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Low-Power Making Its Voice Heard

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Low-Power Radio Station Is Making Its Voice Heard
Joel Brown, Globe Correspondent. Boston Globe. Boston, Mass.: Feb 5, 2006. pg. 1

Abstract (Document Summary)
"I thought it was great," [Joe Galli] said with a smile. Low-power WSCA- FM (106.1), which went on the air in September 2004 from studios at 909 Islington St., is dedicated to offering music, news, and community programming not found anywhere else on the dial, from the obscure rock of "Split Brain Experiment" to the locally oriented talk of "Portside"; from John Lovering's "Audio Theatre" productions to the adolescent banter of "Tres Amigas."

"They're one of the strongest stations out there," said Hannah Sassaman of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which supports low-power FM stations. Of course, she's talking about community strength, not signal strength. To tune in WSCA's 100-watt signal, listeners usually have to be inside the rough triangle formed by the highway toll booths in Hampton, Kittery, Maine, and Dover.

[Tim Stone] and Galli note that the station has had some right-wing programming in the past. The station's real ideological stance is against corporate radio. The bare-bones decor think dormitory basement includes a "Clear Channel Emergency Preparedness Equipment" kit hanging on the wall that contains earplugs and cotton balls, a joking reference to the nation's largest radio station owner.

Full Text (950 words)
Copyright New York Times Company Feb 5, 2006
GLOBE NORTH 1 PORTSMOUTH, N.H.

The first time Joe Galli looked at Portsmouth Community Radio's weekly Top 30 list, he didn't recognize a single song a problem, you would think, for the station's new general manager.

"I thought it was great," Galli said with a smile. Low-power WSCA- FM (106.1), which went on the air in September 2004 from studios at 909 Islington St., is dedicated to offering music, news, and community programming not found anywhere else on the dial, from the obscure rock of "Split Brain Experiment" to the locally oriented talk of "Portside"; from John Lovering's "Audio Theatre" productions to the adolescent banter of "Tres Amigas."

"They're one of the strongest stations out there," said Hannah Sassaman of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which supports low-power FM stations. Of course, she's talking about community strength, not signal strength. To tune in WSCA's 100-watt signal, listeners usually have to be inside the rough triangle formed by the highway toll booths in Hampton, Kittery, Maine, and Dover.

"We call those the gateways to the station," said Tim Stone, president of the board of trustees, with a chuckle. The station is also available online via a link on the website of the local weekly, The Wire (www.wirenh.com).

Within its target area, the station is starting to have an impact, sponsoring events, raising issues, and giving a voice to citizens who are otherwise in no danger of commandeering the airwaves.

"We saw community radio as really a link that brings the community together," Stone said. "It's a new space that anyone can come into, that they can voice their opinions, that there's an exchange of ideas going on, and anyone can listen. . . . We have kids as young as 12, even 11 years old, as well as senior citizens who are on the air."

One sign of growth came just before the holidays, when Galli signed on as the station's half-time general manager. The former Cablevision executive took early retirement to work with Portsmouth nonprofits.

"We do a great job with the radio part of it," he said, but the all-volunteer model made it hard to handle day-to-day matters. He was brought on board to among other things, establish a business infrastructure, and increase fund-raising. "I think we're now at about 350 members with a $100,000 budget, and I really do feel the growth potential in the next year or two is significant," Galli said. "By building this back office infrastructure, I see us in a couple years being at 2,000 to 2,500 members with a quarter-of-a- million-dollar budget."

The station is currently seeking a new volunteer program director and other leaders for positions that would roll over on an annual basis. And this week it unveiled a revamped schedule that will make for more consistent programming, including moving the "Portside" talk show from 11 a.m. to noon in expectation of a larger audience.

"There are lots of right-wing talk show hosts but not a lot of progressive talk show hosts, and I feel clear that there's a market for it in Portsmouth," said Burt Cohen, a former state senator and host of "Portside." His subjects have ranged from anti-Iraq War groups to issues affecting the seacoast fishing industry. He also interviewed the Portsmouth City Council candidates last fall.

Stone and Galli note that the station has had some right-wing programming in the past. The station's real ideological stance is against corporate radio. The bare-bones decor think dormitory basement includes a "Clear Channel Emergency Preparedness Equipment" kit hanging on the wall that contains earplugs and cotton balls, a joking reference to the nation's largest radio station owner.

Stone and other community leaders began planning the station in 2000, driven by memories of college radio and dissatisfaction with existing broadcasting options. But the complexity of the Federal Communications Commission process and rule changes pushed through Congress by the National Association of Broadcasters and NPR limited the number of frequencies available and put the Portsmouth effort on hold for more than two years. They finally got a construction permit in May of 2003, giving them 18 months to get up and running.

They raised about $25,000. And Prometheus Radio Project agreed to hold a radio "barn-raising" in September 2004, which eventually involved about 120 people, many from out of the area. "I think of it as they gave us the jump start to get on the air," Stone said. "We ordered all the equipment. The equipment was still arriving up until the Friday they arrived, and by 7:10 on Sunday we went on the air full-time."

"The great thing about community radio is that people who have full-time jobs and families will drop everything to get the station on the air," said the Prometheus Project's Sassaman, who helped organize the barn-raising.

After a while, though, a hiring like Galli's is a logical step, she said. Stone says many volunteer because they're tired of the commercial radio chains whose shows are recorded and beamed in from "an office in Texas."

He likes to tell the story of a message left on the station's answering machine by a caller he won't say whether it was a man or a woman who had just listened to the weekly singer-songwriter show "Writers in the Round" on the way to work.

As Stone tells it, "He or she said, `That was riveting radio, and to think I work for one of the local radio stations, and I'm sitting in my car in the parking lot, and I have to go play crappy classic rock for the next four hours.' "

For more information, go to http://www.wscafm.org. To listen, go to http://www.wirenh.com and click on Wire Radio link.

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