MVY Radio’s Commercial-to-Noncommercial Journey Broke the Radio Mold

noncomMUSIC AllianceCommunity, Discovery, Performance, Triple A

Photo Credit: MVY Radio

The Martha’s Vineyard station’s evolution since 2012 cultivates a listener-first commitment, represents their unique audience, and helps reshape the local public broadcasting landscape.

For many years, WMVY’s signal would first be picked up as you passed over the Cape Cod Canal. Driving over the bridge that connected mainland Massachusetts with the Cape meant that the Triple A radio station’s signal was just in your reach. For those that “summered” on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, it was similar to the anticipation of the ocean waves crashing over you or the jolt of excitement to reunite with friends of the island. “One of the things that really stuck out from the beginning about this particular radio station is how much its identity is intertwined with its location and people’s relationship with the location,” remembers Executive Director and Program Director PJ Finn of those first few months at the station. Joining in 2000, he knew the reputation of the area, but quickly got to know how the station fit into that nostalgic feeling. “They relate to the people that work at the station as ‘you are part of my happy place.’”

For those early years, Finn admired the work of the program director at the time, Barbara Dacey and others, who built the station into one of the preeminent Triple A stations in the country, broadcasting across southeastern Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island. It was also one of the earliest backers of radio streaming, which greatly benefited the station as many of their listeners wouldn’t be in the area for most of the year. When Finn started and since its founding in 1983, WMVY was a commercial station. That changed quite dramatically in November 2012.

The company that owned WMVY, Aritaur Communications, was looking to sell, moving towards different tech fields. When Boston-based WBUR expressed interest in buying the station, there was a surprising twist: all they wanted was the signal. “They didn’t want the building or the staff or the content,” Finn explains. This opened a door to an unexpected opportunity to keep the station almost wholly intact. Despite the monumental task ahead, one which the station publicly announced alongside the apocalyptic “We must evolve. Or face extinction” the station staff never faltered. “There was never a moment where I felt like, “This isn’t going to work,’” Finn recalls, “That idea of not just being told, ‘OK, you’re fired, it’s over.’ That was actually pretty exciting and uplifting.”

Within just 60 days, the station’s team was able to hit its goal and raised over $600,000, largely through community contributions, with the immediate need of keeping the station afloat for the next year. This fundraising effort saw hundreds of individuals giving donations, as well an angel donor giving $100,000, showing the strong and deep-rooted support they enjoyed from their wide-reaching and diverse audience network.

In February 2013, the station went off-air and briefly became a streaming-only platform, which was marked not just a change in name to MVY Radio, but the official shift to being a listener-supporter noncommercial station.

“Transitioning to a noncom [station] was the turning point for us,” Finn elaborates. “Commercial stations are often beholden to advertisers. When we were a commercial station, our fortunes could rise and fall with the fortunes of other businesses, especially those affected by seasonal shifts. But as a noncom, we became answerable only to ourselves and our listeners, which allowed us to focus more on content that our audience wanted.”

Listening to that audience also meant really understanding it. More widely known as a vacation spot, the area has a rich history of changing populations, especially Martha’s Vineyard, where MVY Radio is located. Its broadcasting range can cover a population that doubles in the summer months and recedes just as quickly in the fall and winter, but there’s been an openness to the people that come to the island and stay. Brazilian immigrants and their families, for example, make up an estimated quarter of the full-time residents. And while there is a majority White population on the island, especially in the summer months, Martha’s Vineyard has historically been well regarded for its welcoming towns, an oasis for not just vacationing families, but racial and ethnic minorities. Oak Bluffs, a town on the north shore of the island, has long been known as a Black summer retreat, one that Maya Angelou once called “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

MVY Radio for its part has worked to align itself with this history, putting together a diversity statement that holds the station to a mission that “as a reflection of the many voices, cultures, ideas and perspectives in our broadcast area” which has led to recent initiatives like offering grants of free on-air marketing to “businesses owned by women, those who identify as black, indigenous or people of color, immigrants, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as members of the LGBTQIA community, the disability community, and veterans.”

So while the station also prides itself on its across the globe streaming listeners, which Finn has said makes up nearly half their audience and kept strong even during the transitional year, that local audience and connection is what makes MVY Radio particularly unique. There’s a reason the station chose the one-in-every-two-million blue lobster as its logo. Staying true to the locals has always been a focus for them, so they worked hard to get back on the FM dial in May 2014 (and quickly thereafter upgraded their signal strength), ready to get their distinctive programming to even more people for their first summer back on-air. “People expect a noncom station to provide a bit of adventure and programming that they can’t find anywhere else. That’s the challenge and joy of what we do,” Finn adds.

To deepen their involvement and presence in the community, MVY Radio also established a full-time position for a Community Outreach Director in 2015 to create public service programming, engage with local voices, and amplify the station’s off-air presence. One ongoing successful initiative is the “Night Out for Nonprofits,” an event series bringing together various nonprofit organizations on the islands to network, connect, and explore how MVY Radio could support their initiatives. Finn explains the station’s role succinctly, “We’re a platform for the nonprofits that are in our community… that’s what the radio station is here for: we’re your bullhorn.”

Finn reflects on MVY Radio’s journey since 2012 with a sense of purpose and gratitude. “To have an independent noncom in their midst, people recognize that not every community has that, and that it’s worth supporting,” he says, acknowledging their commitment to representing that community. “I often say to the staff: talk about what it feels like to be here. That’s how you work the sense of place in a way that’s accessible.” It also helps find a way for listeners from across the country to tune in to enjoy the music, learn about the Vineyard, and to feel connected to the station in the same way that those crossing the canal and taking the ferries do every year.

Not many stations have made the switch from commercial to noncommercial, and almost none have done it with as much success as MVY Radio. It’s a testament to its community and the deep bond the station shares with its audience. The love of music, the community belonging, and the desire to serve and uplift those who support them, make MVY Radio a real success story in the world of radio 40 years after it first went on-air and a decade after it dared to be true to its listening audience.