with jazz, hip-hop, blues, African-American folk and music from other parts of the world. WHUR-World was a two-time winner of the NAB Multicast Award.
Recently, the HD2 relaunched as “The Quiet Storm Station,” a 24/7 channel celebrating the iconic Quiet Storm R&B format that was created at WHUR in 1976 and has proliferated on the airwaves of many other stations.
“We’re very excited to celebrate this format, especially as the station heads towards its 50th anniversary in December 2021,” Plater said.
Another campus station, WHBC, has moved from carrier current to WHUR’s HD3 channel. WHUR’s HD4 is DC Radio, run in cooperation with the Washington city government. It carries hearings and local community content.
The two SiriusXM channels are programmed by WHUR personnel. In 2011 the satellite company leased several channels to third parties, including Howard University, to fulfill a condition of its merger.
Channel 141 is known as “HUR Voices,” and it combines music and talk on issues of importance to people of color. Channel 142 (HBCU) focuses on the Black college experience and includes viewpoints of alumni, current and prospective students nationally.
Making It All Work
It takes a lot of people power to run a complex operation like this.
Plater said there are 40 full-time employees and about 15 part-timers, all of whom are paid.
“We also have up to 60 nonpaid students working with us throughout the semester. The students get involved in all aspects of operation including engineering, programming and sales. We talk with them to understand their listening habits because the younger generation consumes radio in a different way. Of course they are hoping for jobs when they graduate, so we use the same automation and other equipment here at WHUR that they will find elsewhere in industry.”
Plater said that the aim of WHUR staff is to talk with the audience, not to the audience.
“Almost everything on WHUR is locally-oriented, and while our morning program, “The Steve Harvey Show,” is syndicated, we still have a segment called ‘Taking It to the Streets.’ This runs about two and a half minutes every hour, and it’s local content. Then we have something different between 7 and 7:30 p.m. on WHUR, a news show called ‘The Daily Drum.’ It starts with an update of news headlines and then goes into an interview section with local politicians, shows on COVID, anything that relates to the community.”
To give the community yet another forum during the pandemic and social justice protests, the station set up a listener response phone line to let people express themselves. Listeners can speak out about whatever is on their mind and those calls are played back on the air.
Looking to the Future
Plater said that the biggest challenge he faces is just trying to stay ahead.
“We are a standalone going up against large companies in a large market, and we’re competing well,” he said. “But we have to continue to provide the best product we can. From a service standpoint we can never lose those things that make us special, like that community connection. That means staying relevant to our audience on all of our channels.
“But another goal of mine is to continue to develop the next generation of broadcasters, and part of that is helping the students understand how great this industry is and what opportunities exist. I want to bring the next generation along to love radio as much as I do.”