Independent Radio Stations: Getting By With A Little Help From Their Friends

Independent Radio Stations

Despite economic challenges, independently-owned radio stations focusing on localism are finding ways to thrive.

Adult alternative-formatted mvyradio, broadcasting from the island of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., prides itself on breaking new singer/songwriters while playing the best rock dating back to the Beatles. So, what was it doing playing AC icon Barry Manilow's "Looks Like We Made It" on a recent Friday?

A detour into '70s schmaltz can be forgiven, given that the station was celebrating having raised $600,000 from listeners to remain broadcasting for at least the next year. Mvyradio reached the sum on the 59th day of its 60-day "Save mvyradio" listener pledge drive, thanks in large part to its strong streaming presence, as the station was among the first to embrace the technology in the late '90s.

A close call, perhaps, but it looks like the station did make it.

Citing that the recession had damaged mvyradio's ability to be solvent, Aritaur Communications sold the station's 92.7 FM (WMVY) frequency, its terrestrial home since 1983, to Boston University's WBUR late last year. Still, while Vineyarders now hear NPR affiliate programming on the signal, mvyradio lives on as in Internet-only entity, having adopted a non-commercial, underwriting-based model now owned by the non-profit Friends of mvyradio. (It hopes to secure a new local FM frequency going forward; it does, however, remain on the FM dial in nearby Newport, R.I., via a translator at 96.5.) In addition to its daily programming, carrying over online is mvyradio's rich reservoir of artist interviews and performances, from those recorded in-studio, including John Mayer during an Island visit early in his career in 2001, to shows, such as the Newport Folk Festival, Merlefest and South by Southwest.

Mvyradio's makeover reflects the ingenuity needed for independently-owned radio stations to survive in an industry in which corporate ownership became the norm following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened the restrictions on the number of stations that chains could own.

In addition to mvyradio's successful fundraiser and segue to non-commercial broadcasting, stand-alone stations often emphasize a local touch that larger owners that employ out-of-market programming – and even air talent – can't match.

Folk singer Kate Taylor (sister of James, and longtime Martha's Vineyard resident) praises mvyradio after a recent concert in Scituate, Mass.


"The recession has surely been a challenge for every radio station, but as an independent station, when revenue dropped, we had fewer options to reduce costs," mvyradio PD PJ Finn (above, center) says. "The flip side is that we didn't employ cost-cutting measures that might've stripped the station of its individuality. We didn't have someone at a home office far away centralizing a playlist across several stations, for instance." Sure enough, mvyradio-exclusive programming like the Local Music Café, new music feature "What's New for Lunch" and "My Back Pages," which mixes socially-conscious rock from the '60s through today, remains on the station's new online home.

In the face of economic challenges, mvyradio's uniqueness has helped enable its salvation. "Folks who are here year-round depend on us for local news and public service. But, since we're in a seasonal, resort community, many people care about us because we've become a part of their vacation state of mind," Finn says. "They've come here in the summer and listened to us and then returned to where they live and listened online. They may be in Iowa, but when they hear us give the Steamship Authority report on the ferries, it puts them in a Vineyard state of mind.

"We will not change a thing, going forward, in this regard."

Some of those vacationers just happen to include U.S. Presidents, including Bill Clinton, whom the station opportunistically interviewed while he was on a Vineyard respite in the '90s. Shots of other notable faces dot the picture-packed bulletin board in mvyradio's lobby, including actor/Martha's Vineyard visitor Tony Shalhoub.

Still, it's everyday listeners with whom the station has forged its greatest bonds. And, that's not by accident. "Radio is very personal and intimate," says mvyradio director of worldwide programming Barbara Dacey, who's been shaping the station's sound since she began working there in 1985. "We hire air talent with an ability for openness; real people sharing their ideas on music and life.

"Most of us were relatively young when we arrived here and were able to be open to the process of learning how to really connect with good information and insights.

"If you do that day-in and day-out, people notice. That kind of connection builds up over 30 years."