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Low power to the people

Community broadcasting thrives in Bellows Falls

By Joe Milliken | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted January 12, 2007

The Great Falls Community Broadcasting Company in Bellows Falls, known on the radio dial as WOOL 100.1 FM, goes by the moniker Black Sheep Radio.

It was established with the idea of “voicing the community voices,” so to speak, of the people in the Great Falls area.

Recognized as a Vermont non–profit since February 2004, the goal was to bring community access radio to the local airwaves, while also assisting in the development of the distribution of local programming.

Tracing it to the beginning, the radio station project began back in 2001, when the original application for what is called a low power FM (LPFM) community broadcasting permit was filed by then Bellows Falls resident Nancy Stefanik, with the help from the non-profit umbrella of the Falls Area Community Television (FACT).

These LPFM radio services were created under the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and offer non-commercial, educational broadcasting, 100-watt stations with an approximate service range of about a 3.5-mile radius to various communities throughout the country.

Stefanik originally became interested in community radio after having worked as an interim director for the Brattleboro Teen Center, during the time in which the first Radio Free Brattleboro studio was built at the center. She is completing a master’s program, as well as developing a new multi-media initiative involving community media and a global online project.

“It was under my watch that the station was built, and I had written a couple successful grant proposals that helped to cover the costs of the studio materials and some early equipment,” Stefanik said. “I also did a graduate research project looking at how the involvement of kids in Radio Free Brattleboro supported local community development.”

When Stefanik then read about the FCC offering the LPFM construction permits, she became interested in the idea of a community station in the Great Falls area.

“When I read about the LPFM opportunity, each state would be given a five–day window in which to apply for a license. I thought the young people in the Bellows Falls community could really benefit from the chance to have their voices amplified,” Stefanik added.

With a basic understanding from working with Radio Free Brattleboro, which she said helped her, she had about four months or so to get everything ready to get the license.

“Getting everything ready” would mean everything from having a station location and broadcasting equipment lined up, to finding a radio engineer and other technicians, to creating a board of directors.

Stefanik then approached the board of directors at FACT for direction and input.
“The board members at the local community television media outlet just seemed like a good place to start,” Stefanik said.

There were several people within the community who were very instrumental in preparing for that small window of opportunity, including Bellows Falls resident and building owner Dorothy “Dot” Read, local studio owner and promoter Gary Smith of Fort Apache, former SoVerNet owner Tony Elliot, local audio engineer Wade Kemp, and engineering consultant and Vermont Public Radio webmaster Ira Wilner.

“When we finally filed the paper work, I believe we had a total of six names including myself on the application,” Stefanik said.

Once the application was filed however, it was then a long, three–year wait before the FCC granted the community a construction permit to build the LPFM station.

The WOOL-FM studio is located at 33 Bridge Street in Bellows Falls, with the station antenna perched atop Mount Kilburn, also known as Fall Mountain, with a signal range that reaches from Ascutney to Brattleboro on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River and from Charlestown to Keene, NH, on the other side of the river.

Read, who was one of the original names on Stefanik’s application and remains on WOOL’s board of directors, also donated the space in which the station currently operates.

Read’s interest in radio was spurred by her 15 years as a news reporter for the Springfield radio station WCFR.

“When Nancy first put out feelers about wanting to pursue the project, she received a really positive response,” Read said.

“I was interested in the aspect of getting involved with a community radio station, and ultimately became a board and committee member. But the project was certainly a long and involved process,” Read continued. “Then, when a potential space we were looking at as a possible station location did not come through, we decided to donate the Bridge Street location for now.”

WOOL-FM radio is managed through bylaws that were established by its governing board in June 2004, with operations that are carried out by seven appointed committees that work with all aspects of the station, such as programming, training, public relations, fundraising, equipment, and technology.

“In deciding on the board members, we tried to create a bit of diversity, as well as a good balance in age groups,” Stefanik said.

WOOL-FM offers 24-hour programming, and opposed to a commercial station that is pigeon-holed into a particular age group or lifestyle, WOOL offers a diverse selection of programming featuring everything from jazz, Country Christian, and even a Japanese pop/rock music show, to the art and culture of the Glass Bead Show, a variety hour about the Green Mountain State, and a women’s writing show.

“What is great about community radio programming is that there is a little bit of something for everyone,” said Smith, who provided equipment from his own recording studio for the station to use, and gathered the technical personnel needed to create the on-air studio itself.

“I call the programming ‘nothing for everybody,’” Smith continued. “Even before I was approached about helping with WOOL radio, I was interested in the possibility of contributing to community radio in the Bellows Falls area. I liked the architecture, the sort of gritty, rustic atmosphere.

“At the time WOOL contacted me, I was in the process of moving my studio and operations from Boston, and felt good about some of my studio equipment being put to good use, instead of just being put in storage.”

Since going on the air, steady progress has been made with membership numbers having increased, and the variety of station programming expanded.

“Radio airwaves are a public resource, just like water,” Smith said. “It has been fun to see the operation grow. There is more diverse programming available, membership has expanded, and I am optimistic that WOOL will continue to expand.”

Alan D’Amico, known on the air as “DJ RF,” has been hosting an adult, Christian music show on WOOL radio for two years.

“I originally co-hosted a Christian show over at radio free brattleboro called “Hour of Power” until the FCC shut down the station. Subsequently, I found my way to WOOL radio. Community radio is a great service to the public, and I really enjoy doing it,” D’Amico said. “The community needs more of a voice, and there is so much more programming options out there to offer than what you hear on corporate radio.”

“What makes WOOL radio so important is that it brought together many people who entered the project with different intentions and goals, but all for a common goal,” said Smith.

To learn more about community radio and Great Falls Community Broadcasting, visit WOOL 101.1 FM at