WPKN General Manager Steve di Costanzo

“Our transmitter is 45 years old; we need to get a new one, which will cost $75,000,” said Steve di Costanzo, general manager of WPKN, the 10,000 watt community radio station at 89.5 FM that bills itself as “The Real Alternative.” Broadcasting from Bridgeport, the super-regional station serves Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut and Suffolk County across the Sound on Long Island, N.Y.  The potential audience reach is 1.5 million people. “That is a lot of geographic area with a lot of different audiences, and we need to be relevant to the communities we serve,” di Costanzo notes.

“Our engineer said it is time,” he continued. “Our analog transmitter has tubes — like those found in old TVs — and some of them are no longer available and in some cases we are down to our last tube. We need to move to solid state, but will continue to transmit analog, which our listeners feel has a warmer sound than digital.” The transmitter is located on Booth Hill in Trumbull.

Under the theme “My Transmitter, My Radio, My Community,” WPKN has been conducting a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo’s Generosity site for nonprofits, which can be found by searching WPKN crowdfunding or visiting www.generosity.com/community-fundraising/new-transmitter-project-for-community-radio-wpkn–2. The site includes a three-minute film about the station produced by an intern. Artist and volunteer Liz Squillace created all of the artwork for the campaign and the swag to be received by donors.

WPKN is a 24/7 listener-supported community radio station, with 150 passionate volunteers and programmers, di Costanzo said. “We call ourselves a fiercely independent radio station — real people, real radio. Our volunteers are very dedicated. I am hugely impressed by the time and effort our programmers put in for no money; they spend hours putting together a two- or three-hour program. They have complete control over their shows — some are talk on a wide range of subjects and views, other focus on a musical genre.”

After raising about $50,000 for the transmitter from various sources, including $5,000 from Newman’s Own, $20,000 from an anonymous donor, individuals putting up $10,000, and a jazz benefit in Westport and a bluegrass benefit at Acoustic in Bridgeport, it was decided to raise the $25,000 balance from listeners through the crowdfunding platform.

A brief history

WPKN was founded in 1963 as the 100 watt student radio station for Bridgeport University; its call letters come from the school’s nickname, the Purple Knights (Network). Students programmed the shows, a mix of their own tastes and interests. In July 1989, with the university in financial trouble, the station was informed that it would have to be self-sufficient to continue, although the university would continue to provide space for a token fee. The station recruited non-students as programmers — all volunteers, as they still are — and retained its wide-ranging format. In 1992 the university transferred the station’s FCC broadcast license and WPKN became a nonprofit corporation.

Al Bell, WPKN programmer at the annual WPKN Music Mash-Record Fair.

The station conducts a number of special events, including a movie series titled Music on Film, which has been presented in Milford, Fairfield and Bridgeport, and Music Mash, a family-friendly record fair that has been conducted the first Sunday in March at Reeds Art Space in Bridgeport for the last three years. Musicians are also generous in playing benefit concerts in support of the station, which has annual operating costs of $280,000.

Di Costanzo discovered WPKN when his family moved to Connecticut in 2000. “I particularly enjoyed a blues show presented by Bob Shapiro, and became entranced with the station.” He started to volunteer in 2005. When the station needed someone on the board familiar with marketing and public relations — his background —  he joined. He also started doing a show, Radio Base Camp, from 2 to 6 a.m. on Mondays. He continues to do it, but now has a better time slot — 7 to 9 a.m. on Tuesdays.

He began working part time with then-general manager Peter Bochan, who was formerly with WBAI and was reverse commuting from New York. Bochan had succeeded Harry Minot, who had been general manager for 30 years. “The bulk of what PKN is is due to Harry,” di Costanzo said.

“Peter had a greater focus developing community engagement, as well as a passion for programming. When he decided to leave after three years, the board did a search and ended up hiring me. I’ve been general manager for about four years; it is a very unusual job, with crazy long hours. I see myself as an ambassador into the community and we try to be media partners with as many different events as we can, but I love it.

Some of WPKN’s 150 programmers and volunteers.

‘Big tent’

“We’re really a big tent, so much great dynamic energy, a diversity of volunteers. Since 2008 we’ve taken a closer look at community involvement, the most important thing we can do, aligning with as many nonprofits as we can. We are always looking for ways to work with local arts organizations and those that support freedom of speech. Our audience and programming are highly curious, multilingual — Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Rasta Jamaican. Our programmers include Peruvians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Latin Americans, blacks and a Native American, Tiokasin Ghosthorse, who does indigenous peoples programming.

“Ghosthorse’s show is syndicated, as is Counterpoint and Between the Lines with Scott Harris. We even have two Rock n’ Roll Hall of Famers who do programs — Chris Frantz, the drummer for Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, and Mark Naftalin, the keyboard player for the first integrated blues band, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, in the mid-60s.”

GM Steve di Costanzo with musician Robyn Hitchcock.

Another longtime WPKN associate is board chair and operations manager Rod Richardson, who in his 30-plus years affiliation, has, as of mid-June, done 2,915 broadcasts of his show, Radio Nothing, heard on Wednesdays from 9 am to noon. Richardson opens his show declaring, “This is episode number … of an endless, relentless series…”

“When satellite radio and Internet streaming began, we lost some of our audience,” said di Costanzo, “but people are coming back and new listeners continue to find us; they like the authenticity and originality, that they can find a wide diversity of programming. We try to keep apace and were early into streaming. If you go to our website, WPKN.org, you’ll find 400 spoken word podcasts available; we keep an archive of the last two weeks’ shows. Listeners can download our free app, WPKN Live, and download for later or listen to broadcasts on their choice. We try to serve our listeners in every way we can.”