On Air: WRFG continues its mission despite fiscal challenges

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Harlon Joye, a founder and board member of WRFG, Joan Baptist, station manager, and Cheryl Odeleye, board president.

By Shandra Hill Smith

For 42 years, WRFG 89.3 FM – or “Radio Free Georgia” – has served up arguably the most eclectic programming in the city. Depending on the time of day, listeners can tune or stream blues, gospel, Celtic, Latin, jazz, hip hop or soul music with some talk and spoken word thrown in for good measure.

The non-commercial station, which broadcasts seven days a week, 24 hours a day from studios in Little Five Points, has often struggled to keep broadcasting, but it hit particularly hard times earlier this year as it worked to fulfill an agreement for rent on both its studio space and broadcast tower. They delivered on an arrangement for rent on their broadcast tower in July, says station manager Joan Baptist.

“There was a possibility that we would get shut down,” says Baptist. “It’s been a challenge, of course, but we feel pretty optimistic. We can’t give an inch on our fundraising efforts – that’s for sure.”

The station is currently winding down its third pledge drive for the year. The fall pledge drive kicked off Oct. 19 and continues through Nov. 8. WRFG management sees it as a way to help position the station that has faced the threat of closure toward a more debt-free future.

WRFG once broadcast its signal from a Clark Atlanta University tower at no charge, but in 2007 the station kicked off a three-year capital campaign so that it could not only manage operating expenses, but move to a new tower that would free it from poor signal coverage.

JR Langwell behind the mic at WRFG.
JR Langwell behind the mic at WRFG.

“Some people would say, ‘I can get you in my living room, but I can’t get you in my kitchen,’ ” says Baptist. “So it was really difficult.”

Now what’s proving difficult for WRFG is maintaining costs of rent on both the space where its studio and offices are housed, as well as its new tower. Other expenses include monthly utilities, payroll for two staff positions – Baptist’s and that of operations director Wanique Shabazz – along with equipment repairs and purchases and keeping up “with new innovations in audio technology and radio technology,” says Baptist. In addition to the three-week drives it holds in spring, summer and fall, WRFG has a GoFundMe account with a goal of “$100,000 for 100,000 watts of power.”

The nonprofit station also is constantly looking for new income streams, including a car donation program where listeners can donate cars they’re looking to get off their hands, and choose the radio station they’d like to see the funds go toward.

“We’re an asset to the Atlanta area, and I think the whole South and the country, because [there aren’t] that many community stations that do the kind of things that we do,” Baptist says.

“You’ve got immigrants from all over the world moving to Atlanta, you’ve got musicians and artists flocking to Atlanta. We really give a voice to these artists and musicians that come from all over and also local, who have been born and raised here, that really need their talent exposed to the world.

“There also [are] community groups and people who are doing some wonderful, wonderful things that really are aimed at uplifting humanity, and you never hear about them anywhere else.”

Steve K and Amber host the Peach State show.
Steve K and Amber host the Peach State show.

From the beginning, the station has “been pretty much sticking to what we said we were going to do,” adds Harlan Joye, who, at 82, now is the longest-serving on-air talent for WRFG. He also serves as treasurer on the board of directors. From 1977 to 1980, WRFG produced a 50-part series by Joye, “Living Atlanta!” Featuring some 250 interviews on Atlanta’s history, it went on to win national awards. In 1989, the University of Georgia Press published a book on the series.

“People would always come and tell us ‘if you want to be self-sustaining you need to do this or this,’ ” Joye adds. “We want to be self-sustaining as we are. We don’t care about being self-sustaining by changing what we are.”
Baptist, who started with WRFG 15 years ago as a volunteer in the office, agrees. “We don’t want to cut out any of our programming. We think all of it is very important. Who do you cut out? We’re one of the few stations that really do have a very eclectic, diverse programming format.

“We have a mission to uphold,” Baptist says. “People have said in the past, ‘You should become a one-format station like all jazz or all talk or whatever,’ but even those stations have been bought out by other entities. There’s no guarantee that becoming a one-format station would really do anything. I think we’re much more valuable serving the diversity of communities that we do serve.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit wrfg.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley is the editor of Atlanta Intown.