Originally published in The Commons issue #245 (Wednesday, March 12, 2014). This story appeared on page C3.
BELLOWS FALLS—WOOL Radio in Bellows Falls has completed its move to a new spot on the FM dial — and now covers more of the Connecticut River Valley with a stronger signal.
The nonprofit, volunteer-run community radio station, owned by the Great Falls Community Broadcasting Company, was off the air in early February while it did some technical work and tested its new equipment.
The station, known as “Black Sheep Radio,” broadcasted at 100.1 FM with 6 watts of power since 2005 under a low-power license it received from the Federal Communications Commission. It also runs a live stream at www.wool.fm.
In August 2010, it was granted a construction permit from the FCC to increase its power and move down the FM dial.
After more than three years of work — and narrowly missing the FCC’s deadline for finishing construction — WOOL threw the switch on Sunday morning, and started broadcasting on its new frequency, 91.5 FM, with 550 watts of power from its new directional antenna atop Fall Mountain in Walpole, N.H.
“It was always going to be a stretch for us to do, and it took an enormous amount of work, but it feels exhilarating to have done it,” said WOOL board member Gary Smith.
Smith said Tuesday that WOOL will broadcast under what the FCC calls “program test authority” for the next three weeks while staffers work out any kinks with the equipment.
“It’s still early and we’re to get a sense of where things are,” he said.
A slight complication — the new antenna location is 3 feet lower than originally planned. It may not seem like a lot, but Smith said that when it comes to FM signals, the height of the antenna is more important than the power of the transmitter.
“The signal is directional to protect the signals of other stations south of us,” Smith said. “We might ask the FCC for an amendment to our license to increase our power to compensate for the lower antenna. Still, we’ve gained a lot of ground. Putney and Grafton can now hear us loud and clear where they couldn’t before. Windsor and Claremont can hear us better too.”
After the test period is finished, and the tweaks are made, Smith said the actual license will then kick in, and WOOL will officially become a full-fledged Class-A FM, with a signal that will carry its eclectic mix of music, news, and talk to a wider audience.
“Getting a bigger signal helps us reach more people, and reaching more people helps build community, which is the whole point of this radio station,” Smith said. “We wanted a radio station that doesn’t pander, the way that commercial stations do, [and] that provides programs and points of view that you always get to hear.”
Smith said he is impressed with how the station has grown over the years. “Some of our listeners want entertainment, and others want information, and I think we’ve managed to provide both,” he added.
WOOL has been raising money vigorously since learning nearly four years ago that it was to be among a handful of noncommercial broadcasters granted full-power licenses by the FCC in the 88-92 mHz section of the FM band.
During a brief application period in 2007, thousands of applications flooded the FCC’s offices in Washington. The allocations made in 2010 were the first ones issued in more than 15 years. It may be decades, if ever, before the FCC further opens up the non-commercial FM band.
“You can’t ever rule anything out,” said Smith. “That was the thinking that got us on the air and got us a more powerful station. We wanted to build a great radio station, and thanks to all the volunteers and underwriters, we’re on our way.”
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