Are we overserved, or underserved? Would collaboration among the operators be useful?
By Bill Densmore
I think a great story would be to contact all the owners/licensees of the radio stations in our Greylock region and ask them—what are they doing to serve the Greylock region with important civic news and information, and locally produced entertainment? And what might be possible if they collaborated? With current technology, most of these stations stream live on the Internet, which means each could carry the other’s programming in realtime, or on a podcast basis. That wasn’t fully true until a few years ago. What would happen if the same news and information were shared in Bennington on WBTN, in Williamstown on WCFM and in North Adams on WMNB-LP, or WJJW?
Here are the present options for listening to radio in our region:
- In the last year, two new radio stations have gone on the air in North Adams:
— New England Public Radio, now based in Springfield, but originally set up as Five College Radio based at and licensed to UMass-Amherst. NEPR put on the air a new 3,000-watt station from atop the Hairpin Turn in North Adams, and broadcasts news and information from National Public Radio (NPR) and other sources, at 98.9 MHz.
— Northern Berkshire Community Television (similar to WilliNet), the non-profit that programs public-access programming on Time Warner Cable in North Adams, went on the air with WNMB-LP, at 107.1 MHz, which reaches just barely into the eastern part of Williamstown, unless you have a very sensitive FM receiver.
- There are two local student-run radio stations—WJJW-FM at MCLA (91.1) has a signal that reaches pretty well throughout Williamstown, and WCFM at Williams College (91.9) also reaches into North Adams.
- There is still a commercial AM station in North Adams—WMNB-AM, 1230, which barely reaches into Williamstown at night, but is strong in the daytime. The earlier WMNB-FM, a rather powerful regional FM station in North Adams, was, like WMNB-AM, owned by the Thurston family and passed into chain ownership, now just rebroadcasting the same programming as Pittsfield’s WUPE. WMNB-AM is barely staffed locally and most of what it does comes out of Pittsfield.
- Up in Bennington, the only local station is WBTN-AM 1370 MHz, a nonprofit that has a signal that doesreach weakly into Williamstown during the daytime, but not at all at night.
- WJJW at MCLA and WCFM at Williamstown tend not to be on the air when school is out of session, and their schedules are erratic and mostly music-driven. But right now, as I write at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, music is available 24/7 via Internet streaming, while WJJW 91.1 and WCFM 91.9 are not on the air. What a waste of the public airwaves!
One suggestion for No.5 above: The trustees of Williams College and MCLA are the license holders for broadcasting on 91.9 and 91.1, respectively. Have they considered turning over those frequencies to a single nonprofit that could make different and perhaps better use of the public airwaves? Maybe an ownership change isn’t even needed—perhaps just a management agreement.
One other point of information: When the FCC granted New England Public Radio (NEPR) permission to use 98.9 for its strong station WNNI—which reaches well south of Pittsfield and into Bennington, VT, they didn’t locate a studio in their coverage area. Instead, they located an office alone, in Pittsfield, not Adams where the frequency is licensed, and not North Adams where the broadcast tower is located. Is the FCC satisfied with that arrangement? And how can they operate for the sake of “public convenience and necessity” as the FCC requires, if they don’t have any human presence or locally originated programming in the Greylock region?
I sent some of these questions to Martin Miller, CEO and General Manager of New England Public Radio, and received from him the following helpful explanation: that New England Public Radio never promised to put a studio in Berkshire County but did hire a Berkshire County reporter (Adam Frenier), have hired Berkshire Community College interns as part of an agreement with the college which provides bureau space in Pittsfield for recording interviews. Also, the F.C.C. granted NEPR a studio waiver, with the understanding that the station provide a public service through coverage of Berkshire County. Finally, he pointed out that the three present NEPR Network News stations plus their six news and music stations pretty much cover all of Berkshire County, although they’d love better coverage in the Great Barrington area.
I replied to Martin Miller with the following:
As a WFCR board-op alum (1974-1975), I’m delighted by the new services in the Berkshires that you are providing—a big improvement. What are the chances that you could originate local programming to just the Berkshire stations anytime soon—for example, extended, Berkshire-focused news cutaways, or a weekly or even daily talk or interview service? These are the sorts of things that might be on the air if these licenses were held by a Berkshire-based NGO—if, and of course the big if, it could be sustained through local underwriting and philanthropy. If you had a collaboration agreement with WJJW at MCLA, you could use that studio to do so, and perhaps some of their journalism students, without any infrastructure cost other than a switch at the tower location that could cut back and forth between Springfield/Amherst and North Adams studios.
In Worcester, when WICN went on the air in about 1970, it had studios at both Holy Cross College and WPI –and switched between them frequently and seamlessly during the broadcast day. You must be able to do that now between Amherst and Springfield. So how about between North Adams/WJJW and the full-license station in Adams/North Adams?) Wouldn’t that be a great way to meet your local programming promise to the FCC and represent important collaboration among state public higher education institutions?
I hope someone can work on these issues. I would be happy to provide leads and information. For example, Steve Long, who I think is on the board of directors at WBTN now (at least he was a year ago), is a former top administrator at MCLA. He would be a key person to talk to regarding the possibility of collaboration. And at Williams, I would try to track down whoever the current student head of the radio station is and ask if WCFM would be willing to allow the simulcast of programming from either WMNB-LP or WBTN during times when students aren’t on the air. This would create a constant signal at 91.9, WCFM’s frequency.
Bill Densmore is Consulting Fellow / Reynolds Journalism Institute and Board Member, Journalism That Matters. c/o Densmore Associates, Williamstown, Mass.