In the heart of Washington's Chinatown, on an upper floor of a red-brick building, a radio program is confronting its growing pains in one of the cavernous rooms that make up the offices and studios of the D.C. public radio station WPFW-FM.
Teen Talk, a 30-minute radio program, is preparing to leave the studios where it was born almost two years ago to fend for itself on the competitive airwaves of commercial radio.
This summer the American Legion Auxiliary named it the nation's best radio program for youths. And the 10 highly motivated young people responsible for the program's combination of music and interviews heard every Saturday morning at 10 say they are ready to take the program elsewhere.
Derrick Gibbs, 19, the program's creator and executive producer, said negotiations with local stations are under way. Meanwhile, what Teen Talk needs is money: money to pay staff salaries, promote itself, and improve its quality.
Teen Talk, Gibbs said, has outgrown WPFW.
Kay Shaw, 29, the show's producer and senior staff member, said telephone solicitation of area businesses has been very successful. Last week, she said, the program raised more than $700.
"At first they were astounded at teen-agers calling them in a very unrehearsed but polished manner," said Shaw. "The calls would be followed up with letters and the letters with a follow-up call. They were pleasantly surprised."
It was not the first time that Teen Talk has had to turn to the generosity of Washington's business community.
When a local grant this summer would pay the salaries only of the program's staff members who live inside Washington, Teen Talk persuaded small businesses -- record stores, nightclubs and flower shops, for example -- to make up the difference for the out-of-towners' salaries.
And when the American Legion Auxiliary selected the program for the national Golden Mike Award in August, local businesses again donated money and services, such as haircuts and tuxedos, so the entire staff could attend the awards banquet in Chicago in grand style.
John McGuire, executive vice president of McGuire Funeral Service in Northwest Washington, said he could tell by the call soliciting his help that Teen Talk was about "youngsters trying to do some things."
McGuire, who said he did some rhythm-and-blues disc jockeying himself while in college, gave the program $50.
Allen W. Christian Jr., owner of New Wax Unlimited Records in Northeast Washington, was delighted to hear from Teen Talk.
"You don't see enough young people like that in these times," he said. "They do a fine job and have such a positive attitude. I'll help any young person who is on the right track."
His donation: another $50.
"The National Bar Association gave $100," Gibbs said as he targeted another business for a call recently. A well-thumbed copy of Black Enterprise magazine's ranking of the top 100 black companies in the United States is partially submerged in the clutter on his desk.
Gibbs and Kay Shaw said Teen Talk needs to leave the station because of a conflict between WPFW's policies and the aspirations of the show's producers.
As part of the Pacifica group, WPFW has a policy that prohibits its programs from soliciting advertising. The station, programed primarily with public affairs shows and jazz and ethnic music aimed at minority audiences, gives air time to people who ordinarily wouldn't get a chance to broadcast on radio.
Marita Rivero, WPFW general manager, said Teen Talk need not leave the station. She said she has encouraged its staff to make the program an independent entity, capable of raising its own funds and accepting its own grants -- but no advertising.
"They should establish themselves as a group of young professional radio producers," Rivero said. "We encourage that."
Gibbs said that staying would not solve Teen Talk's most pressing problems, however. First, he said, prohibiting the program from accepting advertising to make it self-sufficient prevents the show from raising enough money to pay a staff that Rivero said produces one of the most complex half-hour programs aired by the station. Gibbs also said that the program has trouble attracting young listeners on a station that appeals mostly to adults.
"All the things we need to do to attract teen-agers, we can't do here," Gibbs complained.
Starting next month, Gibbs plans to use some of the money already collected to pay himself and his staff a salary of about $40 a week. Gibbs said Teen Talk also should move its office to Lansburgh Cultural Arts Center at Seventh and D streets NW where it will be part of Pure Street, a nonprofit organization that trains youths for the media.
Kay Shaw said the break with WPFW is imminent.
When Teen Talk first aired in the winter of 1980, the pattern was set for a range of controversial topics: interracial dating, teen birth control, homosexuality and the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
But it wasn't until Shaw joined the program last year that it acquired its slick audio magazine format.
For example, the March 15, 1981, broadcast was about the psychological effects the murders of black children in Atlanta were having on black youths in Washington.
The program opened with Marvin Gaye singing "What's Going On" to the sound of mothers on porch steps calling the names of children the show's narrator reminded listeners would never return.
The show included snippets of man-on-the-street interviews with black children and parents, a discussion with a D.C. psychologist and a moving speech made by an 11-year-old girl before the Congressional Black Caucus, all seamlessly connected by thoughtful narration and music.
The following summer, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities Summer Youth Program awarded Teen Talk a $16,000 grant that provided minimum-wage summer jobs for the program's 16 staff members.
Last summer Teen Talk received a grant to pay its staff, then numbering 20, from Arts D.C., a program that places CETA workers in arts programs.
"This is not like a job," said James Lightfoot, 21, who is majoring in television production at the University of the District of Columbia. "It is a family."
Corliss Adams, 17, one of the show's cohosts and an associate producer, agreed. "I've learned a lot about communication," he said, describing himself as withdrawn before joining Teen Talk two years ago.
"It's now a lot easier for me to meet people. This has opened me up and made me a bit more aggressive," said Adams, a senior at High Point Senior High School near College Park.
"By calling the businesses, I have found that there are a lot of things out there for the asking if you just ask for it. For a lot of people, life is just showing up and not doing anything."