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Eclectic Martha’s Vineyard radio station hopes to regain an over-the-air signal

Wmvyradio is awaiting approval to buy a new FM signal, putting it back on the air on the Vineyard

Mvyradio is based in small house in Vineyard Haven. The online station could be back on the airwaves in May.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Mvyradio is based in small house in Vineyard Haven. The online station could be back on the airwaves in May.

Mvyradio operates out of a small house in Vineyard Haven, but the programming has a global reach. Listeners stream the nonprofit online station — still known locally as WMVY — in Morocco and Madrid, in Costa Rica and China, sometimes even in Antarctica.

This spring, however, more than a year after former owner Aritaur Communications sold the station’s 3,000-watt signal — 92.7 FM — to WBUR in Boston, mvyradio is returning to the place where it all started, the airwaves of Martha’s Vineyard.

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The tiny station anticipates receiving Federal Communications Commission approval in April to buy the noncommercial signal at 88.7 FM for $450,000, and it could return to the air as early as May. Its online programming will continue as well.

“It’s exciting for us and it’s exciting for the people who have missed us,” program director P.J. Finn said.

The plan is to keep the station’s nonprofit business model and maintain the same eclectic format that made the 33-year-old station a staple on the island and elsewhere — a mix of music ranging from classic rock such as the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead to current indie bands like The Civil Wars and She & Him, mixed with lesser-known cuts, local artists, and live performance recordings.

The radio station’s personality has become part of the island’s identity, said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

“To have them back on the airwaves again is a really nice identity boost, not just for the station and the music they play, but also for the island,” Gardella said.

‘To have them back on the airwaves again is a really nice identity boost, not just for the station . . . but also for the island.’

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Though listening to WMVY on the radio had been an island tradition for decades, Aritaur was forced to sell the signal in 2012 after losing money for several years, much to the disappointment of many locals and regular visitors, said Aritaur chief executive Joe Gallagher. While the signal went to public radio powerhouse WBUR, the station’s equipment, its intellectual property, its 22 employees, and its wide-reaching goodwill all remained. So the station forged ahead online.

“MVY is a very unique, special radio station, and we’re lucky enough to be able to let it . . . run its full course and become what I think it really should be,” said Gallagher, who remains involved as a board member.

Unlike its previous signal, which reached most of Cape Cod and parts of Southeastern Massachusetts, the station’s new and weaker 580-watt signal will only be able to cover Martha’s Vineyard and parts of Cape Cod closest to the island.

WMVY first went on the air 1981, and Aritaur bought it in 1998. The owners pushed a digital-intensive strategy and quickly invested in the station’s online presence, Gallagher said. The mvyradio name was used to encompass both broadcast and online operations.

“It didn’t take that long for the online audience to grow as large as and, in fact, larger than our FM,” he said.

In 2007, the cost of paying to broadcast over the airwaves and online had become unsustainable, and the station turned to a hybrid business model. Traditional advertising sales continued to fund some programming, while other programming was supported through a formula familiar to public radio listeners — solicitations for donations and corporate underwriting.

Donations were strong and continued growing, even through the recession, Gallagher said. But it wasn’t enough money and the station still failed to turn a profit, making it necessary to sell the signal.

“Aritaur is a small company and we had been funding large losses,” said Gallagher, who did not offer specifics.

Even though WBUR would be taking over its FM signal, mvyradio decided to continue online. The station undertook a fund-raising campaign to collect $600,000 before the deal closed to sustain itself as a nonprofit, online broadcaster for at least a year as it charted its future course. The campaign succeeded, signaling a far greater commitment from listeners than Gallagher had realized existed, he said.

“During the course of the year, we decided that we were going to return the station to the island,” he said.

For the past 13 months, mvyradio has remained at mvyradio.com, and can be heard via smartphone and tablet apps. Shows also air on 96.5 FM in Newport, R.I.

Currently, mvyradio is part of nonprofit public media consulting organization Public Radio Capital and governed by an independent board. The ultimate plan is for the station to establish its own nonprofit organization.

JOnathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Barbara Dacey is one of wmvyradio’s longtime on-air personalities.

WMVY is part of a growing trend, said Marc Hand, chief executive of Public Radio Capital.

Though public radio has traditionally been the domain of news, talk, and classical music programs, stations focused on more contemporary music increasingly have been cropping up, he said. These stations tend to offer the local music, live performances, and lesser-known artists that rarely appear on mainstream radio anymore, according to Hand.

“It’s filling a void that you find in the commercial landscape now,” he said.

Online streaming gives such stations access to a much larger pool of listeners, making it easier to attract the contributions needed to continue operations, he added.

But as important as mvyradio’s digital presence is, its place on Martha’s Vineyard’s airwaves is essential to its identity and its place in the community, Finn said.

“I run into people all the time who aren’t able to listen to us on the Internet,” he said. “To be able to say, ‘Yes, you will be able to listen, that’s coming back,’ that’s really exciting.”

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com
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