Playing everything from Fats Domino to John Coltrane, WBRH-FM and the station’s “Rhythm and Blues Saturday” and “Classic Jazz Sunday” shows are weekend traditions for local radio listeners.
Based in studios at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, WBRH is marking its 40th year this fall. The station began broadcasting in 1977 with 10 watts of power. The signal grew through the decades to 3,500 watts. In 2016, WBRH and its sister station, KBRH-AM, began streaming.
WBRH’s programming has evolved from classical music and album-oriented rock to its present format of blues, jazz, soul, rhythm-and-blues, rock ’n’ roll and indigenous Louisiana music.
To the best of the WBRH faculty’s knowledge, Baton Rouge Magnet High School is the only high school in the nation operating FM and AM stations 24 hours a day.
“There are a few other high school radio stations, but I think we’re the best,” said Rob Payer, production director and music director for WBRH, 90.3 FM, and KBRH, 1260 AM.
The stations are staging their fall Jazz-A-Thon Saturday through Sunday, Oct. 1. Listener donations provide nearly 50 percent of their operating budget.
“The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board is very generous to us,” said Malcolm Robinson, general manager. “They help with some of our bills, but for the most part, we are self-sustaining and always have been.”
A diverse listenership tunes into WBRH and KBRH, Robinson said.
“There’s something for everybody, especially on the weekends,” Payer agreed. “So many people love this station. They’re really devoted to it.”
Payer is a 1984 graduate of Baton Rouge High School and the radio training program.
“I went through the program and was fortunate enough to have a career in broadcasting,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to come back here and share that with the students.”
Students in the radio training program operate the equipment and speak on the mic. Broadcasting can help them gain confidence and social skills, Robinson and Payer said.
“They get behind the microphone, and they are transformed,” Robinson said. “At some point, they carry that confidence with them whether the microphone is there or not.”
“The responsibilities the students have make this more like job training than a class,” Payer said. Luke Liddy, a senior in the program, doesn’t know yet if he’ll pursue a broadcasting career. He does know that his communications skills have improved. When he’s on the air, Liddy said, “I envision that I’m talking to a large crowd of people, because a lot of people are listening.”
Toriona O’Conner, a junior, operates the stations’ radio board. Like Liddy, she isn’t sure if she’ll become a professional broadcaster. “But I want to do anything with music,” O’Conner said.
In addition to technical skills and enunciation, students in the program learn about classic American music.
“They get lessons in the roots of modern music they listen to today,” Payer said. “They often don’t know anything about this music, but when they graduate, they’ve found a love for Etta James, John Fred Gourrier, Tabby Thomas and other artists they wouldn’t have otherwise known about.”
The late Gourrier, a Baton Rouge recording artist internationally known for his No. 1 hit, “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses),” and the late Thomas, a blues musician and longtime owner of Tabby’s Blues Box and Heritage Hall, are among the many local musicians and experts who’ve brought their knowledge to WBRH. The others include music business veterans S.J. and Mickey Montalbano, the beloved jazz artist and educator Alvin Batiste, Pete Soderbergh, Will Roberts and Winston Day.
The latter tradition continues with Saturday hosts Larry Garner, Leah Smith, Pat McBride, Luther Kent and Johnny Palazzotto. Sundays feature Fritz McCameron, Gerald Lively, Bill Pryor, Bobby Campo and Zia Tammami.
“People love the weekend programming,” Payer said. “I like to say we supply the soundtrack for your Saturdays and Sundays.”
Kent, a veteran rhythm-and-blues singer and recording artist, hosts Saturday’s “Luther’s House Party” from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., the slot previously occupied by Gourrier, the Montalbano brothers and Day.
“I wish they would have had a radio training program when I was in school,” Kent said. “It’s a great thing for the kids to have this hands-on opportunity in a first-class radio facility.”
When Payer invited Kent to do a show, the singer insisted the program reflect the blues, soul and R&B that inspired him when he was a teenager growing up Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
“I told Rob, ‘If I’m going to do this, I really want it to be about the music,’ ” Kent said. “So, my show is all about the music and the kids. Raising money to keep the radio station going for the students, that’s really the reason why I do it.”