Public radio station WCBU has been an on-air institution in central Illinois for decades, and new executive director Thomas Hunt is looking forward to keeping the tradition of quality public radio alive in the Peoria area—and even expanding its audience.

Hunt, a Michigan native, discovered radio in high school. “I fell in love with the medium and knew it would be my life’s work,” he said. “I attended Eastern Michigan University, where I earned my Bachelors and Masters degrees. After graduation, I became the first program director of WCMU at Central Michigan University, later becoming the director. When the WCBU job opened up last year, I was very anxious to apply and fortunate to have been the finalist. I’ve been here since October and am really enjoying the station, the university, and the city. It’s a wonderful place.”

WCBU’s focus is on classical music and news, he said. “We’re an NPR station and bring listeners the major NPR daily newsmagazines, including Morning Edition, Day to Day (which started in July), and All Things Considered. More importantly, WCBU’s news department consistently wins awards for local news coverage, features, and investigative reporting. I’m very proud of our staff and their efforts to bring listeners the best in fine arts and news. Of course, we also have some of the other top programs public radio has to offer, including Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, and Whad’Ya Know. And our coverage of the weekly Peoria City Council meetings is unique; very few stations in this country carry gavel-to-gavel coverage of their city government proceedings.”

Currently celebrating 35 years on air, WCBU is wholly owned and operated by Bradley University and supported by listener contributions and business underwriting, Hunt said. “All staff members are Bradley employees.”

Even with the diverse listening options out there these days, Hunt said Peoria and central Illinois need a local public radio station now more than ever. “With ownership consolidation of media, quite often the local public station is the only one doing any significant news reporting. In Peoria, we’re fortunate in that the radio stations in town, although consolidated, are locally owned. That’s an unusual situation in many cities—especially the larger towns. Still, only WCBU and WMBD provide any significant local news coverage. And WCBU and WMBD take different approaches to news so we complement each other rather than compete.”

He said what makes WCBU unique in the community is its commitment to the arts. “Being a classical music station is important; our work on the air is closely aligned to the interests of the arts community. We do our best to partner with local arts groups to share the music, ideas, and excitement of a dynamic arts community. We consider ourselves to be part of the arts community and, at the same time, the bearer of news and information about that community.

Radio as a medium is fighting for its place among the many other medias, but Hunt has no doubts about radio’s relevance. “Although I have a natural professional bias toward radio, nationally, NPR’s audience doubled to 23 million in the last 10 years. This is significant because commercial radio listening has declined. In Peoria, WCBU has enjoyed steady audience growth. Today, approximately 30,000 people tune in to the station at least once a week. Radio is portable. The signal is everywhere—and broadcast radio is free.”

He said television and radio have always coexisted, and he isn’t worried that TV will usurp radio’s place. “People tune into television for specific programs, but they listen to radio for a station’s unique personality or culture. Radio is an intimate medium; a listener develops an affinity for a particular format or group of on-air personalities. Local radio—with Peoria and central Illinois news on our three daily newsmagazines, Jonathan Ahl anchoring City Council, Lee Wenger playing music in the afternoons, and our great weekend programming—makes WCBU an incredible local companion for individuals at home, in the car, or in the office.”

If you’ve never listened to WCBU, Hunt said you may be surprised that classical music is actually fun to listen to. “People who don’t understand classical music think it’s elitist, snobbish, or boring. Quite often, someone who’s listened attentively for the first time will tell us they really like it and want to know more about the music we’re playing. And there’s nothing more satisfying than to hear of someone who’s had a ‘driveway moment’—listening to All Things Considered on the way home, they sit in the car in the driveway to catch the end of a compelling story or news feature. That’s what makes public radio so special.”

Hunt said there’s two common misconceptions about public radio: that it’s adequately funded through the parent institution and/or federal grants and that it’s liberal in its approach to news. “The fact is, we must rely on listener contributions and business underwriting for nearly half of our operating budget. This is why we make a big deal about fundraisers; they’re our lifeblood. As for the liberal approach, when one does in-depth reporting, as is the case in public radio, all sides of a story are pursued. Further, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting commissioned a study using two research firms. The results of their studies were identical: only 26 percent of respondents felt there’s a liberal bias in NPR programming, 80 percent have a favorable impression of NPR as a whole, and more than two-thirds feel public or federal support of public radio and television is appropriate. Yet, we still fight the image of liberal bias.”

Just as in other industries, the future of radio includes going high-tech, Hunt said. “We’re excited about new technology on our horizon: Digital Radio, also known as High Definition (HD) Radio is the most revolutionary advance in radio since its beginnings. HD Radio technology is a method of transmitting audio and data, offering upgraded audio quality, on-demand interactive experiences, and compelling new wireless data services. We’re in a capital campaign right now to generate the $300,000 needed to replace our transmitter and related equipment, and we plan to make the switch as soon as possible. The nice thing about HD Radio is that it’s compatible with existing analog FM broadcasting.” AA!