by Jim Harris
Did you know that Northwest Philadelphia has its very own internet radio station? It’s called Gtown Radio, and it offers pretty much every format that is available on traditional broadcast radio. Nowadays, most big commercial broadcast stations have an internet component as well, but relatively low operating costs have allowed independent internet stations like Gtown to proliferate. Since its beginnings in the early 1990s, internet radio listenership has grown into the tens of millions in America alone.
When the Democratic Convention comes to Philadelphia in 2016, grassroots internet media groups from across the country and the world will again converge on the city to provide alternative news from the viewpoint of underrepresented communities. In 2000, a group of activists calling themselves Radio Volta began broadcasting online from West Philly during the Republican Convention in Philadelphia.
That situation caught the attention of Germantown resident Jim Bear. “I was swept up by the new medium of internet radio,” he said. “I read about Radio Volta in the one of the weeklies and started volunteering there. It was a whole new world. It was eye-opening.”
Jim began volunteering for Radio Volta and for WPEB, a West Philly community radio station, doing a music show, then tech stuff and eventually, programming. This continued until 2006, when he began producing a web stream from his Germantown apartment. This was the genesis of “Gtown Radio — The Sound from Germantown.” According to Bear, “It consisted of different genres and types of music, a response to how narrow and confined commercial music stations were.”
Immediately, people in the community wanted to get involved. “I ran ads in local newspapers and online,” he said, “asking for people with ideas for shows. I got lots of responses. We got a host of shows right away — alternative health, poetry, music, a mix of topics.”
Jim found Gtown’s present space on Maplewood Mall in early 2007. By that summer, he had bought the necessary equipment and begun working on the studio despite having a day job and being in the process of moving into a new house. Gtown Radio now broadcasts 24 hours a day. A portion of that time is “playlist programming” where songs are automatically chosen and played by computer programs.
Bear, who created the programs, says he considered what music works best at certain days and times. The playlists pull files from the vast Gtown music library, which now has over 7,500 tracks in rotation. Presently, there are also 21 live shows on Gtown dealing with topics like art, science, LGBT interests, community issues and other subject matter that folks might not hear covered on commercial radio. A very brief sampling of shows includes:
• The Black Tribbles: Sci-fi, comics, video games and “anything a geek would love.”
• For the People: Law in plain language, diverse topical and contemporary legal issues.
• Morning Feed: Politics, entertainment, art and whatever else host Ed Feldman can think of, five mornings a week.
• Skywave: Classic and new radio plays performed live.
• Avenue G: A twice-monthly comedy show starring myself and a crew of zanies.
• And of course, the great lineup of DJs (including Jim Bear himself) who specialize in genres like folk, funk, rock, reggae, hip hop, R&B, jazz, Latin and more.A full schedule and detailed descriptions of shows can be found on Gtown’s website, gtownradio.com. Many of the shows also archive their old episodes on sites like iTunes, Podomatic and MixCloud.
In addition to the live, in-studio shows and programmed music, Gtown also broadcasts live community events about seven or eight times a year. They have done shows from the historic Wyck house, the old InFusion coffee shop and the new Read & Eat bookstore in Mt. Airy. In 2011, they streamed an eighth district City Council candidates debate from the First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Avenue.
While Gtown Radio can be heard on the internet around the world, Bear says the station’s main mission is to focus on community. In the words of Gtown’s program director, Tom Casetta, “Community radio offers an opportunity to connect directly to a listening audience with a variety of personalities. Listeners experience an environment that’s ripe for exploration, discovery and sharing. It fosters new ideas and new connections.”
In January of this year, Gtown Radio was awarded a license to broadcast over the air as a low-power FM station. According to Bear, “We have 18 months to get an antenna and equipment in place. Our goal is to have it done by the end of 2015. In order to get our license, we had to agree to share the frequency (92.9 FM) with three other organizations, two in Germantown and one in South Philadelphia.
“We’ll have 100 watts and a reach of about 3 miles. Maybe to the lower part of Chestnut Hill. Gtown radio will still continue to stream online as usual even after we start broadcasting on FM. We’ve always been first and foremost a community radio station, but even today not everyone has a computer. The FM license lets us be a true community station.”
Bear, 41, continues to live in Germantown with his wife Maura and daughter Julia, 4. He still has a day job (business consultant), and he still has high hopes for the little station that he started eight years ago. “Ideally,” he said, “I want Gtown Radio to be a place where people in the community can hear their neighbors, hear their stories and shape the direction of the community. For too long in Germantown there has been a vacuum of information and thoughtful conversation.”
Gtown Radio is a tax-exempt nonprofit. To make a donation, visit their website and click on “Donate.” To listen to Gtown Radio on a computer, visit gtownradio.com, and click on “Listen Live.” On an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, download the free Gtown Radio app in the App store.