CAMBRIDGE — Mike Starling has a vision. He sees a gleaming collection of state-of-the-art radio equipment — console, audio processor, EAS decoder, mixer, compressor, transmitter, computers, turntables, CD players, digital inputs — all tied together with the best cables and connectors money can buy (or good nature can procure); plugged into a certified clean power source (with battery backup), humming contentedly with all the little lights glowing and filling the room with that fresh 60hz hot air smell that can bring a tear to the eye of any real old-school electrical engineer. The room is overlooking Race Street downtown, and a crisp, deep voice, carefully recorded and saved as an MP3 audio file, is hitting the top of the hour on Tunetracker software, delivering the message, “You’re listening to WHCP-LP, Cambridge; it’s 12 o’clock.”
Mike’s vision is just that — a vision, not a fantasy. Earlier last year, when the FCC made the decisions on its recent round of Low Power FM radio licenses, WHCP was on the list as a new licensee. Mike made the application with the help of Historic Cambridge, Inc., the nonprofit that was instrumental in getting the State of Maryland to establish the Historic District in Cambridge back in 1990. The pile of equipment is almost complete, while the search for that perfect studio location is ongoing. When all the parts come together, hopefully some time in the summer of 2015, WHCP will crackle onto the airways as Cambridge’s own LPFM public radio station.
Mr. Starling, a Baltimore native, moved to Cambridge with his wife Linda in 2007. He continued the long commute each week working as the vice president for NPR Labs, the broadcast technology research arm at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., until retiring earlier this year. “Exactly one month after my retirement, the FCC issued the construction permit for WHCP Radio,” Mr. Starling said. “The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for me to put 40 years of radio experience into local practice, volunteering to help launch noncommercial WHCP-LP.”
The thing that makes “LPFM” radio stations different is the “LP” part of the name. It stands for Low Power, and that’s exactly what it means. LPFM stations are indistinguishable from any other station on the FM dial except for coverage. WHCP, when fully operational, will do a great job of covering Cambridge and the immediate surrounding area — maybe as far as Secretary to the east and Church Creek to the west — and no further.
“The FCC has issued over 1,500 low power community radio construction permits subsequent to Congress’ passage of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010. It was landmark bipartisan legislation that recognized there is more room on the dial for local voices than was permitted by regulations drafted when tube radios were the only ones available,” Mr. Starling explained.
The LPFM license is available only for nonprofit community radio stations, which ensures that the content stays as local as the signal. Mr. Starling emphasized that the station, operating at just 100 watts, will be tightly focused on the Cambridge community. “The daily program schedule is being designed exclusively for Cambridge, but thanks to Internet streaming it will be available worldwide through the WHCP website.”
You can sometimes hear the WHCP signal now in Cambridge, if you tune to 101.7 and happen to be very close to Mike’s house. “We’ve been testing the transmitter periodically, but the real launch is planned for spring of 2015,” Mr. Starling said, “with the ultimate goal of being on-air 24/7 by July 4.
“Technically we have enough equipment right now that if we had a burning reason to go on the air, we could be live in a couple of weeks. But we think it’s important to take the time to launch the station as thoughtfully and deliberately as possible, so July 4th is the final target date.”
“Nonprofit” often means starting on a wing and a prayer, and WHCP is no exception. Fortunately, Mike has been able to tap the generosity of friends he’s made in the broadcasting business over his many years with NPR. Consequently, WHCP is going to be able to start up with a good selection of top-notch equipment.
“It’s been gratifying that public radio stations around the country have learned of our program plans and donated thousands of dollars of gently used equipment and computers. We would not be able to build such a model facility without the enthusiasm and practical help of so many believers in the community radio movement. We are right on track for spring with good tower space now identified. We are actively searching for at least 500 square feet of affordable studio space, hopefully in the heart of downtown for easy access to our microphones by the local community.
“I think it’s real important to have a downtown location, just because it would give us a presence in the community, and emphasize the fact that we’re part of the community, and that the community should be part of this radio station — open the door, walk right in, sign up on our microphones, and let’s see what you’ve got to give.”
Equipment is one thing, but what about money necessary for operating costs every month? Where will that money be coming from? “We’ll be working with the help of community volunteers and community donations,” Mike says, “We might occasionally go for a small foundation grant, but we’re not going to rely on any government grants or any of that activity. It will be neighbors like you and me, thinking ‘I think I’d like to be a member of that for $25 — I like the work they do and I want to support them.’ Of course we’ll have some local underwriting sponsorships from local merchants, where we can get the word out about what’s in our local shops, and that will all help us get the word out as well.”
WHCP volunteers are busy with fundraising, engineering construction, and program planning. Additional volunteers are being actively sought. “We hope that students will become eligible for academic credit by interning at the station, and we are working with Chesapeake College, among others, to create such a program,” added Mr. Starling.
What sort of programming can listeners expect from WHCP? “I want to see a wide variety of programming, typically things that you don’t hear elsewhere,” Mike says. “Ideally, it should be a matter of just tuning in because ‘I wonder what in the world they’re doing today?’ And you won’t like all of it, but you might find things that ignite a whole new passion, whether it’s music, information or news that you didn’t know anything about.”
Mike promises a lot of local information. “Local information; a real emphasis on what’s going on in our town, with our government, new initiatives, commercial activities that you might not hear too much about. I want to bring those people in and ask them what’s really going on with their planning for our community. We want to be a center for people to have an open dialog about the pros and the cons, so that we as a community think through all those matters as carefully as we can and make our best decisions.”
Also, a reading service for the blind on a special sub-channel is being planned to provide readings of books, newspapers, and magazines for those unable to use printed materials. This will be the first such service on Delmarva. WHCP also plans to air important governmental meetings, an ongoing oral history program called “Shore Stories,” and local news and sports. Mr. Starling promises “programming you won’t hear anywhere else.” Anyone interested in volunteering or learning more should contact the station at firstname.lastname@example.org
So why would a guy facing his golden retirement years want to take on all this work? “You know,” Mike says, “It’s not really work at this point, it’s a joy. It’s stuff I’ve done my whole life — it’s not hard to do, but there’s an awful lot of it — but fortunately I’ve been around it for 40 years, so I’ve pretty well come in touch with every aspect of radio programming and construction, and community involvement, and I just think it’s fun. And every community I’ve seen that’s got a good, strong community radio station winds up being better for it. And that’s all we want to do, contribute to our fair city.”
Writer Paul Clipper is a veteran volunteer of two other member-supported radio stations in his past, and is a member of the Board of Directors at WHCP Radio.