Behind The Mic With Barbara Sayer & BPR/WCQS/WYQS/WUNF

Aug 16, 2019

Have you been missing a voice on the air at BPR?  So have we.   Last month, Barbara Sayer signed off after nearly four decades in public radio here in Western North Carolina.   If you know Barbara, you know she’s the kind of person who quietly slips out the back door.  Fanfare is not her calling card.  We wanted to honor that while still giving her a proper goodbye and a thank you and thought this would be a great opportunity to take a look back at BPR's (and Barbara Sayer's) incredible history here in Western North Carolina. 

If you had to come up with one voice that defines public radio here in Western North Carolina – it’s this one. 

“You’re with Blue Ridge Public Radio, I'm Barbara Sayer”

For nearly forty years the warm and velvety voice of Barbara Sayer has been our voice, the one that we carry with us during our day.  “At 9:30, you’re with Blue Ridge Public Radio,"

And for good reason. At some point in Barbara’s amazing career here – she’s hosted every program.  But what you may not know is the remarkable role Barbara Sayer has played behind the scenes. To understand that we need to take a trip back in time back 1979 or so when Barbara Sayer, the  archeologist who grew up in Georgia and had been working in Nevada  landed in Asheville and after a few career experiments, volunteered at WUNF, a 10 watt community radio station broadcasting from studios on the campus of UNC Asheville.

“Testing one two three” 

 Soon, volunteer Barbara Sayer became a staff member and a voice on the air. We just happened to find a few cassettes documenting those early days.  “Today is Wednesday, February 4, 1982, testing one-two-three”

Tim Warner came to WCQS in 1984. “When I interviewed for the job of general manager it was WUNF,” says Warner, it hadn’t changed to the new call signs, the studios and offices were all in the Lipinsky auditorium at UNCA and there was one employee Barbara.  Everything else was volunteer, Chip Kaufmann and Wayne Erbsen were here before I was. Everybody did everything.”

“Its 11:04 and you’re listening to WUNF”  Barbara would do some on air shifts, jazz in the afternoon.            

“I’m Barbara and I’ll be here until 10.” Tim had a menu of good stories from the WUNF days including the time the transmitter had to be moved and Barbara convinced a volunteer host to move it on top of his garage.  “Richard Page was a classical musical fan.  He didn’t like some of the other music,” says Warner. “There was one night he pulled the plug on the transmitter and took the station off of the air because he didn’t approve of the music.  Barbara had to cajole him into plugging things back in so we could go back on the air and agreeing not to that again!"

 Those negotiation skills would come in handy again – when construction at UNC Asheville prompted the need for a new location for the station which Barbara found through a friend, Architect John Reed - who happened to own a building in downtown Asheville at 73 Broadway  ... Here’s long time and recently retired classical music host Chip Kaufmann

“So what happened is we had something like, and I won’t swear to this, something like a dollar a year lease, because we came in and we did all the work.  We hung the sheetrock and did all the studio conversions. And that’s how it got started, so by 1985, this building became WCQS, which was a name that was chosen because it was Western Carolina’s Quality Sound, that’s what WCQS stood for.” 

“This is NPR, and this is listener supported WCQS”  By 1986 WCQS is certified as a fully qualified public radio station by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting “We were able to get some grants, “says Tim Warner.  “She worked with board. Marie Colton was a state legislator who was responsible for getting us some money. And that enabled us to expand to 5 staff members and get NPR programming. Among those five was news director David Hurand. And music director Dick Kowal.  Barbara Sayer moved into the role of program director (the station’s first) while still hosting and when she had time – reporting.  Barbara reporting: "It was the day before the Sojourner Mission landed and as I stepped out on.."  Here’s a clip from one of her stories filed in 1992, covering an Archaeology Field School on the Warren Wilson College campus. "It was a steamy July morning and some of the crew members were screening buckets of dirt, excavated from a number of carefully dug square units, others were flat shoveling squares down to specific levels, while others were troweling around various features, all under the watchful eye of archaeologist, David Moore, "We're under the southwestern part of the village.."  1992 was also another year of growth for the station. A Capital Campaign raises funds to boost the station signal, renovate studios and much more.  

“I’m Terry Gross and this is Fresh air” Along with NPR programming, the WCQS airwaves were filled with local music and talk showsAnd those trademark fund drives!

Fast forward to the early 2000s, the station and signal continue to grow. Plans for a second service, an all-news channel start to take shape with the acquisition of the Mars Hill College frequency which was renamed WYQS. While there’s not enough time to dig into all of the government red tape involved in making that happen (and it was a lot!) we do have time for this rare clip from 2017 the year that second channel  was launched and joined WCQS,  to  form blue ridge public radio. Here’s Barbara sharing a few thoughts about the stations new name. 

“When we first started thinking, we could have an additional service. We could have 2 channels! We thought we’ll need an overall name and we thought about Blue Ridge Public Radio.  But we were so far away from being able to cover most of our region that we sort of forgot about it. (I didn’t forget about it)  But when it came up again when we had the physical capability, of doing this we hit again upon Blue Ridge Public Radio. It’s very gratifying." Change and growth continues. WCQS becomes BPR Classic. WYQS becomes BPR news. And BPR gets a mobile app as new shows and new voices hit the air.

All the while, the archeologist, turned public radio volunteer, turned staff member and dedicated program director with the warm velvety voice as the thread that connects it all. But at some point, even the most dedicated are ready for a new adventure and 2019 was to be that year for Barbara.  

It is not possible to wrap up this story in a way that truly reflects all she’s done and all she means to so many. So we’ll end with her words and more from the 2017 interview about the BPR news channel launch where Barbara Sayer shares her thoughts about what she considered to be the cornerstone of public radio - the listener.

“I don’t think you can separate our desire and our work to make this happen from our listeners and our supporters. During the time we’ve been crafting and waiting and getting frustrated and applying for frequencies. During that time our listenership and our membership has continued to grow and grow and grow. And without that, I’ll be honest with you, no matter how much we wanted that.  The idea that a small market community licensee could even think about creating a second service would have been impossible – no how much we wanted it.  No matter how much we thought listeners wanted that.  Without that incredible generosity from this region and it sounds like a line but it is not.  We could not have envisioned it and certainly wouldn’t have taken the time or resources to keep putting this forward over and over again."

Thank you, Barbara Sayer. 

Check back in  - and below -  for more audio from co-workers, friends and colleagues.  Do you have a favorite Barbara Sayer story or a thought to share with us?  Send your audio(mp3)  or written thoughts to hchickering@bpr.org or you can leave  a voicemail  828-210-4833.   Start your recording by introducing yourself.