A rare opportunity with the federal government has slowly diversified the media landscape in McHenry County during the past year with homegrown content fit for the FM dial.
The many volunteers who run community radio stations in Harvard, Huntley and Marengo have worked for years to deliver locally tailored news and entertainment to their residents without any guarantees that their broadcasts and programs ever would air on the actual radio.
Rife with uncertainty, the grassroots process to reach the radio developed from the desire to provide residents with content larger commercial stations couldn’t deliver, said Allen Pollack, executive director of Huntley Community Radio, which started broadcasting on 101.5 FM earlier this fall.
Unbeknownst to Pollack, the Huntley community responded in a much larger way.
“I think they embraced us once we told our story,” Pollack said. “We told them how it was going to benefit them. They saw the value, and they saw how our mission was going to reinforce the growth in our community.”
All of the community radio stations in the county rely on their communities for financial support, office space and equipment. The voices behind the newscasts and programs generally work on their own time.
In Huntley, the station’s volunteers raised more than $45,000 to construct the radio antenna and other equipment necessary to broadcast on FM radio. They worked with the Huntley Park District on finding a home in Deicke Park.
The volunteers at Marengo Community Radio embarked on similar fundraisers and partnerships to establish themselves as an independent local news source.
The Harvard Community Radio station is still working to raise more than $30,000 to build the equipment and start broadcasting on residents’ FM dial. The group hopes to hit FM radio by the spring after years of broadcasting through a limited AM frequency, said President Bill Clow.
Aside from financial uncertainty, all the stations started operating on the Internet, waiting on the federal government to start radio broadcasts. Community stations generally operate with low-power licenses that regulate a station’s broadcast radius to a few miles.
In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission started issuing low-power licenses as a way to allow more local voices access to radio airwaves. The effort was short-lived after Congress later in 2000 passed legislation backed by commercial stations that limited the FCC’s ability to issue licenses.
Years later, Congress repealed the legislation, and the FCC announced in October 2013 a rare application window for noncommercial entities to apply for low-power licenses.
The change in the law opened the floodgates. Nonprofits across the country started applying for licenses, explaining why McHenry County now has three community radio stations all headed toward FM radio, Clow said.
The Harvard station formed four years ago, partly to revive a community radio station started in the 1950s by Harvard resident Esther Blodgett. It also serves a community need, Clow said.
“If you want to find out local news, what the city council and local sport teams are doing, you need to go to a local news source,” Clow said. “[The station] is connected to the community, and that’s what the community is responding to. If we are doing our job right, we are reflecting the needs of our community.”
Similarly, Marengo Community Radio formed in the late 2000s to provide the area with a centralized communications hub, said Executive Director Steve Sandman.
The FCC recently granted the station a license to broadcast locally at 94.3 FM from its headquarters inside Marengo High School.
“The station is run by the community and is solely operated for the greater good,” Sandman said. “The immediate nature of community radio connects the often disconnected businesses, organizations, independent advocates, religious and government groups.”