Despite challenges, independently owned radio stations that focus on localism find ways to thrive

Triple A-formatted mvyradio, broadcasting from the island of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., prides itself on breaking new singer/songwriters while broadcasting the best in rock'n'roll music dating back to the Beatles era. So, why was the station playing adult contemporary icon Barry Manilow's "Looks Like We Made It" on a recent Friday?

The detour into '70s schmaltz came about because the station was celebrating a successful fund-raiser that took in $600,000, allowing it to remain in business for the next year. Mvyradio reached the notable sum on the 59th day of its 60-day "Save mvyradio" listener pledge drive, thanks in part to its strong streaming presence, with the station one of the first in the area to embrace such technology. It was a close call, but it looks like mvyradio did make it.

Citing the recession as the main culprit damaging mvyradio's solvency, Aritaur Communications sold the station's 92.7 FM (WMVY) frequency, its terrestrial home since 1983, to Boston University's WBUR late last year. While Vineyarders now hear NPR affiliate programming on the original signal, mvyradio lives on as an Internet-only entity, having adopted a commercial-free, underwriting-based model that's owned by nonprofit Friends of mvyradio. (It hopes to secure a new FM frequency in the future.)

Mvyradio's makeover reflects the ingenuity needed for independent radio stations to survive as part of an industry in which corporate ownership became the norm following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened restrictions on the number of stations that chains could own. In addition to mvyradio's overall change, stand-alone stations often emphasize a local touch that larger owners using out-of-market programming and air talent can't match.

"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 P.J. Finn says. Despite such economic challenges, the station's unique nature helped its salvation. "Folks here year-round depend on us for local news and public service. Since we're a seasonal resort community, many people also care about us because we're part of their vacation state of mind. They come here in the summer and listen to us, then return to where they live and listen online."

Ed Perry, owner of AC WATD Marshfield, Mass., since its 1977 sign-on, says locally focused stations can build a revenue-generating rapport with listeners that binds long term. "Beyond our FM listeners, we have online listeners wintering in Florida or going to college in California who still make their major investments, like cars, back here. Local spots not only do us good, but also our advertisers with whom we have longstanding relationships on local and national levels."

Clearly, such strong local links can lead to prosperity and a loyalty that knows few bounds. "We estimate that only half the donations we received in our pledge drive came from within our FM broadcast area," Finn says. "We got donations from all 50 states and 14 countries...my friend Ben donated, even though he was in Antarctica conducting research with underwater robots. As we like to say, we have listeners on all seven continents."