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From Internet to the Airwaves

  • Jim Abbott, left, of South Royalton, a volunteer at Royalton Community Radio, checks out how to transition from one song to the next while fellow volunteers  Lyal Michel of Tunbridge and Todd Tyson of Tunbridge watch. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jim Abbott, left, of South Royalton, a volunteer at Royalton Community Radio, checks out how to transition from one song to the next while fellow volunteers Lyal Michel of Tunbridge and Todd Tyson of Tunbridge watch. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lyal Michel of Tunbridge talks with Todd Tyson, also of Tunbridge, during a   training  session  for  Royalton Community Radio. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Lyal Michel of Tunbridge talks with Todd Tyson, also of Tunbridge, during a training session for Royalton Community Radio. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Royalton Community Radio memorabilia decorates the wall of the new radio station at the BALE Building in South Royalton. Volunteers will operate the station, which will start by streaming over the Internet. (Valley News - Sarah Prietap)

    Royalton Community Radio memorabilia decorates the wall of the new radio station at the BALE Building in South Royalton. Volunteers will operate the station, which will start by streaming over the Internet. (Valley News - Sarah Prietap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim Abbott, left, of South Royalton, a volunteer at Royalton Community Radio, checks out how to transition from one song to the next while fellow volunteers  Lyal Michel of Tunbridge and Todd Tyson of Tunbridge watch. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Lyal Michel of Tunbridge talks with Todd Tyson, also of Tunbridge, during a   training  session  for  Royalton Community Radio. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Royalton Community Radio memorabilia decorates the wall of the new radio station at the BALE Building in South Royalton. Volunteers will operate the station, which will start by streaming over the Internet. (Valley News - Sarah Prietap)

One of the joys of starting a small, community-based enterprise is the ability to do something an established organization can’t.

For example, when Royalton Community Radio starts broadcasting on the Internet later today, the scheduled programs include a one-hour block of conversation among members of the Vermont Law School Philosophy Club.

“I would suggest that that type of show doesn’t exist at too many radio stations,” said Todd Tyson, a Tunbridge concert promoter who is one of the founding board members behind Royalton Community Radio.

Starting with a mix of music and community affairs, the new station will start producing 16 to 18 hours a day of almost entirely local programming during an open house from 6 to 9 this evening. The public is welcome at the open house, and the programming will be available on the Internet at www.royaltonradio.org starting at 7 p.m.

For now, Royalton Community Radio’s programs will be available only on the Internet, but the station’s 10-member board plans to apply for a low-power FM license later this year. That would allow them to broadcast at 100 watts, enough power to reach a few miles beyond South Royalton, perhaps to the villages of Sharon and Bethel.

The idea of sending out a local radio signal has a strong appeal to the Royalton Community Radio board.

“We definitely want a terrestrial presence,” said Joe Andriano, a board member. “We have the ability to reach the entire world because of the Internet,” but locally, the lack of high-speed Internet service will make it hard for people to tune in.

And even if Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin makes good on his pledge to expand broadband Internet access statewide by Dec. 31, many people who might want to listen to a local station won’t be able to afford a smartphone or high-speed service, Tyson said. Sending out an old-fashioned signal that friends and neighbors can tune in is more democratic, he added.

It would also be more useful in the event of another disaster on the scale of Tropical Storm Irene, which wiped out homes, bridges and roads in Royalton and surrounding towns on Aug. 28, 2011, board members said.

Planning for the station began in February 2011, but work kicked into high gear over the past two months, when volunteers built and equipped the studio and lined up programming.

The station consists of a tiny broadcast booth tucked into a corner of a South Royalton storefront. It shares space with BALE — Building a Local Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to helping area farms and businesses, and BlueGreen Technology, a computer consulting company. In the booth are a couple of donated computers and the station’s single largest expense so far, a small soundboard that cost $800.

The station will have a budget of around $8,000 for its first year, Tyson said, a figure that doesn’t take into account the vast amount of time put in by volunteers. Around 35 people have stepped up to host a show.

As it’s currently drawn up, the schedule includes a two-hour public affairs show from 10 a.m. to noon, the first hour of which will be syndicated. The second hour will consist of local programming, including an environmental show on Tuesday and a legislative report from state Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge. The station’s equipment isn’t complicated, but it does allow DJs to talk on the air with people who call in, Tyson said.

But the bulk of the programming will be musical. Between concerts promoted by Tyson’s MountainFolk nonprofit music presentation company, and regular instrumental jams, South Royalton and Tunbridge have become a small, grassroots hub for live music.

“There are a lot of people around town whose taste in music I admire,” said Rick Scully, a board member who has been working on the technical aspects of getting the station up and running. “They turn me on to music that I wouldn’t hear otherwise.”

Every evening will feature two-hour blocks of music from 7 to 11 in genres spanning jazz, rock, punk and heavy metal. Randy Leavitt plans to host All Fiddles All the Time, on Tuesday evenings under the name Fiddler Joe Bob. The Prognosis, an evening show by Scott Russell, will explore the mainstream and many tributaries of progressive rock.

Tyson, who also cohosts a show on The Point, a Montpelier-based commercial station, said he has been a “radiophile” since 1975, when he hosted a show on his college station at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He’s been the driving force behind Royalton Community Radio.

He called the FM dial “a public asset that has gotten eroded pretty far.” Relatively few major radio stations are independently owned, and most follow commercial formats of music or talk or sports talk that vary little from one end of the country to the other.

Despite the reach of the all-conquering Internet, interest in so-called terrestrial radio has been growing, thanks in part to a law signed by President Obama in January 2011 that makes it easier for the Federal Communications Commission to grant licenses to low-power FM stations.

If the Royalton station receives a license from the FCC, the Upper Valley would have its first new low-power radio station since 2004, when WXND began broadcasting music from Hanover. WXND was largely automated and had little of the raffish independence cherished by the Royalton radio backers. It stopped transmitting and lost its license in 2008.

The licensing process for low-power stations is competitive, and the law that authorized the stations favored urban locales, where a small signal can reach a big population. The FCC website on low-power stations says that “Potential applicants are advised that there is almost always competition for any type of radio broadcast station — including LPFM stations — and there is no guarantee that filing an acceptable application will result in the grant of a construction permit.”

But Royalton Community Radio supporters said they feel they have demonstrated that their project has support, and will have a broadcasting track record when the next application window opens Oct. 15. “We feel we have all our ducks in a row,” Scully said.

The steeple of South Royalton’s deconsecrated Catholic church has been studied as a possible location for transmission, and an engineer has tested whether the area has enough open frequency to support a new channel.

If the station comes together as planned, board members said they intend to document their work as a template for other stations to deploy in getting on the air.

“There are a lot of people who don’t know that low-power FM is a possibility,” Tyson said.

In addition to tonight’s open house, Royalton Community Radio will hold a fundraiser on Friday evening, March 15 at Crossroads Bar and Grill in South Royalton, featuring a concert by Snakes of Ireland, a Royalton-based rock and R&B band.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.