Debbie Gallo listens TO WMVY, Martha’s Vineyard’s radio station, in the office of her ad agency all day long. That might not seem unusual, except that she lives and works in New Jersey.
Nine years ago Gallo and her family bought a summer home in Vineyard Haven and fell in love with the island and the station. In fact, Gallo has become such a devoted listener that she tunes in regularly online and knows just where in Rhode Island she can first get WMVY-FM (92.7) on the radio as she makes the drive up each spring.
“I have four friends from New Jersey with houses on the island, and they’re exactly the same as I am,” she says. “Martha’s Vineyard has a certain feel to it, and that station makes you feel like you’re there.”
Now the station is banking on the loyalty of Vineyarders, both actual and in spirit, to meet the biggest challenge in its three-decade history. After taking a major hit during the recession, parent company Aritaur Communications accepted an offer in November to sell WMVY’s 3,000-watt signal to WBUR, which will use it as a “repeater” station to broadcast its NPR-affiliated programming to the Cape and Islands.
Despite the sale, listeners may not have heard the last of WMVY. The station is roughly halfway to its ambitious goal of raising $600,000 by the end of January to facilitate a transition from a commercial, “terrestrial’’ radio station to a nonprofit, Internet-based one. They’ll keep the staff, the building, and the MVY call letters. As long as fans can find the station on iTunes or elsewhere online, the staff intends to keep serving the island community and its far-flung admirers.
The key to the station’s appeal, says longtime DJ and programmer Barbara Dacey, is its personality. “It’s very intimate, unaffected. It’s a very low-key presentation of any material, whether it’s community events or a song. Because of that openness, it’s very easy for people to walk right in.”
She did just that in 1985. A Harvard Square musician, she’d recently started thinking of a career in voice-over work; on a visit to the Vineyard, she stopped by the station’s cottage, where it was just beginning to develop its format.
She volunteered to do some commercials, and the staff took her up on the offer. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still at WMVY, serving as director of worldwide programming.
Though its roots are firmly planted on the Vineyard, that “worldwide” is no mistake. Despite its tiny staff and remote location — on a dirt road, no less — WMVY began making itself available to listeners across the globe in the late 1990s, as an early adopter of online streaming technology. Currently the station has about 35,000 unique listeners monthly to its live online stream, and about 25,000 listeners weekly on the Cape and Islands, according to Aritaur.
Staff members love telling stories about the restaurant in Italy that plays the station, and listeners in landlocked Midwestern states who pass along their affection for the station’s quirks: the ferry report, high school football scores, or news of a shark sighting off South Beach.
“It makes it seem as though the music is coming from someplace, not just springing from a hard drive,” says P.J. Finn, WMVY’s program director and afternoon DJ.
Kerry Scott agrees. Scott owns a shop in Oak Bluffs called Good Dog Goods and streams the station in her store. “I can’t imagine life without it,” she says. “We really depend on it not just for great music but for local information. It has multigenerational appeal.”
Other Vineyarders note the way WMVY is integrated into island life. Fred Mascolo, who owns Trader Fred’s in Edgartown, helped develop the idea for WMVY’s annual Big Chili charity contest years ago with longtime station personality Ken Goldberg.
“He and I were talking on the porch one day trying to figure out something to do to get us through the winter,” says Mascolo. “This year, that event will have 3,000 people, times 30 bucks a ticket.” According to the station’s website, the 2012 event netted $35,000 for The Red Stocking Fund, which collects money to buy Christmas gifts for underprivileged children and provides holiday meals to island families. The station is a major supporter of the charity.
Loosely following the “Triple A” radio format — adult album alternative — the station’s DJs play a mix of roots rock, soul, blues, and folk music well-suited to the island’s relaxed culture. The station’s list of the top 25 albums of 2012 includes “heritage” artists such as John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett and newer acts like Dawes and Ryan Montbleau.Continued...