Some of the sounds coming from the control room at WPFW-FM radio didn't augur well for the broadcast which was moments away from air time:
"What happened to the music. . . ?" Scratch. . . Screech, screech.
". . . I know, but did anybody tape the interview. . .?"
". . . Somebody took the tape out. But we got half of it. . . ."
". . . But Clarence, did it come out on the air like that? . . . I was turning the dials and turning the dials and I started going to the other record and I forgot to turn the other turntable on. . . ." Drawer slam. Bang.
". . . Well, is this your first time on the air by yourself? Is it? I'm [screeched] impressed. . . ."
And so, despite an occasional bump and blooper, Washington's first listener-supported radio station logged another hour in its third year of broadcasting at 89.3 megahertz on the FM dial.
The youngest addition to the five-member Pacifica Broadcasting Co. chain noted for its coverage of controversial, often left-wing subjects, WPFW is known in this area as much for its shoestring operation as for its commitment to "alternative broadcasting."
This year may mark yet another watershed in WPFW/Pacifica history: The bill collector won't have to wait. For the first time in the station's fund-raising history, listeners pledged $100,000 in contributions, meeting the drive's goal in less than two weeks.
General manager Lorne Cress Love, her station having gone over the top last Wednesday morning and having made more money in a shorter time than ever before, was quietly ecstatic.
"We have proved at this point that we can survive," she said in an interview at her loft-like office. "And now we're going to work on getting better skills, improve our news and public affairs program, because in the last year and a half those programs have suffered.
"Since we've had very limited equipment we've been very limited in our production skills. . . . We've gotten some new equipment and we'll be getting more and we feel that those opportunities will improve. I think we've turned the corner."
Love is happy to recall days gone by, some of which were spent in makeshift surroundings, especially since those days, for the moment, seem to be gone for good.
"People wouldn't believe what we had for a radio station, especially when we were in the grocery store," she said. "People would come in and say, 'This is a radio station?'"
Pacifica founded the D.C. station in February 1977. According to Love, who is one of three original staffers still with the station and has served as public affairs director and station manager, the California-based Pacifica company originally hoped that the Washington station would be loyal to a traditional focus and offer coverage of national issues.
Pacifica stations in Los Angeles, Houston, New York City and Berkeley, Calif., have sustained reputations and listener support by live coverage of demonstrations and airing of dissident views.
Members of the D.C. staff felt from the outset, however, that the last thing Washington needed was another national news station.
"Those of us who were involved [with WPFW] felt that there was a need for a community-based station that would open its airwaves to the majority community of this city, to groups that don't have access to other airwaves," Love says.
The difference in focus may have saved the station. Whereas many of their colleagues around the country are struggling with too few listeners and too many debts, evidence indicates that the number of WPFW listeners is growing. This is especially gratifying, says Love, since "it's been a three-year process to get the community to understand why they should support a program they can get for free."
The last three years have also seen changes in the paid staff of 10, which formerly included six white members but is now predominately black.The estimated 200 volunteers, however, are responsible for maintaining the tremendously varied format.
As might be expected from a station largely run by inexperienced volunteers, including those with on-the-air duties, program quality can vary tremendously -- from Lona Alias' first-time solo run last Friday to 33-year-old Harvest Williams' semiprofessional weekly show called "Harvest Time: Jazz for All Seasons."
In addition to 105 hours of jazz each week and a number of talk shows, WPFW is one of only three stations offering Spanish-language broadcasts in the metropolitan area; African, Indian and Caribbean music shows, and what it claims is the only program by and about Asian Americans regularly broadcast east of the Rockies.
Daily during the Iranian revolution, a group of Iranian WPFW volunteers broadcast controversial "alternative news" of the conflict, five minutes of which were in Farsi and five minutes in English.
The $100,000 raised by the fall marathon will cover only half of the station's yearly expenses, and its halls are still decked with signs advertising its need for dollars ("Your phone call costs us 6 cents," and "There are no mommies, daddies, nannies or mammies here. Clean up after yourself.") The rest of the money will have to come from government subsidies.
But even so, things seem to be on the upswing for WPFW radio, 89.3 on your FM dial.