John Dankosky stood before the 20 or so fledgling radio hosts who had crowded into the New Haven offices of La Voz Hispana de Connecticut and told them not to be afraid to assert themselves in the face of an overly talkative interview subject.
“It’s your show and it’s your microphone and they are your guests. You need to be the gatekeeper,” said Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut’s public radio network WNPR and host of the daily public affairs program Where We Live.
Dankosky was leading a session of Radio 101 for WNHH, a low-power FM (LPFM) community station scheduled to make its debut on August 11. The station is being launched by the New Haven Independent, a pioneering online nonprofit news site that debuted 10 years ago next month.
For Independent founder and editor Paul Bass, WNHH is a logical next step. The station — in partnership with La Voz, a Spanish-language newspaper that is also the Independent’s landlord — will broadcast weekdays from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. and stream online 24 hours a day. Programming will include six or seven hours a day of local music, talk shows with newsmakers (including a weekly call-in show with Mayor Toni Harp) and a variety of other features, with Spanish-language shows from La Voz on weekends. Content will be repeated to fill out the schedule.
“It’s not going to be like Serial,” says Bass. “It’s going to be like local radio. It’s going to be down and dirty.”
WNHH is one of a wave of LPFM stations expected to begin operations in the coming months. According to Michi Bradley, founder of REC Networks, an advocacy organization for community radio, about 2,800 groups applied for licenses when the FCC made them available in 2013. The FCC approved 1,840, Bradley says, and 535 are reportedly on the air, joining 773 LPFM stations that were already in existence.
In many cases, including New Haven, the FCC awarded LPFM licenses to more than one group. WNHH is sharing its frequency with Pequeñas Ligas Hispanas de New Haven, a youth organization that has been granted the 4 p.m.-to-4 a.m. weekday time slot and that will split weekend hours as well. Director Peter Noble says he expects to begin operations in the spring of 2016, offering Spanish-language programming in “music and the arts, community events, education, social interest, health, and athletics.”
A typical LPFM station can only be heard within a three-mile radius of its transmitter. Indeed, WNHH’s footprint is so small that New Haven residents south of Interstate 95 won’t be able to hear it, though the signal, at 103.5 FM, will extend north of New Haven into neighboring Hamden. In any case, Bass suspects that the Internet stream and podcasts of past shows will prove more popular in the long run.
With a lineup of shows hosted by Independent staffers and volunteers, WNHH may be among the more ambitious of the new wave of LPFM stations. Bass hopes that by combining his community news site with a radio station, his operation will become more financially sustainable than it has been until now. Though he has succeeded in keeping the Independent alive for nearly a decade, raising money from foundations, wealthy individuals, readers, and community institutions has been a perpetual struggle. (Bass recently wrote about the Independent’s radio venture for the Knight Blog.)
Most of the station’s funding comes from a two-year, $150,000 grant from the Knight Foundation (disclosure: Knight is also a funder of Nieman Lab) and another $150,000 spread out over three years from the Connecticut-based Seedlings Foundation. Bass expects to be able to operate the station for at least three years and has already begun fundraising efforts to keep it going beyond that. With more and more of his audience moving into streaming Internet radio and podcasts, he has hopes for a brighter financial future.
“Can this be a way to sustainably fund our kind of site?” he asked when I visited New Haven last week. “Will incorporating radio into what we do become a new model for both how to deliver this kind of news and to fund it? Will there be people who will support this financially who weren’t before?”Back in 2013, Bass told me that he got his inspiration for community radio from Tim Coco, an advertising executive who is the general manager of WHAV, a nonprofit Internet radio station in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Over the past several years, WHAV has pumped up its news offerings even as the daily and weekly newspapers that cover Haverhill — both owned by the Alabama-based chain CNHI — have cut back on coverage. Coco was awarded an LPFM license around the same time as Bass, and he hopes to begin broadcast operations at 97.9 FM later this year.
Coco amplifies his news coverage with a strong web presence — something Bass plans to do as well. WNHH will not have a separate website, Bass told me, because he wants people to think of the Independent and the radio station as one entity. Arts coverage in the Independent — already far stronger than it was several years ago because of an infusion of grant money — should become even more of a presence, Bass says, as radio stories are repositioned as Independent articles with embedded audio.
Nearly 60 percent of New Haven’s 130,000 residents are African-American or Latino, according to federal census data. WNHH’s programming will reflect that diversity with offerings such as a hip-hop show hosted by local DJ Joe Ugly (his Ugly Radio Internet station will be simulcast from 6 to 9 a.m.); shows hosted by New Haven police officer and social activist Shafiq Abdussabur and his wife, Mubarakah Ibrahim, a well-known fitness advocate for Muslim women; and interviews with local entrepreneurs, a joint venture with La Voz aimed at highlighting success stories both within and outside the Latino community.
“I bring the diverse lens of being Muslim, being a woman, being African-American,” Ibrahim says, “and so all of that I think lends me a different version of how reality intersects for me and for people like me.”
Adds Norma Rodriguez-Reyes, president of La Voz: “I think this is going to be interesting because a lot of people are going to be educated as to what America is all about.”
Independent staff reporters will be on the air as well. For example, one of the issues Markeshia Ricks wants to explore is the reentry of former prison inmates into the community. “Apparently they drop folks off at six in the morning and say, ‘Here you go, have a nice life. Don’t come back to prison,’” she says.
From the beginning, the Independent has emphasized civic engagement through its closely monitored comments sections and its attention to the details of neighborhood life. WNHH is an opportunity to build on that. Josh Stearns, director of journalism and sustainability for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, believes that LPFM stations represent new opportunities for local conversation.
“LPFMs can be platforms for new modes of community participation,” he says. “There is something really powerful about hearing the voice of your community, your neighbors, especially for communities who often don’t see themselves reflected in the news.”
Overseeing all this is Lucy Gellman, a 25-year-old art historian who’d moved to New Haven to run the print room at the Yale University Art Gallery. She began writing music reviews for the Independent. And when Bass offered her the job of WNHH station manager, she took it, even though she had been planning to move to North Carolina to pursue a Ph.D. at Duke University.
“For him to put trust in me for one of the very big jobs kind of blows my mind,” says Gellman, who’s been teaching herself radio through owner’s manuals and YouTube. “I know there are big expectations. I’m very nervous, but I’m also very excited for the creative potential of this position.”
Among her goals: capturing an audience that doesn’t necessarily read the Independent. “I believe really fiercely in what we do as the New Haven Independent and what it stands for. I love the voice that the Independent has,” she says. “But I don’t have friends who read the Independent in New Haven. Some of New Haven’s young population is transitory. They come, they stay for two to five years, then they go.”
For John Dankosky, who has featured Bass often on his radio program, helping with the launch of WNHH is a way of fostering collaboration in a time of diminishing resources.
“As we all shrink, as the overall landscape shrinks, it doesn’t make as much sense to beat each others’ heads in as it does to really try to work together,” he says. “I think there’s something real and positive about bringing together a voice around community. I think that the Independent did that in digital form. What would happen if it’s now in radio form, too? What if it’s actually a place where people can talk to each other?”
Barring any last-minute glitches, the talking begins next week.
Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on Beat the Press, a weekly media program on WGBH-TV Boston. His blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net. His most recent book, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), tracks the rise of the New Haven Independent and other online community news projects.
Learn more about New Haven Independent