- story and photos by Tricia Donham McAlvain
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The art of communication comes easy to Brice Phillips, as does the desire to serve his community. As the founder, engineer and station manager at radio stations WQRZ and WQRG in Hancock County, he has merged these two passions.
As the younger of two adopted children, Brice discovered his love for radio and service early on. He and his sister are “Navy brats” who moved around the world, with their longest stay being in Taiwan.
His father, a Navy captain, encouraged Brice to develop a sense of survival, while his school-teacher mother taught him the importance of learning and sharing information with others. Decades later, an appreciation for learning new things is key to Brice's daily living. He believes it is “important to study, read, and learn to do things on your own.”
As a boy, he was also a frequent visitor at the MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) base of operations in Taiwan. At the time, MARS allowed service personnel to connect internationally with family and other service people. At MARS, he learned the inner workings of radio and its power to facilitate communication — especially in emergency situations.
Brice also credits his mother for instilling a never-say-die determination. "When you have a sense of accomplishment, you can't stop trying. Mother said never quit. ... One day, you will succeed.”
His mother’s advice proved to be true. Today, Brice Phillips is president of Hancock County Amateur Radio Association, Inc. (HCARA). The 501c3 non-profit organization runs both WQRZ (serving Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Diamondhead, and Kiln) and the “station-in-progress,” WQRG, which will serve the wider Diamondhead area.
Due to his extraordinary community contributions during and after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006 Brice was awarded the Small Business Administration’s Phoenix Award for Outstanding Contributions to Disaster Recovery by a Volunteer. That same year, he also garnered the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Volunteer Excellence.
Brice has called Bay St Louis home for more than 26 years, moving to the coast from Slidell. Former Bay St. Louis mayor Les Fillingame contracted with him as a bench technician to repair VCRs, radios and other electronics.
His first job at a local radio station was with WBSL AM in Bay St Louis. When Brice was hired, WBSL was off the air because of a broken transmitter. After repairing the transmitter, he moved on to a popular coast rock station. Working late nights on weekends as a DJ gave him on-air experience - until he violated protocol by playing a song not on the playlist. That experience merely reinforced Brice’s belief in freedom of speech.
Determined to launch his own radio station, Brice’s father cosigned a loan for his first transmitter. It became the workhorse for WQRZ 103.5 FM. In the early days, the transmitter was powered by solar panels. After Hurricane Katrina, Brice used car batteries to keep it going so he could inform his desperate listeners during the storm and in the long aftermath.
Deciding to stay on the air during Katrina reflects Brice’s dedication and his first-hand knowledge of how important communications can be during severe weather.
During the storm, WQRZ was only off-air for 90 minutes while Brice was fighting the hurricane to swap out antennas during the unprecedented tidal surge. He was one of 35 early responders who had gathered at the emergency operations center in Bay St. Louis. When the water in the building started rising, the situation looked so dire that the rescue workers wrote their assigned numbers on their own hands to make identification easier for compatriots in case they drowned.
He hasn’t missed a beat since the storm. The station has been on the air 24/7 ever since. Internet streaming allows listeners around the world to tune in.
(Click here to stream from "Tune In," a free site that doesn't require to sign up).
WQRZ offers programming about gardening, politics, and community news. Every weekday, during the two-hour Morning Show, Brice and his volunteers read news from the local papers, connecting with residents who may be disabled or economically challenged, and with those who just like to hear neighborly voices.
The music playlist varies with the day of the week. There’s Local Monday, for instance, when area musicians and singer-songwriters are featured. Blues Tuesday, Free Speech and World Wednesday (keeping listeners abreast of local civic meetings), Jazz Thursday and Rock-n-Roll Friday keep listeners entertained through the week.
Music from the ’70s and dance music are Saturday favorites, while Sunday is “Album Therapy,” starting with gospel, moving on to albums and ending with relaxing new age music: “The floaty stuff,” Brice says.
During emergency situations, like the recent Tropical Storm Cindy, Brice and his team stay on the air around the clock providing information as soon as it’s available. Between bulletins they play music, which “soothes people and helps keep them calm.”
WQRZ relies on donations and grants for funding, as it airs no advertising. Currently, the non-profit is trying to raise money to build a new base for the transmitter, lifting it up to reach even more listeners. Surviving on a financial shoestring requires creativity and resourcefulness, two traits Brice has in abundance. The art of making something out of nothing - like a relay device or a circuit - is no problem.
Lynn Smith, a WQRZ volunteer of five years, explains the general philosophy. "The station maintains the ability to play anything possible, including 8-tracks, reels, cassettes, and vinyl. We have no rules other than those of the FCC. We also hold a ham radio license for official communications.”
"People are lost without communication,” Brice says. “Information is the key that binds our community together. I’ll do this for the rest of my life.”
“Rock on, dudes!”