by Valerie Gladstone
The New York Times (06/03/2001)
BROADCASTING wasn’t something Jay Allison planned on as a young man. He was more interested in acting and riding around on his motorcycle. “I was sort of a ne’er do well,” Mr. Allison said. But in 1977 a friend who worked at National Public Radio in Washington talked him into coming by. Intrigued, he began to stop in at night, more to hang out than to work, until his friend loaned him a tape recorder.
“Public radio was just inventing itself,” Mr. Allison said, and in a sense so was he. He taught himself to record, edit and mix, and “insinuated” himself onto the air. In this unlikely fashion, Mr. Allison, 49, began an impressive career in radio and television. He has co- produced prize-winning documentaries like “Breaking the Cycle: How Do We Stop Child Abuse” (1989) and “Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project” (1999), and cultural programs like “The Miles Davis Radio Project” (1991 and 2001) and “Lost and Found Sound” (1999-2001). In 1996, he won public radio’s highest honor, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Edward R. Murrow Award. His series “The Life Stories Collection: First-Person Portraits” will be broadcast this summer.
Susan Stamberg, the NPR producer and host, remembers the “tall, blond and gorgeous” Mr. Allison arriving at the studios in the late 70’s. “Jay came from a theater background,” she said, “and suggested how to give stories a dramatic sound and add more sizzle. He’s still the living embodiment of what public radio was at the beginning, with the same initial values and passion – and he’s done everything as a freelancer by piecing funds together.”
Now Mr. Allison has pulled off his biggest coup: bringing public radio to his home base of Cape Cod. Last year, under the umbrella of Boston’s WGBH, he launched two stations serving Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. They are the only public radio stations to go on the air since 1999.
After living in the Catskills, Boston and New York, Mr. Allison and his wife and fellow producer, Christina Egloff, moved to Woods Hole, Mass., on Cape Cod in 1985. “I got the idea for the stations for partly selfish reasons,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “The signals from WGBH in Boston would drift in and out and I couldn’t hear my own shows. I also thought the region would benefit from sharing a forum.”
Mr. Allison’s audience, spread across two islands and a 70-mile-long peninsula, is more fragmented than most. Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod have strong senses of identity and history, with each community feeling itself to be more special than the others. “Yet the radio signal extends across them all, disrespecting boundaries,” Mr. Allison said. “Our stories tend, almost miraculously, to break those boundaries and defuse age-old feuds and jealousies.”
In 1992, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting identified the region as underserved, lacking a full- power, local public radio service. The same year, at a barbecue, Mr. Allison said, “A bunch of us got to wondering what it would take to have our own radio station.”
It took a year to establish a nonprofit community organization, Cape and Islands Community Radio Inc. (now named Atlantic Public Media), made up of local residents and public radio veterans. In 1997, the group managed to get Federal Communications Commission licenses and a $173,000 grant from the National Telecommunications Information Agency to build stations in Nantucket and Woods Hole, using the last available noncommercial FM frequencies in the area. WNAN (91.1 FM) would serve Nantucket and WCAI (90.1 FM) would cover Martha’s Vineyard and the upper and mid- Cape. (Streaming audio is available at www.cainan .org.) Nonetheless, the delays and red tape continued. “I dreaded walking around town,” Mr. Allison said, “because I was becoming known as the guy who was forever starting up a new public radio station that you couldn’t hear.”
Hoping to speed things up, the nonprofit group voted to seek a regional partner and found that WGBH, the distinguished public television and radio station known for its cultural and news programming, was amenable. It agreed to build and operate the stations, contributing about $1 million in start-up money and assuming the $1 million annual operating expenses. John Voci, operations director at WGBH, said, “We could provide them with shows, such as `All Things Considered,’ `This American Life’ and `Fresh Air,’ but the region also needed its own local service and that’s what we wanted to encourage.”
After three more years of zoning hearings, tower problems and transmitter site changes, WNAN went on the air in March 2000, followed by WCAI in September, both 24 hours a day. “We’ve all spent a lot of time,” Mr. Allison said, “developing a template for how a big station can adopt a little one, keeping local character alive while achieving economies of scale through shared infrastructure.” The independent radio producer and consultant Steve Rathe said, “Jay’s significant achievement is taking independent radio-making the next step – institutionalizing the process.”
Despite a limited budget and a full-time staff of three plus a few stringers, producing local programming has been a breeze. For years, Mr. Allison has been fascinated with how people function; here was another chance to explore humanity and at the same time possibly unite communities. “When you sit with people, finally what they’re talking about is their inner lives,” he said, “and I try to express that on the radio.”
ONE way he does it is with “Sonic ID’s,” which are brief anecdotes, essays, poems and soundscapes created by local people that are interspersed with local news throughout the broadcast day. A woman recalls how her elderly cousin survived the hurricane of 1938 by digging himself into a sand dune; another woman describes how to put wash on the line on a windy day; a teenager new to Martha’s Vineyard from New York City compares his old and new schools, and a little boy imitates the sound of a lawnmower.
Mr. Allison also installed a “listener line” that lets people tell their stories on voice mail. “We pick the good ones,” he said. And, trying to get all listeners into the act, the stations also loan out portable tape recorders to whoever promises to use them. “The process teaches quite a bit about the power and technique of radio,” Mr. Allison said.
On Sunday nights, he does his own show, “Arts and Ideas.” To involve kids, he encouraged the establishment of a radio club at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His goal is transparent. “You know Martha’s Vineyard people think they’re infinitely superior to Nantucket people and so on,” he said. “Well, now that they hear each other on the air, it’s tougher for them to maintain those old prejudices. A fisherman from Martha’s Vineyard tells a funny story about his work and a Nantucket fisherman can’t help but laugh and say, `Hey, I like this fella.’ “