The idea was born over a spaghetti dinner -- one of those solemn career pacts that college kids concoct, and usually abandon in favor of love or graduate school or the need to eat.
But seven young alumni of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., have a vision that has never lost its focus. Their dream is exactly what it was in 1974 -- a lot of spaghetti ago. And, at last, it is getting closer to realization.
The dream is WPBJ -- an FM radio station.Under the corporate umbrella of Emerald Communications, the seven young graduates would serve as WPBJ's deejays, program directors, corporate officers and janitors. In short, the station would be theirs in every way.
The last three call letters of Emerald's station would stand for peanut-butter-jelly, a menu item the seven Emeralds expect to choose for a very long time, from financial necessity. The W in WPBJ has stood, and still stands, for When?
Emerald's problem is not finding a place to broadcast, or the money to go into business, or an unoccupied frequency. Those ducks have been in a row since 1975.
The problem is competition.
Emerald never expected any back in 1974, when the seven members were just seven friends running the William and Mary student radio station.
"We were very naive," said Sandy Smith-Strasel, 25, of Arlington, one of the Emeralds. "All we knew was, this was what we wanted to do."
As they nurtured their dream of owning and operating a radio station, the seven Emeralds -- three of them from the Washington area -- paid no attention to the 50 largest markets. "We couldn't afford to consider them," said Smith-Strasel.
One day, a broadcasting magazine listed an unclaimed 100,000-watt FM frequency in Morehead City, N.C., a town of 9,000 on the desolate Atlantic Coast. The frequency was the only one of its size available on the East Coast.
It looked like a marriage made in heaven. The frequency had been unclaimed for more than 30 years. Because the surrounding area was one of the most sparsely populated on the East Coast, Big Business would probably not be interested. And the existing stations played only country-and-western and top 40 -- nothing close to the "progressive" format of jazz, soft rock and classical music that Emerald planned.
The seven Emeralds, all now between 23 and 26 years of age, raised $80,000 in investments and pledges from families and friends. They canvassed proposed listeners, as required by law. They incorporated. By the time they applied to the Federal Communications Commission in August 1976, the dream looked do-able.
But two other groups, both based in or near Morehead City, filed for the same frequency, one of them just before the FCC deadline. The three contenders have already spent more than a year entangled in bureaucratic bubblegum. According to Margot Polivy and Katrina Renouf, Emerald's attorneys, it might be three more years before the FCC issues a construction permit to anyone.
But Emerald is used to waiting. Far from being daunted, the seven members of the cadre are putting the time to good use.
Since 1975, the seven have worked all over the Middle Atlantic states in a variety of radio jobs. This month, five of the seven moved to Charlotte, N.C., where, as a team, they will help run WRPL, and AM station there.
The idea is not only to gain experience, but to establish North Carolina residence in case the FCC hearing examiner who will review the WPBJ application would find that persuasive. The ultimate aim, as always, is Morehead City.
The Emerald master plan has undergone modifications over the years. At first, 14 people were members, but seven quickly dropped out. And at first, the group planned to live together as well as broadcast together. "But we all decided we'd need some psychic distance from each other," Smith-Strasel said. "We'll probably see each other 14 to 15 hours a day as it is."
One key reason Emerald expects WPBJ to blossom is that its seven members have complementary broadcasting skills. Each one is specializing in a particular side of the business that he or she first learned at WCWM in Williamsburg, way back when.
Debora Harris, for example, will handle operations. Bob Barnett of Alexandria will be manager. Smith-Strasel and Fred McCune will be engineers. Susan Romaine of Laurel will sell ads and Sue Ann Billingsley will do the news. While everyone will take a turn playing deejay, Benjamin Ball will do it fulltime.
Smith-Strasel says the group "was passionate to begin with, but now I'd say we're dogged. We're determined to see this through.
"I admit that if we had known in the beginning it was going to take this long, we probably wouldn't have taken it on -- or else we would have tried to buy a station, not start one. But Charlotte and WRPL is the great leap forward. This will prove whether we can work as a group or not."
All seven sets of parents "were hoping we'd choose a safer way for our lives," said Smith-Strasel, who grew up in Langley and worked as an engineer at WTTG-TV until recently.
"My mother is still hoping I'll work for the government. But after all this time, having gotten as far as we've gotten, we aren't about to work for the government," she said.
"I'm sure we're going to have some problems.It won't stay idyllic forever. But I like to think we represent a return to the days when radio started, when it was fun. We're trying to bring back that type of feeling."