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Inside the World of Community Radio

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Turn on your radio and you could hear the blare of popular music or sports talk. But land on a low-power FM radio station and you can hear the stories of your neighbors, as they share everything from local goings-on and public information to lesser-known music.

Vicki Logan and Jay Schulz lead a broadcast in the studio of Harvard’s WHIW.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the WHIW radio host who discussed political topics. Former host Jay Jackson led those conversations. Our apologies to general manager Jay Schulz.

Jim and Nancy Eggers don’t mind poking fun at each other, especially if others can laugh along.

After 42 years of marriage, the Del Webb Sun City Huntley couple just lets the good times roll, and they have an audience who shares in the joking around.

The Eggerses host a 27-minute radio show twice a month on Huntley Community Radio, which broadcasts as WHRU-LP 101.5 FM.

“It’s fun,” Jim says. “My wife and I, we have a good sense of humor, we like to goof off a lot, and this is an avenue to do that. We like to crack jokes, most of the time at each other’s expense.”

Dubbed the “Dining Duo,” the couple spend the first half of their show reviewing a local restaurant. The remaining time is dedicated to “goofing off” with anything related to the food industry, whether it’s Nancy throwing out food puns or Jim reading news articles about food felons, like the Florida resident who threw an alligator through a Wendy’s drive-thru window.

“We can’t believe people really love us,” Nancy says. “We’ll ask, ‘Really? You really listen?’ They say, ‘Oh gawd, you’re a stitch!’ They like the bickering. I call Jim names on the radio. I’ll call him ‘my love,’ but he knows – and we told the listeners – I say ‘my love.’ That’s not what I really mean, but I can’t say what I really mean on the radio!”

What is Low Power FM?

The Eggerses are just two out of nearly 60 volunteer radio hosts who share their time and talent on air at WHRU, one of several Low Power FM radio stations (LPFMs) in the northwest suburbs.

The Low Power FM radio service was created by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000 as a non-commercial, educational tool “to create opportunities for new voices to be heard on the radio,” according to the FCC website.

In 2006, the LPFM service was shut down while the FCC investigated whether these small stations interfered with full-power commercial stations – which they did not, says Allen Pollack, founder and executive director of WHRU.

Years passed, until President Barack Obama signed into law in 2011 the Local Community Radio Act, which opened the doors for a limited number of new applicants to obtain LPFM radio licenses. WHRU was the first in Illinois to receive its licensing after the hiatus.

Today, there are more than 1,500 LPFM stations in the U.S. and its territories, nearly half of them having received a license in just the past few years. Harvard-based WHIW-LP 101.3 FM received its license in 2014 and aired its first show on May 18, 2015.

Unlike the more widely known commercial stations, LPFMs are restricted to broadcasting at only 100 watts – about the power of a lightbulb – which extends the station’s signal roughly 3.5 to 7 miles. In some instances, the signal can reach farther.

By law, LPFMs cannot accept advertising dollars. Funds come from individual donors and/or grants from businesses and organizations. Centegra Health System and McHenry County Community Foundation, for instance, have supported WHRU with grants each year, as have many local businesses.

Those involved with the stations – like the Eggerses – are volunteers; no one is on a payroll.

Because of these parameters, LPFMs are hyperlocal, focused on their individual communities or listening areas.

“We’re limited by FCC regulation, yet it doesn’t hinder us,” says Vicki Logan, president of Harvard’s WHIW. “We have the ability to do what all of the national stations can’t, and that is to give information about our own area. We can get that to you.”

Keeping You Informed

Marengo is a small city on the western edge of McHenry County and it doesn’t get much coverage in local print newspapers, says resident Pam Gitta. Disseminating local information was one of the driving forces behind the launch of Marengo Community Radio, WXMR-LP 94.3 FM.

“Commercial stations are in the business of making money,” says Gitta, a founding board member and president of WXMR. “We’re in the business of sharing information.”

WXMR has about 20 programs on the air, but its top news show is the “Morning Frontier,” hosted by “Michael D.” and “Heavy Kevy.” The 1.5-hour segment focuses on community news and area announcements, while the hosts also chat with local guests, like the high school wrestling coach and the chamber of commerce director.

“We want to talk about the stories that people want to hear about,” Gitta says. “We also share information about other nonprofits and fundraisers, so people know about all of the entertainment going on and where to take the kids.”

That’s exactly what LPFM stations were meant to do, says Logan.

“When you’re listening to these larger stations, you’re getting national news about everything else except what’s going on in your own backyard,” Logan says. “That’s where we come in.”

WHIW hopes to start broadcasting city council meetings, Logan says.

“The biggest problem I see in the whole country is that people don’t know what goes on in their own backyard, and this is an opportunity to see and get involved in what’s going on,” Logan says. “Even if they’re stuck at home, if they miss a city council meeting, instead of getting the wrong information, they can tune into the meeting. They don’t have to listen to a neighbor telling a neighbor their interpretation of what happened. If you want information, go to the source. And low-power radio stations can be that source.”

Former WHIW host Jay Jackson discussed political topics in a localized format, Logan says. When North Carolina signed a controversial transgender bathroom law in 2016, Jackson brought the issue back home.

“We discussed that and had some local people come in who were transgendered and talk about things they had experienced,” Logan says. “That was really eye-opening to people who listened, even to Jay himself.”

One of the catchphrases of Round Lake Heights’ WRLR-LP 98.3 FM station is “bringing the power of radio to the local Round Lake communities,” says station manager Sean Hauser.

That means the station opens its airways to the library, park district, schools and other entities so they can share their activities with the community.

It’s also provided individuals and organizations the opportunity to present helpful emergency information that’s much more in-depth than commercial stations.

Every other Thursday night, attorney Robert Monahan interviews local politicians and law officials to help demystify the law in his “Everyday Law” show on WRLR. He and his guests have explained what to do if you’re pulled over in traffic, how to file a small claims lawsuit against someone, and much more, Hauser says.

On alternate Thursday nights, WRLR welcomes the area’s Community Emergency Response Team for “C.E.R.T. Presents,” an hourlong show that rotates police officers, firefighters, federal emergency personnel and other guests who provide listeners with safety advice, such as how to be prepared for a tornado or what to pack in an emergency kit.

Last year, the C.E.R.T. team received recognition from the regional office of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its innovative educational radio programming, Hauser says.

Besides educating the community, LPFMs also focus on education itself.

Every school year, WRLR gets inundated with Boy Scout troops wanting to visit the station and earn a merit badge, Hauser says.

WXMR offers a “Kids Hour” every Tuesday, co-hosted by a 9- and 11-year-old, and because the station broadcasts out of Marengo Community High School, it regularly involves students. A group of high school girls came in and sang a jingle for the “Morning Frontier,” for instance, and at one point, a station volunteer taught a radio broadcast class.

WHRU, meanwhile, provides a broadcast curriculum to McHenry County College students, offering internships for credit hours. Several students have gone on to have significant careers in radio broadcast after serving with their local station, Pollack says.

Just as Good as the “Big Guns”

If you think LPFMs are hodunk stations only reaching a handful of listeners at a time, think again. Because WHRU broadcasts off the top of the Huntley water tower, its clear signal can often reach into Lake in the Hills, Algonquin, Lakewood, Gilberts and even parts of Woodstock on a good day, Pollack says.

That means the station has the potential to reach about 120,000 people.

“We can’t really determine how many of those people are actually listening to our station,” Pollack says. “But between 500 to 1,000 at any given moment will be listening to the station, given the potential residents we have.”

Nielson Audio (formerly Arbitron), collects listener data on radio audiences and estimates WRLR has 5,000 listeners each week, Hauser says.

And that’s just the terrestrial radio, he says. The station also has a smartphone app – written in-house by Michael Kastler, host of WRLR’s Saturday morning “TechTalk” show.

The station also streams live online and maintains a podcast archive at wrlrfm.com.

“We’ve had listeners reach out to us from India, Pakistan, Canada, Mexico,” Hauser says. “We all know this isn’t pretend, this is real radio, but when someone says, ‘I was listening to you last week, and I was in London,’ it blows your mind. We always think we’re broadcasting to our local community, but with the World Wide Web, we can broadcast everywhere.”

Being low power doesn’t mean a station isn’t professional.

When the FCC first offered LPFMs, WRLR became the first station in the country to receive a license that was not affiliated with a religious organization or university, Hauser says. Subsequently, WRLR, which has been on the air for almost 12 years, is known nationwide for its professionalism and high standards – and it openly shares insights with newer stations.

Quite often, radio professionals from commercial stations will lend their expertise to local stations as well.

Stan Konik of Highland Park was a Chicago broadcaster for years before he left radio to start his own marketing firm. Today, he’s back on the air hosting “Yesterday Once More,” on Friday mornings on WRLR.

Huntley resident Eric Thomas is operations manager for WIND-AM 560 and WYLL-AM 1160, and he helped WHRU implement a sophisticated automation system, while also managing all of the programming scheduling for the station.

Unique Personalities, Diverse Programming

LPFMs are not Top 40 stations contracted to play the same rotation over and over.

“We’re very special. Our hosts are very passionate about what they’re doing,” Pollack says. “It’s not a job. They have volunteered their efforts to come on and talk about their subject areas or present music that they’re very, very interested in sharing with the community. You have a little bit more than just the homogenous conversation or content.”

Besides the “Dining Duo,” WHRU has a program hosted by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, in which ESO violinist/education manager Wendy Evans and lecturer/music historian Jim Kendros explain the movements of a particular piece and why it was played certain ways. Listeners can also tune into a Centegra Health System lecture series and “The Beatles: Yesterday and Today,” where host “Rudy the K” plays rare studio recordings of the band.

This January Carlos Chacon, a 40-year-old Hispanic-American interpreter from Marengo, started “Hispanic Household” on WHIW to provide his peers with uplifting and encouraging stories from local business owners, first-generation immigrants and others.

“I’ll have people who will be able to share their experiences, like how they came to this country, how this country has been so good to them to give them this opportunity,” Chacon says. “We want to talk about the good things: how they became successful and how they contribute to society.”

The remote broadcasts of high school sports are almost always the most popular shows. Some stations can only broadcast home games; others, like WRLR, encompass a wide coverage area.

“That type of coverage wouldn’t be on the air with a commercial station unless it was a state championship or something,” Hauser says. “Our sports team will go out and they’ll put together a schedule of local high school football games.”

Just Tune In

Diverse programming is a staple of LPFMs, but it can act as a detriment to stations already struggling to find and keep an audience.

“The challenge for us is to get people within our community because of all of the other options they have with TV and other radio stations,” Pollack says.

Listeners know when they tune in to a commercial station dedicated to a particular format, they’ll hear one genre: country stations play country; news stations report the news.

But with community radio, it’s difficult to inform listeners about when their favorite programming will appear, Pollack says.

Most LPFMs try to format their programming demographically, playing music suitable for the 55 and older crowd in the middle of the day, with newer music played at night for the younger audience.

The best way to find your niche is simply to tune in and listen, says Dorothy Litwin, a founding member and current board member of WHRU.

“Just get in the habit of turning the radio on in the morning, and somewhere along the line you’re going to find something that really is along your needs,” she says.

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