University City

WFAE reaches far beyond University City

University City's pre-eminent landmark dominates the Charlotte area, from Davidson to Waxhaw and from Salisbury to South Carolina's Peachoid.

Nothing in University City has such a towering daily presence throughout our region. The strange thing is, you can't see it.

I'm talking, of course, about our public radio station, WFAE.

First launched in dorms at UNC Charlotte and from its beginnings in University City, WFAE is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

The station is still based where it has been for decades: downstairs in an office building on the banks of Lake Hilton, near W.T. Harris Boulevard and North Tryon Street.

With almost 200,000 regular listeners, WFAE functions as a virtual agora, the famed Athenian marketplace where Socrates taught and democracy was born. The station provides local news coverage and the unique phone-in community discussion show "Charlotte Talks," with host Mike Collins.

WFAE also connects our community with the nation and the world through public radio programs such as "All Things Considered," "The Diane Rehm Show" and "Talk of the Nation."

Then there's all the fun stuff, like "The Splendid Table," a food show so delectable that you'll want to eat your radio. WFAE's list of unique programs is long: the "Car Talk" guys and their snide humor; and "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," the quiz show that has become my primary source of news.

Thanks to WFAE, University City can even boast a global impact. NPR's Celtic music show "Thistle and Shamrock" has fans worldwide. Host Fiona Ritchie created the show right here, when she was attending UNCC as a study-abroad student from Scotland.

WFAE is in the midst of a pledge drive, one of those periodic public radio plea-athons. In the station's pledge room, informal posters decorate the walls, with messages such as "Getting it right is better than getting it fast," and " Always let the phone ring twice."

Volunteers wearing headsets face computer screens along banks of tables. The day I visited, they reflected Charlotte's diversity: Some wore business suits and ties, others baseball caps and jeans. Their goal is to quickly record pledges, but these callers were NPR listeners, people with something to say. Over the buzz of disjointed conversations and ringing phones, I heard a volunteer say, "Wow, that's a good point! I'll be sure to pass it on..."

"Morning Edition" producer Marshall Terry took me back to see WFAE reporters Julie Rose and Scott Graf at work in the studio. During pledge drives, they follow a script, but the two dialog back and forth like jazz musicians, riffing and improvising. Every so often, they play prerecorded support messages from NPR stars such as Terri Gross and Ira Glass. Even during pledge drive, I find myself drawn in to listening to these masters of the art of radio.

Roger Sarow, the station's general manager, said the pledge message is simple: Public radio bring something invaluable to the public they can't get elsewhere. WFAE needs money to support that mission, and the largest and most reliable source of money is individual listeners. Plus, he said, it takes only a minute to contribute.

Sarow said only 15,000 of WFAE's 200,000 listeners contribute. Controversies over NPR's firing of correspondent Juan Williams and the subsequent resignation of its CEO, Vivian Schiller, have had little impact on WFAE.

Although proposed cuts to federal support for public broadcasting would reduce WFAE's funding by about 8 percent and impose restrictions on the station, Sarow is much more concerned about the crippling impact of such a cut on smaller stations nationwide.

WFAE's pledge drive continues through Tuesday, and the station frequently broadcasts the pledge central phone number, 704-549-9000. Give them a call, make a pledge and consider volunteering.

At the station, I met volunteers from as far away as Hickory answering phones, but not a single person from the University City. We can't blame that simply on our lack of sidewalks.

Since nothing raises University City's profile like WFAE, it seems only fair that University City residents pitch in to help WFAE reach its goals.