Inside Ithaca’s Community Radio Station
It’s odd really, the way that it works. You, the listener, are presumably in the car or the office or walking somewhere with headphones on, and a disembodied voice from inside a place you’ve never seen is talking to you.
It’s invisible, yet it’s everywhere.
Somewhere, in a tiny soundproof room, there are people that have worked for hours, writing and editing minutes long content that then reaches your ears, and is most likely, quickly forgotten.
One of those rooms is in a building that was built before radio was even invented. When you look at The Clinton Building, like really look at it, you scratch your head. It sits properly on a street corner — two sides facing out onto different blocks. One side, the side facing the commons, has big columns in the “Greek revival” style with sagging steep stairs and chipping paint. It has an air of grandeur long forgotten. The other faces a nondescript apartment building of which it could compete with in a boring contest. Brick walls and non-descript glass double doors. The first time that I went there I circled the block for a solid 20 minutes, passing the entrance several times before eventually wandering inside to find the office listing next to the elevator.
Up three flights of stairs, and down a hallway that only contains a couch and not one but two paintings of a majestic bird surrounded by flames, there’s a door. It’s beige and sticks a bit. Inside to the right, there’s a church pew (“the green room”) and to the left are two computers loaded with basic audio editing software. The studio is on the right and all the way in the back is the office. Felix and Laura share this space, complete with one whiteboard, one desk, a Smartboard, a cabinet full of mics and wires and other miscellaneous pieces of radio tech. At the center is a table that serves as both Laura’s desk and a place for meetings.
The Ithaca radio of the past was housed in spaces fully equipped with organs, pianos and turntables. Huge radio transmitters took up the space of Laura and Felix’s entire office. The space WRFI has now wouldn’t be able to fit half of the equipment necessary in those early days. In the early days of radio in this city, WRFI’s studio in the Clinton Building was still operating as a hotel (four presidents have stayed there!).
WRFI is unlike any of its local predecessors, by many standards. Stations like WHCU and WICB were started out of the two universities in town. WRFI was started by a group of like-minded community members — one of whom re-mortgaged her home to obtain the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) license for 88.1 FM in Ithaca.
Since its inception, WRFI has incorporated news, and local storytelling into their mission, and there has been a paid part-time position to run the news team.
The News Director
Laura swears a lot. It’s actually one of the first things she ever told me about herself. I was working with WRFI producing content in the summer of 2018 and Laura had just become the interim news director. We were sitting at Sweet Melissa’s, the ice cream shop right around the corner from the office, doing a sort of introductory meeting. She tends to like meetings that involve food and she slipped an f-bomb into her sentence like it was any other adjective. This was only the second time I had ever met this woman, and the first time I was ever sitting down to have a full-on conversation with her.
She speaks matter-of-factly. She’s the type of person who doesn’t pause when they speak, and talks in full sentences as if the words were already waiting to come out at the drop of a hat. It’s like she’s on-air all the time.
In the last few years, Laura has heard the word “no” a lot. No to reporting positions, no to story pitches and no to any full-time jobs.
“They always give me pretty bullshit reasons for not hiring me,” she said. One job told her that her competition “fit the company culture better.”
Her husband is an academic, finishing up a PhD at Cornell, and she has followed him throughout his career?a labor of love that she suspects may be to blame for a lot of the rejections.
“I think frankly most of it probably had to deal with the fact that I was a trailing spouse. I think realistically the bosses were probably like, ‘oh she’s really talented but she’s probably going to leave in a couple of years.’” That’s another thing about Laura. She doesn’t doubt herself.
In this current iteration of life, she’s a journalist. In what seems like an alternate reality, Laura studied social work and holds her master’s in it. But when love brought her to Israel, she decided to try her hand at writing. “There’s sort of this nickname now that Israel was the ‘startup nation,’ so I do think that there’s this kind of entrepreneurial element to Israeli society that I was influenced by.”
While abroad, it seemed like just putting her mind to it could make things happen. One job after another came to her — she worked as a magazine editor, a reporter and a freelancer for a tech publication. But as a trailing spouse, things don’t last forever.
Community radio is a bunch of people, most of them with full-time jobs, committing to making this thing happen without any financial compensation. On the news team, there is a woman that works at a winery — standing on her feet for six hours a day who then comes home to write the script for the evening news program. There is a man who teaches at Cornell but in his limited free time produces a weekly 15-minute spot for the Thursday news about arts and culture in Ithaca. There are college students learning radio and retirees who are learning the basics of computer editing for the first time.
Volunteer Ed Von Aderkas is a trailing spouse just like Laura, and he gets up at 5:00 a.m. every Monday and walks from his apartment on East Hill to Ithaca Commons, rain or shine (or more often than not, snow) to produce the weekly drive-time news program. Aderkas said that it’s worth it when people call in after the show and give feedback. Knowing that you’re helping to tell a community’s story is worth it.
These people keep the station running and provide hundreds of community members with local news, but at the end of the day, they are just volunteers. The news team fluctuates between 10-15 members who write and host the news, yet on Mondays at 7:00 p.m. when the news team meeting takes place, only one person other than Laura shows up.
Sometimes people don’t write the script when they’re supposed to, or it’s a few hundred words short. Sometimes people don’t sign up to host.
Problems are constantly arising, at all hours of the day. Laura does not have all hours to commit to problem-solving. Her education helped her prepare for the task of organizing volunteers and recruiting members. It did not prepare her for juggling the ever-evolving hierarchy of needs that community radio news demands. She is currently re-writing a piece about local politicians which, as it was originally written, is unreadable for the nightly news.
She is running late; she should’ve looked over this script in the morning but she had other things to do in the office, plus she is only hired part-time. Laura has worked a couple of different jobs since becoming the news director officially. She did freelance tech-writing for a magazine called Geek Time, grant writing for Cornell and now works as a part-time reporter for the radio syndicator Public News Service.
Laura is a self-made journalist, but even so, one does not automatically become well-versed in radio broadcasting. Broadcast is a whole other beast — having to do taped interviews where all the sound levels are checked and the mics are appropriate and you remembered to actually turn the thing on. She threw herself into it after connecting with an acquaintance on Facebook.
“I was looking at their archives, and I saw that there was this guy there who I had met ten years prior at a housing cooperative conference, several lives ago,” Laura said with her unrelenting confidence, shot him an email explaining her situation and asking for the in to WRFI. He invited her to a party, she casually joined the news team and used it as a homebase for her radio endeavors. Throughout 2017 Laura was a regular team member, committing about four hours a week to writing and hosting the evening news–while at the same time trying her hand at developing a podcast.
As she’s reading things over, Laura eats a dry wheat sandwich. Her doctors have told her that she needs to watch her diet, as she is now at risk for gestational diabetes. Oh yeah, on top of her crazy journalism schedule, Laura is pregnant now too, expecting her first child.
The co-host tonight is Kathryn Miller, a junior at Cornell. She’s studying history and is looking to do journalism as a way of getting out of her shell. She practices the script many times over before reading it live, but her voice still has a subtle shake in it.
Laura tells her some joke, I think to put her at ease, that I couldn’t write down because I was trying to squeeze into the corner of the studio for the show–this room was not designed for many people. The 30-minute program goes on without incident, and the two stay after and chat for a bit, like good friends rather than a boss and subordinate, before parting ways.
Laura works well with college students. She delegates really well and works best with people who are more idea-driven and need less of the technical help. That’s why when she had an idea for a new series last year, she sought out the help of students at Ithaca College.
Together they created a series on mental health in Tompkins County, called the Loneliness Project. Laura was the creative genius behind it all, and after months of work, the station aired episodes week by week.
Just recently, the Loneliness Project won an award from the New York State Broadcasters Association for Outstanding Public Affairs Program or Series. This had been a crazy couple of years, between moving to Ithaca, looking for work, getting the interim news director job and having to re-apply against an open applicant pool just to get recognition for a job she had been doing successfully for months. All of it was exhausting and all of that was validated by this award.
While we may listen to talk radio as background noise in the morning, or podcasts while we work out, those stories that catch our attention can change our lives. The loneliness project may prompt someone to seek help for their depression, or election coverage may influence someone to get involved in local politics. In any case, Laura, Ed, Kathryn and all the other disembodied voices will continue to come to that little office on the top floor and make the pieces playing on the news.
Anna Lamb is a senior journalism major who has seen enough of the broadcast world to last a lifetime. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org