Soundbites: Half a Century on the Air, WGDR Looks to Its Future | Music News + Views | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Soundbites: Half a Century on the Air, WGDR Looks to Its Future

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Published November 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Llu Mulvaney-Stanak - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Llu Mulvaney-Stanak

About a year ago, I moved to a spot a little outside Burlington. The new digs offered more peace and quiet than I'd had in my Old North End apartment but came with a strange neighbor: a seemingly abandoned radio station. On one of my first exploratory walks through the woods, I happened on the place, which sits unoccupied in a clearing, with a long dirt road stretching back toward civilization.

Internet sleuthing revealed that the station is still operating but largely automated. Its proximity to my home kick-started my imagination, and I started daydreaming about breaking in at night to run my own pirate radio station. I thought about the playlists I'd concoct, the talk shows I'd invent and all the possibilities that having my own radio station held.

It was all a fantasy, of course. I barely have my shit together enough to create the weekly Seven Days playlist for this column, so I'd last about a day running a station. Fortunately, I can live vicariously through the folks at Central Vermont Community Radio in Plainfield.

A little more than two years ago, the group, led by station manager Llu Mulvaney-Stanak, took over Goddard College radio station WGDR, which broadcasts on 91.1 FM in Plainfield and as WGDH on 91.7 FM in Hardwick. CVCR relaunched the station with fresh programming and a mission to "provide a forum for cultivating social change that re-harmonizes human communities with the natural world, supports the independent arts, and celebrates diversity, creativity, and freedom," according to its website.

On air, Mulvaney-Stanak and company are fêting 50 years of WGDR. Still in the planning stages, a celebration will likely happen next year — "It'll be our 50th and a half party," Mulvaney-Stanak joked. For now, the station is focusing on fundraising and continuing to add new producers with varied tastes.

Transforming WGDR into a community radio network was no easy process. First and foremost, Mulvaney-Stanak, known locally as DJ Llu from their time at radio stations such as 99.9 the Buzz and Burlington's WBTV-LP 99.3 FM, had to figure out how to pay for the whole thing.

"WGDR is a nonprofit, but technically it always was," Mulvaney-Stanak explained by phone from their home in Burlington. "It's a 50-year-old station, but for 48 of those years it was Goddard's. Which meant that if the fundraising didn't cover expenses, the college would come in and cover things. But that's not the case for us."

Mulvaney-Stanak pointed out that, through some creative bookkeeping, Goddard was able to qualify for grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Those grants are intended for large public media entities with budgets in excess of $300,000 and require stations to match their fundraising against their own budgets. To qualify, CVCR would have to significantly increase its fundraising and maintain it at that level.

"So, in the normal world of community radio, none of us can go for those grants," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "It would take us years to get even near being able to qualify. It's a chicken-and-egg situation: You need the grants to get more funding and more funding to get the grant."

It's been a steep learning curve for Mulvaney-Stanak, who has had to master the art of fundraising and being a station manager. The DJ recalled helping set up WBTV-LP, a community station and home of the Media Factory in Burlington's South End.

"Between applying to the [Federal Communications Commission] and getting a license, building the tower, and the odd government shutdown or two in there, it took us seven years to set up the station," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "Which made it even more wild when I read in the Goddard archives that they built this station and had it on the air in four months."

Goddard built WGDR in 1973 primarily to serve a class on broadcasting. Through its eclectic programming, the station became an integral part of the local community.

That role is both a benefit and a hurdle for CVCR. The tough part, according to Mulvaney-Stanak, is helping that community understand that the half-century-old station needs more funding from listeners than it did when it was college run.

"We have 50 years of Vermonters' memories and love of radio to care for," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "People here care deeply about the station and want it to represent them, which I feel it does. And we're starting to connect with the community in ways I'm not sure the station did before."

Mulvaney-Stanak witnessed that connection firsthand in July when historic flooding caused millions of dollars of damage across the state, but particularly in WGDR's backyard.

"We broadcast to Plainfield, Montpelier, Barre and, thanks to WGDH, Hardwick," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "That is almost exactly who got flooded out. I remember leaving the station one day, and it was like a Looney Tunes cartoon or something — the water was hot on my heels, chasing me out of town as I watched the Winooski rise."

Conni Magnuson and Maura Quinn at WGDR - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Conni Magnuson and Maura Quinn at WGDR

The catastrophe gave the new-look WGDR a unique opportunity to be a community resource. The station shared updates about resources, shelters, road closures and weather updates. It even helped connect listeners with the agencies that were in the field helping those affected by the flooding.

"People were calling in and updating and asking us to update constantly," Mulvaney-Stanak recalled. "For two weeks, we just held space to inform our community, playing music and shows and letting them know they weren't alone. It's not the same thing, but it did remind me of working at my college station in Castleton on 9/11 and the way people turned to radio."

Beyond its call letters, today's WGDR hardly resembles its former college radio incarnation. Just before the pandemic, the station dropped to a paltry 20 producers creating shows. Since school administrators planned to hand off the radio facilities, they had no interest in recruiting new programmers.

Mulvaney-Stanak has worked to bring in 30 all-new producers with the help of the CVCR programming committee (whose members include former Vermont Public reporter John Dillon and Erica Heilman, host of the popular podcast "Rumble Strip"). From politics to humor to baroque music to ska, the station's playlist is now all over the map.

"Community radio is the Wild West," Mulvaney-Stanak said.

"These are independently volunteer-produced programs, which means they are inherently idiosyncratic, flawed and utterly unique," Heilman told Seven Days. "As a listener, I am always surprised, and every now and then I catch something that is positively transcendent.

"We are well on our way to becoming a radio station that sounds like where we live," she went on. "I want CVCR to reflect the concerns and interests that are unique to this particular place."

As WGDR turns 50, Mulvaney-Stanak thinks it's important to appreciate the progress the station has made in the two-plus years since CVCR took over.

"Radio is the most resilient of our media sources," Mulvaney-Stanak said. "We go anywhere you are, and community radio is more important than ever. We want to be part of this community for another 50 years."

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