Long, long ago – about 15 years, to be exact, BFB (before Facebook), BTW (before Twitter) and BSP (before smart phones) – a few passionate people on Whidbey Island were very upset that the Rock had no local public radio station to call its own. So, after many fits, false starts and disagreements, they created a little low-power FM station in Coupeville and christened it the voice of Whidbey to the world.
It was KWPA FM 96.9 – Whidbey Public Radio, an all-volunteer, non-commercial, seat-of-the-pants operation with high-minded intentions and soaring ambitions, but never enough money and always short of volunteer help. The little radio station went on the air in 2009, broadcasting from a tiny studio in a space it shared with the harbormaster on the Coupeville Wharf. It eventually moved to a “roomier” 300-square-foot space in the Livery Building next to the Wharf.
Problem was, its tiny five-watt transmitter, intermittent even on a good day, reached only the people who lived right around Penn Cove. Nobody else could hear it. So, in 2010 web-based podcasts were added, and in 2011 internet streaming began. For a while, it flirted with building a full-power FM station that could reach the entire island, but the pricetag of more than $250,000 proved out of reach, especially after the economy crashed.
In 2012, it pulled the plug on its FM license and became an internet streaming station only, renaming itself WhidbeyAIR – All Internet Radio. Its audience was always minuscule, measured in the hundreds, not thousands, of listeners. Nonetheless, it became a much-appreciated outlet for local musicians, writers and artists seeking exposure. And, over the years, a number of Whidbey young people got valuable experience making and producing their own programs.
But then last month WhidbeyAIR announced it would cease all operations on Dec. 31, 2015. The voice of Whidbey to world is going silent. Obituaries often list the cause of death, and in this case they are many.
Whidbey’s impulse to have its own public radio station just came too late; the over-the-air radio industry – both commercial and noncommercial – is in a steep, some say fatal, decline. (KPLU’s recent sale to KUOW is the latest emphasis point.) Radio audiences have been stolen mostly by the internet and smart phones, which permit listeners to hear what they want, when they want it.
Even a small, low-cost, all-volunteer streaming station like WhidbeyAIR proved economically unsustainable. The cost of licensing music to play on the internet, required by federal law, was steep. Then there were rent, insurance, utilities, etc. Meanwhile, smart phones and tablets make it possible for just about anybody to start their own “station” and post their “programs” on Facebook or YouTube – with virtually no overhead cost besides a wifi or cell connection.
Then there are the Rock’s idiosyncrasies that made supporting one “voice” on the island difficult if not impossible. The island’s economy is made up largely of micro-businesses that can’t afford to contribute the kind of money that a first-class public broadcaster requires. WhidbeyAIR was never able to attract enough large donors.
The island’s micro-cultures were also partly to blame. The Rock has fervent, town-based identities that are very different economically, politically and socially; it’s almost as if we are several islands, not one. Oak Harbor listeners aren’t much interested in what happens in Langley, and vice versa. (Any wonder why we have several weekly newspapers, including this one, on Whidbey?)
Finally, the Rock’s lifestyle that we all love so much played a part in WhidbeyAIR’s demise. A public radio station requires devoted volunteers who are able to commit regular hours over a long period of time. On Whidbey, we all have too many things to do, company to entertain, grandkids to visit, we’re not always available. Making radio programs is fun but hard to sustain over time.
So, let’s shed a tear for KWPA-WhidbeyAIR. It’s a sad end for a very noble experiment, well worth doing in its time. But now, in the era of hashtags, tweets and emojis, we’ll just have to find new methods to send Whidbey’s voice to the world.