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WYCE celebrates 25 years of bringing eclectic mix to West Michigan

Some things have changed, but the appeal to music lovers remains the same.

October 27, 2012
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Bureau WYCE celebrates 25 years of bringing eclectic mix to West Michigan appetite for new dining event
A lighthearted approach with an emphasis on music people want to hear has worked well for WYCE over the years. Courtesy WYCE

As Kevin Murphy began preparations for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center’s radio station, he came across the following headline from a 1987 Grand Rapids Press article: “WYCE plays an eclectic mix of music, needs money.”

Murphy, who is the station manager, said that headline does a good job of summing up WYCE today.

“In some sense, a lot of what we do has stayed the same,” Murphy said. “We’ve always tried to fill that gap of what doesn’t fall into the neat boxes that are easily salable by the commercial music world.

“On the flip side, we are very different than we were then. We are an active part of a multi-media organization that has all sorts of remarkable capabilities.”

The WYCE license transfer in 1989 brought the station under the same ownership as GRTV and created the first community media center in the country. Today, WYCE remains a leader in independent community radio and has managed to thrive in a not-always hospitable climate.

Financially, Murphy attributes the station’s survival to having a vast contingent of small donors, rather than relying on one or two large funding sources or government funding.

“We’ve been able to have very healthy funding for the last several years,” Murphy said. “It hasn’t been luck. We’ve done a lot of things to make it happen, but one of the ways that we have been fortunate is that we are, and have been, supported by lots and lots of little pieces of support.

“There are a lot of arts organizations that get half their funding or more from a very small set of grants. In 2008, when the financial world turned upside down, there were a lot of organizations that realized, ‘Oh wait, half our budget is gone.’”

Murphy also said stations that are members of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting rely on government funding, which makes them vulnerable to the ever-changing winds of Washington.

“When I started as station manager, I looked into what it would mean for us to try and get funding from the CPB,” Murphy said.

“It would basically mean about $125,000 a year, which would be about a 50 percent increase in our budget — which would be great, but it dictates what you have to do with your programming. We wouldn’t be able to be an all local, all original, creative music programming station anymore. Additionally, working at the behest of the CPB means that you could have the rug pulled out from you at any time.”

The station isn’t doing poorly, though: Last year was the first year WYCE raised more than $100,000 in a single campaign, and Murphy expects to top that at the close of this year.

“This fall we are trying to raise $88,100 on the air, and by the end of the year, we are going to try and best what we did last year, so we are shooting for $110,000,” he said.

At least 80 percent of the station’s annual funding comes from small donations. The rest comes from business support and miscellaneous sources, including owning its tower and leasing space to cell phone companies.

In addition to improved fundraising and a growing budget, WYCE’s longevity also comes from its ability to adapt. As the music world has changed radically, the station has found itself serving a slightly different primary role than it once did.

“WYCE in the modern age has transcended beyond being just a radio station and is sort of a brand,” Murphy explained. “It has a certain attitude and portrays a certain something and fulfills a certain role in the people that interact with us. What I found is that people interact with us all the time on Facebook and Twitter that may not even listen to the station all that much.

“To a certain extent, you feel that the role of social media is to make people do the thing, which is to listen to the radio, but when I realized we can deliver the same kind of benefit that the radio really stands for in their lives without the radio having to be part of the equation — that has really been an interesting thing.”

Although once able to boast that the station played music not found anywhere else, today, music is readily available through so many different sources that listeners can find anything they are looking for without the radio. The drawback of this increased access is an overabundance of music and no real direction. WYCE now serves the important role of curator, helping guide listeners through the oversaturated landscape.

The station also has adapted over the past 25 years by improving its signal, adding new technology, and hosting fun music events such as the local music awards known as the Jammies and its Hat Trick Concert Series at One Trick Pony restaurant.

So what is next?

“I think we will be beginning to do more in terms of embracing new ways of interacting with our audiences digitally,” Murphy said.

“We are never going to forget that the broadcast signal is our foundation and the main thing we’ve done for 25 years, but the idea that there are new ways to be able to organize and tailor programming to people where they want it, when they want it, customized to their needs but still have it be supporting our mission and following in the trajectory of our mission for the past 25 years; developing some of those things like more on-demand programming, streaming archives of existing on-air programming, more video, more interactive with our in-studios.

“There is more opportunity for us to be able to reach out and provide people with stuff that goes a little beyond just the music.”

One thing is for sure: The station’s mission will remain the same.

“We appeal to people that love music and love to be introduced to new, out-of-the-ordinary and challenging music,” Murphy said.

To celebrate 25 years, an open house was scheduled for Oct. 25, and on Friday, Nov. 23, a Paul Simon “Graceland” tribute concert will be held at Wealthy Theater. The station is also in the midst of its fund drive.

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