Community radio plays an important role in our rural landscape
Morning, Pittsfield––John Krol’s long-running talk show airs twice a week on WTBR.
Photo by Jake Borden
The Berkshires is filled with wavelengths that travel through towns, spreading ideas and connecting citizens that have nothing to do with the Internet or cell phones. Radio may be an old technology—often overlooked as the region pushes for better broadband connections—but small community and school stations are alive and well.
Several are scattered through the region, like WTBR in Pittsfield, WBCR-LP in Great Barrington, and WMNB-LP in North Adams. College stations like WJJW at MCLA and WCFM at Williams College serve the student population as well as off-campus neighbors. Pittsfield also is home to WRRS-LP (104.3 FM), a reading service for the blind.
The “LP” at the end of some of these stations’ call letters stands for “low power,” an FCC designation for stations that operate at 100 watts or less, covering no more than a 3.5-mile radius. WMNB-LP, which launched in 2016, is an off-shoot of the city’s community television station, NBCTV. “We noticed a lot of people have satellite television and don’t get the programming that we put out there,” says radio-station manager Mike Putnam, who worked at the original WMNB back in the ’60s.
Launching the station required building a radio tower and setting up a transmitter—an investment of almost $20,000. It also meant filling the air with as many local personalities as possible to spur interest—like Julia Dixon, a creative-economy consultant. “When a friend told me about this new radio station only a few blocks from where I live, I immediately saw an opportunity,” she says.
More than 60 segments of Dixon’s “Creative City” have aired since its debut nearly a year ago. “I want musicians, painters, photographers, actors, and filmmakers to talk about making money and balancing responsibilities of their life and art,” Dixon says, “and I want to feature other arts organizations throughout the county and have them contextualize this creative activity that is critical to the health of this region.”
She joins veteran Berkshire broadcaster Larry Kratka with his oldies show and Lauren Stevens on the environment. Programming is filled out with syndicated shows from Voice of America, Democracy Now!, and other programs. Putnam is always looking for community members who want a radio show of their own.
Longtime radio journalist John Krol knows well the allure of the airwaves. His long-running talk show “Good Morning Pittsfield” airs two mornings a week on WTBR, part of the 20 hours a week of local programming the station offers.
“I became involved in community radio because [radio host] Larry Kratka had taken a strong interest in WTBR and asked me for help,” Krol says. “The station had essentially become dormant with dead air dominating much of the day and was in danger of losing its FCC license. To rectify that, we needed to produce a significant amount of local programming.”
WTBR, broadcast out of Taconic High School, features a mix of talk and music. The station almost fizzled out in 2014 after Kratka retired, but manager Brad Lorenz stepped in to keep the station afloat. Now, with the high school moving into a new building, its future is again uncertain.
Williams College’s WCFM has been around since 1941 and features anywhere from 75 to 100 hours of programming a week. It offers seven non-student shows by community members, faculty, and professors and is seeking more community DJs.
“The college radio is another way for the campus to interact with not just the town, but the whole surrounding community,” says WCFM general manager Phoebe Mattana. College radio has traditionally been a place for musical innovation, giving free-form programming, less-traditional radio voices, and off-the-beaten path sounds a chance to reach listeners. “College and community radio is so important in the music world because it’s people in college that are often dictating changes and new trends in music,” she says. “New music in many ways starts with us.”
It’s not just the newness of the music offered by college radio that is unique, but the wide variety of styles. “We cover almost every musical genre, from polka to pop, folk to funk, rock to reggae, and everything in between: rap, hip-hop, indie, screamo, et cetera,” says Jim Niedbalski, adjunct professor of English and adviser to WJJW at MCLA. “Whatever music one likes, they can find it on WJJW. College radio plays a lot of new artists and genres you simply won’t hear on commercial radio.”
WJJW in North Adams currently features 97 hours of live broadcast a week, with four hours devoted to news and six community DJs offering 16 hours of programming.
One concern of local radio is its physical reach due to wattage, which can vary depending on the season. A station from North Adams can be heard across Williamstown and perhaps as far south as Cheshire, though in warm months with trees full of leaves, the range is shorter. That’s why online streaming is important; it’s also an easy way to measure audiences.
Streaming is a major part of WMNB-LP’s future, says Putnam. “It is the only way to survive, but it’s costly.” He hopes that local businesses will help underwrite the cost.
As for WTBR’s future, Pittsfield school superintendent Jason McCandless says it cannot be housed in the new high-school building. He’s looking at the school committee and community partners to help find an alternative location for the station.
AWBCR-LP (97.7 FM)
WMNB-LP (107.1 FM)
WJJW (91.1 FM)
WRRS-LP (104.3 FM)