There are more than 13,000 radio stations in the United States, but only about 300 of them are licensed as non-religious community radio stations. In contrast to commercial radio, which is run as a business and paid for by advertising revenue, community radio is supported almost entirely by its listeners. The voices one hears on community radio belong mostly to volunteers. VOA's Adam Phillips paid a visit to community radio station WOMR on the eastern tip of Massachusetts, where he found a heady mix of music, culture, politics and local color.
In her small office inside the creaky old wood-frame house WOMR has occupied since 1983, operations manager Diana Fabri makes sure a promotional tape one of her music deejays has produced meets her standards for enthusiasm, clarity and timing.
The promo's duration fits in perfectly with the airtime allotted for it as it must. But Ms. Fabri concedes that managing a tightly run community radio station can sometimes mean a bit of disorder behind the scenes.
"Look around! I've got papers everywhere. My desk is only normally about two and a half feet wide and now there is no space on it at all. I've got labeling devices, I've got CDs up the ying-yang, I've got programs all around. I've got paper-paper-paper. All this good stuff you find in a radio station," Ms. Fabri said. When asked what makes this a unique radio station and what is community about community radio WOMR, she responded "Well, our community radio station invites everybody that has an idea for a program. Whether it's a music program, spoken word program, any idea they have at all. Everybody's welcome here. We don't play Top Forty. We play alternative everything."
She said they play 'alternative everything' because that is the nature of the radio program. She said, "We're community! We've got this wide-open-door policy. Come in! Come in!"
And come in they do, and have been ever since 1982, when WOMR first began broadcasting from a tiny transmitter atop a water tower on the state highway. WOMR Executive Director Bob Seay recalled being present at the creation. "Number one, we're really never closed. We broadcast 24/7. People come in and out all day long. They have information they want to broadcast, they may have a question about a program or a piece of music they heard or they may be interested in becoming a deejay themselves. So there is always something that is interesting happening here," he said. It is rare to hear "interesting" alternative music like this on commercial radio, which must put profit, not risk-taking artistry, at the bottom line.
The range of music one hears on WOMR from "art music" to bluegrass, opera, sixties rock and roll, jazz, world music, reggae, classical and ethnic music, reflects the diverse musical interests and expertise of its volunteer deejay hosts, all of whom call Provincetown their home. I ask Mr. Seay why this small town wanted its own station in the first place.
"Well, I think in the beginning it was a fun thing, and I think what it is now is a vital thing - because of what has happened to the rest of the industry. Radio in general has become a lot less interesting, more centrally controlled and less local. So the idea of having a local radio station in a community is really a rare and endangered species and Provincetown is lucky to have one and I think people are beginning to realize that more and more," he said. WOMR devotes an enormous amount of airtime to community information and debate. There are shows devoted to women's health, to environmentalism, to Cape Cod oral history, to gay culture. There are psychotherapy programs and programs geared to local businesses.
Not all programming is aimed at adult listeners, as we hear in this promotional tape for "Sugar and Spice" a WOMR program produced by two local high school girls.
Bob Seay admits that many of his volunteers do not sound like polished media professionals. But to him, that's a good thing!
"And frankly, I love listening to all the people on the air, hearing their personalities. They are real people. They make mistakes. Their chair squeaks. Trucks go past. People are so craving authentic, real radio that we are actually growing in popularity as the rest of radio becomes more automated and programmed," He said. "And what amazes me is the incredible wealth of talent that must exist in every community if they only had a radio station where they could get on the air. It's the kind of thing that is a shame that there really aren't more stations like this," he explained.
For many deejays, being on the air is the fulfillment of a dream. Jim Hunt, the host of "Friday Afternoon Jazz" heard here has wanted his own radio show since before his teenage years.
"And I had a 45 rpm player and I used to actually put on a show for myself 'Now ladies and gentlemen!' and 'coming up!' all that kind of jargon that was [de rigueur] in those days. This is something I've always wanted to do and I'm doing it! I'm loving it," Mr. Hunt said.
But you don't have to be deejay to volunteer at WOMR.
"I am being you're receptionist and I am being kind and charming to everyone who comes in the door and that's about it," said Gladys Johnstone. She is retired now, but she comes in to work at WOMR several times a week. She said it helps her to feel like she is a part of something. "It's a very important part of the community and I think people are starting to realize that. There is something for everybody. If you don't like what's on now, wait a while. It's just like the weather in Provincetown: it'll change! It's just part and parcel of what Provincetown is all about. Lightness and air and good stuff. I love it," she said.
Each community radio station is as unique as the community it reflects. In Alaska, for example, the Inuit Native peoples broadcast in seven tribal languages, while in Santa Rosa, California, migrant farm workers broadcast provincial Mexican news from within an old motor home. If there is one thing that community radio stations do have in common, it's a desire to use the power of radio to express and enrich, rather than merely profit from, the communities they serve.