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


News & Issues November 2017


Community radio aims to rise again

Backers seek ‘reboot’ for low-power FM Berkshires station


After closing its studio in 2015, WBCR-LP consolidated its remaining equipment near its transmitter atop Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Its backers now hope to revitalize the local radio station.  John Townes photo After closing its studio in 2015, WBCR-LP consolidated its remaining equipment near its transmitter atop Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. Its backers now hope to revitalize the local radio station.  John Townes photo


Contributing writer


For much of the first decade after it first took to the airwaves in 2004, WBCR-LP set an example of what a nonprofit local radio station could be.

Now its supporters hope to rekindle that early spirit and revitalize the low-power FM station as a community resource for the southern Berkshires and beyond.

At its peak, WBCR, whose 100-watt signal extends about 10 miles from Great Barrington, attracted dozens of volunteers and provided a diverse range of local programming – giving airtime to music and viewpoints that in some cases would never make it onto commercial or even public radio.

But over time, key participants left or drifted away, and the pressures of sustaining an enterprise entirely on donations and volunteer labor took a toll. In late 2015, the station closed its local offices and broadcast studio and consolidated its operating equipment in a space near its transmitter atop Fairview Hospital.

Without a studio, the bulk of the station’s broadcast schedule now is filled by syndicated programming from outside sources and by automated music. WBCR, which broadcasts at 97.7 FM, offers a sharply reduced selection of local programs, which are produced off-site and sent to the station as MP3 files.

“We had run out of money, and the board warned that we might have to wind down and prepare to close,” said Asa Hardcastle, a longtime volunteer and a member of the nonprofit group that runs the radio station. “However, a core of the members rallied.”

Hardcastle emphasized that the current bare-bones operation is intended to be temporary while supporters work to re-establish the station on a stronger footing.

The new effort to “reboot” the station aims to strengthen its organization with a new emphasis on quality programming while updating its operations to the changing landscape of radio in the Internet age.

“We could have retrenched and found ways to keep going as we had before, but we had ideas that were bigger than that,” he explained. “So rather than continuing on a hand-to-mouth basis, we made a conscious decision to close the studio and focus on developing a new business plan to create a WBCR 2.0.”


Hard work, no pay
WBCR is licensed as a low-power FM station, a class of radio stations created by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000 for nonprofit and educational organizations that offer alternatives to commercial radio.

The low-power classification was intended to provide more opportunities for local, community-oriented programming on a radio dial increasingly dominated by large corporations. Low-power stations are designed to serve local audiences within distinct geographic areas.

WBCR is operated by the nonprofit Berkshire Community Radio Alliance on a strictly volunteer basis. The alliance’s board of directors oversees the radio station, and volunteers handle its programming, management, fund raising and other functions. The station relies on membership fees and other donations to cover its costs.

WBCR’s programming over the years has featured a wide variety of shows produced by people from the southern Berkshires, including interview programs and music shows, along with some syndicated programs. In addition to its broadcast signal, the station streams programming on its Web site, www.berkshireradio.org.

Hardcastle said the station was able to maintain its operations and pay its bills on an all-volunteer basis for most of its history. But over time, its organizational model took a toll, and sustaining the station became more difficult on several levels.

“It’s a complicated set of dynamics,” Hardcastle said. “We’ve had a lot of active and talented people who have produced great radio over the years. We’ve also had solid support from the community and good luck with our fund-raising campaigns and events. But people worked really hard, which created a burnout situation. Many people drifted away.”

In organizations that rely on unpaid volunteers, turnover is often an issue. Although there may be a core group of members who are committed over the long term, many volunteers eventually lose interest or pull away because of other priorities in their lives, or they leave the area.
At its peak, WBCR had about 90 volunteer program producers. Hardcastle estimated the station currently has a core of about 20 volunteers.


Gradual decline
Judy Eddy, a former board member, treasurer and program producer who is active in the current reorganization effort, attributed the radio station’s problems in part to its lack of a paid staff.
“The station has had some awesome volunteers who treated it like a job and practically worked for the station full time,” she said. “However, you can only do that for so long if you’re not getting paid. So there was gradual attrition, and eventually not enough people were available to take on specific roles.”

That led to a lack of continuity and made it difficult to attract new participants, she explained.
“It requires training to be able to produce a radio program,” Eddy said. “However, if there are not knowledgeable people available to provide that, it’s difficult to bring in new people who want to do programs.”

This also led to a lack of consistency in the station’s overall operations and management. Although WBCR was able to pay its bills, it did not have a solid financial base.
Hardcastle said, for example, that fund raising became unnecessarily complicated.

“Although our fund drives and benefit events were generally successful, the problem was that we didn’t capture information that could be used to repeat those steps,” he said. “That made it more difficult to plan for the next time.”

The station also became hampered by a lack of physical visibility after moving out of a studio space on Main Street, in the town’s central business district, to a site in a less prominent location on Rossiter Street.

“It’s important for a radio station like us to have a noticeable physical presence in the community,” Hardcastle said. “But that became more difficult after we moved, because we were visually off the grid.”

The cumulative effect of these problems became clear over the past couple of years, Hardcastle and Eddy said. For financial reasons, the station first reduced the size of the Rossiter Street studio and eventually gave up the studio and office space altogether.


Seeking manager, studio
Although the specific details of the station’s new business plan are still being crafted, its proponents have established the basic goals and strategy.

“We’ve restated our mission,” Hardcastle said. “It’s is basically the original vision when the station was started, which is to serve the southern Berkshire community, and offer access and exposure to a variety of ideas and local voices on the station.

“However, we are transitioning to a different type of organization,” he added, “and we’ll pursue that goal in new ways. We also want to embrace the opportunities that new online and digital technology offers.”

Hardcastle said the organization has several specific priorities, with short-term and longer-range business plans. In the meantime, they are continuing to broadcast and present as much local programming as possible under the current circumstances.

WBCR is conducting a membership campaign that will soon be hitting its stride, he said. It also is seeking larger donations or grants to fund the initial costs of re-establishing the station.
“Phase one is to raise money to support the first year of the business plan,” he said. “We hope to be 100 percent functioning within the next year.”

Beyond that, WBCR has two specific initial goals. One is to hire a paid executive director to oversee the station’s operations to provide professional expertise and continuity in management.
“A key is management,” Hardcastle said. “A professional manager will also create systems that will better enable volunteers to focus on programming or the other tasks that will support the station’s operations.”

The other initial goal is to obtain a downtown space for an office and live broadcast studio.
“The organization has to be visible to anyone who comes into Great Barrington,” Hardcastle said. “Ideally, we are looking for a studio with a window on the street, so that people can see our live programs as they are being broadcast.”

Over the longer term, he added, the station’s board also hopes to hire more staff and to buy a studio site.

The new business plan includes some broader initiatives.
“We’re placing a greater emphasis excellence as one of our primary goals,” Hardcastle said. “That includes ensuring the quality of our programming to foster artistic and technical excellence. We have a responsibility to the people who are lending us their ears to create radio that is worth listening to.”


Balancing passion, skill
There is a fundamental dilemma in community radio and other media oriented to public access: People who have interests or opinions they want to share on the air do not necessarily have the technical knowledge or creative skills to produce radio programming that audiences will want to listen to.

Hardcastle said the goal for WBCR is to balance community access with systems that ensure quality control.

“That will include extensive training,” he said. “Another strategy is to pair people with a passion they want to express on the air with people who have expertise and talent for broadcasting. That will provide the technical support to enable program creators to focus on content.”
Eddy said the station plans to increase its outreach effort and to collaborate more with other organizations in the community.

“For example, we’re looking at become more involved in schools and getting students involved in programming,” she said. “We were doing some of that before, and it worked out well. We’d like to expand that.”

Another goal is to help the station catch up to the contemporary world of communications.
Since WBCR first went on the air, the media has undergone a fundamental transformation with the emergence of technologies such as Internet streaming and online music services. This has created both challenges and opportunities for over-the-air terrestrial radio stations. The changes have added a layer of competition, because listeners can now tune into programs and music from an almost infinite number of sources on their computers – or via cell phones and other mobile devices.

At the same time, the changes have opened up new possibilities for radio stations and producers to expand their audiences, potentially reaching listeners around the globe.

So WBCR’s supporters say they want to improve the technical quality of the station’s Internet stream, both to strengthen its local coverage and to expand its geographic reach.

“As a low-power station, our signal’s reach is very limited,” Hardcastle said. “It’s also line-of-sight, which makes its coverage more uneven because of the hilly terrain here. You can hear us in some parts of Connecticut, but not in certain areas nearby because a hill is in the way. So there are local people who listen to us on the Internet.”


Reaching a wider audience
Streaming also enables people in other parts of Berkshire County to listen, potentially expanding the station’s regional significance. Hardcastle said the result could be programming developed with a countywide focus -- or obtained through collaborations with other community radio stations and other organizations around the Berkshires.

Hardcastle and Eddy said another potential programming option is podcasting, a system of program distribution in which producers upload shows to the Internet that listeners can download and listen to whenever they want. Individual radio stations as well as networks like National Public Radio and independent producers and distribution sites have used this technology on an increasing scale.

“With podcasting, it’s a new world,” Eddy said. “It opens up the potential for programming to reach a national and global audience.”

Hardcastle, who works as a software coder, said podcasting also could improve the station’s accessibility to a local audience by making it possible for people to listen to programs at their convenience.

“One limitation of over-the-air radio is that you can only listen to a program when it is broadcast,” Hardcastle said. “I love radio, but as a parent with a demanding job and a busy life, I can’t always listen to a show at the time it is on the air. But with podcasting, I can listen on my own schedule.”
He said podcasting has led to a general renaissance in radio programming, particularly for such forms as documentaries and drama.

“Some amazing programs are being produced as podcasts, and they’ve become popular with listeners,” Hardcastle said. “We see that as an opportunity for WBCR-LP to be a source of quality podcasts, which can be distributed nationally.”

Hardcastle said these roles are compatible, if approached carefully.
“Live, local radio for southern Berkshire County is the core of our DNA, and it will continue to be our primary focus,” he said. “A primary criterion is also programming produced by people who live within driving distance from the station. But at the same time, we can also support those programs that have the potential to be of interest to a regional or national audience.”

Both Hardcastle and Eddy said anyone who wants to volunteer or support the station through membership should contact them through the station’s Web site, www.berkshireradio.org.
“There’s a new energy around the station,” Eddy said. “We have a solid core of participants who have been involved before and are still interested in participating. And this area is blossoming, with many new and creative people moving here, which is another resource.”