The Signal’s Back In Town

Halfway through a show on New Haven’s new local radio station, Onyeka Obiocha is talking about rural Tanzanian villages. But, as is standard on WNHH, the conversation loops back to the city. Obiocha’s warm, tenor voice describes how the beans make their way to his downtown coffee shop, The Happiness Lab. Shafiq Abdussabur, the host of Urban Talk Radio, asks him about the ins and outs of the business in a voice that can command a room. Adbussabur takes measured, attention-grabbing pauses between sentences as if he were speaking to an audience of thousands. He sounds like he’s been doing this for a while.

Near the end of the show, Obiocha asks if he can explain some of his business’s philosophy. “Now that I hopefully have one or two people’s ears here—” he begins, but Abdussabur interrupts: “You have ten thousand ears!” He’s joking, and the men laugh again. They know they don’t have ten thousand ears, not even close—but they’re still in the studio, broadcasting, for the sake of local news.

Abdussabur had never done radio before August, but he has since hosted episodes about gun violence, policing, a local arts nonprofit, and urban biking, to name a few. Most days, he works as a New Haven police officer and treasurer of the New Haven Police Union. Now he can also call himself a radio personality. He and the hosts of twenty-five other shows make up the voices of WNHH, the city’s newest independent news source, which launched in August. There are shows about politics, sports, books, businesses, cooking, and local music. Two hours a day are dedicated to Spanish-language programming. Mayor Toni Harp comes into the studio on Mondays, and a man named Joe Ugly hosts three hours of talk radio and local hip-hop each morning.

WNHH is an attempt to inject New Haven’s airwaves with conversation by and for locals, with stories that national news outlets often overlook. As it becomes easier and easier for people to curate the news they want to hear, whether with podcasts or topic-specific apps, WNHH stands by the belief that tuning in, without the ability to control what you might hear, is what it really means to be in the know.

The Independent’s sense of duty to telling New Haven’s stories, and having the right people tell them, pervades the entire station—it pushes the hosts to get behind the microphone, with people they know, and to simply speak, even if it’s to speak to an audience of a hundred, thirty, or even zero.

Unlike New Haven’s more established stations, WNHH is classified as “low power,” a type of FM radio license for nonprofits. After the Telecommunications Act of 1996, national radio groups were allowed to buy clumps of smaller stations and turn them into corporate chains. Suddenly, many once-autonomous stations across the country were broadcasting identical content. The FCC created the “low power” license in 2000 as an answer, giving people the ability to broadcast independently, albeit with a weaker signal. These same large companies then lobbied for the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act in the same year, limiting the growth of low power stations in order to avoid interference with high power, commercial ones. Grassroots activists spent more than ten years fighting for their right to broadcast until Congress finally passed the Local Community Radio Act of 2010.

WNHH is one of the successful applicants for the new low power licenses. That means that it’s part of a small but growing community of independent stations. Today, there are more than 1,300 in the U.S., many of which are Spanish-language or run by Christian groups. They often serve a hyper-specific listenership, priding themselves on their locality, their honesty, and their ruthlessly unedited material. It’s the spirit of pirate radio, upgraded to legal status. At a time when podcasts—with soundtracks, charming quips, and artful room noise—dictate the marketable future of radio, low power stations and their advocates hold on tightly to a certain grittiness (though the FCC still doesn’t allow them to swear).

But WNHH isn’t just trying to combat the Goliaths of media; it wants to inform, and sound like, its home city. It works in concert with the New Haven Independent, a local online news publication meant for “the knuckleheads to the dreamers and schemers, and everyone in between,” according to the site’s mission statement. Both WNHH and the Independent operate out of two rooms on the third floor of a downtown brick building. The leader of the five-person team that runs both is Paul Bass, Yale class of 1982, who founded the Independent in 2005.

Markley raises his eyebrows. “I’d rather talk about the pope than Planned Parenthood,” he hopelessly offers, before placing both palms flat on the table.

WNHH’s signal spans only about three miles, reaching north of New Haven but breaking up when blocked by tall buildings downtown. (When I first tuned in, blips of a Katy Perry song from another station interrupted the signal.) To make up for this deficit, WNHH relies heavily on its presence on the Independent website, where audio content is increasingly finding its home. Each episode is uploaded to SoundCloud and can be heard live on the Independent’s website, where most episodes average around thirty listeners.

WNHH has a dramatically smaller audience than pop stations or established podcasts. But even if the airwaves are hard to find and online listeners tend to be few, the station still broadcasts content for twelve hours a day. The Independent’s sense of duty to telling New Haven’s stories, and having the right people tell them, pervades the entire station—it pushes the hosts to get behind the microphone, with people they know, and to simply speak, even if it’s to speak to an audience of a hundred, thirty, or even zero.

***

“You’re listening to WNHH LP 103.5 FM New Haven, streaming live at www.newhavenindependent.org,” says Lucy Gellman, the station manager at WNHH, into her microphone. She’s in the studio—a room the size of a walk-in closet next to the main Independent office—to introduce Paul Bass and produce his daily news show Dateline. Gellman stands behind a wooden desk at the back of the room, headphones covering her short, curly hair. There is no glass barrier between the talent and the technician. She uses a desktop control panel, stuck between her computer and keyboard, to fade out the music by local bands that plays before the show starts, and she spends most of the broadcasting time writing and responding to tweets or transcribing interviews for the Independent site. She does this for almost every show on WNHH, every day. On Fridays, she gets to be the host of Kitchen Sync, her show about food in New Haven. One episode was about her favorite ratatouille recipe. Another discussed the city’s food truck laws.

Sitting at the small linoleum table, across from Bass, are two WNHH regulars: State Senators Joe Markley and Gary Holder-Winfield, who are here to debate issues from the day’s headlines. The men trade pleasantries first; Markley, a balding Republican with impressive posture and teeth, asks Bass about the recent Jewish holidays. Holder-Winfield, a young Democrat with broad shoulders, has his hands on his knees, ready to spar.

“The number of people that know that I almost burned my house down during the cooking experience I talked about on Lucy’s show?” he offered. “It’s pretty impressive how many people heard that story.”

“I thought we’d lead with Planned Parenthood,” Bass says, referencing the rallies against defunding the organization that took place downtown on September 29. He leans forward to rest his forearms on the table. There’s no script. Bass calls out the topics they’ll discuss as the clock ticks to 11:00 a.m.: the pope, John Boehner, state cuts to Medicaid funds, the debate over the name of Yale’s Calhoun College. But, first, Planned Parenthood.

Markley raises his eyebrows. “I’d rather talk about the pope than Planned Parenthood,” he hopelessly offers, before placing both palms flat on the table. He’s bracing himself. It’s 10:59 a.m. Gellman fades the music.

Bass has only been hosting Dateline for three months, but his long-standing track record as a New Haven journalist allows him to talk to people like Markley and Holder-Winfield like they’re old pals—often, they are. In the book The Wired City, about the founding of the Independent, author Dan Kennedy describes Bass as “single-handedly holding city hall accountable with his fierce reporting” during his stint at the now-defunct New Haven Advocate. He wrote for other publications, including the Connecticut section of The New York Times, Connecticut Magazine, and USA Today, but went rogue when he saw the local journalism scene dissolving.

“I felt that corporate media monopolies had destroyed local journalism for the most part,” Bass told me, “and now everything has to be scaled up, including on the web.” In 2005, while local journalists lost their jobs and publications closed their doors around the nation, Bass started the Independent.

Like the Independent at its inception, WNHH has filled an empty spot in the radio landscape. WNPR is a popular station, but it’s based in Hartford and is dominated by national NPR programming. WELI is based in New Haven, but the likes of national talking heads like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fill its airwaves. Local WYBC (different from WYBCx, Yale College’s radio) claims to be “the rhythm of the city,” but it provides music, not discussion.

“There’s this stigma in the African American community about mental illness that’s kind of like, ‘Get over it,’” she says. It’s something she hopes to eventually confront through radio. “In the future, I’d hopefully have my own show. I think I’m going to do a whole series about mental illness and not be afraid of talking about it.”

Where We Live, a daily morning talk show on WNPR, is one of the top radio programs for Connecticut-based, national, and global news. John Dankosky is the host—he’s worked at WNPR for years, and many of the stories he’s reported in the state have been broadcast nationally on NPR. A month before WNHH launched, Bass asked Dankosky to give a workshop to the hosts to teach them the basics of interviewing.
Unlike listeners of WNHH, those who tune in to WNPR and Dankosky’s show aren’t necessarily looking for hyper-local programming.

“If you ask [our listeners] in the street what’s the story that’s really important to them, they may say the school board in their town, and they might also say the war in Afghanistan, or they may say what’s happening with the state budget,” Dankosky said. When we spoke, the day’s episode of Where We Live had just aired (following NPR’s Morning Edition). A thirteen-piece funk band from Hartford called West End Blend had played live, and Dankosky interviewed a Yale professor about the Iberian film festival she organizes. That’s pretty local. But there remains a divide between WNHH and WNPR when it comes to the intended audience of that coverage.

“Public radio has a traditionally very educated, sometime wealthier audience. They tend to be older,” Dankosky said. WNPR is larger than WNHH, but compared to what Dankosky calls “big radio”—stations with the same voice tracking pop songs for hours—it’s still miniscule. They need money, as do similar stations across the country, and that often means getting it from the people who tune in faithfully and are likely to donate during pledge drives. While they try to attract young listeners, it’s still a balancing act. “If you turn away from the things that audience likes, you risk losing the funding base,” he said.

WNHH doesn’t have to worry about that. As a low power station, they’re funded by grants that Bass applied for years ago instead of by ads, and the future of the station depends on getting more grants in the coming years. This financial freedom explains why Bass cares less about spreading the gospel of WNHH than the public radio hosts who spend days doing pledge drives for their stations. “We’re not doing any billboards or ads on buses,” Bass said. “The way we built the Independent was one by one. Every time we did a story, people would find out about it because you interviewed them. And I feel like we can do it the same way, piece by piece, by word of mouth.” His publicity model is, essentially, to do his job.

I imagined the waves flying past my face, holding a quiet density, trying to squeeze past tall buildings and sometimes making it.

That’s how Gellman found out about the Independent. When she came to New Haven for a fellowship at the Yale University Art Gallery, she didn’t predict she’d end up behind the controls at WNHH. After a few months at the Gallery, though, she felt stuck in the Yale scene.
“I had been profoundly lonely when I moved here,” she told me. “I made a couple friends through Yale and met the guy who is now my boyfriend, but when you move to a new place…” She trailed off. A colleague had told her about the Independent, which had an opening for a music writer. She started claiming assignments. Trying to get away from Yale herself, she noticed limitations in the Independent’s music coverage.

“We weren’t covering Cafe 9. We weren’t covering Bar or Stella Blues, and we weren’t covering anything in the Hill, Dixwell, or Newhallville,” she said. “New Haven is such a tale of two cities. There are a lot of poor white people, there are a lot of poor Black people, and there are a lot of poor Latino and Hispanic people, and they’re all in different neighborhoods,” she explained. “Sometimes, music venues are what bring them together.”

So, four nights a week, Gellman, who describes herself as a “crunchy granola Jew,” set out to report. After working a full day at the YUAG, she’d go to performances around the city, sometimes staying up until 2 a.m. to finish a story for the next day.

They know they don’t have ten thousand ears, not even close—but they’re still in the studio, broadcasting, for the sake of local news.

She covered the music beat for over a year. The more she wrote for the Independent, the more lukewarm she felt about her pending Ph.D. applications. She had reservations about leaving New Haven, which she had come to love one concert at a time. So, when she was accepted to Duke, Paul Bass offered her a different job: the station manager of a new radio station.

***

For any media venture, finding an audience is critical—and tricky. Aliyya Swaby, a 2013 Yale graduate who hosts the transportation-themed show In Transit on Monday afternoons, told me that she simply doesn’t know what kind of people listen to her show. She thinks, though, that they probably aren’t her age. Even with an online presence, getting young people to listen to an hour of radio is difficult when many of them are used to picking and choosing their own news. Getting their attention often depends on editing and scripts to add on-demand entertainment value; WNHH is less predictable. The Independent could feasibly do away with the satellite dish and only upload their content online—it’s something Bass says may happen in the future. But, for now, sending their shows out into the airwaves still allows potential listeners to stumble upon it while driving. There’s less choice on a radio dial than on the Internet—with fewer places to turn when they lose interest, maybe listeners are likelier to be lured out of momentary boredom by terrestrial radio.

On one of her episodes, Swaby interviewed Doug Hausladen, who directs the city’s Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking. (He’s also a water polo coach at Yale, and his voice has the energy the job demands.) Hausladen, blond and with the build of a once-brawny athlete, is well known in New Haven and the WNHH office. When he entered the studio, he instinctually hung up his suit jacket on the door hook. We started talking about whether people were tuning in to WNHH.

“The number of people that know that I almost burned my house down during the cooking experience I talked about on Lucy’s show?” he offered. “It’s pretty impressive how many people heard that story.” There’s no way of knowing how many people heard it on the air, but SoundCloud shows that seventy-seven people heard the episode, and the count gradually keeps growing.

“It’s interesting,” Hausladen said. “I have more work to do now that WNHH exists. It used to be that I could just read the newspaper article, and I could read it quickly. Now I have to listen to an hour of radio.” It’s the mindset of the Independent as embodied by WNHH: to really live somewhere, New Haven or elsewhere, you have to pay attention. You have to listen.

* * *

It’s the spirit of pirate radio, upgraded to legal status.

On the curb outside the Independent’s offices on 51 Elm Street, Shafiq Abdussabur is standing with his 17-year-old daughter Salwa, who’s dressed in head-to-toe magenta. For the Abdussaburs, radio is a family affair. Today, Salwa and her mother Mubarakah Ibrahim—who is broadcasting her own show on WNHH as we stand on the sidewalk—will be guests on Shafiq’s show. Though most kids her age are in class during Wednesday mornings like this, Salwa recently withdrew from her charter high school, choosing homeschool instead. After parking his silver minivan, Shafiq shakes my hand and says hello in the same baritone I’ve heard on air. He and Salwa climb the stairs to the Independent offices.

Mubarakah is already inside the studio wrapping up Mornings with Mubarakah, which airs an hour before her husband’s Urban Talk Radio. “First we talked about doing a show together,” she told me. “Then, in my full feminist voice, I was like, ‘Nope! I want my own show!’” Like the rest of the family, when Mubarakah laughs, she doesn’t giggle—it’s always loud and full.

Mubarakah often talks about women’s health for her show, covering mindfulness, estrogen in grocery store chicken breasts, and obesity. She’s the founder of Fit Haven, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing health disparities affecting women and girls, and she used to run a gym called BALANCE Fitness Studios. She also has a project called Fit Muslimah, an on- and off-line community of Muslim women for whom she leads private fitness retreats, since many Muslim women don’t exercise outside of their homes. In 2007, she was on the Oprah Winfrey Show for an episode about impressive thirty-somethings in America. Now, her accumulated Facebook following is upwards of 205,000 people, numbers Bass doesn’t hesitate to admit he cares about.

For Mubarakah, issues like Islam in America and what it means to be a Black woman are hard to get away from, since they’re parts of her everyday life. Radio, she says, “is my intersection.” It’s where she can talk about all of them at once, to people who might never hear about them otherwise.

Shafiq and Salwa arrive at the office and greet Bass, who tells Shafiq to pick out one of the WNHH sweatshirts from a cardboard box that just arrived. Salwa slips into the studio and takes a seat at the head of the table. Her mother sits to her left in a sweater and hijab, both scarlet, and her father is on the right. The studio is tiny, but WNHH enables the Abdussaburs’ conversation to expand beyond its walls. And it’s easy conversation—they crack jokes, laugh the same rousing laugh, and nod their heads in time with the jazz Gellman sends through their headphones before the top of the hour.

Salwa is often a guest on her parents’ shows for brief segments called Sass Talkin’ With Salwa. Her elevator pitch requires some choreography: “Sassy is saying what you think and meaning what you say, and being, like, ‘hey,’” she told me, snapping her fingers, popping a hip, and giggling.

Salwa decided to withdraw from high school because she was diagnosed with depression. She calls her current routine “doing her own thing.” Part of that thing is preparing her Sass Talkin’ segments, which, for now, mostly means reading aloud essays on Urban Talk Radio. Today, she’ll talk about economic disparity with her parents and describe the feeling of attending a Shakespeare festival at Edgerton Park in East Rock, a wealthy neighborhood surrounded by areas with some of the city’s highest crime rates. The division troubles her, and she takes to radio to talk about it.

Radio is a way for Salwa to feel in control. “Usually I just go home and say, ‘I’m upset about this, and this,’ but now I get to say ‘I’m upset about this, and this,’ and people are listening to me,” she says. She says her friends from school listen to her show. She’s infectiously optimistic, but she still remembers how difficult it was to talk about her illness with her family.

It’s the mindset of the Independent embodied by WNHH: to really live somewhere, New Haven or elsewhere, you have to pay attention. You have to listen.

“There’s this stigma in the African American community about mental illness that’s kind of like, ‘Get over it,’” she says. It’s something she hopes to eventually confront through radio. “In the future, I’d hopefully have my own show. I think I’m going to do a whole series about mental illness and not be afraid of talking about it.”

* * *

A few weeks after hearing Onyeka Obiocha on Urban Talk Radio, I went to The Happiness Lab. He stood behind the counter when I entered, taking a detailed pour-over order from the man at the register. A dark, curly beard, eyes crinkled into a steady smile, a baseball cap—he looked exactly like he did on the Independent page. He asked for my order in a voice I already knew well.

“I heard you on Urban Talk Radio,” I said. Oh, and a latte, too.

Obiocha raised his eyebrows before he started gently chuckling. He turned away from me in mock disbelief. “You’re the first,” he finally said. “I hope I sounded OK.”

Swaby came in a few minutes later, followed by another host from the station, which is only a few blocks away. I waved at them and Obiocha when I left, skirting around the society of the knuckleheads, dreamers, schemers, what have you.

I biked home the long way at 4:00 p.m. WNHH’s Spanish-language programming was starting. I imagined the waves flying past my face, holding a quiet density, trying to squeeze past tall buildings and sometimes making it. I couldn’t hear them at that moment, of course—instead, cars horns wailed and dissolved. A bus sighed as it came to a stop, and as the passengers hopped off, I caught only the beginnings and ends of muddled words that grazed my ears. The air, a tangle of energy, buzzed.

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