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




Local airwaves, local voices

In Columbia County, a model for community radio



Contributing writer


The motto for WGXC-90.7 FM, the local radio station that started broadcasting to Columbia and Greene counties just over two years ago, is “hands-on radio.”

The phrase sums up why WGXC stands out in the era of chain-owned commercial radio stations whose homogeneous programming typically is produced in studios far removed from listeners.

WGXC, in contrast, is a noncommercial operation with a distinctly homegrown flavor. Most of its programs originate in the station's three studios, in Hudson, Catskill and Acra. The shows are produced by local volunteers whose sole motivation is to share their interests and passions on the air.

As a result, the programming on WGXC is an eclectic mix that might be compared to listening to the diverse voices of the community through an open door. A look through the program guide on the station’s Web site, wgxc.org, reveals a range of locally produced music and interview shows, a radio theater program, several shows by and for local teenagers, and programs with such varied and intriguing titles as “Rancho Thatchmo,” “The World According to Lawrence,” and “Battlefield Earth.”

WGXC is part of a small but growing broadcasting segment known as community radio. These are non-commercial stations that provide an outlet for programming, ideas and perspectives that are not generally available on commercial stations.

The community stations’ reliance on volunteers also distinguishes them from the professionally produced programming of public radio stations such as Albany’s WAMC, the Vermont Public Radio system and other affiliates of National Public Radio.

“As a noncommercial community radio station, our foremost objective is to provide the public with access to the airwaves,” explained Lynn Sloneker, the station manager and managing news editor at WGXC. “We also want to make sure the local community is reflected in what listeners hear on the station.”

Sloneker, who is one of the station’s three paid staff members, said the organization also has an educational role, sponsoring media workshops, training and other activities aimed at making the airwaves accessible to all.

“We provide media education and other outreach to bring people together on the community level and encourage them to become actively involved in the media,” she said. 

Many voices and styles

The closest parallel to WGXC in the region is WBCR-LP, the low-power community station that has been broadcasting at 97.7 FM in Great Barrington, Mass., for nearly a decade. But unlike the Great Barrington station, whose signal peters out at Stockbridge or Hillsdale, WGXC broadcasts at full power and reaches a much wider listening area.

WGXC transmits a 3,300-watt signal from an antenna on the west side of the Hudson Valley in Leeds and reaches most of Columbia and Greene counties. (In addition, the station can be heard by listeners anywhere by live Internet stream via its Web site, which also links to archives of past programming.)

WGXC’s current programs include live and recorded music from many different genres as well as news, interviews and documentaries, ethnic programming, radio drama and children’s shows. As a venue for the creative use of the radio medium, its schedule also includes more esoteric fare, such as experimental soundscapes.

The station's on-air style is also diverse, ranging from carefully structured productions to programs that have a more casual and spontaneous feeling. (The program guide, for example, lists a show on Tuesday afternoons called “Super Radio Manic Fun” in which an 11-year-old girl, her friends and her mom “have fun, play music and chat.”)

A listener may hear a host playing recorded music or live performances by area musicians. At other times, the station broadcasts information and conversations about local events and issues. And recalling an earlier era of broadcasting, its schedule for the week ahead is likely to include the occasional slot for which the content is still “to be determined.”

Although the majority of its programming is local, the schedule also includes some programs from other sources, such as the syndicated news show “Democracy Now!” and international newscasts from Al Jazeera.

WGXC's facilities include a second-floor suite of studios and offices at 704 Columbia St. in downtown Hudson. Another studio is located in a storefront window at the Catskill Community Center on Main Street in downtown Catskill. Its Acra facility, called the Wave Farm, is located in a newer building on a 29-acre site in a very rural section of Greene County, just west of Cairo.

Roots in Brooklyn arts scene

WGXC, which has been on the air since February 2011, is licensed to a nonprofit cultural organization called free103point9. The group was founded in 1997 in Brooklyn by a group of artists interested in “transmission arts” and in public-access broadcasting. The organization’s name is based on the frequency of a micro-transmitter it once used to broadcast in Brooklyn.

Transmission arts is a form of expression based on creative uses of the electromagnetic spectrum. Although this includes radio and audio presentations, it may also encompass video and other forms of electromagnetic energy and related physical installations, live performances and other forms of presentation.

The free103point9 organization relocated upstate to the Wave Farm in 2004.

“One reason we moved is simply because we love it here,” explained Galen Joseph-Hunter, the group’s executive director. She lives at Wave Farm with her husband, Tom Roe, who is the organization’s artistic director.

The decision to move upstate full time was also driven by the organization’s artistic mission.

“We wanted to establish a center where artists can come for residencies and concentrate on projects in a peaceful setting away from interference,” Joseph-Hunter explained.

In addition to hosting artist residencies, free103point9 serves as a conduit for financial support to media groups and artists from the New York State Council on the Arts. It also maintains a resource library of transmission arts at Wave Farm and hosts an online archive and a separate live stream of transmission arts programming at its Web site, free103point9.org.

In 2007, when a Federal Communications Commission license for a community station became available in the area, free103point9 organized a community effort to apply for it.

“It was an opportunity to fulfill the civic responsibility of our original commitment to this type of radio,” Joseph-Hunter said.

The group was awarded an FCC permit for the new station in 2008. While raising money and making other preparations for on-air broadcasts, the group began offering an Internet stream of programming in 2009. After a community “barn raising,” the FM station went on the air in February 2011.

The board of directors and staff of free103point9 oversee the radio station, but WGXC’s day-to-day operations are managed and implemented by the station’s staff and volunteers. A community council also advises the station. WGXC has about 150 volunteers, including 100 who are directly involved in programming.

The station’s staff and volunteers provide its programming in the daytime and evening hours from Sunday through Friday. But in the overnight hours and on Saturdays, free103point9 provides programming originating from the Wave Farm, with an emphasis on transmission arts.

Balancing producers, listeners

One challenge for a public-access community station like WGXC is balancing, on the one hand, its mission of providing a vehicle for self-expression and specialized interests and, on the other, the goal of serving listeners in the larger community as a public communications medium.

“Building our listening audience is always a topic of discussion within the station,” Sloneker said. “However, the bottom line is always what makes good radio and provides a service to the community.”

The station has set up procedures aimed at fostering technical proficiency, quality and audience accessibility in its volunteer-produced programming. Proposals for new programs, for example, are evaluated based on such factors as what they offer to listeners and how they complement existing programs in the overall mix.

“People who want to do programs fill out applications, which are vetted by the program director and a programming committee,” Sloneker explained.

Volunteer program producers receive training and guidance in the goals of community radio, technical production, community standards and legal guidelines, but otherwise they have a great deal of latitude in terms of content.

“We don't micro-manage the programs after they are on the schedule,” Sloneker said. “We encourage a 'live and let live' environment. People who produce programs have a wide berth to make their own choices. Any concern that might come up would have to do with the responsibility to stay within the parameters of taste and appropriateness.”

The station recently revised its schedule to improve the flow of programming – with the goal of improving accessibility to listeners.

Sloneker explained that WGXC now features particular types of program blocks at similar times of day. These include magazine-style information programs in the early mornings and late afternoons. Other daily blocks include late-morning public affairs, midday music shows and afternoon community and cultural programming. On Sundays, the station broadcasts a series of ethnic programs, including Spanish-language and Creole-language shows, a show devoted to Bengali music and culture, and another featuring Irish music.

Building an audience

Sloneker, a former newspaper reporter, said one of her priorities is to build up the station’s local news coverage. Although WGXC features news culled from various sources as well as information and analysis within its other programming, Sloneker said she is developing plans to incorporate a more specifically journalistic approach.

“We’re looking for ways to provide the headlines and also work more to tell larger stories that put the news into context,” she said. “Since we don't have the budget for a full-time professional news staff, that requires a lot of planning.”

To support its annual budget of more than $130,000, WGXC relies on a combination of donations, underwriting sponsorship and grants. It conducts on-air fund-raising and benefit events.

“As a nonprofit organization, we have to work hard to achieve financial stability,” Sloneker said. “Making anything like this viable is always a full-time job. We’re still new, but we’re making good progress.”

She said the station has been steadily building a grassroots base of support.

“In our most recent on-air fundraiser, we set a goal of $30,000 in 10 days, and we were able to reach that goal in nine days from 350 donors and matching grants,” Sloneker said. “We were very happy with how it went.”

She said the level of listenership varies around the two counties.

“We have pockets where a lot of people are listening,” Sloneker said. “Hudson, for example, has a high concentration of listeners, but we're not as well-known in some other sections of Columbia County.”

She said one important task is outreach to make more people aware of the station and what it offers.

“Our programming side is in a strong place now,” Sloneker said. “We want to have more people find out about us and listen, even if it's only for specific programs.”

Regulatory changes could mean more grassroots radio
The number of community radio stations like WGXC, the 2-year-old station that serves Columbia County, could soon be growing.

After several years in which the number of licenses for new low-power community radio stations were frozen, the Federal Communications Commission announced in November that it is opening up a new round of applications for them this year. The noncommercial, community-radio movement began in 1949 with KPFA, a station in San Francisco operated by the Pacifica Foundation. In the ensuing decades, other community stations were established in various locations around the country. Although they share a common underlying purpose, community stations have individual approaches and identities, in part reflecting the differences in the communities they serve and the nature of their sponsoring organizations. In addition to WGXC, there are several community stations in this region, including WBCR-LP, a low-power FM station that broadcasts to Great Barrington, Mass., and WTBR-FM, which is operated by the public school system in Pittsfield, Mass.

Another is Robin Hood Radio, a network of four stations in the tri-state region of southern Berkshire County, northwestern Connecticut and adjoining sections of New York. Robin Hood Radio bills itself as “the nation's smallest NPR station” and combines the approaches of public and community radio. Nationally, the community-radio movement occupied a very small niche for many decades. But in 2000 it received a major boost as the FCC created a new category of licenses for low-power stations that broadcast to small geographic areas. Some community stations, including WGXC, have full-power licenses that enable them to cover large geographic areas. However, the low-power licenses opened the door for others, including WBCR, to get started around the country. After initially allowing an initial round of new licenses for low-power community stations for several years after 2000, the FCC tightened its regulations again in the face of objections from the broadcast industry, which said the new stations had too much potential to interfere with existing signals. This effectively blocked the advent of additional low-power stations for several years.

Congress, however, responded to public pressure and a new law three years ago that directed the FCC to ease the previous restrictions. As a result, the FCC has created more flexible rules on where new stations can be located. Starting in October, the FCC will again be accepting applications from nonprofit organizations for new low-power licenses. As in other parts of the country, this creates the possibility for additional low-power community radio stations to be started in this region.

-- John Townes