The organizers of the country's first 24-hour, all-comedy radio station, WJOK-AM, intend to launch operations by early December from the former WHMC studio in Gaithersburg.
The station, which will broadcast on the 1150 frequency, will "be like any other commercial station, except our entertainment will be exclusively comedy," said station general manager Robert E. Cobbins. "We will offer public service announcements, weather, news, time checks, etc. But we're unique by offering the only concept of entertainment that appeals to everybody. Anybody from 12 to 125 likes to laugh."
The station, located on Watkins Mill Road behind the Montgomery Village Shopping Center, will broadcast over 1,000 watts daily and 500 watts nightly, reaching as far as Prince William and Frederick counties, he said.
WJOK's repertoire will include classical comedy -- Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, Laurel and Hardy, and Fibber McGee and Molly -- as well as newer talents, Cobbins said.
Operations manager Ron Lewis said more contemporary humor by Saturday Night Live star Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and the National Lampoon may be featured after 10 p.m. "We are looking into contemporary humor , but it's not definite," said Lewis.
"Comedy is therapy," said Cobbins, who has worked as a salesman and manager in broadcasting here for 30 years. "If you're stuck in a car during a traffic jam, it's better to laugh away your frustrations than to put your hand through the window.
"Also, a lot of comedy in the old days was censored. But you can play anything now. If you can say it, you can play it."
According to Federal Communications Commission official Molly Parker, the U.S. Criminal Code prohibits the broadcast of obscene, indecent or profane language, and persons broadcasting such material can be punished with a maximum $10,000 fine and two years' imprisonment.
Parker said the Supreme Court's definition of what is obscene, indecent and profane is flexible according to the time of day, the intended audience and the attitudes of the community where the material is broadcasted.
Lewis, who has worked in the Washington market the last five years for WPGC-AM, WWDC-AM, and most recently, WLTT-FM, said, "We hope to give the listener a real belly laugh, but we don't want to be cute. We want to be a viable alternative to music."
Cobbins, who started as a salesman at WARL-AM, then a country-music station and now rock station WAVA-FM, said he first had the idea for a comedy station 18 years ago, and started collecting albums and tapes to use.
In 1971, the FCC refused to renew WHMC's license. In 1974, Cobbins and three other Virginia residents formed Barto Communications to compete with five other broadcasting companies for the license.
They won out over the others in 1980 and began renovating the old station soon afterward.
"When we got to the site, two of the five towers had been felled and the building was vandalized," Cobbins said. "So we had to come up with $300,000 to pay for the repairs."
In granting the license to Barto, Judge John H. Conlin of the FCC Review Board said that the firm was the only applicant to have all four stockholders planning to work full time at the station. Among the four, the judge noted, was a black stockholder, Olin DeWitt Hester, who Cobbins said would have worked in sales. Hester would have owned 25 percent of Barto's stock.
One FCC official said the commission looks favorably upon women or minority involvement in radio ownership because it allows for diversification of the industry. Several women were listed as members of Barto's competitors, but their percentage of involvement was no more than 10 percent.
But after the license was granted, Hester resigned before buying stock in the company, citing financial and family problems, Cobbins said.
"Ironically, Hester was the one who first proposed the idea to buy the station," Cobbins said. "I offered to lend him the money to stay on, but he refused."
Barto's competitors for the license appealed to the FCC, contending that Hester had been included in the organization simply to facilitate the application process, but lost their appeal.
"We hired him because he was a damn good salesman," Cobbins said of Hester.
Now helping Lewis and Cobbins manage the station are Tom Reeder, a 24-year veteran of sales and management in broadcasting, who is vice president and program director, and Richard A. Bowis, a former part-owner of a construction business, who is public affairs and promotion director.
Some observers of the local radio scene say they have some doubts about comedy's 24-hour appeal.
"People don't have to listen closely to music to enjoy it," said Mark Miller, senior news editor for Broadcasting Magazine in Washington. "But comedy, as with an all-news station, requires a higher amount of concentration that most people are not willing to [give].
"A good sign of the demand for such a station is that there are only a couple" of stations featuring only news or talk shows in the Washington market, Miller said, among them WTOP-AM and WRC-AM.
"I wonder where they will get all material to fill the shows," he said. "It will be interesting to see how it turns out."
"I've got enough material to play for 18 months without repeating anything," Cobbins said.
WJOK may work with Garvin's Grill, a comedy nightclub in Washington that attracts nationally known comedians, to play live some of its shows, Cobbins said. Interviews with artists who are in town are also planned. "We'd also like to tape man-on-the-street interviews, David Letterman-style," Lewis added.
Cobbins said Barto has invested $700,000 for legal and construction fees. "I've put a lot of time, money and effort into WJOK," Cobbins said. "If it goes down, I go down with it."