Our broadcasting history
WCOM has been broadcasting over the local airwaves on 103.5 FM since September 29, 2004 at 11:27 PM. Our 100-watt station operates under the umbrella of our 501(c)3 non-profit parent organization, Public Gallery of Carrboro.
Below is a brief story on the history of WCOM, and how we came into existence.
Finding our own frequency
Back in 2000, the FCC was in a jam. The radio waves, which are supposed to belong to the public, were looking a lot like they really belonged to Clear Channel and other radio mammoths, which effectively controlled music programming by extracting payola from musicians to play their songs. In response, the FCC created low power FM (LPFM)—a new class of non-profit community stations with about a five-mile broadcast range—to provide communities with an opportunity to get back some air time. In spite of its limited scope, LPFM was seen as a threat by big broadcasters, who convinced Congress that LPFM stations would interfere with their signal. Now you might not see how a 100-watt station was going to mess up the signal of a 100,000-watt station (and a later study ordered by Congress would prove you right) but the lobbyists won the day and convinced Congress to greatly scale back the FCC’s LPFM plan.
Locally, it seemed there would be no available frequencies for our area for LPFM—at least no one could find any on the FCC website’s “ Channel Finder.” But late one night, Ruffin Slater (of Weaver Street Market’s Community Enterprise Project) entered 35 52 51 N and 79 03 50 W and—bingo!—the “frequency available” light came on. It turned out there was one 50-foot by 40-foot piece of broadcasting turf that was still available to the community. Ruffin filed the application in June 2001, and 18 months later the FCC granted a license to broadcast at 103.5 FM with the call letters WCOM.
License in hand, Ruffin, Peg Nolan, and Jacques Menache went to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference, where they learned about a federal grant that would fund 75% of the equipment costs. With the grant deadline only four weeks away, a flurry of activity produced 20 letters from organizations and 1,000 signatures in support of the station. In September 2003, WCOM’s PTFP grant was approved.
Our tower of strength
The next step was to find a place 90 feet in the air to mount a broadcast antenna. The broadcasting site permitted by the FCC was right next to Weaver Street Market’s Southern Village store, and WSM volunteered to put a tower on its roof for the antenna, but the plan was nixed by the Town of Chapel Hill. In search of Plan B, Jacques and his colleague Jake got a three-foot balloon from Pat and Sharon at Balloons and Tunes, tied it to a 90-foot string, and started looking for a place it might fit.
WCOM’s luck was back when Jacques and Jake found a big, ugly cell phone tower at the ball field at Culbreth School. Compared to that thing, the balloon looked like a Picasso, and even a 100-watt antenna on top of a light pole looked good, so the Town gave the plan its thumbs up. Since the light pole belonged to the school system, the next stop was the School Board, to request permission to lease the top of their pole for $100 a month. The Board thought the antenna was fine and dandy but didn’t go for the rent amount. Nick Didow offered an amendment to lower WCOM’s rent to $1 a year. Seeing as it was school and all, WCOM deferred to their math.
Luck is fickle, however, and the FCC had a problem with the Culbreth location—it was just a little too far from the original permit, and it was back to the drawing board. After another round of searching, the persistent crew found an even better spot, atop a beautiful light pole at Scroggs Elementary. Another round of requests and paper shuffling, and the antenna was installed. The only available building near the light pole was a port-a-john, so the search moved elsewhere for a studio building. Besides, the john didn’t have any windows, and WCOM wanted a storefront studio like Northern Exposure.
In the meantime, David Wright and Steve Jackson explained the concept of a “studio-transmitter link,” which even worked across town lines, so the search for a studio site headed over to Carrboro. Weaver Street Market had bought an old bank building (demolished in early 2017) in downtown Carrboro, and wasn’t using the drive-in teller booth. The OPEN sign still worked, so it would have been the perfect site for drive-in fundraising, but the Carrboro Aldermen had decided that drive-throughs were no longer politically correct, even for nonprofit fundraising. Absent the fundraising angle, the booth really wasn’t so attractive, so a plan was submitted to the Town to tear down the booth and build a larger studio under the roof overhang. A bunch of Carrboro construction types like Tim Peck and Frank Cole agreed to help with a volunteer booth-razing and studio-raising.
Building our permanent home
WCOM had finally obtained the needed permits, put up the antenna, and built the studio. But the station still lacked something important: a permanent home.
When Weaver Street Market sold the old bank building to CVS, WCOM’s studio had to move to a small standalone building two blocks east at 208 East Main Street in downtown Carrboro. Shortly thereafter, the station learned that nearby 300 East Main was going to be redeveloped as an office building, anchored by Fleet Feet Sports.
Acting quickly, Menache and the ArtsCenter Director reached an agreement for WCOM to rent The ArtsCenter’s East Gallery for studio space. Menache led the effort to raise $10,000 plus generous inkind support from Fitch Lumber to upfit the new space – which finally had windows on the studio like “Northern Exposure.” The current studio space at 300-H East Main Street opened in September 2012.
The early days of WCOM
In June 2004, WCOM began broadcasting a test signal, a 30-minute loop in English and Spanish explaining the goals of the station. Since the technology was not yet in place to link the studio to the transmitter, that test signal came from a CD cabinet at the base of the transmitter at Mary Scroggs Elementary School.
Meanwhile, our intrepid engineering committee toiled away to build the studio and establish the studio-to-transmitter link. Finally, at 11:27 PM on Wednesday, September 29, 2004, we flipped the last switch and we began broadcasting from our beautiful new studio in downtown Carrboro!
From September to November 2004, we played a specially selected mix of music 24-7. The real excitement started in November, when WCOM’s first DJs hit the airwaves. Today our program schedule includes close to 50 locally produced music and talk shows and new programs are still being added. We also carry some of the most incisive news shows on the air, Democracy Now, Counter Spin, and Making Contact.
We hope you like what you hear. Tune in, let us know what you think, tell your friends, and make a donation.