Thursday May 19, 2011

ADAMS, Mass. -- WFCR, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst-based radio station that’s rebranding itself as New England Public Radio, aims to expand its audience in Berkshire County by transmitting a new, full-power FM signal from North County later this year.

Opening the facility is a $440,000 investment, the station’s CEO and general manager, Martin Miller, said in an interview Tuesday. Of that total, $189,000 represents the final cost of the license WFCR won during an auction conducted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Miller said he would like to have the new signal operational this fall, but WFCR has to raise an additional $250,000 to cover construction costs.

WFCR’s foray into the Berkshires began in 2007 with five, low-power relay transmitters carrying the station’s mix of classical music, jazz, regional news and NPR programming to most of the county. The towers are located in North Adams, Williamstown, Pittsfield, Lee and Great Barrington.

New England Public Radio’s latest venture represents a competitive challenge for WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the longtime major player on the county’s airwaves.

"What it will come down to is, who does the job better," said WAMC President and CEO Alan Chartock. The new station, at 98.9 FM, will transmit from a tower site off Route 2 in North Adams near the Hairpin Turn, sharing space with WFCR’s North County relay signal, said Richard Malawista, executive director of broadcasting. The new signal will reach as far south as Pittsfield and Lenox.

It will broadcast the all-news and information lineup offered on WFCR’s sister station in Westfield, WNNZ (AM 640). WNNZ already can be heard in most of Berkshire County from sunrise to sunset; FCC regulations require it to cut power drastically after dark.

As part of its expansion in Berkshire County, Miller said, the station plans to hire freelance reporters to cover area news. WFCR and WNNZ now share seven full-time equivalents in their news department.

WFCR recently bought space on Springfield’s Main Street where, once renovations are completed, most of the station’s staff and operations will relocate. The station is currently located in a former college dormitory at the UMass-Amherst campus.

According to Miller, WFCR’s current Berkshire audience ranges from 11,000 to 12,000 people per week, part of a total station listenership of more than 170,000. Meanwhile, the WFCR Foundation has embarked on a $7 million capital campaign. Funds raised so far total $900,000.

"Although it’s always a challenge even in a good economy, we’re well-positioned to raise it," Miller said. The total cash budget for WFCR and WNNZ is $3.7 million, plus the campus facilities and in-kind services donated by UMass-Amherst. New England Public Radio signals

The following signals cover portions of Berkshire County:

* WFCR: Amherst, 88.5 FM -- Classical, jazz, NPR programs (also North Adams, 101.1; Williamstown, 96.3; Pittsfield, 106.1; Lee, 98.3; and Great Barrington, 98.7 ).

* WNNZ: Westfield, 640 AM -- all news and information; (Late 2011: Adams, 98.9 FM -- all news and information).