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This LPFM’s Time Has Come

A Maryland case study in sourcing funds, equipment and studio space

Mike Starling (right) is joined by Art Director Paul Hutton (on ladder) and Architect Jay Corvan wire brushing top section of the STL tower in front of the “Ole Barn” WHCP(LP) studio. The barn is a former “sail loft” for “queen of the fleet” Skipjack Rosie Parks. Willys remote truck at right.
Credit: Photo by Mike Starling The author is general manager and chief engineer of WHCP(LP), Cambridge, Md. He is former executive director of NPR Labs.

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — For radio zealots, nothing beats building a radio station from scratch. And those of us in the low-power FM movement are relishing the day when we will soon open the microphone for the debut of what will often be the area’s first community radio station.

While it may appear that Democrats and Republicans in Washington seldom agree on anything, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., were both big supporters of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which relaxed the third-adjacency channel restrictions. More than 1,000 new LPFMs are currently in the pipeline.

Thanks to the online resources from the FCC, Prometheus and RecNets, finding an available channel and applying for the construction permit couldn’t have been easier. It beats the months of labor, thousands in consulting expenses and hundreds of pages of supporting exhibits filed when applying for my first construction permit in 1975. The FCC’s processing was a Blitzkrieg pace — an early December notice of acceptance for filing, January cutoff date and a Feb. 10 construction permit award.

So, with the clock ticking on the 18-month time window for construction, and having just retired from National Public Radio at the helm of NPR Labs, it was time to get busy on the latest “2 and raise” campaign. The designation “2” often refers to the transmitter “plates” channel on a remote control system; thus the term “2 and raise” has been used frequently as engineering slang for “sign-on.”

There’s an old saying I’ve learned over four decades of radio immersion: Successful projects turn on three things: time, quality and money. Pick two.

Most LPFMs will enjoy tight budgets. And I do mean enjoy. The freedom to have creative fun in radio starts with a no-sweat bottom line. Since we have to take the time to launch it as smartly and frugally as possible, I’m targeting a
July 4, 2015 sign-on.

One of the best things I did to prepare was going to the 2014 NAB Show to kick the tires on the key technical systems that will be the heart of WHCP(LP), Cambridge, Md. On the LPFM listservs, I’m reminded of the old limbo chant, “How low can you go?” Thanks to a $40-a-day Airbnb studio apartment, frequent flier miles, an $11-a-day rental car and free exhibits, attending NAB 2014 cost less than $300. It was worth thousands.

The focus was narrowly on the lowest-priced, highest-quality, most-reliable studio and transmission equipment available. A few minutes talking shop with the illuminati at the Association of Public Radio Engineers and Nautel NUG provided access to decades of practical community radio wisdom. It has been many years since I’ve put a soldering iron to the air chain of a radio station, and such wisdom is invaluable; it’s a good thing we’ve moved on to crimping Ethernet instead.

Understanding our community of license is critical. While I’ve lived in and frequented Cambridge on weekends for a dozen years, my grandchildren will of course, still be considered “come here’s.” I’ve studied the history, upgraded a post-Victorian in the historic district, joined clubs and boards, attended city council and planning commission meetings and gotten to know a number of key community leaders.

“Cambridge, MD — A Great Place to Be!” will be the on-air slogan for WHCP(LP), 101.7 FM, with the state pronounced “em-dee.”
Credit: © David Harp 2014

It’s a vibrant community in transition from its seafood industry roots to a tourist-based economy. Downtown is thriving with destination restaurants, art galleries and a committed Chesapeake College satellite campus.

Cambridge is a racially diverse community of 12,000 and serves as the county seat for Dorchester County. We are less than an hour south of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, right in the heart of the Eastern Shore.

It has multiple waterfronts, a working drawbridge and a lot of talented, smart people working together to build a great community. From my third-floor office, I hear the bells on the old City Clock Tower on the hour, the steam toots of the “Dorothy & Meagan”and “Choptank River Queen” paddle-wheelers, the bells on the drawbridge when it opens, and the lovely sounds of “Miss Molly,” a neighbor who sings old standards and gospel songs most days for hours in her back yard. It’s an idyllic life for a kid from the row houses of east Baltimore, now coming off a quarter century of “jacket and tie” days inside the D.C. beltway.

It will take about $20,000 to build the station and another $24,000 annually to operate. Half of the construction dollars are in the bank and I’m confident about securing donations for the other half.

It’s the operating budget that is the focus to apply the “how low can you go” limbo rule. You can’t do good service if you don’t survive, and keeping the overhead modest will be key to long-term survival.

The licensee for WHCP(LP) is Historic Cambridge Inc., the nonprofit that was instrumental in getting the state of Maryland to establish the historic district in Cambridge back in 1990. Four state governors called it home, and High Street serves as a gateway, which James Michener called “the prettiest street in Maryland.”

Now, with newcomers settling here in increasing numbers as we baby boomers retire from nearby Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, there is a real need for reliable information and community networking. And Historic Cambridge is offering us inexpensive studio space, built-to-suit, as they renovate a main street storefront.

We are already brainstorming on ways to make WHCP unique.

We’ll take a page from the BBC’s Big Ben and place a microphone in the City Clock Tower to hear the hourly chimes live, with ospreys and cityscape below.

Many agree that we need an Angie’s List in Cambridge; but this community is too small to sustain one — or is it? Members of the station will be invited annually to nominate and vote on the “best of Cambridge” businesses. The winners will be listed as “ShoreGood” businesses on our website and reinforce the ShoreGood community campaign promoted on-air. It should help build goodwill, station website traffic and help great businesses attract new customers. It’s just an idea at this stage, but I’m checking it out with FCC attorneys familiar with the nuances and policy precedents of the underwriting rules.

WHCP is exploring a “sister station” project with Developing Radio Partners, which has helped establish and support dozens of community radio stations, primarily in Africa and Mongolia. DRP is headed by NPR founder Bill Siemering; former NPR President Kevin Klose is on its board. Weekly, we’ll air an hour of their best programming via FTP and offer them the same. Each community gets to hear an hour of life from halfway around the world. Twice a year we will open the phones via Skype and let our listeners ask their listeners questions and vice versa. We will encourage our listeners on our website to make a donation to their pledge drive.

We are exploring automating a PAD display of “Cambridge Creek Bridge Open,” alerting drivers of the option to take the alternate Cedar Street entrance into downtown. The Cambridge drawbridge is one of the busiest drawbridges in the state; “openings” can cause a five-minute delay right when you’re in a hurry.

To get your crabs and oysters to market, the drawbridge over Cambridge Creek operates 23 hours a day, 365 days a year. WHCP intends to use PAD RT to notify drivers of the bridge opening.
Credit: Photo by Mike Starling

Cambridge has a satellite campus for Chesapeake College, headquartered in Wye Mills, Md. Practical training in electronic media fundamentals should be a great fit for their students and WHCP’s community service mission. The plan is to offer a formal internship program in which the students receive practical training on the art, science and business practices of a progressive media outlet — online and on-air, up close and in-person. They’ll be taught mic techniques, station operations, interviewing skills, basic computer skills, social networking and automation basics and even vintage slip-cuing for vinyl, as well as current tools for sending artist and title information to the RDS encoder. We’d love to be an HD Radio station with multicast channels for the local schools, and to offer a radio reading service; but one step at a time. An introductory student exercise will be to record and edit a Shore Life Story with community elders to tell about their lives growing up here. I’ve already purchased a bunch of Tascam DR-5s for field recording on sale from BSW.

What about not just covering the City Council meeting, but enabling it? What so many small communities lack is active civic engagement. So let’s make it easy. WHCP will offer not just to air important meetings live, but to outfit the council chambers with a Polycom conferencing system for use during public comment times by those unable to attend in person. They call us and register to comment; we call them back to avoid any “anonymous disruptiveness” pranks, keeping a profanity delay in-line should anyone be passionate about trash pickup schedules.

Most purchases represent compromises between price and quality. I am by nature notoriously cheap. For an earlier project at an AM daytimer, I bought a 1946 Collins 20V that had been through a site fire, paying $450. But six months after sign-on, the station ended up being off the air for a full week at a time when I should have been out in the community instead of designing and building solid-state replacements for the charred mercury vapor rectifiers.

So I’ve looked hard at the costs and benefits of buying off-shore, less-expensive transmitters, and also lower-priced, quality transmitters from the usual suspects. In the end, after looking at them all and listening carefully to the hundreds of engineers in the room at the NAB Nautel User’s Group, I decided to buy a Nautel VS-300. With a sale underway providing the internal Orban audio card option for free, I couldn’t resist making the purchase. I’ve also got a production room with a 16-channel Behringer Eurorack, and vintage EV and Heil microphones on hand. The Heil mic, a token of appreciation I received in conjunction with the 2005 Radio World Excellence in Engineering Award, will make a great control room mic with WHCP on the flagstand.

In a future story I’ll focus on WHCP’s experiences with the nitty gritty of finding and negotiating favorable tower space, STL strategy and mixing consoles — all marching towards firing up 100,000 milliwatts of community radio into the “MidShore” aether!

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