It takes a (creative) village to make community radio

Volunteers at WPVM—the local FM radio station whose license-holder is the Mountain Area Information Network—have struggled for years under a lack of structure and written policies, and with erratic, poorly focused oversight. After the first station manager left, volunteers formed a committee to keep the station on the air. They did the same when Kim Clark, interim manager, recently resigned after two weeks on the job. In her message of resignation, Ms. Clark said of the volunteers: “Their passion for the mission of the station (and for MAIN’s mission as well) and their dedication to their role in it is inspiring.”

Volunteers feel an obligation to listeners who have long supported community radio. WPVM is community radio in that it draws its producers, hosts, engineers, fundraisers and others from the community, and its programs are proposed by community members—reflecting their wants, needs and interests (rather than the aims, desires and taste of a single individual). Examples: Simon Sez, a program for children; Pathways to the Sacred, on spirituality/religion; Veterans Voices, on veterans concerns; WordPlay, featuring poets and writers; and Making Progress (now defunct), on local issues. We are proud of these locally produced programs and want to create more.

WPVM’s volunteer-staff proposal to MAIN’s board, “Organizing WPVM,” was a formal plan designed to remedy long-standing structural problems; to set up a radio-station committee of the board dedicated solely to oversight and support of WPVM; to address numerous operational difficulties; and to strengthen community-journalism efforts. The basic assumption was that since volunteers contribute untold hours and talent to make the broadcasts, have [particular] expertise in radio operations, and undertake fundraising efforts that net most of the cost of operating the station, they deserve a strong say in station operations. It also recognized that imaginative, progressive, energetic people are far more creative when they have the freedom to choose, create, schedule and broadcast shows consistent with the mission and with written policies they have had a role in shaping. This is what we mean by participatory democracy—in contrast to top-down, corporate-style management.

Probably the key vulnerability of “Organizing WPVM” was not that it proposed a structure much like other community-radio stations or relied heavily on volunteers, but that it proposed to truncate the role and power of the executive director of MAIN, Wally Bowen. The board’s radio-station committee would have provided oversight and policy guidance, displacing Mr. Bowen from an operational role at the station—one long marked by serious problems. When the board removed him from direct involvement on Sept. 8, it was acknowledging such problems. Our plan placed Mr. Bowen on the radio committee in an advisory role. In a failure of imagination, Mr. Bowen’s board rejected the volunteers’ proposal outright.

Mr. Bowen has put forth MAIN 2.0, called a new vision, including the Web portal, public-access TV and WPVM as platforms in an integrated-media operation. All these are to be controlled by him/MAIN. In his Feb. 23 presentation, I heard him say that WPVM was the provider of “content.” That content (news and information) is to be managed (possibly controlled) by a master editor (presumably Mr. Bowen or his direct agent).

Our proposed organization was designed to interface with and support MAIN 2.0, providing a structure that most empowered and motivated volunteer staff—thus making WPVM a far better content provider as a key platform. But if diverse program ideas are funneled through the imagination of one individual, creativity will be suppressed. The painful experience of our volunteers, especially those selecting from proposed new community programs with Mr. Bowen directly involved, has already shown this.

Our struggle is for a democratic, participatory community-radio station. That would be an enhanced platform and content provider for MAIN 2.0.

— Edwin Shealy, past chair
WPVM management board

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One thought on “It takes a (creative) village to make community radio

  1. Barry Summers

    Just the latest on the “Vision”. Wally Bowen has just sent an email to all the WPVM volunteers warning them that even mentioning on the air will lead to “disciplinary action”.

    Welcome to the new ‘Progressive Voice of the Mountains’!

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