All the buttons on the telephone console are lit. The cassettes in the announcer's booth are marked in red: "Bob Marley," "Guyana post-referendum rally." On the floor are dozens of records, from "Footprints in the Sand," a cool calypso by the Trade-winds, to Peter Tosh's kinetically political "Equal Rights."
"And this song by Sparrow goes out to a lady in Silver Spring who misses her daughter in St. Kitts," says disc jockey John Blake, cooing into the microphone. Blake is the soft, lilting voice behind WHUR-FM's "The Caribbean Sound," one of Washington's two radio programs of Caribbean music and news. This week the Caribbean American Intercultural Organization is honoring Blake and Von Martin, the other disc jockey, for their attention to West Indian concerns and culture.
"We are overwhelmed with requests but only can accomodate about 12 an hour. We don't want to be a request show but I do want some feedback. This is a people's show," says Blake. He spins around in the chair, humming, as he picks out the next request, "Raise Your Hands, Africans," a calypso from Dominique.
The carillon-sound of the steel drums and the catchy pauses of 'mon' are far from the only ethnic representations on the weekend radio. On Sundays, WLMD-AM in Laurel is a festival of Persian, Polish, Irish, Greek and Croatina music.
Basically, the shows are musical bulletin boards. The folk music dominates, interspersed with dedications, sports scores, poetry, news. Bill Lemer, general manager of WLMD, marvels, "These shows have incredible audiences. On Sundays the six lines into the station stay busy. Though the local populations are only several thousand, the Polish and Irish shows are each reaching approximately 45,000 people, according to the station's own survey last year.
For the on-the-air personalities, the shows are hobbies, a contribution to their ethnic solidarity. Paul Dobrow, the host of "Paul's Polka Hour" is an engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Patrick Troy has an Irish shop in Alexandria and Edward Yambrusic of the Croatian show is a copyright attorney. Penelope Apostolides has been on the air since 1950. They buy their time - $150-$200 a week - from station WLMD and sell commercial time to restaurants, stores, dance schools and sports leagues.
"I don't have any news but plenty of requests for birthdays, anniversaries and First Communions," says Dubrow, a program host since 1966. "The strangest thing I find is that many people outside the Slavic community are enthusiastic, like the Irish." Yambrusic, who has been on the air for one year, avoids politics, such as the takeover of the German consulate in Chicago last week by a group of Croatians. "That would be political. I am strictly a cultural show."
Generally, the non-Caribbean shows are folksy. "I'm a conversationalist," says Troy. "I try to put a lot of fun into it, tell jokes, mention names.
All the shows benefit from the yearning the expatriate or the hyphenated American has for a familiar song, accent or name. But the two Caribbean programs are longer, more comprehensive, and have a potentially larger audience because of Washington's proximity to the West Indies and their popularity as vacation spots.
When John Blake left Trinidad eight years ago, he was seeking better opportunities and a challenging, creative atmosphere. One day, after studying at a local drafting school and broadcasting academy, he walked unsolicited into WHUR, the Howard University station. With a proposal.
"I thought a show about the true Caribbean was needed," says Blake, 31, a lean, bespectacled man with a scraggly beard. "People felt the Caribbean was all sand and sunshine. That was the fault of the system of information and I wanted to introduce the music and expose the economic and political problems.
In February, 1972, Blake went on the air and discovered minor stardom "Cities are very lonely and young ladies are always calling. It's like the movie 'Play Misty for Me.' The glamor thing did conflict with my own personality."
In another part of Northwest Washington, Von Martin, the host of the weekly "Caribbeana" sits in a hot cubby hole of a converted building that is the listener-sponsored WPFW headquarters. Because the studio is not fully soundproof, the fan sometimes interferes with the soca, the latest music from Trinidad, Martin, 35, a hefty man with a forceful voice, can only chuckle.
Sitting at Blake's dining room table and sipping some Trinidadian rum and pineapple-coconut juice, Martin agrees with Blake that their two shows reach a Washington-area community that is generally overlooked as a unique entity because the West Indians blend into the black majority population.
"At home we are very isolated from one another and then here we are invisible. That results in strong nationalism, so we are trying to get to know one another and introduce our culture to others, "says Martin, who started out as Blake's assistant six years ago.
In addition to music and news, Blake and Martin have interviewed West Indian personalities such as Michael Manley, the prime minister of Jamaica, and Stokley Carmichael, the 1960s civil rights activist.
"Initially I had a very heavy white listenership. I think more whites had visited the islands and they would call and comment," says Balke. "Early on there was some negative feedback from blacks, who said, 'I can't stand that foreign stuff.' Now American blacks will call and request a song." The majority of the audience is the estimated 25,000 West Indians in the area but also the show attract a group of young, politically minded blacks, who find the social message of many of the songs more satisfying than disco.
In six years the show has been modified. "The concept is changing now. I try to incorporate the rest of the Third World, especially the African because the music is his. Next, I want to expand to more discussion of the day-to-day problems and issues such as undocumented workers and drugs in the Caribbean," says Blake who is a full-time staff producer at WHUR. Martin is a volunteer.
Both men had thought about broadcasting in Trinidad but the opportunities were limited. Trinidad has two radio stations."When I came here to study at the old Federal City College I took computer sciences because I knew the opportunities for a black weren't that great here either," says Martin. Besides his show at WPFW, Martin works at American University's computer science center. Down the road Martin plans to start a multi-media information service.
When the reggae, the rhythmic Jamaican music, and the meringue, a crossover of Latin and reggae from Haiti, wear out, Blake and Martin introduce cadence, a new calypso-based sound from the French West Indies. Over at WLMD, the American polkas are mixed with the Hungarian czardas and German polkas. Those combinations guarantee the ethnic crossover audience all the shows are experiencing will remain loyal.