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Thank God for DJ iPod

Harbor Country is still learning to harness the power of low-power radio.

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Three Oaks, MI

The most popular show on the 100-watt radio station in Three Oaks, Michigan, is Saturday morning's Dial-a-Deal, a one-hour call-in program where locals can buy, sell, or trade items ranging from a pet turtle to a jersey from a Russian hockey team that played in the Olympics. In between calls, hosts Penny Knowlton--of Penny's Little People day care center--and her friend Diane Ashcraft, owner of the Spectacle Shop, deliver birthday and anniversary greetings and homey repartee. Ashcraft got herself in trouble one day, however, when she said of the annual egg hunt, "I suppose some idiot will be dressed up as the Easter bunny." Immediately mortified, and worried she'd outed the Easter bunny to Knowlton's charges, she added: "I didn't mean that!"

Despite the occasional gaffe, or perhaps partly because of it, Dial-a-Deal has been so well received Knowlton wants to add another day or expand it to two hours. "Everybody has something they want to sell--or buy," she says. "Everyone wants to hear themselves on the radio." She has fond memories of a similar program broadcast almost 20 years ago in Crystal Falls, Michigan, and several years ago she also listened faithfully to Tradio, broadcast from LaPorte, Indiana.

What made Knowlton's show possible was the Low Power Radio Act of 2000, part of an effort to undo some of the damage done by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which sparked a wave of consolidation that continues to this day. Over six months in 2000, during five five-day periods, each for a different region, the FCC allowed community groups to apply for licenses for noncommercial radio stations of 100 watts or less. There was only 30 days' notice for each window, and most of the licenses went to church groups that were already organized and ready to go.

Former Loyola University communications professor and New Buffalo resident Lee Artz learned about the FCC initiative in June 2000 at a media conference in Maine. "It happened to be at the very time they were opening the window for the second group of states," he says, which included Michigan. Earlier that year he'd helped found the Harbor Country Forum, an organization that invited residents to discuss local issues, and a radio station seemed a perfect fit. The HCF and other community groups applied for a handful of licenses in southwest Michigan's Harbor Country region, just over the Indiana border, which includes Three Oaks, New Buffalo, Union Pier, Lakeside, Grand Beach, Michiana, Harbert, and Sawyer. "We had the pretty grand idea of not only doing it for Three Oaks but for all of the neighboring communities, having one central studio and putting up antennas or towers" in every town, says HCF cofounder Jon Vickers, owner of the art house cinema in Three Oaks. After applying, they heard nothing.

"When we first filed, we checked the FCC's Web site every week. Then every month. After three years, we checked it occasionally," Artz says. "Everyone pretty much forgot about it," says Vickers.

Then, in October 2004, they learned Three Oaks had been granted a license--and they had only 18 months to construct a station and start broadcasting or they'd lose it.

First a location had to be found. A Three Oaks resident offered some old office space for $100 a month. "It was a mess," says Patty Panozzo, owner of Panozzo's Pantry in Benton Harbor. She helped with the renovation and hosts the popular food talk show A Need to Feed. The 600-square-foot space had served as a drive-through bank and, before that, as a spa: the studios sit above a filled-in swimming pool. A local architect donated the plans, a local electrician did the wiring, and a local contractor provided labor and materials. Volunteers tore out the orange shag carpeting. Program director David Repetto helped do the tiles. To figure out what equipment they needed, they consulted Web sites about low-power FM stations. Community members donated records and CDs. WRHC's digs now include a kitchen and a concrete patio. The walls are covered with bright murals done by River Valley High School students. And Three Oaks gave WRHC permission to place an antenna on top of the water tower, which is high enough to reach a 15-mile swath of Harbor Country. (There are plans to stream it live at www.radioharborcountry.org.)

Overall it cost about $20,000 to get WRHC up and running, and yearly operating bills are estimated at $12,000, a pittance compared to what it costs to run a commercial or even a college radio station. Volunteers have created and now run WRHC, whose motto is "100 watts of power--1000 watts of community."

"It's one of the best examples we've seen of a community coming together to build an LPFM station," says Hannah Sassaman of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, an LPFM advocacy group and clearinghouse. She says some 675 LPFM stations have started up since the FCC application windows closed, and just over 100 more are still in the works. Current House and Senate bills call for expansion of the act to include more stations--Sassaman says there's room on the spectrum for thousands of them.

In early 2005 WRHC put a notice in the paper asking people to apply for shows. The grand opening was May 13, 2006, but the station started broadcasting late last year, when it began airing an iPod Shuffle mix (the iPod still fills the spaces between shows). The first real program played on January 11, 2006--a jazz show called Robin's Roost, hosted by record producer and former Chicagoan Robin McBride. He chose to play as his first song the Stan Kenton Orchestra performing "Round Robin," also the theme music for his Amherst College radio show back in the 50s.

Many of the shows are prerecorded, including McBride's and It's Elementary, in which children read school announcements and the weekly lunch menu, creating the program at school using Adobe Audition. "There's a learning curve with starting a station from scratch," says Panozzo, who started out doing an hour-long show but soon realized half that time was more manageable. "Radio doesn't come with an instruction book." Volunteers train people in how to use the equipment, but there's a backlog of future hosts signed up. "It's exhausting," says Panozzo. "We do everything ourselves--we don't have production assistants, technicians, or editors."

Dial-a-Deal host Knowlton says, "We have glitches every week. Sometimes we can't get the callers on. Sometimes somebody might say the wrong thing. We have little malfunctions all the time, but we just go with the flow." The station has plans to institute more serious coverage, including broadcasts of the syndicated Pacifica show Democracy Now! and commentary on local issues, such as proposals to expand a Three Oaks Township landfill and build a casino in New Buffalo. In that spirit, former program director Linas Johansonas aired a salute to Chikaming Township on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. "We told everybody to go down to the town hall at one because they were cutting the cake. The place was packed," he says. Now the host of shows on Lithuanian music and the polka, he points out that "the more amateur you sound, the more people love it." As program director, he says, he got complaints when a local actor did the station IDs because they sounded too slick.

Dial-a-Deal is the only WRHC program that has a producer: 15-year-old Nathan Oman, the older brother of Knowlton's youngest son's best friend (which she found out only after taking him on). "Now everyone wants a producer," she says.

Knowlton and Ashcraft have become local celebrities. They were recently invited to emcee an auction when the auctioneer didn't show up. "The lady in charge called when we were on the air and asked if we could come when we were done," Knowlton says. When they go to events like these, she says, they wear "these outfits--my husband calls them costumes--that are black jackets with 'Dial-a-Deal' in pink on the back of them." The two get accosted in public places. "I can go to Speedway," Knowlton says, "and people say, 'Oh, I listened to your show on Saturday' or 'I love your music.'"

"These are people who've never done radio," says program director Repetto. "But you listen to them and they're naturals.

"I don't think anybody expected the station to grow the way it did," he says. In fact he's gotten so many applications for shows that the next big hurdle is raising enough money to complete another studio.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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