WNCU kicks off 20th anniversary celebration

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 10:51 AM

The development of WNCU FM is “full of very interesting stories,” said Donald Baker, the station’s first general manager, at a reception this week to kick off the jazz station’s 20th year on the air. Baker told a few of those stories. The call letters for WNCU came from a decommissioned U.S. Navy U-boat, he said. And the late Jesse Helms, the longtime senator, also had a hand in expediting the station’s license, Baker said.
Listeners, patrons and musicians gathered Wednesday at the station, located in the Farrison-Newton Communications Building at N.C. Central University, to share stories about the station and hear about some of its history.
The creation of WNCU (90.7 FM) really began in the 1980s, Baker said. When WAFR, a local Durham station dedicated to African-American programming, went off the air, the station donated its equipment to NCCU to start a station. At that time NCCU “had no voice” on the airwaves, Baker said. He credited the late Tyronza Richmond, chancellor of the school, as the catalyst for getting WNCU going. Richmond “had a vision and a passion” for the station, Baker said.
The school applied for its FCC license in 1987. When the application languished, Baker said school officials in 1990 called Sen. Helms, who helped get the license approved. No matter what people may think of Helms’ political views, “he supported his constituents,” Baker said. Later, when Baker was trying to find suitable call letters for the station, he called the FCC, and an NCCU alumnus answered. She found the letters WNCU from a former U-boat, which Baker quickly claimed.
The station went on the air in August 1995, and has dedicated its programming to jazz, funk, reggae, international music, the blues and related styles, as well as public affairs programming. Many of the volunteers who host those shows – B.H. Hudson, Ed Fulbright, Carolyn Ryals and others – were honored at the reception. Trombonist Robert Trowers, pianist Ed Paolantonio and percussionist Thomas Taylor, who teach in NCCU’s Jazz Studies Program, performed jazz classics and standards for the crowd.
Fans praised WNCU for being steadfast in its mission to play and expose listeners to jazz music. “It’s the only source of wonderful jazz music,” said a fan who calls herself “Mama Jazz.” In many large cities, jazz stations have gone off the air, but “this one has remained true to its mission,” she said.
“I go back a long time loving jazz music, loving music,” said Ed Furtick. Furtick retired from IBM, and later moved from the area and worked for Borders books and Sam Goody’s record store, where he was considered the authority on the music. He began listening to WNCU’s online stream. When he moved back to Durham, he said he was “elated” at being able to listen to the music on radio. “It’s wonderful for a longtime jazz lover like me,” Furtick said. His son Matthew Furtick, who for about 10 years hosted WNCU’s reggae show under the name Mattey-O, also was at the event.
NCCU Chancellor Debra Saunders-White praised the station, and the school’s Jazz Studies Program, which attracts students from all over because they know how good the musicians and teachers are, she said. “At the end of the day, the musicians we produce are on the national stage,” Saunders-White said.
More events are planned leading up to the August 2015 anniversary. For updates, visit www.wncu.org.