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At home on the air: Dharma Dailey and Sara Kendall broadcast from WGXC's Hudson studio.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Community Transmissions

After three years of grassroots, volunteer labor, WGXC: Hands-On Radio is set to begin broadcasting on the strongest non- commercial signal in Columbia and Greene counties

By Josh Potter

It’s standing-room-only in the broadcast booth as the morning magazine program Tell It Like It Is draws to a close. Six commentators huddle around three microphones, sharing testimonials and the scientific findings of a recent Harvard University study into the mercury emissions from the Lafarge cement plant in Ravena. The entire morning has been devoted to the topic and a ring of concerned community members surrounds those on-air. More hover by the door.

“If we’re not going to do something about this,” one woman says in closing, “then who is?!” It’s a sentiment that might well summarize not only the grassroots effort to hold Lafarge accountable, but also the three-year project to get WGXC: Hands-On Radio up and running in Columbia and Greene counties. The windows are still taped from a fresh coat of paint, sound-buffering canvass leans against the wall, and the atrium is full of donated sound gear in various states of functionality and relevance, but piece-by-piece this group of committed volunteers has built a full-power FM station—soon to be the strongest non-commercial signal in the area—from the ground up.

There are cheers and high-fives when the engineer cues the show’s closing theme song, and an elderly woman dons a pair of headphones to read the community events calendar. Presently, the broadcast can only be heard streaming on the station’s website, wgxc.org, but after years of fundraising and the recent installment of a 3,300-watt antenna in Cairo, the station is set to reach 78,000 potential listeners at 90.7 FM following their Feb. 26 launch.

A hand-painted poster on the wall of the Hudson studio—one of three the station will eventually operate from—reads “Commercial radio is dead and boring. . . it will not be missed.” Volunteers from all over the two counties linger in the repurposed apartment building, available to the group rent-free on a work-trade basis, catching up and sharing news. Not only is the scene a portrait of what is set to become a busy work environment, but it’s the functioning response to a need in these rural communities for a central meeting place and public forum. Furthermore, with the recent passage of HR6533, the Local Community Radio Act, WGXC may serve as the model for a wave of small, community-run stations across the country that now have access to the radio spectrum for the first time in over a decade.

“When we came, we certainly did not expect to get a full-power license,” says Galen Joseph-Hunter, executive director of WGXC and its parent organization free103point9. She and her husband Tom Roe moved to Cairo in 2004 after having spent the ’90s working in the micro-radio movement in New York City. Roe co-founded free103point9 with activists Greg Anderson and Violent Hopkins as an artists collective in the South Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1997, and the group’s early years were focused on producing free-form radio events and providing resources for media artists working in the field of “transmission arts.”

As she explains it, transmission arts is a genre of experimental sound work “that really thinks about the radio or transmission spectrum in a formal and conceptually rigorous way.” This kind of work can operate in the gallery or performance setting but its roots are in un-licensed pirate radio. Foundational to transmission arts, free103point9 and now WGXC is the belief that the airwaves are public space to which everyone has equal right as a listener and also as a media producer.

To better pursue this objective, free103point9 became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization in 2002, drawing on Joseph-Hunter’s background in arts administration, and Roe and Joseph-Hunter decided that a rural setting would provide the project with unprecedented opportunities. “We had both envisioned wanting to help facilitate a place in the country that could serve as a place for artists residencies and performances,” says Joseph-Hunter. “We both recognized that artists working with media rarely have the opportunities to go out to a retreat-like setting, outside of a dense urban environment like New York City, to a place where there is much less congestion on the spectrum dial.”

The solution was Wave Farm, a resource center on the couple’s property used for artist residencies, youth and community workshops, a “transmission sculpture garden,” and soon WGXC’s Cairo studio (the station’s third studio will be in the Catskill Community Center).

“To be able to turn over a full-power station to these artists who are making such progressive, experimental work seemed like a really exciting possibility,” Joseph-Hunter says, but neither she nor Roe ever expected they’d have that opportunity. During the past couple decades, the Federal Communications Commission has been very selective about who they grant licenses and construction permits. Even the prospect of starting a low-power station (100 Watts or less) was severely limited due to a provision in the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000 that forbade a new station from broadcasting within three clicks of a full-power station. While the prevention of signal interference was the official justification, low-power radio advocates like Philadelphia’s Prometheus Radio Project insist the legislation was an effort to protect commercial interests. As for full-power licenses, there was an outright freeze.

“When the window opened in 2007,” Joseph-Hunter says, “there hadn’t been a similar window in 15 years.” In October, the FCC began accepting new full-power applications for one week only. Joseph-Hunter got a call from Dharma Dailey, a Greene County media advocate who had worked with Prometheus in the past and knew free103point9 from its Brooklyn days, encouraging the group to apply.

As WGXC volunteer technical director Al Davis explains, “the FCC got 4000 applications that week from all over the country. There was a limited number of channels, so there were pileups.”

“We just bit the bullet and went for it,” Joseph-Hunter says. “I think the sensibility of this project and the way it’s being volunteer-run—really everything about it—is antithetical to a [conventional] full-power station,” but WGXC was granted its license according to the fact it would provide “first service” to its listening area—that is, for about 15,000 people, WGXC will be the only audible non-commercial signal. Suddenly, free103point9 had a full-power station, as well as a legal obligation to begin broadcasting within three years.

The whole building shakes as a freight train rolls through the Hudson town square, mere feet from the WGXC studio walls. None of the volunteers pay it any mind, likely accepting the ambient noise as part of what keeps the station’s programming gritty and local.

“I remember sitting in this space when it was completely raw,” says Kaya Weidman, director of community engagement. “There was no furniture. We hadn’t finished the floors yet, and it was me, Tom and Galen having a staff meeting by ourselves, saying, ‘we really need to build up our staff.’”

Long before WGXC was a radio station, it was a gathering of volunteers, and before that a simple discussion between community members.

“In large part,” Weidman says, “all of our work was initially outreach, getting people involved, talking about the station, doing things on the street, holding public meetings. At first it was very much a listening project.”

“We thought about what media means in this area,” says Joseph-Hunter, “how lacking it is in terms of being caught in this gap between New York City and Albany, and how fragmented the community was here. It was a no-brainer that this wasn’t just going to be an avant-garde art station. It very much needed to be a community media project that was hopefully going to bring people together and create avenues for communication. That’s when we put together the Radio Council.”

The WGXC Radio Council is a 12-member body responsible for shaping the station’s values to reflect the diversity of the region’s various communities. Comprised of journalists, librarians, artists, farmers, teachers, mental health workers, and the former head of the Columbia County NAACP, this is the core staff around which an increasingly wide web of volunteers operates. Daily, though, it’s Joseph-Hunter, Weidman, Davis and station manager Sara Kendall who keep the station moving, working nearly full-time on a volunteer basis.

“A lot of us have a history in community media and roots in social justice activism,” Weidman says, “and a lot of that is really integral to what guides the direction we’re going in.”

“One thing I really like about this group,” says Davis, “is that everyone is really serious about that whole hands-on part. At a time when community radio stations all over the country are yielding to this pressure to go more mainstream and monotonous . . . everybody here really knows that the volunteers are the essence of the station.”

“To be a part of a project that’s in its infancy but has grown incredibly before even launching onto the FM dial,” adds Kendall, “that’s an incredible thing to be here day to day and see who already considers this a resource.”

Building this network of members and volunteers will remain a core mission and logistical concern even after the station begins broadcasting, embarking on member drives and underwriting campaigns common to public radio, but it was the first step toward more concrete station-building projects—namely, fundraising.

After receiving their construction permit in 2008, WGXC received a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2009, covering half of the station’s start-up costs, roughly $71,000. The organization had until March 31, 2010, about five months during a recessionary winter, to raise another 71 grand. Davis, whose task it was to reduce costs by streamlining the station’s engineering budget, confesses the sum was a shoestring target in light of the one or two million dollars a commercial station requires for start-up.

“We needed to do everything,” Weidman says. “Get donors, have events, write other grants. But we really needed a publicity stunt to get it out there.” That event was a New Year’s Eve party at Basilica Hudson, an old, unheated foundry building on Hudson’s waterfront. “It ended up being a monster of an event, with 60 performers over the course of 10 hours—everything from burlesque to rock bands, hip-hop and a trapeze aerial performance—and 700 people. It was a little over the top but it worked. We only made $600 but we could have lost twice that, and it quickly gave us the reputation that whatever we’re doing, it’s fun.”

“[The event] seems kind of emblematic of the kind of ambitions that get nurtured in this space,” says Kendall, suggesting that the hands-on, consensus-based organization of the group has a tendency to amplify ideas into projects that nearly exceed their logistics.

Stressing the fact that the social network is of more primary importance than the station proper, Weidman explains, “It felt important that we were doing something before even being on the air. That kicked off a series of non-stop benefit concerts, art auctions, pancake breakfasts . . .,” a piecemeal fundraising campaign that enlisted the efforts of every volunteer on even the smallest scale. In addition to chipping away at their start-up costs, the station was building an infrastructure for labor that has made the transition to broadcast all the more fluid. “In starting a project that has taken us three years to get on the air, there has got to be other points you’re working for that have something beyond the eventual station launch. Because we’ve had a number of those, we’ve been able to build momentum that would have been hard if we were just focused on getting on the air.”

By March 31, the group had still not raised sufficient funds to match the PTFP grant, but they received an extension, redoubled their efforts over the summer and finally met their goal in September. Kendall describes the kind of exhaustion volunteers were facing. “We paused and said, ‘We’re trying to get on air, but we’re full-time event organizing. Is this crazy?’” The group had enough money for Davis to begin installing the antenna on a tower they rent from American Tower, along with three cell phone companies, on County Road 67—a task that was completed in December—but one more major event remained.

In September, WGXC was selected by the Prometheus Radio Project for their 2010 Radio Station Barnraising, a fundraiser, skill-share, and community media conference that drew participants from all over the country. It was the first time Prometheus had worked with a full-power station and turned out to be one of the largest radio barnraisings in the group’s history. The three-day event became a forum for radio producers, media advocates, non-profit workers, Spanish-speaking migrant laborers, and sister organizations like the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, to come together over the philosophy and logistics of launching community-run radio. WGXC volunteers, meanwhile, worked overtime to house and feed the 300 participants, wrangling couch space, getting farmers to donate food, cooking three meals a day and shuttling participants between events. Mobilizing this group of people around a cause that was meant to benefit everyone, the group agrees, was as important as getting the antenna up and the broadcast ready.

“After that,” Davis says, “we let people sleep for a while.”

In December, at the tail end of congress’ freakishly productive lame-duck session, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act into law. Passing the legislation, which mandates that the FCC open the FM dial to new low- and full-power stations, was a 10-year effort by the likes of Prometheus and other advocacy groups. It’s being celebrated as a major step toward a more democratic media system in the United States.

“It’s an example of grassroots activism making substantive policy changes in the government,” Weidman says. “Hardworking people got this policy passed with an incredible amount of bipartisan support.” Republican Senator John McCain was one of the bill’s major cosponsors. “You can’t say no to community radio.”

“But some did,” Davis says, explaining the pressure of corporate lobbying groups like the National Association of Broadcasters, who advocate deregulation and consolidation, over representatives in states such as New Jersey, which has a concentration of commercial stations broadcasting to the New York City area. “Really, we need a lot more than just that act, but it’s a big start.”

When WGXC applied for its license, nearly two-thirds of applicants lost out to corporate religious broadcasters, Davis explains, which operate under a similar model of consolidation as radio giant Clear Channel. The Local Community Radio Act will help community stations, local nonprofits and religious groups provide an alternative to the homogenized corporate programming that masquerades as local while, as Davis says, being run by a “master computer somewhere in California.”

With a three-year head start from the window of opportunity opened to them in 2007, WGXC stands as a pioneering model for the kind of stations that will be allowed to spring up in the wake of this legislation.

When WGXC goes live on Feb. 26, the station will run on the labor of nearly 80 programmers, some working on a weekly basis. Shows will run the gamut from news to music, non-English to youth-produced. Susan Arbetter’s state news show The Capital Pressroom will run weekday mornings, as will Democracy Now! (Amy Goodman gave the station her endorsement this fall when she spoke at a Catskill fundraising event.) There will be community panels on agriculture, health and the arts, news in Spanish, Haitian Creole and Bengali, and music in a variety of genres. Every night between midnight and 6 AM, as well as on Saturdays, free103point9 will use the airwaves as a forum for international transmission artists.

Yet, WGXC is committed to keeping their programming flexible enough to accommodate contributions by amateur members of the community who may have a topic they need to discuss or an interview they’ve recorded on the station’s equipment loan. Workshop and training coordinator Dharma Dailey will conduct a regular training schedule, and two separate youth programs have already been producing work by high school students, Girl Scout groups and after-school programs.

“[Radio] is the only form of media that everyone can access for free,” says Weidman, in defense of a form that might feel a bit quaint to some in the digital information age. “You don’t need to know how to read. You don’t have to have the time. You don’t have to own anything except a radio, which you can get pretty much anywhere for next to nothing.” She names manual laborers and prisoners as otherwise marginalized groups that directly benefit from radio’s ability to cross physical boundaries and be absorbed without too much effort, not to mention the average automobile driver. “There’s a lot of power in the written word, but there’s something else that happens when you hear someone say something. The emotion that you can put into something . . . it really hits people. We’re trying to respond to that on the other side. The creation of radio needs to be accessible.”

Hit the seek button on your car radio in Columbia and Greene counties and it’s only a few clicks before you’re back around to where you started. The process can be similarly forlorn for residents seeking to meet their neighbors. Kendall, who grew up in New York City and now lives in Ancram, says meeting her neighbor for the first time at the WGXC studio was “an epiphany for how the organization provides that public forum.”

As Joseph-Hunter explains, the notion of airwaves as “public parkland” has been with free103point9 since its inception. With WGXC, she says, “We’re trying to be a shepherd to let artists and community members get access to their public space.”

jpotter@metroland.net


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