Featured Faces: Howard Sharper
Photo & interview by Gina Myers
December 30, 2009

Lifelong Saginaw resident Howard Sharper is a public servant, jazz afficionado, and disc jockey. He's also the father of ten kids, and the grandfather of 12. The Saginaw High School class of 1968 graduate studied Psychology and Sociology at Saginaw Valley College (now SVSU). For the past 15 years he has worked at WUCX Q 90.1, Delta College's public radio station.  He serves on the Board of Directors for the Michigan Association of Public Broadcasting and as the Treasurer of the Michigan Public Radio Network, and he is a member of a number of national radio organizations. The Manager of Programming and Production recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the radio industry, public service, news reporting, and the 1960s. 

Gina Myers: How did you first get into radio?

Howard Sharper: through the back door…that would be the most accurate way to describe it.  I used to have a business downtown doing marketing research and surveys called Midwestern Planning Associates. The people who managed 107 came to me and said 'We think that we have non-black listeners, listeners of other races than African American, and we need to quantify that in some way.' So we did a listener survey and sure enough found out that they did have listeners other than African Americans which they then used to draw more advertisers.  So we developed a relationship through there.  Also, my sister was working for the station at the time.  She was working two jobs, an overnight jazz DJ gig and in the morning she worked at a blood bank, and it was getting to be too much for her, so she called me and asked if I wanted her job.  I said, 'No, I’m too busy with my own business,' but then my business tanked.  So I called the station up and said, ‘Hey, you still got that job open?' They said, 'Yeah, but your sister is leaving in two days so you better get up here.' So with a two day tutorial with my younger sister, I became a DJ at 107.

GM: How long were you at 107?

HS: Maybe four or five years. From there I left to MacDonald Broadcasting where I was a news reporter for KCQ. I was there for about nine years, and then I came here.

GM: How is it different working for public broadcasting than it was working for a commercial station?

HS: Commercial radio stations are all about ratings and using those ratings to generate advertising. Public is just the opposite. It’s first and foremost a public service, and then secondly you are providing programming, new, and entertainment that is in the interest of your listeners. So it is listener driven instead of commercial driven.

GM: Do you think that is key to what makes this station successful? I know a number of the local stations just filed for bankruptcy, and I think Citadel Broadcasting did too.

HS: Yeah, I’m not sure what is going on with their filing for bankruptcy. I know Citadel is a huge corporation nationwide, and sometimes you get too big for your britches, so to speak, and that may be what is going on. Commercial radio has always operated on this financial model that if revenues are low then people get laid off, things get sold and shuffled around. In my opinion, it doesn’t serve the public interest. It serves the business interests of the corporation that owns that station—it doesn’t serve the public's interest in the market they’re in. Public radio, on the other hand, is totally driven by the input and the priorities of its listeners. Our listeners have been willing to support us at a time even when the economy is down, and that’s not happening in commercial radio. With the economy down, businesses are not spending as much money to advertise and as a result revenues are shrinking for major corporations like Citadel, and for the smaller corporations as well.  You always see a big turnover in commercial radio. The first time I started working at MacDonald Broadcasting, they walked me around to introduce me to everyone, and two weeks later people I had been introduced to were gone.  What happened to so-and-so? ‘Well, they got laid off, or they took another job, or we had to downsize in January.' January and February are always tough in commercial radio because it’s right after the Christmas holiday and people aren’t spending money for advertising. They aren't advertising for new cars or TVs. The only thing that is really big in advertising in commercial radio after the holidays is diet—diet plans and diet supplements—so you will get a little kick from that in terms of advertising.

GM: What is a typical day like for you here at Q 90.1?

HS: Chaos.  Someone once asked me, ‘What’s your job description?’ and I said, ‘Whatever needs to be done, I do it.’ I pretty much designed the station we operate right now, which is automated and live-assisted, where we can go fully automated or we can do a combination of live DJ who can interact with the automated system.  That’s what we do in the morning, and then in the afternoon we switch over to the computer.  The computer is something that needs to be constantly fed. That’s what Mike is doing right now; he’s recording a show that will be played on Saturday from 1 to 3, so he won’t have to be here live.

GM: Are there are some local programs that do record live?

HS: Some go live, like "Morning Edition."  When you listen to "Morning Edition" you usually hear me or Chris or Ashley, one of our new students. And we’re live in the studio running that show. Though if you hear me after two hours, it probably isn’t live because I’m very quick at editing the production and I can edit the last two hours while I’m airing the first two hours, so 8:00 I’m on the automation system again because I have other things to do. But a typical day, there is no typical day.  What I’m involved with is traffic scheduling, planning programs, contacting producers of local shows as well as of network shows, production of programs, commercials, underwriter and day sponsor announcements, overseeing news, though sometimes I’m not overseeing the news and I’m actually doing it. So, I’m involved with every aspect of what you hear on the radio station.  Nothing goes on the air that I haven’t said 'yes' to.

Would you say that most of these things are things you learned on the job? I mean, could you really be prepared to come into a job like this?

I suppose you could be prepared for some elements of it. But if a computer crashes and you’re off the air, there’s no preparation for that. You just have to know where your back ups are. Those back up systems are systems that I’ve designed so if the computer is off the air, I can have things up and running within five minutes as long as it is not a technical issue outside of the studio. Now sometimes outside of the studio broadcasting related issues crop up. They usually involve technology, and we have a crew of engineers that can handle that.  It could be a break in a  fiber optic link; it could be a loss of transmission from the satellite dish out in space. "Morning Edition," for example, is uplinked from Washington DC to a satellite receiver somewhere in space, which we then download into our satellite receiver on campus, which then has to come down to the studio.  Anywhere on that audio chain there could be interruption. The last time it happened there was ice and snow in the receiving dish on campus, and there was nothing else I could do about that. So I put on some music and would come in every once in awhile and say, 'We’re having technical difficulties. Here’s the Q 90.1 weather forecast, and we’re working on the issues related to "Morning Edition."' I knew when I heard it go off that it had to be a technical issue related to the satellite.

GM: I noticed you have a pretty strong web presence with Twitter, Facebook, and the Delta Broadcasting website. How is the internet changing the radio game?

HS: It hasn't changed out broadcasting, but it has added about two hours a day to my personal workload because I manage the sites. I don't manage the Delta site, we have a person who does that but I also have to work with that person to get the radio portion of the site updated. But I handle the Twitter account and the Facebook site, and I have another site, Doctor of Jazz, which is my own personal site, but it is related to the station too. And I have a Doctor of Jazz site on blip.fm. So I manipulate four different sites each day, providing information on programming, and links to music and things we do, and then handling the discussion that takes place on some of the things I've posted. Responding to queries, sending out requests for information, often at the end of every day I'm doing that. And in between I am producing shows. I produce the Monday and Friday shows of "The Session." I used to do them all, Monday through Saturday, but it got to be too much, so I recruited volunteers. And here's something that probably a lot of people don't know about the station: we have 26 and counting volunteers, community folk who do different things to help keep the station on the air. Most are involved with programming, producing local shows, music programs, news and information spots, or voice overs, and I have to coordinate their activities. So I oversee that too. Like I said, it can be very chaotic, but I am pretty good at handling it—I also have ten grandchildren and twelve grandchildren, so I can handle chaos.

The bottom line to all of it, and this is probably the most important thing, the bottom line to all of the juggling that has to take place, the people, the programming, is keeping the radio station on the air. If you can do that, you're doing okay.

GM: I was wondering if you could talk specifically about "The Session"? Have you been a lifelong listener of music? When did you start listening to jazz?

HS: I started listening to jazz when I was about eight years old. My cousin, who was an adult, used to run an after hours jazz club in his basement, and he had the great basement—a nice hi fi set, beautiful album collection, a bar. And people would go to his basement after the club closed—this would have been back in the late fifties. They would be there until sun up, and he would have food available and drinks and music. Jazz was the main thing. Well, I could never go when everyone else was there, but I could go during the day. He'd be sleeping, and I'd go down and play his jazz records. That's when I became really interested in jazz. When I got to junior high I started playing in a band, and I was in a jazz combo by the time I was in ninth grade, a saxophone combo. I continued to be interested in music, and jazz in particular, in high school. I kind of dropped it after high school as far as playing it, but I've never stopped listening to it. I have a huge collection, probably 1,000 albums, probably more—I've never bothered to count them!

So at eight years old I started listening to jazz. My cousin Sonny would be the person I would say started me into a life of jazz that has continued to this day, 52 years later.

GM: Do you have favorite performers?

HS: There are so many great talents out there. One of my favorites...no, Ill give you two...wait, make that three. It just keeps going as I think about it...I love Dave Brubeck, I love Count Basie, and I like Duke Ellington. To me, those are the big three in jazz. Contemporary jazz favorites are people like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery. In fact, I blame my career in jazz on Wes Montgomery. He came out with a tune in the late '60s called "A Day in the Life," and everyone in high school went nuts over it. And then a Michigan musician named Gene Harris, who used to have a group called The Three Sounds, which I discovered in my cousin's basement. When I found out the piano player was from Benton Harbor, I spent the rest of my life collecting up as much Gene Harris as I could get a hold of. And another artist who I collect, because of the Saginaw connection and because I played the saxophone, is Sonny Stitt. So those are the players I am passionate about. But the new and up-and-coming jazz musicians, there are so many out there. Like my favorite local group—wait, I can't say my favorite because actually there are three. There's a guy over in Flint named Pat Cronley. He's a piano player and he has the Pat Cronley group, which is sort of a conglomeration of folks, he brings different people in on different dates. Mike Brush, Brush Street with Julie Mulady is one of my favorites. And they play different styles of music—Pat's one way and Mike's another, especially since they've added Julie. She is a fabulous singer. I've often wondered why she doesn't have a national recording contract. And then there's the bluesman, and he's one of the best in the world, Larry McCray.

GM: So you stay very up to date, always checking out new music.

HS: Yeah, that’s a good portion of my job, and fortunately I have a lot of people who help me with that.  A lot of the music that you hear on "The Session," either myself, Rod Beiber, or Trish Lewis have actually gone out and grabbed it.  If we hear something we like, we’ll say, we work at a record station, if you have a cd, send it to us.  Trish does a lot of the gathering from the record labels and Rod does a lot of the gathering from the musicians, since he meets a lot doing “Backstage Explorer.”  He always makes sure we get a studio copy of the cds.

My job is program production manager, which involves news, traffic, staffing, an annual budget of over $350,000, as well as overseeing student training. It’s multi-layered.  When I first took over this job as Station Manager, I asked the fundraising manager at the time, Pam Clark, who is now in charge of the Foundation office, I asked Pam, 'How did he handle this?’ talking about the former station manager Paul Sturm. I said, 'How did Paul do this?' She said, 'Whatever crisis rose to the top first' [laughs]. So that’s pretty much been our model ever since.  There are certain things you need to do to keep the station on the air, and after that you put out whatever the hottest fire is first.  After a month of going through what Paul used to go through, I was like, 'My god, this is ever-changing!' You have to be ready, you have to stay up on technology, you have to stay up on human relations issues.  It’s just an ever-evolving position.  Someone interviewed me once and asked, how do you describe your job? And I said, 'It’s a monster, it’s an ever-evolving monster.'

GM: Is that the advice you’ll pass on to whomever comes into your position next?

HS: Oh yeah.  And you have to stay up on technology. Stay up on the music. Human relations. Staffing and budgets. You have to stay up on it or you’ll get swallowed by the monster.

GM: Since you’ve been at this radio station, what sort of things have you seen change?

HS: The big changes had to do with technology—the transition from analog to digital broadcasting was probably the biggest single transition. It demanded changes in equipment, changes in the knowledge of how to do what you used to do using the digital technology—editing tape, cutting and splicing tape on reel-to-reel to digital audio tape.  We went from big reel-to-reel tapes that cost $25 a piece to a digital audio tape that was about 3 to 4 dollars a tape, to cds to harddrives which is pennies a day. So the biggest thing was the move from analog to digital technology, and it has made things a lot easier, but it also made it a little more intense because the learning curve is huge for someone who came from the analog world—Jenny [Vande Zande] is a good example. She had worked in radio in the analog world, and I had to tell her the only difference is a different recording device, but the editing process—the whole idea of mixing and matching things together is the same. Good audio is good audio.

Another thing that has changed, students always ask, 'Where are the careers in broadcasting now?' And I always say there are no jobs for DJs anymore. Very few. There are some morning crews where people still have a tag team thing going on in the morning but don’t look for a job as a DJ. Look for a job as a producer. Come up with a program, a news service, something that stations can use, and then sell it to them. That’s what I teach students to do; I teach them to sell their skills.

GM: As a lifelong Saginaw resident, what kind of changes have you seen take place over the years?  For example, when it comes to music venues, I hear there are fewer than there used to be.

HS: Well, it depends. A lot of people say there is not a whole lot to do, but I actually always find there is more to do than I can keep up with. It depends on whose eyes you are looking through. I often hear that from young people, but the things that are available to do are not always the things they are interested in. If I wanted to hear live music, if that is what I was looking for, live music in all different forms, my god, I went to six different concerts between Christmas and now. And I was like, I’m done, I’m not going to anymore, I’m through with it! Holiday concerts, band concerts, choral concerts, symphonies, blues shows, jazz shows, there’s plenty to do, more than I could keep up. I’ve been thinking about going over to White Crow for New Year’s, but chances are I’ll probably stay at home and take a nap.

But the changes in Saginaw…I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been involved with public service pretty much since my mid-to-late 20s.  I was part of a training program that involved black leaders in Saginaw.  Some of those leaders who influenced me were folks like Reuben Daniels, Henry Marsh, Joe Stevens. And the whole idea was to train the next generation of public servants how to work in the community, how to help the community, how to grow the community.  I used to be the planning director at the local Anti-Poverty Program at the Saginaw County Community Action Committee.  When I left Saginaw Valley that was my first job. And those folks kind of taught me, Robert Viera, I have to give Robert his props. He was my executive director—he hired me as a planner, and he said, 'Learn as much as you can about everyone who is doing anything to make an impact on poverty in Saginaw County.' He said, 'If you learn that, you’ll be one of the handful of people who knows where to go and when.' Between those folks, they heavily influenced my life in public service.

For years I worked in community organizing and program development to meet the needs of low income folks, and I served on the city’s human planning commission, I was chairman for a couple of years, I served on Saginaw Neighborhoods Incorporated Board of Directors, I served on the Private Industry Council, the Saginaw Community Foundation.  It’s been a life of public service, and I am still involved in a  number of organizations like that.  That’s what I view my job at Delta as, it's still an extension of that public service training. It’s just I’m in a better position to effect change because I’m the person people listen to all the time.  When Jenny works on the newscast, I’m the person who says yes or no as to whether it goes on the air. So it is a very powerful position. If I didn’t have all of this public service background and knowledge of this community, I don’t think I would be able to do this job as effectively as I have been able to. And I have had people tell me I do a good job, I’m not just sitting here saying it myself. I'm going off what folks say. I had a guy call me yesterday and say he wanted to thank me.  He said, 'I hear the station everyday and I like what I hear. I don’t always agree with everything that I hear, but I like what I hear.' And I said, 'Thank you for listening, why don’t you send in your donation?' [laughs].

All those years of public service and to end up here at Delta College, it gives me a great opportunity to influence young minds, old minds, influence thoughts and ideas. I never try to shape anything, I just like to listen to people and see what they want to do and see how I can help make that happen.

We’re going to launch a new initiative here for 2010. Given all the cutbacks that are happening in the print media, and in some cases broadcast media, one of the things I want to do in 2010 is what we’re calling a local news initiative. We want to have more local news in 2010 on this public radio station and on our websites than we have ever been able to do before. And that is going to take a lot of effort, a lot of people to get involved with that, and I’m still putting all that together, but I just got permission last week from my supervisor to go ahead, so I’ve been given the green light. Now I can begin to organize folks to do what we can to help offset that loss from print media. We’ll never be able to deal with the loss of not having that daily newspaper, it’s just not the same, and for many people it will never be the same. I was talking to Dawn from Dawn of a New Day, and she made an interesting observation. She said, 'I just don’t read the paper anymore because I don’t know when to get it.' Is it Thursday, Saturday, Sunday? Thursday, Friday, Sunday? It’s when I walk into Jack’s and happen to see it, okay, I’ll get it.

I feel like as a result of those changes, people are less informed. For those who haven’t made a shift to following their news on the internet—like I follow Bay City Times, Flint Journal, New York Times, all that, so I am still pretty well informed—but if you don’t do that, where are you getting your information from about what’s happening in your neighborhood, what’s happening in your state? In your own backyard?

Nobody knows what they’re doing in City Hall anymore.  It used to be, Mike Thompson covered City Hall and he covered it for the Saginaw News, and everyone knew what was happening at City Hall because Mike was there everyday.  And now it’s like, who covers city hall anymore?

GM: There was that proposal on the last election where they could stop printing their minutes in the Saginaw News, which was surprising to me, like they really want everything to be out of the public eye.

HS: It’s getting a little scary because then things happen behind closed doors and there’s no check and balance.  All of the sudden something that you had counted on being there in the community is gone, and you didn’t know that is was, one, under attack and, two, they were about to destroy it, and three, you wake up one more and say, ‘hey, what happened to so-and-so?’ Oh you know, the city council voted, or the county commission voted, and you just don’t know anymore.

As a matter of fact, I have actually started thinking about—though I don’t know if I will do it—I thought about getting back on the beat as a news reporter because that’s what I used to do. I covered education and business and government and I covered it anywhere in the tri-cities. So I’d be in Bay City at the school board meeting one night, and then I’d be at the Saginaw school board meeting, I’d be at a chamber of commerce meeting, I’d be at a legislative breakfast, I’d be at City Hall and County Commission. It was quite intense…and I don’t know if I want to work that hard anymore! But somebody needs to.

But yeah that’s one of the things that scares me now, the coverage of the local news, the things that actually impact people’s lives and their pocketbooks, that coverage is not there like it used to be. And I understand. Since I’ve been here, I’ve even interviewed the folks who make the decisions to downsize local newspapers, and their decision made perfect sense.  But it left a hole. And hopefully what we can do, at least with our local news initiative, is fill in the gaps in people’s information so people have an idea what happened last night at city hall, at least a summary of what happened or something because right now you’re getting nothing.

GM: Do you get recognized out in the community when people hear your voice?

HS: People will see me and say I look familiar. Then I start talking, and they say, 'Oh, Delta, you run the radio station. I heard you on there everyday.' And I think, well, that can’t be true because I'm not on there everyday. In fact, I try to limit my voice on there and put other people out there, but if you listen to Delta radio or Delta TV or get tuition phone calls and you get an automated call it’s usually me.

GM: I know you do a good job out in the community with fundraising. My dad says at the Y whenever you have the fundraisers going on, you’re sure to mention it to everyone there.

HS: Oh yeah. And actually I’m on the Y’s fundraising committee right now for the Youth Initiative. We have a meeting coming up next month where we’re going to go out and try to raise money from various sources in the community to support youth programs in the summer. It worked last year pretty well. So I’m still involved with that. Most of what I do is either here, by here I mean at Delta College, I’m on the President’s Diversity Task Force here, I’m part of the Pyramid Alliance, Black Staff and Faculty Association on campus.

GM: So you keep yourself busy?

HS: Oh yes, it’s either that or someone else plans my schedule for me, and I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do. The last person who tried to tell me what to do was the president, and I said okay. But beyond that, no one else planning my schedule.

I participate with the groups on campus that I believe in.  I believe that there is need in some leadership with the Black Staff and Faculty Association. I want to help the Pyramid Alliance in their struggle for equality in any way that I can.  I’m involved with Delta, I’m involved with the church, and I’m involved with the community. It’s public service. As Reuben Daniels told me, there’s nothing better that you can do.

GM: And you made a joke about being a jailbird too?

HS: My younger days I was locked up for rioting on campus.

GM: That was an interesting time in history—the late 60s.

HS: Yes, turbulent times.  In '67 we had riots in Detroit, and Saginaw had a little something that year too.  But even earlier in the 60s we were doing radical things. Saginaw High was really really segregated, and we didn’t like it—we being my friends.  So we organized integrated clubs and we would do integrated dating.  We would go to high school events, like dances, and we’d go out in public to the Temple Theatre in integrated couples. And the most radical thing, which I don’t think people really paid attention to, but one day the movie Guess Who Came to Dinner with Sidney Portier was playing at the Franklin Theatre and we made it up in our mind that we were going to go in integrated couples, and they wouldn’t let us in at first. But then they finally let us in.

I’ve been involved with that kind of stuff since I was in high school. Integrated clubs because people said blacks and whites shouldn’t associate together and we didn’t agree with that. This young lady whose name was Phyllis Sharp, who sat in front of me, Howard Sharper, in home room for three years, and there was no way that we weren’t going to be friends, and we went out together, we hung out together, she was a cheerleader and I was a football player, so there is a natural alliance there, and we’re still good friends today.

High school kind of started all that stuff for me. When I was high school, there had never been an African American woman elected Helen of Troy [homecoming queen]. And our first big organizing moment was when black students on campus said, we’re like 52% of the vote now, we should be able to elect one. We picked one. We said, okay, we’re going to elect Helena. And that year our senior class had Mike Marsh, was class president, Mayor Marsh’s son, a guy named Robert Evans was Vice President, and a woman named Linda Washington was secretary, and for the first time in the history of Saginaw High, we had elected a black Helen of Troy, Helena Jackson. And that was due to black people in a coalition with some Mexican folks and some progressive minded white folks saying, enough. It was the first time we had ever flexed our political muscle.  And people from that class, from ’68, are still flexing it: Beverly Yanca, former school board president, Wilmer Hamm, former Mayor of the City, are just a couple of examples.

I always listened to public radio even though I worked for commercial radio. I was a news announcer at WSAM and WKCQ in the afternoon and when I finished my newscast, I would run out and listen to "All Things Considered" on NPR. I always noticed it was male dominated, so one of the things I did deliberately was get more women involved in public radio with volunteering and on the staff. Periodically it shifts back to being more male dominated, but it's something I always pay attention to. There was a public radio director in Detroit, WDET, who is probably one of my main influences in developing programming strategies, and her name is Caryn Mathes. When I started working here, I would ask her for advice.

And there are two women who gave me advice I'll never forget: Dr. Margaret Cappone, who said, 'Howard, don't let the bastards get you down.'  And Dr. Joy Hargrove, who said, "Howard, you can do anything you set your mind to," and she always encouraged me. Those two women are probably responsible for me making the transition from the streets of Saginaw to academia.

Visit Delta Broadcasting online here, and follow WUCX Q 90.1 on Twitter @WUCX.  You can also visit Doctor of Jazz at Blip.fm and follow him on Twitter @DoctorofJazz.

© Gina Myers, 2010