Tuning in to community radio

WSUU receives license approval and launches capital campaign

GET READY to reprogram your preset buttons: there's a new radio station in town.

Well, almost. A year and half after the FCC announced that it was opening Low Power FM (LPFM) bandwidth to non-profits and other qualified organizations, a group called Savannah Soundings has received its license to build.

Touted as “community radio with a global soul,” Savannah Soundings will provide airspace for progressive politics and environmental issues, a variety of musical genres, children’s programming, radio theater and more, with a focus on engaging all facets of Savannah culture. With a minimum of 56 hours a week to fill, time slots might transmit talk shows dedicated to scientific research, blocks of tunes by local bands and bedtime stories in Spanish.

“We want to provide voice and visibility to individuals, organizations, events and projects that showcase the diversity of our local culture,” says Vicki Weeks, the nascent station’s project manager and president of Weeks Consulting.

With a footprint estimated to reach around 200K listeners, WRUU’s 100-watt license has a four- to five-mile transmission radius that will cover metropolitan Savannah and reach as far as Georgetown, Bloomingdale and Thunderbolt.

Studio plans have been drawn up for the basement of the Unitarian Universalist Church on Troup Square, and a sound engineer is on board. The station is expected to begin broadcasting as WRUU at 107.5 on the FM dial in September 2015.

But there’s still more work to be done before the static clears. Weeks and a team that includes social change consultant Sarah Todd and designer Tom Kenkel have now switched gears from the FCC’s arduous application process to fundraising.

“So, how are we going to pay for this thing?” laughs Weeks.

A successful push using the non-profit crowdsourcing site Crowdrise helped fund the initial engineering studies. The team has now launched “Let’s Build It,” a capital campaign to raise the additional $45K needed for the construction phase.

Founding memberships are available for $50 ($25 for students, seniors and military), and businesses can receive on-air exposure with sponsorship.

Some private individuals and public establishments are hosting events to help spread the word; the next one is “Cocktails for Community Radio” at Ampersand this Friday, Oct. 10.

But Weeks promises that while local commerce will have a part in Savannah Soundings’ success, it will be a far cry from corporate radio, where the money dictates what comes out of hosts’ mouths.

“This is not a pay-to-play situation,” assures Weeks. “We have a media ethics specialist on our governance team to ensure that our programming and fundraising don’t conflict.”

She also affirms that while Savannah Soundings is indeed a project of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah and has received additional funding from its national parent association, there is no religious agenda that champions the validity of one belief system over another.

The station does borrow its mission from Unitarian values, but unlike the last time the FCC opened the airwaves to non-profits and the slots were snatched up by churches fostering extreme right-wing viewpoints, WRUU is dedicated to the principles of tolerance, compassion and diversity.

“We hope that our community radio station will make space for voices that aren’t usually heard, either on the commercial airwaves or in the public square, and not just amplify our own,” says UUCS minister Rev. Dave Messner.

“If we get it right, Savannah Soundings radio will be an inclusive, imaginative and joyful experience for everyone it reaches.”

To fulfill the mission of giving voice to non-traditional issues and events, there is a definite progressive bent to WRUU programming. Labor unions, LGBT groups and social justice organizations are encouraged to share their visions as part of Savannah Soundings.

The WRUU team also wants Savannah’s artistic and start-up communities to represent, and the station has already solidified partnerships with The Creative Coast and the Coastal Jazz Association.

“We want to see how our mission can help them achieve theirs,” says Weeks, referring to Savannah’s many forward-thinking organizations.

“This is a great opportunity for people and groups doing good work to get the word out.”

She adds that while the content will be a mélange of music, talk and news, it is far from etched in stone: The public can still offer input on programming through a new survey at savannahsoundings.org.

On its website, Savannah Soundings acknowledges the support it received through the Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit that promotes social justice and economic equality through low power FM stations like WRUU.

A Prometheus representative came through Savannah in June 2013 to spark interest in the soon-to-be-released bandwidth, and the organization provided Savannah Soundings and close to a thousand other groups with technical, legal and crowdsourcing advice through the FCC’s complicated application process.

“These diverse and inspiring LPFM applicants included schools, churches, Native American tribes, unions, immigrants’ rights groups and local artist collectives,” reports Prometheus policy director Sanjay Jolly.

“By the time the application window closed last November, 3,000 local organizations had applied for LPFM licenses, marking the largest expansion of community radio in American history.” 

This week kicks off a steady schedule of fundraising events, culminating in WRUU’s first broadcast next fall. Once the station is up and running, Weeks says one of Savannah Sounding’s ultimate goals is to support a network of community stations throughout the Southeast.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing?” she exclaims. “You could drive all around the South and listen to what’s happening in like-minded communities.”