Listen Locally! The Community Radio Renaissance
Call it the new Golden Age of Radio. The people have spoken, and they want to hear themselves and their neighbors instead of overpaid pontificators or market-researched playlists. In the Rural Intelligence region, there are three young not-for-profit community radio stations that provide an eclectic mix of homegrown news, talk and music: WBCR Berkshire Community Radio (97.7 FM in Great Barrington); WHDD Robin Hood Radio (91. FM in Sharon, CT, and 91.7 FM in Sheffield, MA); WGXC Hands-On Radio (90.7 in Columbia and Greene Counties, which is currently streaming on the Internet and is scheduled to start broadcasting from Hudson in the fall.) All share a common purpose—to provide a platform for authentic, local voices that reflect the diversity of their listening areas.
“We are the white board for the community,” says lawyer Paul Rapp, president of the board of WBCR, which is run entirely by volunteers and survives on donations and fundraisers such as a talk by Amy Goodman (right) of Democracy Now! (which airs weekdays at 5 p.m.) who will speak on “The Role of Independent Media in Promoting Social Justice” on Friday, July 16, at Monument Mountain Regional High School. “Our priority is to provide access to anyone who wants to have a radio program and reach under-served communities such as the local Spanish-speaking population. We have 100 programs that run between 6 a.m. and midnight, and it can seem schizophrenic. You can have a teenager playing heavy metal followed by a teacher talking about alternative healing followed by a retiree playing greatest hits from the American songbook.”
When WBCR went on the air five years ago, there was concern that it would be dominated by “middle-aged white guys like me playing rock and roll,” says Rapp, who moonlights with the 30-year-old band Blotto (whose video for “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” was played on MTV on its debut day in 1981). Rapp is heartened to see teenage programmers arrive at the studio ready to create shows from the music on their iPods, and he enjoys introducing them to vinyl. “I had to teach some of them how to play records!” he says. “They’ve never seen a turntable and don’t know how to find the songs on an album.”
Community radio brings neighbors together and allows novices to express themselves in new ways. Carole Murko of Stockbridge, who is hoping one day to have a TV show and cookbook called Heirloom Meals, has a weekly program on WBCR. She recently interviewed Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic and editor-in-chief of Gourmet, who has a weekend house in Austerlitz. “WBCR has shown me that many people with varied interests in music and topics can come together and create an all-volunteer organization that self-organizes to support free speech,” she says. “As for me, it has given me the opportunity to pursue a media channel for Heirloom Meals. Each week I have to invite a guest, prepare for the interview and offer interesting content for my listeners. It has allowed me to begin to take ownership of my idea in a real live media setting. “
Robin Hood Radio (which recruited Rural Intelligence a few months ago to produce a weekly segment) has the distinction of being the smallest NPR affiliate in the United States. “We’re a community radio station that happens to have NPR programming,” says Marshall Miles, who founded the radio station with astrologer Jill Goodman. “We started online only first. We think of this as boutique radio designed specifically for our audience, which includes weekenders and people like myself who were born here.”
Only a small fraction of Robin Hood’s programming comes from NPR or Public Radio International. Most of it is locally produced and Miles—who helped start WKZE (98.1 FM) which is a commercial radio station with a not-for-profit soul—spends his weekends doing live remotes from community events. “I always start Saturday at the Wandering Moose in West Cornwall which helps generate traffic for the farmers’ market,” he explains. “Then we might cover a dog adoption day or a pancake breakfast. Last weekend, we covered the Housatonic Railroad‘s trip from Canaan to Great Barrington and the jazz concert at Music Mountain.” He relies on local experts to produce weekly programs such as antique-and-rare book dealer Darren Winston’s Book Report; Martha Stewart Living alumna Margaret Roach who gives voice to her A Way to Garden blog; and the doctors at Sand Road Animal Hospital who have a show called Pet Files: Ask the Vet.
By working with both established and new media, community radio stations fill a void left by newspapers that have disappeared or slashed their reporting staffs to the bare bones. “We are in a media ghetto between New York City and Albany,” says Tom Roe, program director of WGXC, which is devoted to serving Columbia County and its neighbor across the river, Greene County. “Citizen journalism is a key part of our mission, and we have a training program,” says Roe, who describes himself as a radio artist. “We have correspondents and a Town Recorder project that allows people to record important town meetings. We put it up as raw information. Victor Mendolia recorded the Hudson Common Council meeting the other night when they discussed the future of the waterfront.”
These radio stations have one foot in the small-town past and one in the high-tech future. “We are trying to do 1940s radio with 2010 technology,” says Roe, who sees community radio as bringing together artists, journalists and amateurs. “Orson Welles and John Cage are two of the giant figures in radio,” says Roe, who points out that five years from now most people will have Internet radio and be able to listen to anything anywhere.
Accessibility and inclusion are fundamental to community radio stations. Says WBCR’s Paul Rapp: “When I am filling out grant applications and it asks what percentage of the community we serve, I always answer 100 percent!” When WBCR become a full power station in a few years, there will be spots where all three of these stations overlap, which does not worry Robin Hood’s Miles. “The more community radio stations that exist, the better for the world,” he says.