Building a community with radio
It still smells of new paint inside Fresh FM’s studios at Founders Heritage Park.
“I never want to move another radio station as long as I live,” station manager Mike Williams says.
It has been a four-month process moving out of Fresh’s old site at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. But as soon as the staff started coming down to Founders to settle in it started to feel like home.
The revamped radio station had its official open day last weekend during Founders’ Spring Fling, and hosted dozens of curious people through its doors. The first live show from its new studio, Musical Montage with Dagmar Felber – a quirky mix of world music – was a fitting new beginning for the non-profit station, which has been aiming to reflect the diversity of the top of the south for 15 years.
Unlike commercial stations, no-one owns Fresh FM. Instead, it’s run by a charitable trust that employs three permanent staff and a part-timer in Golden Bay.
It started as Boulder Radio in 1992, then merged with Motueka community station Harvest Radio to form Fresh FM in 1994. Though it has shuffled about in various homes since then, Mr Williams hopes it has now found a permanent place at Founders.
Also unlike commercial stations, Fresh’s aim is philanthropic: to be the voice of the community and to make a difference in people’s lives. But not everybody gets what Fresh is about, Mr Williams says.
“We want the community to recognise this is a place they can come to, put their ideas, tell their own stories and make their own shows. We’re here to help them do that.”
Mr Williams is a refugee from a 30-year career in commercial radio, coming to Fresh five years ago because it seemed like “radio worth doing”.
“When I started all those years ago, lots of communities like Nelson had their own radio station, and it was one of the cultural hubs of the township. You knew the people on air – they would interview you if you had a play at school and that sort of stuff.” This is not so true any more, as media corporations have become bigger and major stations centralised.
It’s just the nature of the evolution of commercial radio, he shrugs; but he feels it has left the communities radio once served in the shadows.
“I watched it become, to me, much more impersonal, much more profit-driven, and that whole contact with the community, I felt it was missing. If you go from one centre to another, you are going to get the same thing. You’re never going to hear anything like Fresh in any other centre.”
Mr Williams is almost evangelical about the difference that being on the airwaves can make to people’s lives.
“I have become passionate about it. [There are] wonderful stories about people who felt like they just weren’t being heard.
“[Afterwards] you hear that it makes a difference and they get feedback [and] attention, and start to take some pride in what they’re doing, partly because of what we’re doing on radio.”
It is about developing the stories behind the content – fleshing out a genre like, say, polka music into something more meaningful.
“If you just want to come in and play your own records, that is not really what we are here for.”
One of the most active groups is from Nelson’s Filipino community, which started making Mabuhay!, a one-hour, fortnightly, magazine-style programme about four months ago.
They’ve paid the $50-per-show cost through sponsorship and, according to Mr Williams, are “having a ball”. The group posts shows on its Facebook page to share with friends and family back home.
“They didn’t have that before,” Mr Williams says. “Now they’ve got a media focal point that they can say, `Here’s some of our music, our language, our faith, political issues’. They’re using that really well, and I hope as time goes on we’ll develop more of that sort of thing. We are becoming such a diverse community.”
Amy Godinez Whittington, a television and radio veteran from the Phillippines, was working at the Nelson Multicultural Council when a meeting with Mr Williams about a migrant show led to her help develop Mabuhay!.
“The show is something close to my heart; it is something that we can do to celebrate the culture and keep the Filipino community intact,” she says. It is a small, close-knit community in Nelson, and she believes Mabuhay! is the first Filipino radio show in the South Island.
Anyone who wants to contribute can. The show is made up of many short segments: news, recipes, music, inspiration, history, tips for young parents, trivia, inspirational messages and Filipino achievements. It’s broadcast mostly in English.
But Mr Williams feels there are still a few sectors that could make better use of Fresh, as the Filipino community does.
“I’d love to hear more from people with disabilities that would like access to the airwaves. We embrace that challenge and say, `How can we make this work for you? How can we give you something that gives you a chance to express yourself?’.”
For a station trying to give everyone a profile, Fresh suffers from a lack of visibility itself, and Mr Williams is hopeful that the new location will help to overcome that.
“When people come to the park, they are already curious about all sorts of things. They’ll walk in the door, ask questions about us [and] maybe we’ll get a few more people on air, which is our dream.”
Other goals are a $100,000 rebuild over the next year to 18 months, adding a meeting room, an entrance worthy of a new curated display of radio history, a second on-air studio and more administration space.
As one of 12 Community Access stations nationwide, Fresh FM receives $195,000 a year from New Zealand on Air, and in return has to meet content targets. It “mostly” does, Mr Williams says.
“We sometimes hit it, but we can do a hell of a lot better than what we are. But there’s kind of a tipping point. Once you get to a certain level of public awareness, it becomes self-perpetuating.
“We’re not there yet, despite the fact that we’ve been going 15 years. We have suffered from being a bit invisible, and suffered from the fact that people don’t think in terms of what different types of radio are.”
Each year Fresh has to find 40 per cent of its annual $300,000 running costs to stay on air, which it dredges up from sponsored programmes and the odd charitable grant.
It’s hard to know who exactly is listening; Fresh doesn’t take part in listenership surveys, partly because it’s “hideously expensive”, Mr Williams says, but also because as a non-profit, it doesn’t need the numbers to sell market information to advertisers.
“I’m not afraid of the numbers; I know we don’t have huge listenership, but I’m really more interested in finding out why people are listening and how long they’re listening for.
“We tend to have a pretty loyal following … people who are at a point in their lives where they really do care about stuff.
“That is the person I want to attract to the station – someone who’s going to listen in one day, hear something and think ‘Wow. I’m really glad I heard that’.”
© Fairfax NZ News
© Nelson Mail September 26, 2011.
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