hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2018


Radio station plans for rebirth

Pittsfield’s WTBR, begun as school project, will have broader mission

Shawn Serre, the executive director of Pittsfield Community Television, shows off the new home of radio station WTBR-89.7 FM, which temporarily suspended broadcasts in June. Susan Sabino photo

Shawn Serre, the executive director of Pittsfield Community Television, shows off the new home of radio station WTBR-89.7 FM, which temporarily suspended broadcasts in June. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


A local FM radio station that got started in 1969 by providing background music on a high school public address system is the midst of a transition supporters hope will revitalize it as a voice for the community.

WTBR-89.7 FM temporarily signed off the air in June after broadcasting since 1974 under a Federal Communications Commission license held by the Pittsfield School Committee.
It is expected to sign on again in the coming months as a community-based, non-commercial radio station. Although the license will remain in the hands of the local school district, the station will be operated and managed by Pittsfield Community Television, or PCTV, which already runs three local public-benefit television stations.

The new WTBR will be focused on community access, with an emphasis on programming produced by volunteers, including interviews and discussions, music, and other types of shows.
“A lot of what WTBR becomes will depend on the community,” said Shawn Serre, PCTV’s executive director. “It will be based on what people propose for programs.”

The immediate catalyst for the station’s change in management was the construction of a new building for Taconic High School. WTBR had been based at the school, on Valentine Road on the west side of the city, since its inception.

But the change also is intended to solidify the future of a station that has been through many ups and downs over the years. Although supporters felt the station remained an important public and educational resource for Pittsfield, its long-term future had been uncertain.

In recent years, except for a handful of local productions, the majority of WTBR’s programming had become automated “classic rock” music because of a lack of participation by students. Some questioned whether the school system should maintain the station’s broadcast license at a time of scarce resources.


New school spurs changes
The physical plant of Taconic High, which opened in 1969, had deteriorated over the decades, and school official concluded it was inadequate for Pittsfield’s future needs. Three years ago, the city approved construction of a replacement school building with the same name at the same property.

Construction of the new $120 million, 246,000-square-foot Taconic High School began in 2016 adjacent to the original Taconic High. The new school was completed and opened for classes this fall. The old building, which remained in use during construction, is now being demolished.
The project prompted a new look at the status of WTBR. Plans for the new high school did not include a replacement studio or transmitter, and while the school system wanted to retain the broadcasting license, it began looking for alternatives for the station’s actual management.
“The die was cast when the new Taconic High was designed without a radio station,” Serre said. “The school department looked for a partner to operate the station. The board of PCTV contacted them, and we began discussions. We developed and negotiated a business plan that led to an agreement early in 2018.”

Serre said Pittsfield Community Television was a logical partner because of its basic mission and purpose.

“In many ways, we’re a perfect fit with WTBR, because we have 30 years of experience in running community-based electronic media,” he explained.

Pittsfield Community Television is an independent nonprofit organization established as part of the city’s franchise agreement with the local cable television provider – the former Time Warner Cable, which became Spectrum after a corporate acquisition.

Like similar operations, PCTV is funded by the cable company through local franchise fees of 5 percent of its gross revenue. PCTV operates three cable channels – one each for programming produced by the public, local government and local schools. PCTV stations are carried by the Spectrum cable system in Pittsfield and in neighboring towns in central Berkshire County, and the stations’ programs also are streamed over the Internet.

PCTV has a small paid staff and is governed by a board of directors. It also relies heavily on volunteers, who produce programming on the public-access channel. The other two channels are operated in collaboration with the city government and local schools.

Serre said PCTV’s new agreement with the Pittsfield School Committee to operate WTBR is known as a time-brokerage agreement.

“In these arrangements, the official license holder, which is the School Committee, assigns responsibility for programming and ongoing operations to another entity, PCTV,” he explained. “We operate WTBR in the name of the school district.”


Shutting down and moving
The physical move of WTBR from the old Taconic High School was a major undertaking. It required dismantling and moving the station’s complex equipment and furnishings to the studios of PCTV, which are in a business park on Federico Drive at the other end of the city.

The move involved more than radio equipment. WTBR had built up a collection of an estimated 10,000 vinyl LPs, which record companies used to send to the station for promotional purposes.
“That’s become a well-known local musical resource that is a great collection of music from the 1970s through the ‘90s,” Serre said. “There was a lot of interest in making sure that is preserved.”

With considerable fanfare, WTBR aired a “good-bye” program on June 24 before going off the air. John Krol, who had been a program producer at WTBR and hosted its morning interview show for many years, hosted the farewell show, which also attracted the participation of numerous local officials and station alumni.

“We spent most of June taking apart and moving equipment and the record collection,” Serre said. “Right after that final show, we turned off the transmitter and moved the remaining equipment over to PCTV.”

At WTBR’s new home, the Pittsfield Community Television staff installed a designated new radio studio and control board. To make room for it, they reconfigured their existing offices and studios and slightly enlarged their overall space, which is located in the same building as Spectrum’s local offices.

As an example of the ingenuity required to fit the station in, WTBR’s record collection now resides behind a curtain backdrop in PCTV’s main television studio.

As of last month, Serre said the physical setup of the radio studio is complete. The remaining task is to find a location for a new transmitter and tower to replace those at the old school building.

This, it turns out, is not a simple process -- for both physical and financial reasons.
“We have to have a location that will maximize the coverage area and is not blocked by the terrain,” he said. “It also has to be affordable.”

Several sites are currently under consideration – either on downtown buildings or other elevated locations suited to the terrain.

But the details need to be worked out soon. Under an agreement with the FCC, the station has permission to remain off the air for up to a year from its June 24 sign-off.

“The clock is ticking,” Serre said.
Serre said the station’s new management is confident of finding at least a temporary site within the next few months.

“Once we have that, we’ll be able to turn the switch and go on the air again,” he said.


Starting as a school project
WTBR was founded by Bob Cooper, a math teacher who had a strong interest in music and radio.

When the old Taconic High School opened in 1969, Cooper convinced the principal to let him to make a daily one-hour tape at home with music and announcements – to be played on the school’s public-address system before each day’s classes. Each of these broadcasts ended with the theme from the television show “Hawaii Five-0,” which signaled to students and teachers that the day’s classes were about to start.

Cooper recruited students to help produce the tapes, and this effort grew into a school radio club. Soon the school had a small space set aside for an impromptu studio.

The club grew to become an active part of the high school, both socially and as an opportunity for education and training in broadcasting. In its heyday in the 1970s and early ‘80s, the club had as many as 100 members, including students from Taconic and other area high schools.
The club also became a training ground for many students who went on to jobs in local radio, mainly on a temporary or part-time basis. A number of WTBR alumni advanced to broadcasting careers in the region or in national markets. Among them is Chuck Custer, a longtime newsman and morning host at WGY-810 AM, the news and conservative talk radio station based in the Albany area.

“The station had a big impact on my life,” Custer recalled, adding that he was a member of the school’s radio club from 1972-75.

“I was excited to learn that there was a school station when I started at Taconic,” he said. “We had a great time and treated it like a real radio station. I learned a lot.”

Custer went on to major in broadcasting in college.
“I have had a career in radio ever since,” he said.

In 1974, WTBR extended its reach beyond the school campus by acquiring an FCC license to broadcast over the air with a low-power FM transmitter of about 350 watts. The signal centered on Pittsfield but covered an area of about 25 miles, extending north to Cheshire, south to Lee and west across the state line to New Lebanon.

This began to attract adults as volunteers and program producers. The results included a long-running polka show and several specialty rock shows.

The station went through a transition in the mid-1980s after Cooper left teaching to concentrate on a mobile disc-jockey business he had established.

Although the station continued to operate, student participation began to decline, and the station’s shoestring budget made it difficult to sustain operations.

But in 2006, WTBR experienced something of a revival, spearheaded by a group of community members that included Krol and Larry Kratka, the news director for a local chain of commercial radio stations. Kratka became WTBR’s part-time, largely volunteer station manager, while continuing his work in commercial radio, until he retired in 2014.

Kratka and others were able to obtain new equipment for the station, including software and hardware for digital operations, which also allowed for automated programming.

Krol began a daily interview program, “Good Morning Pittsfield,” which was simulcast on PCTV. Others also produced live programming on a limited basis.

The level of student involvement remained low, however, and most of the station’s airtime was filled by automated music.


Re-imagining a community resource
Serre said operations of the new WTBR will be similar to those of PCTV’s public-access channel, which allows members of the community to propose programs they want to produce and present. The staff reviews and approves proposals and provides training and guidelines for producing shows.

“There will be some differences between what can be allowed on PCTV and WTBR, because radio is licensed under the authority of the FCC,” Serre said. “Radio has tighter rules for things like libel and other programming standards. However, within that, it will have the same principles of community access.”

He noted that initially, at least, the station will broadcast an automated music format when there are no live shows. That would change, however, as more people step forward to produce local programming.

“We’re open to many ideas,” Serre said. “If people want to host a talk program or have an interest they want to do a show about, or a specific genre of music like jazz or something else, they’ll be encouraged to contact us.”

He said the affiliation with PCTV also opens other possibilities, such as simulcasts of television talk or music shows adapted to radio -- or radio broadcasts of local public meetings and live events.

In addition, local public schools still will have the ability to produce programming if they choose.
In WTBR’s new incarnation, PCTV is covering the majority of the station’s budget at first.
“Because of the narrow time frame, PCTV’s board voted to allocate some of our capital funds for the radio station,” Serre said. “Once it’s up and running, we plan to do things such as member drives and corporate underwriting to cover the costs, similar to public broadcasting. We would like for it to be financially self-sustaining within five years.”