PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield Community Television wants to turn WTBR into a community radio station.
For nearly four years, school officials have been looking for partners to keep the The Brave FM alive after the demolition of the current Taconic High School building.
In the last few months, those talks led to the local public access television station. PCTV Executive Director Shawn Serre said the discussions are "in the initial phase" right now. But the organization sees great benefit in not only saving the radio station but enhancing its programming.
"If we end up managing the operations, we will look to increase community involvement," Serre said. "We also envision doing some interesting crossover programs."
Should it come to fruition, the shows that currently exist will remain but the studio would be relocated to PCTV's offices on Federico Drive. The organization will then solicit for new shows, and simulcast more programs on both mediums -- such as broadcasting City Council or School Committee meetings. Serre said the School Department will still own the licenses and PCTV will launch an outreach effort in the high schools to ensure students can still have that educational option.
"It was originally meant to be a student station but over the course of years and decades, it shifted," Serre said, calling the station now a "hybrid" between education and community programming.
The station was formed in 1973 and operates out of Taconic High. Over time, student interest faded and equipment broke down. It was rejuvenated in the 2000s under active and knowledgeable advisers, but in more recent years, participation again waned.
Radio broadcasting is not part of the curriculum in the new school and the radio tower and station face a potential silencing. Demolition of the current school building is expected to start this fall, and with that the tower would need to be relocated.
"The biggest timeline we all are facing right now is the old Taconic is facing the wrecking ball," Serre said.
In 2014, School Superintendent Jason McCandless suggested the school halt operations but community members rallied against it -- not wanting to lose the FCC-licensed nonprofit educational broadcasting service. Since then, McCandless has been searching for answers -- how to manage it, who will partner, and where the equipment will go.
"We think one of our best opportunities to keep WTBR healthy, high quality, and sustainable, is to look for partners," McCandless said.
United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County operates LRRS-LPFM, Pittsfield 104.3, which hosts the Berkshire Talking Chronicle for the reading impaired. UCP had also been in the conversations about managing the station. But a management agreement had not been reached.
Serre said it was recently mentioned to PCTV that there could be an opportunity to take over management. He said if PCTV does, UCP will still be able to operate as it has, and possibly add more programming.
Serre believes PCTV is particularly a good fit to manage the station because it already has staffing, funding, and longstanding partnerships with the schools. PCTV also has equipment in the current station to simulcast "Good Morning, Pittsfield," a morning show hosted by John Krol.
"PCTV for over 30 years has been the champion of public access," Serre said. "We find ways to give the community a voice."
A community radio station opens the door for many who may not otherwise have access to that medium. Serre believes public access allows for more diverse viewpoints. But the three Pittsfield Community Television stations are somewhat limited in reach because the channels are only available to local Spectrum Cable subscribers. He sees WTBR as a way to be reach more of the community.
"The platform itself is important. It is accessible to everybody," Serre said, adding that the station reaches "as far north as Adams and as far south as Lee."
He also believes that while PCTV allows citizens to produce shows, there is a population of people who shy away from television and would prefer doing radio. He said radio shows can be produced by just one person, whereas television requires a number of people being involved.
"In radio, you have the chance to be one person, one voice," Serre said.
It is still unclear where the tower will be placed. Office space at PCTV can easily be converted into a new radio studio. Some locations identified as a possibility for the tower are the Clocktower Building on South Church Street, the Crowne Plaza, 7 North St., or at PCTV's studios. Serre said he's been researching the technicalities of various locations for the town but no site has been settled on.
"There are some significant costs for the relocation of the tower," Serre said.
He said PCTV would likely have to replace the antennae and the transmitter and will assess the current equipment, and work to improve it as time goes on. PCTV will also have to embark on fundraising efforts to offset the cost to operate the station.
Serre said those efforts would be a combination of underwriting and traditional fundraising. As for manpower, Serre believes there will be volunteers attracted to the radio station.
"We always require more volunteers, as does any non-profit. But bringing a new platform like a public radio station online would bring a new crop of volunteers," Serre said.
There are still legal and logistical hurdles to jump before any of these changes can happen. Serre is hoping everything, including reaching an agreement with the schools, will come together quickly so the station can be transitioned before the demolition begins.
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