Vineyard radio WMVY sold to Boston station, WBUR

Laurel Redington, production manager and morning announcer, broke the news of the sale to listeners Tuesday morning. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

WBUR, a Boston public radio station with offices located at Boston University, has purchased local Martha’s Vineyard radio station WMVY, in order to acquire its FM signal.

WBUR will broadcast the same radio programming it airs in Boston on MVY’s FM frequency, 92.7 FM, pending FCC approval. The Island’s only high-power radio station is expected to end local programing on that frequency early in 2013.

WBUR bought WMVY, a 3,000 watt station, in order to expand its geographical reach on Cape Cod and the islands. The move opens a new front in WBUR’s competition with rival Boston public radio station WGBH and puts it in direct competition with WGBH affiliate, WCAI, in Woods Hole. WCAI currently utlizes WMVY’s radio antenna tower and has plans to boost its signal strength at that location.

An institution on the Island for nearly three decades, the sometimes quirky WMVY highlighted a mix of local news, played and promoted Island musicians, and offered local sports programming. But WMVY executives said the company is not solvent, and it is no longer feasible for parent company Aritaur Communications, a small privately held company based in Newport, to cover the losses.

WMVY will attempt to stay alive as an Internet station and hopes to find a new signal outlet for broadcasting its programing.

Signs that the station was struggling were evident in May 2007 when the station announced that, faced with a sizeable increase in royalty payments, it would transform its world wide web business model from an advertiser-supported business to a listener and corporate underwriting-supported station similar to public radio called “Friends of mvyradio.”

Urgent and simple

“This is real. We must evolve. Or face extinction,” a message posted on the WMVY website said Tuesday. “By early 2013, mvyradio will either become a non-commerical, listener-supported operation or go silent. It’s that urgent and that simple.”

The online message emphasized that only the FM signal has been sold to WBUR. “Aritaur is contributing mvyradio’s programming, online content, equipment and staff to the non-profit Friends of mvyradio,” said the message. “So, the core is there. That means mvyradio, as you know it — all the music, personalities, shows and web content — can live on as a non-commercial, Internet public radio station.”

“People are taking it in,” MVY director of worldwide programing Barbara Dacey told The Times Tuesday. “They feel so passionately about the radio station, that’s why they’re here. With the news, I think people very quickly absorbed it.”

Ms. Dacey said the staff immediately focused on the new effort to continue to the operation as an Internet station.

The WMVY web page redirected visitors to a plea for donations. The station aims to generate $600,000 in pledges in the next 60 days. Ms. Dacey said the immediate reaction included a surge in pledges.

“Your first reaction is, oh, my,” program director PJ Finn said. “Your second reaction is, all right, let’s do it. Let’s make it happen. We’ve got 60 days, let’s make every time we open our mouths count.”

Ms. Dacey added that the staff hopes to find a way to broadcast on a new FM frequency. “There’s a resolve with the staff to make this successful, knowing our future depends on it,” Ms. Dacey said.

General manager Greg Orcutt acknowledged that the business climate for traditional media companies has been challenging in recent years.

“We’ve always had good support from the Island,” Mr. Orcutt said. “We’ve had good support from Nantucket and the Cape. It wasn’t enough to sustain the model that we had. Progress was made, it was just not sustainable.”

All of the station’s community events, including the annual Big Chili Contest scheduled for January 26, will go on as planned, Mr. Orcutt said.

Spreading the word

WBUR executives visited Martha’s Vineyard Tuesday, part of a coordinated public relations effort surrounding the announcement.

WBUR general manager Charles Kravetz, in a visit to the offices of The Times, acknowledged that change will be difficult for WMVY listeners.

“We know WMVY is Martha’s Vineyard’s radio station, and that lots of people love it, and it’s a part of their history,” Mr. Kravetz said. “We are rooting for them to have success in their new plans.”

WBUR’s current 50,000-watt signal on 90.9 FM is heard across all of metropolitan Boston and eastern Massachusetts. Mr. Kravetz said WBUR has been searching for an outlet to reach Southeastern Massachusetts listeners for 20 years.

The acquisition will create a new environment for local public radio listeners. WBUR and its cross-town competitor, WGBH, have both made strategic business moves in the last year. WGBH recently bought program distributor Public Radio International, which gives it a footing to compete with WBUR in national programming.

WBUR is currently the largest producer of public radio programs in the nation, with shows such as Here & Now, On Point, Only A Game, and until recently Car Talk, the most successful syndicated public radio program in history. Car Talk recently stopped production, though reruns will air for some time.

WGBH has a strong presence in the local market with its affiliate WCAI in Woods Hole and two other stations. Though they are careful not to frame it as a competition, WBUR executives acknowledge the public radio landscape has changed.

“There’s going to be a great choice now,” said Sam Fleming, WBUR’s managing director of news and programming.

WBUR executives said the station will ramp up its news coverage of the Cape and Islands with its Boston-based staff of 50 radio and digital journalists, but it will not have an Island-based presence.

“We have no intention of creating a separate station like WCAI,” Mr. Kravetz said. “We are great admirers of WCAI and Jay Allison. We think they’re great and want them to continue to do the great work that they are doing. We will also serve the region in a different way. We have no plans at the moment, and I don’t think we would in the foreseeable future, to compete for underwriting. We’re not going to come down here and sell against WCAI.”

WCAI and WBUR, through its new local signal, will overlap much of the morning and afternoon national news programming. Both will carry Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the flagship public radio news programs. Both will cut into national programming with their own news inserts.

Jeanne Hopkins, WGBH’s vice-president for communications, said WCAI will continue to focus on local coverage.

“I think audiences benefit from more opportunities and thought-provoking programs,” Ms. Hopkins said. “When we started in the Boston area, we felt like there was ample opportunity in Boston for two public radio stations. It really remains to be seen how that will play out on the Cape and Islands.

Not the sound of silence

At the WMVY studios on Carroll’s Way in Tisbury Tuesday, the mood was not as somber as might be imagined.

An old dog roamed the reception area, oblivious to the news, but energized by the number of people dropping by the studios. A bulletin board held dozens of photographs of station events and staff gatherings. Posters on the walls of the cramped building included the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Matchbox 20, John Cruz, and Maynard Silva, reflecting the eclectic mix of popular music and local musicians that is the station’s programming signature.

The task of breaking the news of the impending sale to listeners fell to Laurel Redington, who said the difficulty of the moment reminded her of the time she announced that Maynard Silva, a much loved local musician, had died.

“That’s always been a challenge,” Ms. Redington said. “Having to be vocal in emotional times. You don’t always succeed, so you just rely on being real.”

Ms. Redington got her first radio job at WMVY, met her husband there, and has formed a bond with morning listeners over the years. She said the phones in the studio lit up when she announced the news to listeners.

“The reaction this morning was extremely emotional,” she said. “Reactions varying from just incredulous, to actually weeping. It becomes personal for a lot of people.”

Social media outlets also saw a spike in comments about the developments.

“Noooo,” wrote Erin Murray-Mueller on The Martha’s Vineyard Times Facebook page. “We switch to that station as soon as we are close enough on 495!”

Joan Hawkins Burden also lamented the news. “I have listened to only this station for 30 years,” she wrote. “It is the best ever. I am very sad about this.”

“Fewer listening choices, less diversity of programming, and one less venue for local music, culture, and voices,” wrote Martin Hanley in a Facebook message.