I strongly encourage listening to the radio to hear something you haven’t heard before. It’s a very healthy thing to do. It’s strange: Unless you reload your iPods every couple of weeks, you’re listening to and recycling the same music all of the time. I’m serious. Listen to your radio station.
—Singer and guitarist, Alvin Lee, Ten Years After
On August 17, 2015, with little fanfare beyond the excited few who were in the studio, electrical switches were flipped, computers and a transmitter powered up and The Phoenix rose, moving at nearly the speed of light up a long-since disused tower and spreading its fledgling wings across South County.
The Phoenix is WPHX 101.9 FM radio, transmitting from the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin, the heart of South Hillsborough. From a mere suggestion came an idea, which, through tenacity, dedication and an endless drive to serve the South County community, a new low-power FM station emerged. Its entire focus will be serving, educating and entertaining the local community.
And it could well be the only public radio station operated by a cultural center, devoted solely to serve the people in its fairly large broadcast area. It began under somewhat unlikely circumstances.
For those new to the area, the Firehouse Cultural Center, located near the intersection of Shell Point Road and U.S. 41, was, up until a number of years back, truly a firehouse for Hillsborough Fire Rescue. When the county built a new fire station on College Avenue, a number of dedicated volunteers and the Ruskin Community Development Foundation, along with the help of county commissioners, asked the county if the now-abandoned station could be repurposed into a cultural center. It was a long process that is today bearing the fruits of the hard work of so many volunteers. It also came with a few “extras.”
“The county took out a big fuel tank back here and they said they would take the tower out as well,” said Dolores Coe of the Firehouse Cultural Center. “There is a small building next to it. It was a backup emergency communications center for the sheriff’s office. It was wired to the tower. It is air-conditioned. It’s also claustrophobic; it’s small. But it seemed like down the line we could do some cool things with it.”
Coe, along with Paula MacDonald, also of the Firehouse, credit Sandy Council with coming up with that “something cool.”
“We all knew of cool things that could happen but Sandy really launched into the research,” Coe continued.
Again, through sheer tenacity and hard work, they were granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission for the noncommercial radio station.
“We didn’t really know what a big project it would be, with the equipment and the costs,” Sandy Council said. “The investment could be relatively in [our] range or it could be huge. But we already had the building; we had the tower.”
And that meant there is no rent to pay.
“We ended up with good quality equipment with a relatively modest investment. With this it can afford to be responsive to the cultural center and to the community,” Council concluded.
With an eye set on the long term, they wanted the best equipment they could afford.
That ability was afforded to them via a $29,970 grant from the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay South Shore Council. The South County philanthropical group, One Hundred Women Who Care, also provided $3,600 in grant funding and the Ruskin Community Development Foundation chipped in $750, along with significant other support.
In the process, they enlisted the help of Jeff Knauff, owner of a recording studio in Gibsonton named The Parsonage.
“He has phenomenal experience,” Council said.
Knauff’s experience was in audio. He then quickly ramped up on radio.
“I gave them a list of equipment that they needed,” Knauff said. “They were able to raise the money to get that equipment. I purchased some of the automation system stuff myself. The bottom line is we got it up and running and we’re now on the air 24/7.”
Today the station is playing music. But much bigger plans are in the works.
The station now has a committee with people having years of radio experience. And they are always interested in adding to those ranks. And with that, local programming, tailored to the local community will become the focus, generally centered on the arts, culture and education. But those words are too narrow to truly define what will be coming.
“I’m working on some programs that will mostly involve local musicians,” Knauff said. “They can come to my studio, and I can interview them and do some songs live. We can also talk about music and what has influenced them in choosing their career. What songs made you say, ‘Hey … this is what I want to do.’ And more.”
The underlying goal is to serve the community. Coe, MacDonald and Council repeatedly referred to WPHX as the “community’s radio station.”
“There are a great range of people in this area with radio experience, who have tremendous expertise in other areas that are necessary,” Coe said. “There is this whole group that was not previously involved in the Firehouse that is extremely enthusiastic about this.”
“We can start with recording events here at the cultural center,” Council said. “We can do interviews with people that are here, something up close and personal. We can bring information, accessibility.”
“We are looking at collaborating with programs at the library,” Coe continued. “We are looking at offering educational programs. We can open it up to the public; we’ll have an application process to allow people to present their projects. It opens up community access, including collaborations with area schools.”
“We could have a radio night at the Firehouse, we can have audience interaction with that,” Council added. “There are so many things. I just love it.”
They are also planning programming to reach out to the area’s large Hispanic population with some Spanish-language programming.
“There are a lot of things on the horizon for this,” Council said. “We’ve always considered ourselves underserved in this area. This can help to reach out to the community. People are already telling us, and we want people to tell us, what they want in this community radio station. It is really exciting to hear from people. This is a community radio station. It belongs to everyone in South County.”
The station is noncommercial but it will require the support of the community.
“We don’t have to pay rent but we still have costs involved,” Council said. “There is no paid staff now, it’s all volunteers. In the future, we’d love to be able to pay staff and bring in new things. So there are underwriting opportunities for this. There are very specific guidelines from the FCC about that, but the station will have to carry its own expenses.”
On the advice of its engineer, the station is playing music to work out any possible lingering glitches. But the organizers expect to begin local programming in January. Like the quality equipment they purchased, they intend to do it right.
“We want to be responsive and to grow,” MacDonald added. “We will be developing programming in collaboration with the community.”
And to that point, the radio station will have a booth at the Seafood Festival this weekend. It will give the community a chance to meet the organizers and to share ideas.
“If there are people who have an interest, have experience, any of those things,” Coe said. “We would welcome people to join us. This is a collaborative effort.”
Inside the small studio, just yards away from their repurposed tower, it is amazing to see what the volunteers have accomplished in a relatively short time. The potential for serving this diverse community is endless. And that includes details such as the equipment they have to operate with the Emergency Broadcasting System. There are so many stories in South Hillsborough; there is so much experience. The station can provide a local voice to local talent and knowledge.
“The most important thing for me is the potential for involving the local community,” Knauff concluded, referring to the application process. “Our programming is going to be involved in the arts, in music, in writing, in stories. No political programs or that sort of thing.”
“We are looking forward to working with high schools, this can provide a learning experience,” Coe said while inside the studio. “We are hoping to be able to link these students with some of our people who have years of experience in radio. There is so much just on the technical side, with the equipment and computers.”
And that opens yet a new side of what WPHX can bring. It can bring on and enhance the future, providing opportunities to young people that they may never otherwise see.
For more information about the Firehouse Cultural Center, visit www.firehouseculturalcenter.org.