What’s cooking in The Kitchen? In a one story brick building on the north side of the Savannah State University (SSU) campus, the answer is hip hop, Latin, blues, jazz, gospel, and other musical dishes with flavors from mellow to spicy.
Located behind historic Hill Hall and flanked by stately oak trees, the unassuming structure is the home of WHCJ 90.3 radio, now in its 31st year broadcasting from SSU. In a previous life the building was the home for several SSU presidents.
The room that housed the family kitchen is now one of the stations’ two recording booths. Staff and volunteers nicknamed the studio in honor of its past use.
“We’re in The Kitchen, cooking up good tunes, good sounds, energy,” says station volunteer and spoken word artist Renazance, whose real name is Ralph Dillard.
Renazance has volunteered at the station for three years. In mid August he added a new item on the WHCJ programming menu, launching Renazance Radio. The show broadcasts on Fridays from 1-4 p.m., playing selections of “thought provoking hip hop and neo-soul music” and “what we call new classics, from the 80’s and 90’s that’s kind of been lost.”
Listeners might hear Lionel Richie, Public Enemy, Digable Planets, and Erykah Badu, artists that have a timeless sound but that might not be considered classics yet, says Renazance.
Adding her own mix of spice and energy to The Kitchen is the station’s new assistant director Grace Curry. In July, the former station employee returned to WHCJ and to her hometown of Savannah after one year in Washington, DC.
She and longtime station manager Theron “Ike” Carter are WHCJ’s only paid staff. About 20 volunteers round out the station’s personnel. Some are students at SSU while others are community members ranging in age “from 29 up to their 60s” says Curry.
Curry’s plans for the station include revamping the WHCJ website, webcast streaming, and sponsoring live concerts and a festival. Another goal is to expand the listener base to include the “25 and up” demographic. By next fall she hopes to offer internships for high school and middle school students.
In addition to her duties coordinating schedules, applying for grants, and keeping track of the daily tasks of the station, Curry hosts “Alternative Soul Café” live each Wednesday from 1-4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. She launched the show in 2002 and hosted it for two years before moving out of town. Now she’s back in the booth directing the program.
“That is my baby,” says Curry. “The reason I created it was I was really tired of the stuff I heard on mainstream radio. It got to the point I would turn it off and listen to my own CD’s.”
Curry and Renazance spend hours each week preparing for their shows, listening to independent artists on Myspace and CD Baby to find fresh material.
“I feel like I’m a scientist for music,” says Curry. “The whole purpose of the station it to be outside the box from other stations.”
Curry, Renazance, and Carter all emphasize that providing an alternative to the hip hop played on commercial radio is vital to the mission of the station.
“Historically African Americans have used music to uplift,” says Carter. “Now we find a lot of music tears down the community. As long as I am here we will not be a part of that.”
“On the commercial stations it’s all about selling product,” says Renazance, “and promoting this lifestyle of ignorance and violence. Promoting an image of degrading women. We try to go against that. There’s so much more that goes into the culture.”
Says Carter, “We play the music of the African diaspora. All of the music that we play, the latin music, Jazz, the gospel, the hip hop. We stress positive hip hop. We don’t want to be like that garbage on commercial radio.”
At the other end of the musical spectrum, jazz and gospel music are long established staples of WHCJ’s programming. Carter and Curry emphasize that gospel music is the foundation for African American music and that the programming is intended to reflect cultural roots but not promote religious beliefs.
“We’re not looking at it as a religious program,” says Curry. “We let the programmers know we can’t do religious rhetoric on the air. We have a lot of listeners with different religious backgrounds. A lot of people from different religious backgrounds like gospel music or spirituals.”
“A lot of people don’t understand, especially students, the difference between public radio and commercial radio,” Carter says. “While we want to be entertaining, as a radio station on a historically African American campus we feel a special duty to air aspects of black culture not available through traditional media.”
Carter, Curry, Renazance and SSU professor Kai Walker participate in a weekly community issues show called Rap Sessions. Each panelist brings in a musical cut to play on the air and after each tune the group discusses any topic that the music provokes.
“We talk about all the recent political turmoil, social issues,” says Renazance. “Anything relevant to the black experience but really to the Savannah experience.”
As a volunteer over the years, Renazance has learned to appreciate musical styles that are new to him. “As a result of working at this station I listen to Latin music, to African, to blues, which I never did before. After listening to Mr. Carter and some of the stories he wraps around the music, I’ve grown to appreciate it.”
Carter gives us a lot of freedom as programmers,” says Renazance. “We cherish the ability to come in and do this. He gives us a lot of flexibility in what we play, that it will be in good taste and that it will be consistent with what the program content is.”
The roster of past volunteers reads like a list of Who’s Who in Savannah Media, including local radio personalities April Dobbs, Gerald Arrington (Lil G), and Kenya Cabine, and chief news editor Will Martin.
“That’s where we all started,” says radio station E93’s Dobbs. ”Me, Lil G and Kenya Cabine. We’re all full time jocks here at E93 and we all hosted the same show, ‘Tiger Beat,’ at different times. They’re always going to be like home to us.”
One of the higher profile station volunteers is Dr. Joseph “Pete” Silver, SSU’s Vice President of Academic Affairs who has hosted a weekly community talk show since he joined the university nine years ago. Silver, who retired last week, stopped by the station on his last day to say goodbye.
“We’re using this important medium to connect with the community,” says Silver. “We’ve had folks from the State Department, from the White House, we’ve had the mayor and the chief of police on the show.”
Silver recounted that at his retirement reception in late August, a former student who is now a university staffer told him “she had heard a program years ago about debt blues. She said it changed her life.”
After listening to the show the student changed her spending habits and her career path, eventually becoming an accountant in the university finance office.
The station operates on a budget of about $15,000 annually, excluding personnel costs, which Carter describes as “distinctive in being inadequate.” Fees for required licenses, Associated Press news wire subscription, and necessary broadcasting memberships eat up most of those funds.
He and Curry are developing a three pronged fundraising strategy familiar to listeners of other public broadcasting media, consisting of on-air underwriting, pledge drives, and off-site special events. Funds will go toward improving equipment and expanding on air time to round the clock all week long. The station broadcasts 24 hours Friday-Sunday and from 6 a.m. -midnight or later during the week.
Latin programming is a growing segment of programming that is expanding WHCJ’s listener base as well as their cash flow. The station offers four Latin programs each week, with bilingual commentary from the hosts.
“The music of the Caribbean and Latin America is heavily and predominantly influenced by African music,” says Carter. “It’s a natural fit. On Saturdays we start with the blues, then do Latin music, African, then reggae. It’s international on Saturdays. You can see how it all ties in. I call Latin and African American music first cousins.”
“What we want to do is present an intelligent side of African American culture,” says Curry. “Not just for African Americans but for everyone to appreciate our culture and take pride in it. It is not just a culture for African Americans, it’s everyone’s culture. Everything is intertwined.
“The majority of people that purchase hip hop music are not just African American. Not all of our programmers are African American, either.”
“This is a university station, I think we should be universal,” says Carter. “Our volunteer staff is multi racial. We play music by everybody. Our only standard is that it be good.”