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Radio Station Visit #138 - Philadelphia's Community Radio Station WPPM-LP
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June 29, 2017
3:32 pm
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In a serendipitous coincidence, new low power FM (LPFM) community radio station WPPM-LP had its launch party while I was in Philadelphia for the College Broadcasters Inc. convention last October. Not one to miss a historic radio event, I sneaked away from the conference in order to attend the festivities on October 20, 2016. Excitement was in the air during the launch event, which I recounted in a piece for Radio World.

A project of Philadelphia Community Access Media (aka PhillyCAM), WPPM-LP is one of the newest LPFM radio stations to emerge out of an existing public access television station. This partnership has many obvious benefits, including the ability to do combination television/radio broadcasts from the same facility. While sitting in the PhillyCAM TV studio during the official countdown for WPPM's launch, I was amazed by the multi-media possibilities for public access stations. Also, as I've seen while visiting other new LPFMs aligned with community access television stations (see tour #107 to KOMF-LP in Denver and tour #104 to WERA-LP in Arlington), being part of an existing organization can be incredibly helpful for a new radio station, as there is already an infrastructure for management and fundraising.

PhillyCAM started its cable TV broadcasts on October 23, 2009 and within a few years, began thinking about radio. After submitting a LPFM application during the 2013 window, the group was awarded a construction permit in January, 2015 for a station at 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. Later that year, on PhillyCAM's 6th anniversary, it launched a streaming radio station, only to have to shut it down in January, 2016 when host Live365 went out of business.

According to WPPM's Station Manager Vanessa Maria Graber, "In July 2016 we finished building our transmitter site and studio and began broadcasting pre-recorded programming." Prompted by the Democratic National Convention being held in Philadelphia, WPPM also debuted its first live show on July 25, 2016. The daily evening news show, WPPM News, was produced by Graber, along with a dozen volunteers and was created specifically for the convention.

On the day of my visit, October 20, 2016, WPPM-LP officially launched regular live programming and its new internet stream. After the launch ceremony, I walked upstairs from the TV studio to take a look at WPPM-LP's on-air studio. A couple of DJs were in the midst of their show, while attendees mingled in the space. A few albums and cassettes were stacked nearby, as a DJ cued up music on one of the two turntables. The studio is also outfitted with CD players and a cassette deck, making it a very welcoming environment for physical music enthusiasts.

At the time, the schedule was in its beginning stages, with 15 programs and 35 in development, so there were still plenty of open spaces for future show hosts. With a freeform, community access model, the station is open to a wide variety of programming, ranging from jazz music programs to locally-focused talk shows. An in-progress schedule was posted across two of the station walls, with program titles like "Teen Talk," "Radio Africa," "50 Shades of Jazz," "Broad St. Line," "Labor Justice Radio," and "Uneasy Listening" written on pink sticky notes. During the launch party, Graber shared that she's particularly passionate about news and social justice and talked about programs that she was working on, including one about post-prison life, a show focused on drug policy & reform and another that highlights hip hop, graffiti & social movements.

Always seeking volunteers, PhillyCAM offers a number of radio training classes for interested programmers. Although plenty of folks brand-new to radio are getting involved, I was also excited to meet radio veteran Joe Lex at the launch event. Intrigued by his WEFT radio T-shirt, I said "hello" and mentioned that I had visited the Champaign, Illinois-based community radio station a few years back (see my 2012 tour here). Lex revealed that he was one of the founders of WEFT, telling me that he unfortunately moved to Dallas before the station actually launched on-air. Adding that he hadn't been on radio in 30 years, he told me that getting back into radio has been on his "bucket list." Now retired, he was enthusiastic about the possibilities with PhillyCAM, saying, "I am just so eager!" As of March 21, 2017, Lex hosts a Tuesday afternoon jazz show, "Dr. Joe's Groove" over WPPM-LP, which I enjoyed while writing this post.

Jazz seems to be a vital part of the WPPM schedule and was the focus of a special "30 Days of Jazz" event in April. Graber explained that, "We partnered with the Philadelphia Jazz Project to celebrate our rich culture of jazz in Philadelphia during Jazz Appreciation month in April.  We played footage we collected at concerts, conducted interviews with local jazz artists and featured their music, and we hosted a 5 part series on WPPM called 'My Favorite Things: Why We Love our Music,' which was a radio show about why musicians, DJs, teachers, and collectors love jazz music."

As of May, 2017, WPPM's schedule has expanded considerably, with a roster of 46 hosted shows on the air, with four more in production. In addition to local shows, WPPM also runs programming from Pacifica and other sources. Some of the syndicated shows include "Democracy Now!," "UnderCurrents," "Peace Talk Radio" and "Up Front Soul."

Graber shared some of the more unusual shows on WPPM-LP with me, including "Talking Machine Hour," which plays vintage music off of 78rpm records using 100-year-old Victrolas. She added, "It's the only show of its kind in Philly." Another music-oriented show, "Sylver Alert," plays "retro pop and dance music." Hosted by DJ K-Tell, the program features music off of 45rpm records and has an emphasis on the LGBTQ audience, according to Graber.

Cultural programs are a big staple as well, including the Mexican and Indigenous culture-focused "Nika Tlaka," which is hosted by an artist who is also an undocumented immigrant. Two Irish immigrants, Sean Timmons and Fergus Carey, host "Craic Radio" and often highlight live music by local Philadelphia artists.

As she reflected on what makes WPPM special, Graber pointed out that there are a number of factors, telling me, "We are in a public access community media center, so many of our members are engaged in multimedia production." She added, "Also, we are representative of the population we serve meaning we are diverse and truly local. WPPM is in and of the community and is able to highlight local people doing positive things in Philly and South Jersey." Finally, as mentioned earlier, WPPM DJs embrace a variety of music formats, with Graber proudly telling me, "...most of our music shows play vinyl!"

Six months after the launch celebration, WPPM is thriving. Graber explained, "There is a feeling of shared accomplishment in building this station...WPPM has a steady flow of guests coming into the studio each week, meaning tons of people are now getting access to the airwaves. The DJs and guests often stay and hang out and talk in the hallways. They talk openly about their concerns and about music.  It's how I always imagined a community radio station being a hub for local music, organizing, and community building."

Next up on the horizon, WPPM will hold its first on-air FUNd Drive from June 19 to 26. "It's our attempt to do special programming, engage our listeners, and promote the station," Graber revealed.

Congratulations to WPPM-LP on the October launch and big thanks to Vanessa Maria Graber for her warm welcome and for providing me with the back story on the station. Be sure to see my Radio World article for additional photos and a more in-depth picture of the launch event. This is my 138th radio station field trip report. Still to come are additional reports from New York and California. My most recent field trips can be found on Radio Survivor and a full list of all my station tour reports is compiled on Spinning Indie. 6/29/17 update: My tour of WPPM-LP is also the focus of episode 97 of the Radio Survivor Podcast.

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