Remembering WDBS

The Campus Radio Station of Duke University (1950-1983)

Radio Programming - A Matter of Music and Money

This article appeared in the Durham Sun on Aug. 3, 1978.


Do art and business mix? Can one be commercially viable and the other culturally uplifting?

These are the questions being asked in a rather complex vignette being played out between supporters of the financially troubled WDBS-FM radio station in Durham and Village Companies of Chapel Hill, parent company of Village Broadcasting, which owns WCHL-AM of Chapel Hill.

Village Broadcasting, Jim Heavner president, purchased WDBS but has met with considerable opposition from WDBS loyalists who consider the progressive station a unique part of Durham culture and don't want to see it lost.

The facts in a nutshell, although they could easily fit in a peanut butter factory, are as follows:

WDBS-FM is a Duke-owned but professionally staffed station which since 1971 has broadcast at 107 on the dial. Before 1971 it was a "carrier frequency" -- being heard only on the Duke campus. Since becoming a commercial station, WDBS has operated with roughly a $150,000 debt owed to Duke. The WDBS Board of Trustees decided to sell the station last April, the debt said to be the prime catalyst for the action, according to WDBS General Manager Kat MacFarlane.

Among bids offered on the 3,000-watt station, Heavner's Village Broadcasting bid was the highest, estimated by some reports to be $350,000. A series of petitions, both formal and otherwise, began circulating in Durham and Chapel Hill to stop the station transfer. Some were sent directly to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which is now obliged to consider the petitions before making its decision on the transfer.

The FCC requires that all broadcast stations operate "In the public interest, convenience and necessity." It is the petitioners' belief that the current WDBS format does, and that Village Broadcasting's changes will not.

Bob Chapman, founder of WDBS, proposed last month the merge of the station with public radio station (non-commercial) WAFR-FM, now inoperative but two years ago actively programming to a predominately black audience. It was hoped that the merger would retain the spirit of WDBS while blending with the interests of WAFR, at 90.3 on the FM dial. This action would allow Village Broadcasting to finally receive the 107 FM frequency. Heavner had offered to donate operating equipment, WDBS's extensive record library and $3,000 in cash if the petition effort was stopped. But the WAFR Board of Directors, known as the Community Radio Workshop, vetoed the plan and is now out of the immediate picture. The petitions began circulating again, and now all parties are waiting while the FCC grapples with the problem.

The art versus business angle comes into play when all those involved are separated from the heat of the battle. "It's a craft sense of radio production that is motivating the station (WDBS)," said Aden Field, owner of Durham's Regulator Bookshop and co-organizer of a formal petition to deny the transfer. He and Rick Doble of PhotoCarolina Inc., sent the petition off to the FCC last week. "We're trying to preserve its (the station's) quality, intelligence and its responsiveness to the public," Field added.

The debt to Duke notwithstanding, WDBS has developed a programming format which includes emphasis on local artists and coverage of such local events as the North Carolina Folklife Festival.

"We're not profit motivated ... we're artistically motivated," said Kat MacFarlane. "It's ironic but this has been one of our most successful years (according to Arbitron ratings which gauge audience size). We doubled our audience since the last rating period."

Village Broadcasting's Jim Heavner sees things from a different perspective, one which appears to have made financially solvent his current holdings which include AM and FM radio stations in Lexington, Ky., WCHL radio, the Village Advocate, the Triangle Pointer and Village Graphics in this area.

A survey conducted by his staff found that "within the Durham population as a whole, the awareness of WDBS is small. ... Seventy-five percent of community leaders polled were unaware of its existence," said Heavner of the shopping mall and telephone survey findings. "We'd want to be more effective in Durham. You can't be effective if you're not being heard." WDBS doesn't have enough numbers to be commercially viable unless it uses mirrors," said Heavner.

According to MacFarlane, most of the animosity is directed toward the WDBS Board of Trustees whom she said "are not business people and know nothing about broadcasting. ... To them, the station has been a monkey on their back," she said.

The WDBS staffers do not fault Heavner for sensing a good deal. Said MacFarlane, "He sees this as a piece of property ... and we see him as a businessman."

"I don't mind being characterized as a businessman," Heavner later responded. "But there's a tendency to equate businessmen with rampant insensitivity to what's radio and what's fun." Heavner doesn't want to be characterized as such.

If and when the transfer takes place, and that could take a long, long time, MacFarlane forecasts new faces for on-air and administrative jobs. Three administrative people have been appointed through Heavner although all have turned their attention to other work until the transfer looms closer. She also predicts programming to cover a greater demographic area beyond the 24-35-year-old age group to which the station presently programs. She cites increased news (a positive change to her), more commercials and a general change in musical format.

Heavner isn't saying much on the matter of programming but has indicated that while there is a clear trend away from segmented (or special interest) programming, he would be more inclined to embrace it in Durham -- unlike the programming he has devised for WCHL. "In Chapel Hill we represent many different constituencies because we're the only commercial station in town. There is a different set of criteria in Durham so it would be reasonable to presume that we would program to a more segmented audience. As narrow as WDBS, well I don't know."

Heavner does anticipate an average of some 10 minutes of advertising per hour. He has also invited members of the WDBS staff (a total of 24 full and part-time people) to apply for positions with the new station. The most popular location right now for 107-FM appears to be on the third floor of the Northwestern Bank Building in downtown Durham.

The issue continues to simmer, and since public comment on the transfer proposal ended last week, the chef's hat remains with the FCC which must decide what will be done and to whom.

WDBS, "artistically motivated" yet apparently in debt, continues to broadcast. Village Broadcasting, the seemingly robust and solvent child of Village Companies, continues to await the "adoption" of yet another family member. The listening audience itself must wait to find out just how much artistic compromise it takes to turn a profit.

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