By Holly Desrosier
George Olsen, radio host and producer for over 30 years, sits behind the microphone in a small studio in Barker Hall. As the longest tenured employee at Public Radio East (PRE), Olsen has a voice that is easily recognizable whether he’s delivering a feature report, highlighting regional news or introducing musicians.
Today, his voice reaches an average of 50,000 listeners each week, but 35 years ago, PRE was a tiny radio station trying to find its footing in a small town. Three and a half decades later, PRE has established itself as one of the most prestigious stations in Eastern North Carolina. The journey wasn’t an easy one and began with one man’s dream.
History in the Making
The concept of PRE was formulated by New Bern native Dr. Charles Barker in the early 1980s. While attending UNC-Chapel Hill 40 years prior, Barker had been one of the founding members of the campus radio station WUNC, which is now the leading National Public Radio member station for the Research Triangle Park area. He earned his degree in journalism in 1942 before pursuing a degree in dentistry and, ultimately, opening a pediatric dental practice in New Bern.
Although Barker was a successful dentist in New Bern—he actually patented the “dentalounger” chair in 1959 that was adapted into what we’re all familiar with today and advanced the dental field tremendously—his heart remained in radio. In 1965, he became a charter member of the Board of Trustees of the Craven Industrial Education Center and was instrumental in its transition from a technical institute to a community college. It became Craven Community College (Craven CC) in 1967, and he continued to serve on the board until 1991. Fittingly, when public radio first gained traction across the country, many stations were directly associated with licenses at higher learning institutions, which left the campus of Craven CC as the area’s best candidate and Barker’s top choice.
“He was one of many people that decided that they needed public radio here in Eastern North Carolina,” said Ben Donnelly, PRE general manager since Aug. 2018. “So they went through all the effort, applied with the Federal Communications Commission for the license, got funding, set up a tower and started broadcasting.”
Except it wasn’t quite that simple. In fact, before its establishment and even well into its fledgling months, the radio station was met with heavy skepticism, with many naysayers believing it would never get off the ground. When Barker first proposed the idea to college officials, they scoffed at the notion of a radio station on the college’s campus and said the public would not embrace nor support such an endeavor. However, Barker was not about to go down without a fight and never gave up on his idea.
Officials finally told him that they would make it happen if he came up with the funds needed to get it started. Barker accepted the challenge and enlisted the help of community members, as well as his brother, who was a state senator, and soon had a commitment from the legislature for the money needed to put the station on the air. He brought officials a six-figure check, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“It really shows you the difference one person can make,” said Olsen. “He continued to check up on us, pretty much until the day he died.”
The station’s call letters were dubbed WTEB. In commercial radio, stations east of the Mississippi River start with “W” and stations to the west start with “K.” Since Barker’s initials were already in use, the “TEB” portion represents the initials of Thurman Elwood Brock, the founding president of Craven CC from 1965 to 1990. To commemorate Barker’s efforts, the college’s Board of Trustees dedicated the building in which the station is housed as “Barker Hall” in 2001.
WTEB-89.3 FM officially went on the air at 6 a.m. on June 4, 1984. The acquisition of a satellite dish was made possible by a $20,000 grant the following month. The station now broadcasts 24 hours a day on five frequencies and is divided into two complete program networks: NPR programming and classical music, as well as the News and Ideas Network. PRE is Eastern Carolina’s primary source for classical, jazz and Americana music and public service announcements. It holds the distinction of being one of only six 100,000-watt public radio stations in the United States that is licensed to a community college. It serves as the primary public radio outlet for 17 counties of Eastern Central North Carolina. In 1985, WTEB had approximately 9,000 weekly listeners; today, they tout over 50,000 weekly listeners.
A Supportive Staff
Olsen actually started at the station just two years after it debuted and, aside from a nearly three-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at the University of Alabama’s station WUAL-FM, has been with PRE since then. He can be heard hosting highly regarded programs such as “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “The Sound.” Since his start, he has been impressed by the advancements in radio and the efforts of PRE to streamline processes, remembering a time when rooms were wall to wall with tape decks.
“In the time I’ve been here, we have gone from playing classical music off of vinyl records to CDs being all the rage,” he recalled. “Now, everything is basically computer-based.”
The station is a closely connected group of only eight employees, consisting of Olsen and Donnelly, as well as Jared Brumbaugh, news coordinator; Kelly Batchelor, program director; Kevin Watson, development director; Tony Noel, business account executive; Breth Powers, data entry technician; and Alice Jarnagin, administrative assistant.
PRE’s local news coverage has received numerous awards, including Associated Press awards for Outstanding News Operation in North Carolina, Best General News, Best Sports Programming, Best Consumer Reporting, Best Health Report and Best Series.
In addition to their top-notch team, PRE credits their partnership with Craven CC as a contributor to their success and longevity. Olsen noted his immense appreciation of the college’s IT and facilities staff, who are on call whenever the station has an infrastructure or electronic need.
He mentioned that the station regularly airs announcements about college events and indicates that PRE is a community service of Craven CC. The station has had an influence on the college as well, as its Lifetime Learning Center is currently hosting a three-concert series that was inspired by Olsen’s program “The Sound,” which features four hours of Americana, roots rock and contemporary folk music with an emphasis on performers from North Carolina every weeknight.
“The college in general has been so helpful,” said Olsen. “I think the college and the station have always tried to meet each other halfway as much as possible. There’s always been an effort to recognize ‘here’s what the college is trying to accomplish; how can we help them out?’”
Brumbaugh, PRE’s news coordinator, is actually a former Craven CC student. He graduated with an associate in applied science and majored in electronics engineering in 2007. Although he sought a career in broadcasting, the college did not offer such a program. Instead, he began working at PRE while still a student, trained with PRE staff and learned the basics of journalism. He was the producer of the weekly radio segment “Down East Journal” from 2009 until 2017 and is now PRE’s only full-time reporter.
“While taking classes at Craven Community College to learn the technical side of radio, I also worked at Public Radio East honing my skills as a journalist,” said Brumbaugh. “I hope students who aspire to be a news reporter or who are interested in pursuing a career in broadcasting will utilize Craven CC and PRE as a resource to learn more about radio journalism and broadcasting.”
Looking to the Future
Coincidentally, this fall marked the start of a new initiative between PRE and Craven CC: a Communications Equipment Repair certificate program. As an offshoot of the college’s Electronics Engineering Technology pathway through the Career Programs department, this program covers topics widely utilized in broadcast engineering, such as circuit analysis, digital electronics and communications systems.
“Part of what’s exciting about that is I’ve got some of the earliest documents from before there was a station here, and that was part of the initial proposal back in the ‘80s to have an electronic engineering program associated with the station,” explained Donnelly. “We’re also working to get an active broadcast program put together with the fine arts program. I’d love to be able to have journalism involved too.”
Olsen believes this program will open doors not only for what PRE can accomplish, but also for students and their futures. The station has hopes to eventually implement station internships and perhaps start a student radio station.
One challenge the station faces is the plethora of modern-day media options. In general, younger generations opt to listen to media on personal electronic devices. PRE is doing its best to keep up with the times and already streams online at www.publicradioeast.org, but the reality is that they are limited to what they can afford.
“It’s kind of a two-edged sword with internet streaming available because you can get content from anywhere in the world, so in that sense we could be seen as competing with some of the best places in the world,” said Donnelly. “However, we can produce content here locally that can be distributed worldwide, and that gives us not only opportunity to bring prestige to the college and the organization, but to possibly bring in funding from places throughout the world.”
The ability to produce local content is certainly one aspect that sets PRE apart and gives it an advantage with local listeners, and it is something the station hopes to increase as time goes on.
“Here, we are trying to present news and information that’s pertinent to folks in New Bern, Greenville, Beaufort—all around,” said Olsen. “Our efforts to make this as local a station as possible and still use the NPR programs as a backbone distinguishes us from our competitors.”
Another thing that sets the station apart is their willingness to stay on the air even during natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence. For decades, listeners have relied on PRE as an information hub for hurricane updates and imperative local news. The college campus has a generator, which allows them to stay on the air throughout the storms. Several PRE staff actually stayed at the station during Florence, something they consider just part of the job. Olsen said that’s something the PRE crew has been doing for at least 20 years, even back when they didn’t have access to generators or the internet.
“We were the source for finding information,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot of changing times. We’ve tried to stay on during the storms to try and get as much information out as we can.”
Radio stations require a lot of pricy equipment that must be replaced every so often as certain things become obsolete. As it is, PRE has many infrastructural needs to be met. For instance, they have a 35-year-old transmitter out in Newport for which parts are no longer supported. They also need to replace some consoles in the studios, and they would love to have generators on hand to keep all sites powered and on the air during outages, so listeners stay updated in crucial times.
Both Olsen and Donnelly agreed that PRE would like to be able to have a larger news department involving students and professional staff so that PRE can be a journalistic hub for the region. In addition to those upgrades, they hope to improve classical reception, renovate performance space and recording facilities, produce podcasts with a national reach and possibly debut an app to boost their appeal with younger generations. They also hope to supplement what they’re already doing with more locally produced content.
A Community Collaboration
While the station has grand plans that would certainly benefit New Bern and the surrounding communities, they face many challenges on a daily basis. Funding is a common pitfall for most nonprofits, but this is especially true in PRE’s case. Since the start, they have relied heavily on donors and support from listeners. The public has been extremely supportive of the station—their donations actually cover approximately 80% of PRE’s operational costs—but the station is in great need of some major equipment upgrades if they hope to stay up to date.
“The funding model for public radio is not what it used to be,” said Donnelly. “So we’ve had to rely more and more on direct donations and underwriting in order to fund things around here.”
In addition to listener support, PRE relies on underwriting to cover operational costs. Underwriting is an essential element for a nonprofit radio station such as PRE. It is similar to advertising but has stricter guidelines stating that it must be informative and not persuasive.
Donnelly reiterated how much the station appreciates any financial support they get, whether it’s in the form of a donation or volunteering to stuff envelopes a couple of hours each month. He also likes when listeners stop by the studio to see what’s happening as it helps establish a community connection.
“I enjoy going out into the public and talking to people who listen, some people who have listened for the whole 35 years, and they want to know what’s going on with the station,” he continued. “And you can see by the smile on their face when they talk about it that they feel a genuine connection to what we do here. That’s part of the reason why I work in this business. I started out as one of those enthusiastic listeners and managed to find a way to make a career of it.”
Olsen agreed, saying the fact that they still have such a strong listener base shows how unique and valuable to the area it is. He also pointed out that 100% of contributions go straight into the station, and listeners get what they expect.
“When we go on the air during fund drives and say ‘thank you,’ we’re not being insincere,” he added. “We recognize very well how dependent we are on that. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
In essence, PRE resulted from the idea of one man who was determined enough to keep pushing until he achieved his goal. PRE has made impressive strides in the field of radio in its 35 years and continues to hold tight to its roots while also adapting to modern-day media.
Meanwhile, the illuminated red “On Air” sign outside the studio door goes black, indicating the end of Olsen’s recording segment. He’ll be back behind the mic tomorrow, fueled by his love of radio and the supportive listeners that have made PRE a staple across the region.
This article was originally published in the New Bern Sun Journal on December 10, 2019.