Volunteer-run Columbus low-power radio station boasts diverse programming

Maya Fenter
mfenter@dispatch.com
Jordan Bell, assistant director of career services at the Columbus College of Art & Design, hosts a program called "First, You Hustle" on WCRS, a local low-power station with a limited range, in which he talks about career advice and current events. During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, all hosts have started recording their shows from their homes. Jordan has set up a studio in his Westerville basement, as seen July 29.

Listeners to the community radio station WCRS-LP can wake up on Saturday mornings with a bang: five hours of Latino music with DJ Supermex.

Later, there's an hour of indigenous music, followed by Danjir Radio -- Somali-language programming for central Ohio's East African community -- and an hour of locally produced Arab American music.

And that's just a sampler. Every day, every hour brings something different.

"One of our goals has been to represent the diversity of Columbus and to provide underrepresented voices the chance to be on the air," WCRS station coordinator Robb Ebright said.

But be careful when trying to tune in or you might miss it.

WCRS, created in 2007, is a low-power station with a limited range. So although a full-power radio station might boast 50,000 watts and a 70-mile range, WCRS has about 68 watts and a range of seven miles.

It is broadcast on 92.7 FM, which covers the northern suburbs around Worthington, and 98.3 FM, which covers the Grandview Heights-University View area.

The station also is commercial free, which allows for such a variety of programming.

"Most radio is developed around a specific audience and trying to meet that specific audience's need so that they can sell advertising," said Ebright, 40, of South Linden. "We have music that appeals to a lot of different audiences. It might not be the best recipe for commercial success, but it does allow us to highlight and give people who tune in a chance to hear something they're not going to hear anywhere else."

Any operational costs are funded mostly by donations from listeners and volunteers, as well as occasional grants.

No ad revenue, however, also means that everyone who works for the station does so on a volunteer basis, including Ebright, who makes a living as a contract web designer. He estimates that WCRS has about 50 to 60 volunteers, but whereas some produce new shows weekly, others produce content less frequently and air reruns.

"The hardest part is taking that idea and turning it into something you can do on a regular basis," Ebright said. "Some people underestimate the time it actually takes to put together even a half-hour-long show."

Jordan Bell's 30-minute program, "First, You Hustle," is a podcast he produces as a part of his day job as the assistant director of career services at the Columbus College of Art & Design. He started the podcast filled with career advice in September 2017, then started broadcasting it on WCRS in 2018.

"Seeing that WCRS has a lot of diversity and a lot of voices that well represent the Columbus community, I thought that was the right place for our programming," said Bell, 33, of Westerville.

The program airs at 7 p.m. each Monday, and Bell recently has made the show more topical by addressing such issues as the rising unemployment rates caused by the pandemic, he said.

"Career advice is something that I think people can always use and should always be paying attention to, and it's also something I think should be free," Bell said. "I wanted to build a program that's free and accessible -- you don't need to sign up for a seminar or subscribe to a course or something extra that's on top of money you're already investing in your education."

Unlike Bell, Stephanie Santoro's show has nothing to do with her day job working in a medical lab.

On "Try This at Home," which airs on Mondays for two hours beginning at 11 p.m., Santoro plays punk rock and occasionally discusses queer and feminist issues. She discovered the musical genre as a teenager and was immediately drawn to its sound, as well as what it represents.

"It didn't sound like anything I'd ever heard before," said Santoro, a Hilltop resident. "The message of punk rock is about unity, acceptance, being your own person, challenging the status quo, that sort of thing. You can be independent and be who you want to be. You don't have to be something for anybody else."

Growing up with conservative parents, Santoro said, she found solace and identity in punk rock. Now 40, she's still discovering new music and wants to share it.

"I want to introduce people to new things that maybe they haven't heard before," Santoro said. "When I was growing up, I had that thing that introduced me to punk rock, so maybe I can do that for somebody else."

In "Rock Away with DP," Damian Phillips presents another genre that he thinks is underrepresented on most radio stations: reggae. The live reggae music show, which airs from 9 to 11 p.m. Fridays, gives listeners a taste of Jamaica, where Phillips, 40, lived until moving to Columbus about four years ago.

"There's a lot of Caribbean people living here in Columbus," said Phillips, an east Columbus resident. "Normally, if we turn on the radio, we're not hearing what we listen to back home. I felt that it would be good to bring our style to Columbus."

In Jamaica, Phillips started a community radio station with some friends. He wanted to continue broadcasting in Columbus, but he had trouble finding a station that would let him play his music.

He started his program on WCRS in October and is happy that he found a station with a "family vibe."

"I don't feel like there's a boss over me with a big stick telling me what to do and what I can't do," Phillips said.

That's been even more true the past few months, as hosts have been recording their shows from home since the station's studio in east Columbus closed because of the pandemic.

With the help of software called LibreTime, which Ebright developed, hosts can upload and broadcast their programs remotely.

Those interested in broadcasting may fill out an application on the WCRS website, wcrsfm.org.

Ebright said he hopes to have more female hosts and those who come from diverse backgrounds, as well as people who want to host public-affairs programs.

"We want to put out stuff that's unique," Ebright said. "We want to play music that's not being played on other radio stations. There has to be something about your show that makes it different."

So when people are tired of hearing the same top 40 and classic-rock songs, Bell suggests turning the dial in his direction.

"There's all these great little things that you didn't know you wanted to listen to because you didn't know they were there," he said. "They're just hidden and waiting for you to find them."

mfenter@dispatch.com

@maya_with_a_y

Jordan Bell, assistant director of career services at the Columbus College of Art & Design, hosts a program called "First, You Hustle" on WCRS, a local low-power station with a limited range, in which he talks about career advice and current events. During the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, all hosts have started recording their shows from their homes. Jordan has set up a studio in his Westerville basement, as seen July 29.