What began as a boycott of the March of Dimes' annual Achievement in Radio (AIR) awards luncheon this Thursday by WMAL-AM (630) has apparently been smoothed out by nervous committee members from the charity and local radio stations, who are trying to minimize embarrassment. High-profile WMAL, whose morning team of Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver was given the charity's Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago and which is probably the most honored station since the competition began in 1987, refused to enter this year's contest because station management and some employees questioned the credentials of the judges. The awards are the only ones given for radio in this area.

"We would rather have a jury of our peers and rather not submit entries when jurors include non-news people," said WMAL Vice President and General Manager Tom Bresnahan last week.

"It's a non-story. It is my understanding that it has all worked out now," said Nancy Bryant, general sales manager at country WMZQ-AM/FM (1390/98.7) and chairman of the awards luncheon, apparently hoping to stifle questions. But Bryant acknowledged that WMAL "did not want to enter in the news category unless they could be assured that the news category would judged by experts in news."

In June WMAL was named Washington's Outstanding News Operation by the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for the eighth consecutive year, and several times during the past decade has won prestigious Peabody, Ohio State and Dateline awards for news reporting.

One past winner, who asked not to be identified, called the competition "a farce; it just doesn't mean anything" because "it appears that they create categories so that everybody can win something."

Until this year AIR organizers had been reluctant to identify the judges in seven cities assigned to evaluate the 22 categories. But March of Dimes spokeswoman Leanne Hamrick acknowledged last week that entry categories are sometimes judged by people not employed in those particular disciplines.

"We'd be happy to restructure our panels with all news people, all ad people, depending on each award category," Hamrick said.

Hamrick said WMAL is the only station to boycott this year's awards.

Bresnahan said the Capital Cities/ABC-owned talk-news outlet is supporting the AIR awards this year with on-air public service announcements. He said he has been invited and plans to attend Thursday's luncheon, adding, "I support the cause." Unlike in past years, however, WMAL declined to purchase a 10-seat table at $50 per ticket. Operations Director Jim Gallant said that WMAL Production Director Charlie Warren, winner of three AIR awards last year, was given permission to enter his own production pieces in non-news categories. He is listed as a finalist in the Best On-Air Talent category but is not identified with WMAL.

For Barry, Bad News Travels Fast Friday morning at 10:48, minutes after Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson sentenced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to a six-month jail term for a misdemeanor drug possession conviction,WTOP-AM's (1500) Karen Gray provided listeners with a detailed report of what happened inside the courtroom. Gray also noted that Barry arrived seven minutes late for the 9:30 sentencing hearing "with a strange smile on his face." At the same time, down the dial at 630, WMAL's Milagros Ardin offered a breathless thumbnail sketch of the sentencing. Minutes later, she and J.J. Greene, who in covering the story for WMAL in the first days of the trial in June painted some moving courtroom scenes of Barry's reaction to a witness's testimony, teamed to provide the start of the day's excellent news coverage. Also at 10:48, WWRC-AM's (980) Joe DeCapua broke into Joel A. Spivak's talk show with the news that Barry had received jail time.

"Six months in jail? Holy mackerel! They put him in the slammer for six months. Wow! I'm shocked!" exclaimed Spivak, sounding genuinely miffed by the news. But before Spivak could become too overwrought, WWRC reporter Jack Speer followed immediately with a report from the courthouse, and so began a day of on-air reaction stories that could be heard on most stations with credible news staffs.

Gee, Gordon Liddy Former Nixon White House staffer G. Gordon Liddy, who served seven months in prison for his role in the Watergate affair, joined New York's raucous morning gab guy Howard Stern (heard locally on WJFK-FM, 106.7) yesterday to hawk his book "The Monkey Handlers." During the lengthy appearance, Liddy covered a variety of subjects and at one point described George Bush as "a man who can't keep his word." But there are some things Liddy just won't discuss. When Stern asked him about his sex life, Liddy, 60, who has a reputation for such macho stunts as holding his bare hand over flames, simply told Stern, "You're a sick man." Later, Stern's "mommy" called for "some free legal advice."

"I was disbarred," Liddy told her. "I want you to understand that."

But "Mrs. Stern" was undeterred. She wanted to know what "a mother can do about a son who maligns his parents on the radio."

Liddy responded dryly, "Madam, it is clear that you didn't hit him hard enough and long enough."

Shop Talk Doug Stephan, formerly of Cincinnati's WCKY-AM and the American Radio Network, yesterday joined WNTR-AM (1050) as morning host, replacing John Allen. Program director Pat Korten describes Stephan as "a friendly conservative voice" ... Singer Donny Osmond, in town recently to promote his new album, "Prisoner of Love," slipped into the Bethesda Yacht Club for a bit. Osmond, who as a youngster shot to stardom in the '70s, has grown up, somewhat to the surprise of WASH-FM (97.1) afternoon drive host Marilyn Thompson. "I never thought I'd say it, but Donny actually looks sexy these days," she confided to club owner Tom Curtis after spotting the 32-year-old singer. Thompson, after all, admits only to being "thirtysomething." Curtis, perhaps catching her in a weak moment, got Thompson to agree to judge the club's Halloween costume contest tomorrow night.