WBGO’s New Transmitter

AKIE BERMISS: For any jazz-lover in the New York City with his or her salt, WBGO 88.3FM is an old friend.  For solid, mainstream jazz, its the place to be and has been for over 30 years.  For more specific tastes, there are other choices:  there used to be CD 101.9 for the smooth jazz fans and there is still WKCR for the hardcore jazz heads.  And these days there are a host of satellite and internet-based options for jazz listeners.  Still, there are many of us (though the numbers seem to dwindle each year) who like getting our jazz the old-fashioned way.  We like a familiar DJ with particular tastes.  And we turn to WBGO because it is one of the last of its kind.  With names like Michael Bourne, Ronda Hamilton, Awilda Rivera, and Brian Delp.  With programming like Live At The Village Vanguard, Jazzset with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and The Checkout. And with great News programming as well.  This is old school radio: strong hosts, strong music, strong reportage.  Its the all-in-one.

But hand-in-hand with the greatness we jazz-locals often associate with BGo are also the woes.  Like any listener-supported NPR-affiliated radio station, they regularly need to ask for money.  We all know its coming and we all know we should donate.  Yet, when the fund-drives start, its always like a pop-quiz on a Friday.  That’s something you deal with, I guess.  One problem that has always been an issue — as far back as I can remember, so at least 20 years — has been the reception.  BGO is based in Newark, NJ.  And you’re supposed to be able to get coverage all over the city, a good part of New Jersey, and even places in Upstate, New York and Connecticut.  I’ve always been surprised by how far north you can get on the Thruway before BGO really becomes unlistenable.  Meanwhile, whenever I drive to my father’s house (in the heart of Brooklyn) I lose the signal.  Sometimes its a pirate station, sometimes it just starts breaking up.  It happens in my neighborhood further in Brooklyn as well.  And there are spots as you go north in the Bronx and Westchester where the signal suddenly dies and then, a few miles later, comes back strong as ever.  Its maddening.

All these years, we’ve called in to complain.  And BGO has done everything they can to accomodate us.  But a lot of the leg work has had to be our doing.  We’re reporting the pirate stations, we’re plotting out the low-reception areas and letting them know, we’re buying the super-large FM-booster antennas and arranging the house just right so that the signal comes through uninterrupted.  In the last few years, WBGO has had a stream on iTunes and that has been a big boon for us in the forgotten lands, but it doesn’t fix the fact that in my car, I sometimes have to drive  while before I turn on BGO.  It always seemed so lame.

Well, apparently, BGO means to do something about it.  They’ve announced recently that they are undertaking a project to double the size of their transmitter.  This is good news.  As a long time member, this is great news.  Now I know that there’s the stream and internet radio and all that, but I’m still happy about getting better coverage and reception for the actual FM signal.  Say what you will about radio, its not dead yet.  Nor do I think its going to die anytime soon.  Spotify may be the wave of the future, but that way is still a long way off from crashing into the mainstream.  Isn’t the big worry over Social Security because of all the ancient Baby-boomers who are going to be retiring in the next few years?  Some of them may have smart phones and satellite radio subscriptions, yes.  But I think a lot of them are probably still listening to NPR, paying for cable television and landline phones, and listening to the radio.  Those are the folks who are probably the strongest supporters of stations like WBGO.  And if they demand better service, it behooves BGO to supply it.

For those who say there are better uses for the money (the project is supposed to cost about $3 million), I say: you have only to make yourselves heard.  This is listener-supported radio.  There are public board meetings, they have people manning the phones all day long, and they listen to what the listeners want.  If they are doubling the antenna size its because listeners have been asking for it for years. And its squeaky wheel that gets the grease, my friends.

When you spend 30 years as a listener-supported radio station that takes regularly scheduled breaks to ask for donations, you learn that lesson down to the bone.  Squeak on, BGO.  Squeak on.

CHRIS PUMMER: A pessimist would say WBGO is throwing its money at old technology, making a poor investment when those dollars could be better spent in what we assume is an all-smartphone-and-streaming-radio world.

I’m not among them, but for the sake of making the optimist’s case, let’s assume the worst.

WBGO says the project will cost $3 million. That’s according to their program guide. Through grants and their board of trustees, they’ve reportedly raised about half of that before increasing their goal for the current pledge drive.

Let’s call this a capital investment, because if what WBGO says is true about listener contributions making up the bulk of the station’s $5 million annual operating budget, you probably want to maximize the number of people capable of listening inside your broadcast area. For right now, that means improving your FM radio signal because only about a third of cell phone users have smartphones. This is both a matter of servicing current contributors, as well as attracting new ones.

I wouldn’t concede that FM radio will be obsolete in 10 years, but let’s say this project has a 10-year lifespan. And let’s also say that the $1.5 million in various grants already collected would have been available anyway, which it may not have been.

So assuming all of that, WBGO is committing to increase it’s annual operating budget by about 6 percent to make sure you don’t have to wrap a roll of aluminum foil around your antenna, buy a better antenna, or pay for a mobile data plan for your smartdevice that only one in three people own, and I’m sure fewer use, or would like to use, to get a regional radio station.

By itself that sounds like a pretty reasonable investment. If you consider that as a non-commercial radio station, WBGO’s role is also as a curator of a musical form that is vanishing from commercial radio, then spending this money ensuring that people of almost all ages and economic standings can listen seems like a very good investment.

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