Tune in! Local independent radio is alive and well - Salish Current
January 27, 2023
Tune in! Local independent radio is alive and well
Matt Benoit

Do touch that dial … nonprofit, independent radio stations offer programming from hyperlocal to international. Local station KMRE is moving operations to Whatcom Community College, beginning a partnership to enable new opportunities for the station and the school. (Matt Benoit photo © 2023)

January 27, 2023
Tune in! Local independent radio is alive and well
Matt Benoit

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In the modern media landscape dominated by corporate-owned broadcasters and millions of internet content creators, small and independent radio stations may seem novel at best and antiquated at worst. 

But in reality many communities across the United States including Washington state have local, independent radio stations that are not just surviving, but thriving. 

In Whatcom County, one of them — KMRE 102.3 FM — announced a partnership with Whatcom Community College (WCC) on Jan. 11. The community nonprofit station will relocate from downtown Bellingham to the WCC campus in the Cordata neighborhood, providing new collaborative opportunities for both entities. 

The low-power FM station, which began broadcasting out of downtown Bellingham’s Spark Museum in 2005, is also set to boost its signal strength to that of a full-power station. Since 2018, the station has operated from the basement of the Bellingham National Bank building, with an antenna atop the Herald Building.

The jump from 100 to 2,000 watts required fundraising for a new transmitter and antenna to expand its signal to all of populated Whatcom County and most of the San Juan Islands. As of press time, KMRE’s $50,000 fundraising campaign has just $798 more to go. 

Suzanne Blais, co-president for Kulshan Community Media’s board of directors (who manage KMRE), said the new full-power equipment will be here by March and likely installed by late summer or early fall. 

Overall, the move to the WCC campus will raise the radio station’s profile and better help achieve its mission of providing diverse community content, from music programs to news. 

“Whatcom students represent a wide range of Whatcom County,” Blais said. “Although we’re going to miss being in the center of downtown, we’ll also be able to have free lighted parking, be directly on the bus routes, and be in a space that is much more conducive to creative programming and meeting people.”

Encouraging signals

But KMRE isn’t the only community radio station, low-power or otherwise, that is putting out encouraging signals. 

At Western Washington University, KUGS 89.3 FM is swiftly recovering from the last few years of pandemic-related headaches. 

Chloe Cho, a third-year student who is the current program director for the student-run station, said the number of volunteers wanting their own radio show is ticking back up. 

“Last quarter, we had more volunteers than we could train,” she said. “We had to waitlist volunteers. We have a lot of people who are interested, and even people from outside of the school are interested.”

The station currently has about 60 on-air disc jockeys, she said. 

KUGS operates as a noncommercial education (NCE) station, the designation given by the Federal Communications Commission to nonprofit radio or television stations that exist primarily to foster educational programming. 

These stations occupy the lower end of the FM dial, also known as the “reserved band,” from 88.1 to 91.9 megahertz (MHz). For the most part, they don’t accept advertising. 

KUGS is a full power station, which differs slightly from low-power FM (LPFM) stations like KMRE, which operate at 100 watts or less. LPFMs, a designation created by the FCC in 2000, share the NCE authorization of non-commercial use only. 

Other stations that share the LPFM badge include KAVZ 102.5 FM in the Acme-Van Zandt area of southern Whatcom County, and KLOI 102.9 FM, which operates an 18-watt community station on Lopez Island in San Juan County. 

In Mount Vernon, Skagit Valley College is host to KSVR 91.7 FM, a full-power NCE station providing local programming and nationally syndicated shows like Democracy Now!

The 160-watt station began inside the college’s old library building at just 10 watts in 1973, and today operates from a studio in Joe Reeves Hall. As an affiliate of Radio Bilingüe, it also broadcasts nearly half its programming in Spanish.

Joseph McGuire, the station’s operations manager and radio producer, has been involved with KSVR since 1981. He is tasked with keeping the station running like a finely oiled machine. 

Unlike WWU, unfortunately, the student volunteer base seems to be recovering more slowly. 

“The pandemic killed it,” McGuire said. 

The station stayed afloat thanks to community members who were able to either livestream or pre-record their programs for air, and the college’s board of trustees, who hired a new station manager, McGuire said. 

Also essential was a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant based on community engagement, which shored up the station’s operations budget, he added. 

As part of its engagement with the Skagit community, the station loans out public address equipment at no cost to nonprofit organizations.

Academic tie-in

While there are currently no academic tie-ins to SVC’s radio station for students, Blais said KMRE has been working with journalism students at both WWU and WCC to produce its News Notes, which air at the top of the hour each weekday from 3 to 5 p.m. The local newsgathering is made possible by a grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation.

Staci Baird, the recently-hired managing editor of Cascadia Daily News, was previously WCC’s journalism professor and KMRE news director, Blais said. Baird would assign some of her journalism students stories that would eventually be read on-air. 

Though KMRE is in search of a new news director, and WCC is in need of a new journalism professor, Blais said the station is excited to work closely with several college departments once they move. The station’s Jan. 11 press release asserted that KMRE is to provide hands-on training in radio broadcasting, podcasting and news/information reporting for both students and community members. 

Regardless of broadcast frequency or geographical location, many radio stations are accessible online from nearly anywhere — greatly expanding not only audience reach but programming choices. (Matt Benoit photo © 2023)

Currently, the station’s local news programing is also available on-demand at their website, which also has a livestream feature. 

Amping up art and community

When KMRE leaves downtown Bellingham in several months, it won’t be leaving downtown without a radio station. 

Make.Shift Art Space, in addition to its all-ages art areas in their Flora Street building, operates KZAX 94.9 FM at the Localgroup Studio a few blocks away. On-air for about six years now, the LPFM provides community members a freeform style of content programming that proved popular, said Jessyca Murphy, Make.Shift’s executive director. 

As at other stations, the COVID-19 pandemic proved frustrating. Some volunteers left, while others switched to remote technologies to continue shows. Regulations were strict for some time, Murphy said, allowing only one person in the studio at a time, along with frequent sanitizing and masking. 

But now, more people are showing interest in volunteering. KZAX’s appeal has led some show creators to get involved in other facets of Make.Shift, Murphy said. 

And for some listeners, the appeal of the small station is found well outside Whatcom County. 

Though Murphy lacks hard data on who is tuning their physical radios to KZAX, online data indicates many listeners are streaming online — including those from other countries. 

“Even if we don’t know those individual people, it’s just a cool thing to think of those people out there who are a part of our community, even if they don’t live in Bellingham,” she said.

For Cho, who moved to Bellingham from West Seattle to attend WWU, becoming involved with a community radio station helped ease her transition to a new place. 

“I felt like the radio station really helped me become acclimated to Western and Bellingham so much quicker than I would have if I (hadn’t) started out working here,” she said. “Automatically, I had a community of people to talk to about stuff I was interested in. It was a really great way to meet new people.”

KSVR’s McGuire produces a local program called Skagit Talks, consisting of 14-minute interviews with different community members. It’s these kind of unique listening opportunities, he says, that make local, independent radio worth preserving. 

“It gets programming out that isn’t part of any other media,” he said. “Community members play music that you won’t hear on commercial radio.”

For KMRE, much work lays ahead in their move to WCC.

The station’s board has not yet chosen a campus location for the studio’s home, but will decide between three choices they were recently shown on a tour, Blais said; among them inside Cascade Hall and at the top of the Foundation Building, she added. 

The station will also keep their new transmitter at the top of the Herald Building for now, but will be looking for other options to optimize their signal strength. 

Overall, Blais said, they can’t wait for the station’s next chapter to hit the airwaves. 

“We’re really excited about the possibilities of connecting these communities together that are on the Salish Sea, and telling stories that are specific to us,” she said. “We are super excited to do what we do, for the community, and not behind a paywall. That’s our goal.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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