By Carol K. Dumas
Transitioning from a business to a nonprofit organization can be tricky, not least being how to finance the new operation.
Thanks to a loyal listener base, Martha’s Vineyard radio station WMVY has been able to sustain its operating costs and grow its audience after transitioning from a commercial station to a nonprofit in 2013.
“We’ve surpassed what we did in revenue as a commercial station through donations and business supporters,” says PJ Finn, the executive director and program director who is among 13 on-air live personalities. “Our operating costs in 2013 were $600,000. We have had such success that we have been able to grow and now our budget for 2019 is $1.3 million.”
Finn has been with MVY for the past 19 years, program director for 13 years, and, thanks to internet streaming, has seen the audience shift from a local one to 60 percent who live outside the Cape & Islands. WMVY was one of the first radio stations in the country to stream radio, in 1999, thanks to the foresight of Joe Gallagher, who managed the station in the commercial days, and remains on the board of trustees.
“The advantage of living in a resort area is that people who visit here want to capture that feeling after they leave,” explains Finn. “MVY is part of maintaining that experience for people.”
Former program director Barbara Dacey, who worked at the station for 32 years, remembers feeling a difference when the station went from commercial to nonprofit. “Delivering it, it sounded much better and it flowed more,” she recalls. “But when we were fundraising, we had to learn how to speak! We learned to apply the same things as we did with the music: be natural, speak from your experience and what we’re offering.”
The Save MVY campaign raised $600,000 in 60 days. “There couldn’t have been a better scenario, and it was real,” says Dacey. “We felt like we emerged as a real partnership, more vibrant.. it was palpable.”
The format – Adult Album Alternative — has remained the same since the station first aired in 1983, playing music by many of same artists popular back then, but also playing lots of new music. The Grateful Dead, for example, is featured weekly on “Shakedown Street,” but “Uncharted Waters” airs new music to appeal to younger listeners, a market MVY is intent on growing. Other programs include Album of the Week, Blues at 8, The Hot Seat, Local Music Café, MVY Life (archived concert) and My Back Pages. The only syndicated program is the Putamayo World Music Hour (a full list of programs is available at myvradio.org).
“Everyone who works there has an incredible interest in music. We’re the bridge between the music and the listener,” notes Dacey, who retired in January 2018.
The station has expanded beyond music to keep listeners engaged in island happenings through fishing news, weather, news programs and updates on whether the Steamship ferry is on time. MVY partners with the Vineyard Gazette to read local news on air.
The station projects a laid-back, loose vibe and music varies depending on the DJ. Finn and Music Director Jess Phaneuf work on the brand sound of the station “overseeing the big picture” but for the most part, the DJ has free rein on music selection.
Finn, an East Falmouth resident, commutes by ferry to the office, an old Cape-style building down a dirt road where the station began and where music is broadcast 24/7 via 13 DJs (five full-time). Finn broadcasts from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. The entire staff numbers 12 full time and 20 part time.
One of the newest employees is Karen Altieri, the station’s first development director. Her goal is to make the station financially sustainable beyond the quarterly on air fund-raising, a traditional way to raise money for many nonprofit radio stations (like NPR) and cultivate new donors via planned giving, more business supporters and creating events. She also plans to initiate grant writing.
“One of our challenges is growing new listeners as most of our listeners are the baby boomer generation,” notes Altieri, a longtime listener herself. “PJ has been great about tapping into new music to attract younger audiences.”
When she came aboard a year ago, she felt the station needed a signature event and she’s created one with Old Sculpin Gallery, “Canvas & Chords,” a celebration of island life and music on Aug. 3. The event will feature hors d’oeuvres, a raw bar, cocktails and desserts, plus live and silent auction items (music memorabilia and art).
“I’m envisioning an event we could grow every year and take a piece of that nonprofit pie,” she says.