Steps away from the Independence Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Constitution High School and the Philadelphia History Museum sits the home of Philadelphia’s public access cable television channel PhillyCAM and its new low-power FM radio station.
Outside PhillyCAM headquarters in Philadelphia.
Photos by Jennifer Waits
Across the upper half of the building, colorful artwork reminiscent of television pixels hangs above a sign that reads “People Powered Media,” referencing the mission of the community radio and TV stations inside.
You may recall that Radio World profiled the planned station in the 2015 eBook “LPFM on Fire,” when it had its construction permit in hand. Later that year, PhillyCAM debuted a streaming radio station as a first step towards going live over FM.
By July 2016, PhillyCAM’s new WPPM(LP) began airing pre-recorded programming on 106.5 FM. It debuted its first live broadcasts, a daily news show, during the Democratic National Convention.
Flash forward to lunchtime on Oct. 20, 2016. PhillyCAM headquarters is abuzz with activity, as preparations are underway for the launch party for WPPM. Stacks of promotional stickers, launch celebration programs, kazoos and noisemakers are arranged throughout the lobby and a table awaits the arrival of a large cake inscribed with the messages “Happy Community Media Day” and “WPPM 106.5 is live!”
WPPM organized a full day’s worth of activities to celebrate its first live FM broadcast; it aligned its launch with Community Media Day, a national effort by several organizations “that brings awareness to the importance of free speech and accessible media,” according to its website.
PhillyCAM’s Executive Director Gretjen Clausing welcomes attendees to the WPPM(LP) launch celebration.
Because of its close relationship with PhillyCAM’s cable TV station, the festivities were a multimedia event, featuring live TV and radio broadcasts. The inaugural broadcast ceremony started at 1 p.m. in the television studio. PhillyCAM’s Executive Director Gretjen Clausing and WPPM Station Manager Vanessa Maria Graber gave opening remarks; Alliance for Community Media President Mike Wassenaar said the first Community Media Day was being celebrated “from Maine to Maui.”
Philadelphia Councilman Mark Squilla marked the occasion by presenting PhillyCAM with a copy of a resolution recognizing Oct. 20, 2016, as Community Media Day within Philadelphia. The resolution read in part that “the sharing of ideas and information helps to build common understanding and common values within a community … Community media organizations like PhillyCAM provide a means for diverse community to tell their stories, hear each other’s stories and to create new stories together.” In a video message, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “I am pleased to welcome this new addition to the local radio dial.”
Soon after, PhillyCAM staffers and the live studio audience counted down to the start of live programming over WPPM. From seats in the TV studio, audience members watched a live video stream from the upstairs radio studio in those first moments on-air. WPPM kicked off its broadcast with the fitting song “Sound of Philadelphia” by Gamble and Huff.
In reflecting back on her favorite moment of the day, Clausing mentioned the countdown, “because it actually worked. We wanted to be able to communicate and transmit audio from our Main TV studio to the new radio studio upstairs and then send that out over the air.
“We wanted to do something different from a ribbon cutting, we thought a countdown with the studio audience to our house DJ Kid Charlemagne [Antoine Haywood, PhillyCAM’s membership and outreach director] dropping the needle on the quintessential ‘The Sound of Philadelphia’ seemed like a good way to go.”
WPPM Station Manager Vanessa Maria Graber addresses the crowd at the station’s launch party.
Graber agreed, noting the six years of planning. “That moment had been a long time coming, and it was truly amazing to celebrate that with all the people who collaborated on the project. I had seen moments like that on Prometheus Radio Project barn-raising videos, and they always gave me something to look forward to as we built our station.”
Post-countdown, live programming continued with a panel discussion, “Philly Radio Past, Present and Future” broadcast live over WPPM from the TV studio. Attendees were free to stick around for the talk, tour the radio studio or wander back into the station lobby for a slice of celebratory cake. Additionally activities included a Community Media Day special radio/TV simulcast and a nighttime launch party with live DJs and music performances.
On launch day, the WPPM schedule was still growing, with Post-it notes spread across the radio studio wall, indicating the days of the week that specific programs were on the air, including the shows “50 Shades of Jazz,” “Teen Talk” and “Labor Justice Radio.”
Graber explained, “We have 15 shows going live now, with about 35 more in development.” As far as the future, she hoped “to see around 50 locally produced programs by the spring, with a five-year goal of 100 shows.” PhillyCAM airs a mix of music, talk, sports, arts/cultural, youth and variety shows with a “free-form/community access model,” Graber said.
DJ Kid Charlemagne spinning records.
An interesting aspect of WPPM is its connection with a public access television station.
Wassenaar said that only 60 public access facilities in the United States have LPFM licenses, making PhillyCAM part of a select group.
For PhillyCAM members, the addition of a radio station has already proved beneficial. “Our membership has already increased with people joining to be involved in the radio station,” Clausing said. “I believe WPPM will expand the reach and awareness of our cable channels and provide our TV producers with a new platform to distribute their shows.”
There are existing PhillyCAM television shows that Clausing believes would work well over the radio. Additionally, “PhillyCAM Sessions,” a show produced in tandem with the Philadelphia Jazz Project, has already run over WPPM.
Graber views WPPM’s relationship with a public access station as an inspiration for other community media groups. “I think PhillyCAM is setting a national model for how to successfully integrate LPFM into public access centers. I think centers like ours are the future of community media.”
The station also places a strong emphasis on having participation from the range of communities within Philadelphia. Graber praised PhillyCAM’s “ability to attract such talented, dedicated members who create great content and volunteer their time to help out. It’s truly reflective of Philly’s diversity, and that’s a great thing in a town where the mainstream media leaves excludes/misrepresents most of the population.”
With deep ties to both radio and activism, Graber couldn’t be happier to see PhillyCAM’s new LPFM up and running. While in graduate school, she studied community radio, researching radical media and social movements.
“The stories of how radio was being used as a tool for social justice fascinated me,” Graber said. “However, after reading hundreds of articles and dozens of books, I tired of researching and being trapped in the library. I wanted to be like the people whom I was researching.” Taking a break from school, she got to work for a nonprofit and began to dream of a new community radio station in Philadelphia.
Derwood Selby, front, and DJ Affirmation on the turntables soon after the inaugural live broadcast.
Similarly, Clausing had always believed in the power of radio. She got her radio start as an alternative music fan at college radio station WICB(FM) in Ithaca, N.Y., where she was a DJ and program director. Years later, she was exposed to community radio’s potential.
“Being a media activist in the early 2000s in Philly, I was very aware of Prometheus Radio Project,” she said. “I have always been inspired by their policy work and their approach to community building through radio.
“When activists were coming up with our vision for what public access TV could look like in Philadelphia, we always imagined there would be a radio station. Up until the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, we never thought it would be possible for there to be [LPFM] stations in urban areas like Philadelphia, so this was an exciting development. As an organization, it was our intention to always support the creation of a LPFM station here.”
As Philadelphia radio personalities, government officials, PhillyCAM members and other interested radio fans mixed and mingled throughout Oct. 20, the collective dreams for a community radio station in Philadelphia were realized.
Graber said a highlight of the day was the closing dance party. “If you see the video of everyone dancing to Whitney Houston, you’ll see why.”