The School Committee on Wednesday approved an agreement that gives management of the Brave FM station to PCTV. The organization will be transforming the station into a hybrid model of a community and educational medium and bolstering the station's offerings.
"It keeps WTBR local. It keeps and expands the local mission and the local programming of WTBR. It keeps it alive, well, and thriving, and keeps it moving forward," Superintendent Jason McCandless said.
PCTV submitted a proposal in February that would keep the license in the school's hands but would relocate the studio to the community broadcasting organization's offices on Federico Drive. Students will still be given a priority to learn radio and PCTV plans to simulcast some of its television shows, like municipal meetings, and add new shows. United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County will also still be allowed to host its show.
"We are going to be reaching out to both schools and possibly even dedicating a part of the day station to the students," PCTV Executive Director Shawn Serre said.
PCTV believes that public access to the radio will increase the number of diverse viewpoints. Not everybody has cable and can get PCTV's three television stations and the radio station has a larger reach. Further, PCTV says it is easier for a newcomer to get involved in radio than it is television -- the learning curve and required help is significantly smaller.
"The platform itself is important. It is accessible to everybody," Serre said when the organization first presented its plan.
It is still unclear where the tower will be placed. Office space at PCTV can easily be converted into a new radio studio. Some locations identified as a possibility for the tower are the Clocktower Building on South Church Street, the Crowne Plaza, 7 North St., or at PCTV's studios. Serre said he's been researching the technicalities of various locations but no site has been settled on -- but that one is very close.
PCTV would likely have to replace the antennae and the transmitter and will assess the current equipment, and work to improve it as time goes on. PCTV will also have to embark on fundraising efforts to offset the cost to operate the station.
Serre said the organization will be bringing in a consultant to ensure all the regulatory filings are done correctly, a radio engineer and tower specialist will be sorting the details on the relocation, and staff will be performing an inventory of the WTBR equipment to determine what can be salvaged and what needs to be replaced.
"There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that have to come together to get to the point where on June 29, the station will go off air. We will build the studio on Federico Drive. The tower will go up during the summer," Serre said.
Wednesday's approval allows for PCTV to contract with those specialists to perform that work.
"In order to facilitate that move, there will be a time when WTBR is literally off of the air," McCandless said." I think we can look forward to, in the fall, having a new and improved WTBR back on the airwaves for the community to be a part of and enjoy."
Serre said he hopes to have the station back on the air in mid-September, but that somewhat depends on how smoothly things go.
The School Committee was happy with the agreement, feeling as if they found a perfect partner to take over the station.
"I think this is a match made in heaven," Chairwoman Katherine Yon.
The agreement also ensures that producers of shows are guaranteed their time slots for one year. After that, management could make changes.
"There are many people in the community who are really dedicated to WTBR," McCandless said. "We wanted to be really respectful of the people who kept producing shows year after year through thick and thin. But we did not want to handcuff the management."
Serre expressed confidence with the School Committee's unanimous approval that they all see the same vision.
"We're all very excited about the prospects of it. It was great to hear the encouragement I heard tonight from the School Committee. It sounds like they agree with us that this cooperation agreement is going to be good for the radio station, it will be good for the public schools, it will be good for Pittsfield, it will be good for PCTV," Serre said.
The Taconic High School radio station dates back to 1973. Over time, student interest faded and equipment broke down. It was rejuvenated in the 2000s under active and knowledgeable advisers, but in more recent years, participation again waned.
Radio broadcasting is not part of the curriculum in the new school and the radio tower and station face a potential silencing. Demolition of the current school building is expected to start this fall, and with that the tower would need to be relocated.
In 2014, School Superintendent Jason McCandless suggested the school halt operations but community members rallied against it -- not wanting to lose the FCC-licensed nonprofit educational broadcasting service. Since then, McCandless has been searching for answers on how to manage it, who will partner, and where the equipment will go.
United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County operates LRRS-LPFM, Pittsfield 104.3, which hosts the Berkshire Talking Chronicle for the reading impaired. UCP had also been in the conversations about managing the station. But a management agreement had not been reached.