Debbie Gallo listens TO WMVY, Martha’s Vineyard’s radio station, in the office of her ad agency all day long. That might not seem unusual, except that she lives and works in New Jersey.
Nine years ago Gallo and her family bought a summer home in Vineyard Haven and fell in love with the island and the station. In fact, Gallo has become such a devoted listener that she tunes in regularly online and knows just where in Rhode Island she can first get WMVY-FM (92.7) on the radio as she makes the drive up each spring.
“I have four friends from New Jersey with houses on the island, and they’re exactly the same as I am,” she says. “Martha’s Vineyard has a certain feel to it, and that station makes you feel like you’re there.”
Now the station is banking on the loyalty of Vineyarders, both actual and in spirit, to meet the biggest challenge in its three-decade history. After taking a major hit during the recession, parent company Aritaur Communications accepted an offer in November to sell WMVY’s 3,000-watt signal to WBUR, which will use it as a “repeater” station to broadcast its NPR-affiliated programming to the Cape and Islands.
Despite the sale, listeners may not have heard the last of WMVY. The station is roughly halfway to its ambitious goal of raising $600,000 by the end of January to facilitate a transition from a commercial, “terrestrial’’ radio station to a nonprofit, Internet-based one. They’ll keep the staff, the building, and the MVY call letters. As long as fans can find the station on iTunes or elsewhere online, the staff intends to keep serving the island community and its far-flung admirers.
The key to the station’s appeal, says longtime DJ and programmer Barbara Dacey, is its personality. “It’s very intimate, unaffected. It’s a very low-key presentation of any material, whether it’s community events or a song. Because of that openness, it’s very easy for people to walk right in.”
She did just that in 1985. A Harvard Square musician, she’d recently started thinking of a career in voice-over work; on a visit to the Vineyard, she stopped by the station’s cottage, where it was just beginning to develop its format.
She volunteered to do some commercials, and the staff took her up on the offer. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still at WMVY, serving as director of worldwide programming.
Though its roots are firmly planted on the Vineyard, that “worldwide” is no mistake. Despite its tiny staff and remote location — on a dirt road, no less — WMVY began making itself available to listeners across the globe in the late 1990s, as an early adopter of online streaming technology. Currently the station has about 35,000 unique listeners monthly to its live online stream, and about 25,000 listeners weekly on the Cape and Islands, according to Aritaur.
Staff members love telling stories about the restaurant in Italy that plays the station, and listeners in landlocked Midwestern states who pass along their affection for the station’s quirks: the ferry report, high school football scores, or news of a shark sighting off South Beach.
“It makes it seem as though the music is coming from someplace, not just springing from a hard drive,” says P.J. Finn, WMVY’s program director and afternoon DJ.
Kerry Scott agrees. Scott owns a shop in Oak Bluffs called Good Dog Goods and streams the station in her store. “I can’t imagine life without it,” she says. “We really depend on it not just for great music but for local information. It has multigenerational appeal.”
Other Vineyarders note the way WMVY is integrated into island life. Fred Mascolo, who owns Trader Fred’s in Edgartown, helped develop the idea for WMVY’s annual Big Chili charity contest years ago with longtime station personality Ken Goldberg.
“He and I were talking on the porch one day trying to figure out something to do to get us through the winter,” says Mascolo. “This year, that event will have 3,000 people, times 30 bucks a ticket.” According to the station’s website, the 2012 event netted $35,000 for The Red Stocking Fund, which collects money to buy Christmas gifts for underprivileged children and provides holiday meals to island families. The station is a major supporter of the charity.
Loosely following the “Triple A” radio format — adult album alternative — the station’s DJs play a mix of roots rock, soul, blues, and folk music well-suited to the island’s relaxed culture. The station’s list of the top 25 albums of 2012 includes “heritage” artists such as John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett and newer acts like Dawes and Ryan Montbleau.
“We are a little scruffy,” says Dacey, who is still the midday DJ. “The station has responded to the personality of the Vineyard — not in a conscious way, just as another person, as if the station was another person. It’s a Vineyarder.”
The station’s blend of music and tradition is unique, says Montbleau, for whom WMVY’s support is bittersweet: His ex-girlfriend is nighttime DJ Jess Phaneuf.
“They’re rooted in the tradition of New England — they still have a blues program — but they’re sort of off on their own independent island as well,” he says.
After broadcasting as WVOI beginning in the 1970s, the station became WMVY in the early 1980s. The first years were automated, but by the time Dacey arrived the station was finding its voice. It was apparent to listeners that Pete Sawyer, one of the original on-air personalities, was spinning scratchy records from his own collection, Dacey says.
In short order, the station established itself as an island institution. Dacey recalled the time Lou Reed stopped by before a gig at the old Hot Tin Roof club and marveled at a rooster strutting outside the front door. And one summer day in 1993, Vineyard regular Danny Kortchmar, the session guitarist closely associated with James Taylor, called to say he was up-island with Billy Joel. They stopped by and debuted Joel’s new song “The River of Dreams” over the air, on cassette tape.
“That was a typical MVY moment,” Dacey says.
Joe Gallagher, who owns Aritaur Communications, added WMVY to his small stable of radio stations in 1998. “I’d been familiar with it from when it first went on the air, and I just thought it was great,” says Gallagher, who is based in Newport, R.I. “It had brand value that was much bigger than the radio station.”
His early dive into online radio was not without its scrapes and bruises. Industry rules created hurdles to the station accepting agency advertising online, and the broader reach meant that local businesses were paying to attract listeners who were not always local.
“A dispersed audience can’t walk in and buy Murdick’s Fudge,” Gallagher says.
The station tried creative methods of raising revenue, traveling to music festivals to gather one-of-a-kind content, distributing some of that content to other stations, and creating the Friends of MVY Radio, which raised almost $50,000 in its first year.
“And then the world sort of fell apart,” says Gallagher. With the recession, “the sponsorship dollars got turned off immediately, and shortly thereafter the ad dollars.”
If the current plan to transition stewardship to the nonprofit Friends of MVY succeeds, Gallagher hopes eventually to find another signal from which to broadcast on the island. For now, though, the focus is on tackling the station’s debt and moving listeners over to the Internet. Among other innovations, the station has developed a smartphone app that delivers its programming.
The radio industry’s rapid consolidation has led to its depersonalization, says Kate Taylor, a longtime island resident and member of the musical Taylor family. That shift has highlighted WMVY’s presence as “this sparkling little jewel. . . . As a fan, and somebody who has benefited from their playlist, they’re very good about supporting island musicians,” she says. “They’re a rare breed, very precious for us.”
Since the sale announcement, the outpouring of support for the station has been “spectacular,” says Gallagher.
Finn, the program director, says he’s confident they’ll reach their goal, though he admits he’d like to see “a few people step up to write a larger check. I’m not looking for another job right now, let’s put it that way.”
At this point, he can’t imagine the island without the station, and he’s not alone. “People have such an intimate, personal connection to this place,” he says, “whether they found where they want to be, or they’re someone who spends two weeks a year here and spends the other 11 months saying, ‘God, I can’t wait to get back.’ ”
James Sullivan can be reached at james