Pursuing a passion for ‘community radio at its finest’

Most Monday evenings Jo Lindsay can be found at her home in Tenants Harbor online, combing through the most recently posted Knox County obituaries to find the seven or eight she will read during “Afterwords,” her one-hour radio show on WRFR-LP 93.3fm Tuesday mornings at 8am. “After each one I play a song based on whatever I have gleaned about the person’s life,” Lindsay notes. “It’s unbelievable what you learn about people. The sad thing is that you find these things out after these people are gone.”

“Afterwords” is one of two radio shows Lindsay produces for WRFR, Rockland’s very local Low Power radio station, which also reaches Camden at 99.3fm. The other is “In Town Tunes,” which airs Thursdays at 9am. “This was my first show,” Lindsay says. “I focus on music by local musicians and on musicians playing in Maine, often at the Strand.”

Producing the shows scratches an itch that Lindsay says she’s had for a long time. “I always had dreams of being a performer,” she admits with a laugh. But her involvement at WRFR has become a quite separate,—and even stronger—passion.

WRFR (Radio Free Rockland) first went on air on February 14, 2002, following Joe Steinberger getting a permit to have a Low Power fm radio service in Rockland in 2000. “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave out Low Power licenses because people were getting very upset with the way big corporations were taking over the airwaves and sucking up all these small stations,” Lindsay explains. “So they opened up a window for people to apply and we were on the air full time, 24/7, in 2002. We were one of the first LP stations in the country and definitely the first in Maine.” In 2003 WRFR obtained a license to also bring its programming to Camden.

In 2005 the station started streaming on the web at www.wrfr.org—something that has allowed the small 100-watt station, which occupies a converted garage behind a house on Gay Street, to transcend the limitations of its 25-mile transmission radius in both Rockland and Camden. “It’s pretty much a line-of-sight thing,” Lindsay says with a wry smile. “If there’s a hill between you and the transmitter you’re not going to get the signal. With streaming we now have listeners all over the country and in places like Switzerland, China and Saudi Arabia. The nicest thing with the streaming is that we have a lot of summer people who find us when they’re here for the summer and then they can take the station home with them so they can still listen and stay connected with the area.”

A unique thing about WRFR is that it is a completely volunteer enterprise, which is how Lindsay first got involved.

“Eleven years ago I kept calling WRFR to volunteer because they said they needed volunteers. I kept leaving my name and nobody would call me back. And then I went to a party and Joe Steinberger was there and I said, ‘How in the world do I get to volunteer to work at the station?’ and he said, ‘Meet me tomorrow. I have something for you to do.’ So I met him and he said, ‘This will take 20 minutes a week, I just need you to write the checks and pay the bills.’ So I started coming in once a week. And now I’m running it! I’m station manager! I’m there 10 to 20 hours a week. It’s great, it’s so fun. Everybody there wants to be there.”

Lindsay still pays the bills, but much of her work as station manager involves providing support for the volunteers who produce the station’s programming and lining up local business sponsors for that programming.

“You learn how to do your own show, you do the board yourself,” Lindsay says of the logistics involved in airing a show. “I tell people no one is going to get hurt if it doesn’t work, just call me and we’ll figure it out. It takes about two or three times doing a show and then basically most people are pretty comfortable. It’s really not very hard. Some people will need a little more time to get ready because they have vinyl—they’re playing actual records—and it takes a little longer to set that up, but it’s a pretty easy change over.”

Since every show needs a sponsor, Lindsay asks that people doing shows explore any connections they might have with potential sponsors so that cold calls aren’t necessary. Lindsay says the station currently has 80 or so local sponsors in hand. This, along with donations from listeners, Lindsay says, “is how we stay afloat. It’s how we pay the rent, utilities, everything.”

As part of its commitment to being a “community radio” station, Lindsay notes with a touch of pride, “All our shows shows are locally produced—nothing is canned.” Even during the hours between midnight and 6am, when the station relies on a recorded play list, the offerings are an idiosyncratic collection of things the volunteers have put together. “You could hear Chopin and then Leonard Nimoy, or poems by Edna St. Vincent-Millay.”

During the hours between 6am and midnight, on the other hand, the station airs shows that Lindsay believes could go statewide if a larger station wanted to pick them up. One such show is “Uncle Paul’s Jazz Closet” produced by Cindy McGuirl for two hours on Mondays starting at 3pm. McGuirl’s uncle, Paul Motian, was a prominent jazz drummer, percussionist and composer. McGuirl inherited all of Motian’s personal musical archive when he died in 2011.

“What an odd thing to have on our little station,” Lindsay marvels. “We’ve got people listening from New York City to catch that show, real jazz people. Cindy does interviews, explores the jazz scene her uncle was involved with and plays cuts that no one has ever heard before. She got everything, including his personal reels—it’s a treasure trove for sure. So this is how she’s archiving it. It’s basically a history show.”

Most of the shows on WRFR—like “Mental Health,” “Stone Coast,” “On the Bus” and “Built For Comfort”—are music shows, but there is also a show by Jacinda Martinez about gardening, shows like the Chris Wolf Show and Rockland Metro that explore local community topics, and even one by Ron Humber called the Pen Bay Report that is about all things Penobscot Bay, its waters, its shipping lanes, its harbors.

Lindsay stresses that the funkiness of WRFR might suggest that its programming has a left-leaning point of view, but the station has no political agenda. “This is community radio. We want to be open to everyone in the community. Shows can have a point of view—some are quite conservative in content—but we don’t want anyone to be able to put a label on the station. However, we do insist that people be respectful of others.”

The newest venture for the station is a print companion called “The Buzz.” “This is another idea from Joe Steinberger,” Lindsay explains. “He just wanted another format for people to get their opinions out there. It’s got community people writing articles on whatever interests them. It’s usually just one story at a time. The Wednesday ‘Rockland Metro’ radio show usually uses the Buzz topic as the basis for a round-table discussion.”

The main thing, Lindsay says in summing up WRFR’s core mission, “is that we are just trying to be a resource that everyone is welcome to use. People can come to the station and hang out, if they want—we have free wi-fi. It’s a funny little place, but it’s a great place.”

After a pause, she adds, “There’s a window in the studio that, during the summer, I usually open when I’m doing one of my shows. Then somebody nearby will start up a lawn mower.” She laughs. “To me, that’s local radio at its finest.”—JW

PHOTOS: Julie Wortman

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