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


News & Issues February-March 2019


Rekindling a community radio spirit

New studio, fund-raising drive set for nonprofit community station



Contributing writer


After several years without a home, the nonprofit community radio station of the southern Berkshires is setting up a new studio and preparing to resume a full schedule of locally produced programming.

On Feb. 1, WBCR-LP began leasing a storefront at 320 Main St. in downtown Great Barrington, offering the most visible sign so far of a restructuring that has been in the works since 2016.
“It’s great feeling to finally have a new space and be ready to begin full programming again,” said Graham Dean, a volunteer and program producer at WBCR since 2005 who has been active in the revitalization effort. “After talking about and planning for this for so long, it’s great to see it manifesting in real form.”

In conjunction with the revival of the station, WBCR is launching a Kickstarter online fund-raising campaign on Feb. 28.

WBCR, whose 100-watt signal at 97.7 FM extends about 10 miles from Great Barrington, went on the air in 2004. At its peak, the station had more than 90 volunteers and provided a diverse range of local programming, including music and talk shows on a variety of subjects – including viewpoints that in some cases would never make it onto commercial or mainstream public radio.
But over time, key programmers and volunteers left or drifted away.

“Fewer and fewer people were maintaining the station,” Dean recalled. “A number of the people who had been a driving force with the station in the beginning had either moved away or were no longer involved with the station for other reasons.”

The pressures of sustaining an enterprise entirely on donations and volunteer labor took a toll, and the station’s shrinking budget forced it to close its studio in 2015.

Although WBCR has continued to broadcast from its transmitter atop Fairview Hospital, it has retained only a few locally produced programs since its studio closed. The rest of its schedule has been filled with automated music and a handful of nationally syndicated shows such as “Democracy Now!”

But behind the scenes, a group of about 20 volunteers were committed to revitalizing the station.
Their goal was to adhere to its original mission of providing community-based programming, but with an updated and improved business plan that would allow the station to become more financially sustainable and also adapted to the contemporary world of media and new technology.

“We all believe that it’s even more important today to support community radio, because of the state of commercial media today,” said Judy Eddy, a longtime volunteer and a member of the station’s Operations Committee. “We give voice to regular people and directly serve our community in ways that corporate media does not.”


Taking center stage
In developing the station’s new business and operating plan, its members agreed that it was important to establish a new studio and headquarters with high visibility in the center of town.
The station’s previous studios were not in prominent locations. One was in the rear of a commercial building; another was on a side street.

“We want WBCR to be an integral part of the community,” Eddy explained. “Having greater physical visibility will give us more exposure and let more people know the station exists.”
But in Great Barrington, where downtown commercial space is at a premium, that was a challenge. The new studio space is in a small storefront that had previously been the site of Hildy B’s, a clothing store that recently moved.

“We had kept our eyes out for a location,” Eddy said. “This space suited our purposes, and we negotiated a lease.”

To cover the initial costs of acquiring and setting up the studio, supporters conducted a fund drive in recent months that raised about $5,000. Volunteers are now preparing the space for its new purpose, remodeling the interior and creating soundproofed studios. Once that work is done, the station’s previous control board and other technical equipment will be taken out of storage and installed.

“It’s currently an open space,” Eddy said. “The first step is building out the interior, and then we’ll move the equipment in.”

The main live programming studio will be set up in a space near the store’s front window and will be visible from the street.

“People passing by will be able to see our live programs as they are presented,” Eddy explained.
The new studio also will have a separate production booth, where pre-recorded programs can be made. This area also will be used for training the station’s volunteer producers. The storefront will house a small office and meeting room as well.

Members also hope to take the station out into the community.
“One of our goals is also to raise money for portable sound pods, which can be moved around for remote productions and broadcasts,” Eddy said.


Setting production standards
Dean and Eddy said a transformation of the station’s programming will take place in stages over the coming months as WBCR makes the transition to its new studio. Although there is no specific deadline, they expect to move into the new studio by spring.

One of the goals of the WBCR’s reboot is to improve the station’s on-air presentation -- to ensure programs are of a level of quality that can attract and retain listeners.

Although producers will have leeway in terms of content of their shows, the station will have standards for technical proficiency and basic elements of presentation style.

The station now has a programming committee to review and approve programs and plan the on-air schedule, and it has issued an open call for program proposals from the public.

“There has been a tremendous interest in that, and we received about 60 proposals,” Eddy said. “Programs will be added as volunteer producers are trained. Fortunately, we already have a number of experienced people involved with the station who can provide training.”

In addition to new program producers and volunteers, Dean said a number of veterans from the station’s earlier incarnation are returning.

In the 15 years since WBCR was founded, the technical landscape of radio has changed with the emergence of online Internet streaming and podcasting. These advances allow the station to reach listeners beyond the limited range of its FM signal in the southern Berkshires -- whether they’re just outside that zone or around the globe.

By streaming its shows on the Internet, the station also will make it possible for listeners to hear a specific program on demand rather than only when it is broadcast. WBCR has long offered its live programming via its Web site (www.berkshireradio.org); it will now augment that with podcasts.

But organizers stress that on-air broadcasting is still at the core of WBCR’s mission.
“Radio is a vitally important media, as it can reach the entire community simultaneously in a very immediate way,” Eddy said. “However, with the Internet and podcasting, we can extend our audience reach in ways we can’t over the air. It also provides more programming options.”
She said that the station is setting up a system in which people can subscribe and listen to podcast programs on demand. Many but not all of WBCR’s on-air programs will be archived as podcasts, and the station also expects to offer some separate original podcasts.

Eddy, who currently produces an environmental podcast, said the standards for podcasting and for on-air shows aren’t quite the same.

“In some ways, podcasting is a different medium,” she said.
For example, she explained, there are different requirements for the use of music. WBCR pays a license fee for the right to play almost any recorded musical selections on the air. But because of copyright restrictions, the right to broadcast music in podcasts is more limited. As a result, not all on-air programming is eligible to be distributed in the form of podcasts.

Other types of programming that are suitable for podcasts may not work as radio shows. But Eddy pointed out that podcasting will allow a wider range of people to produce programming.
“These days people can produce a podcast on their iPhone, and we can provide an outlet for them to reach an audience,” she said.


Building a secure base
The station also is drawing on new online tools for its fund raising, such as with its upcoming Kickstarter campaign. That campaign will be launched officially at a Feb. 28 gala at The Barn in South Egremont. A link to the Kickstarter page will be posted on the station’s main Web site when it has been finalized.

Eddy said WBCR will continue to rely on its traditional base of memberships and other donations while focusing on keeping its budget sustainable.

“We’ve established a base membership of $60 a year, which gives members the right to vote at our annual meeting,” she said. “We’re also going to ask our programmers to be members.”
For those who have a difficult time affording $60, memberships can be paid over time in installments, or other arrangements can be made.

Eddy said that because one core goal is to maintain the station’s independence, the group will not turn to corporate underwriting or program sponsorships of the type used by public radio.
“We do want the business community to support us, but we don’t want to tie it in with on-air advertising or other obligations,” she said.

Eddy and Dean both expressed great enthusiasm for the progress the station has made and said they believe WBCR is preparing to resume an important role in the southern Berkshires.
“Locally based, non-corporate radio is more vital than ever,” Eddy said. “It gives the community a voice and is an important element of local life and social justice.”