Voice of Vashon looks to the future

Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo PSE Foundation president Andy Wappler, Jeff Hoyt, Susan McCabe, Vashon PSE community service supervisor Patti McClements and Jeanne Dougherty pose with a giant check symbolizing VoV’s $15,000 grant from PSE.  - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo PSE Foundation president Andy Wappler, Jeff Hoyt, Susan McCabe, Vashon PSE community service supervisor Patti McClements and Jeanne Dougherty pose with a giant check symbolizing VoV’s $15,000 grant from PSE.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Voice of Vashon, the Island’s community radio and television network, has grown exponentially since its inception a dozen years ago. However 2012 may be the all-volunteer organization’s biggest year yet.

Last week Voice of Vashon (VoV) saw a longtime goal realized with a significant grant from the Puget Sound Energy Foundation. At a short ceremony at the VoV studios on Wednesday, volunteers were thrilled to accept a giant check symbolizing the $15,000 grant. It will allow the completion of VoV’s emergency alert system by funding the installation of several more flashing-light notification signs such as the one currently at the north end.

“We’re over the moon,” said VoV board member Rick Wallace in an interview. “We have been working so hard to finish all of this.”

It’s the first of several significant moves in the works for Voice of Vashon in the new year. The multi-faceted organization also plans to bring on a new marketing director to promote its radio and television stations, develop more tech-friendly entertainment options and get more Islanders producing content. It may even fulfill another longtime goal by taking on an FM radio frequency.

At Wednesday’s ceremony — where Voice of Vashon volunteers, PSE representatives and several community leaders packed into VoV’s studios at Sunrise Ridge —

VoV president Jeanne Dougherty explained how the organization proved to be critical in 2010, when a large storm hit the region the week of Thanksgiving. VoV volunteers stationed themselves at the emergency response center at Vashon’s fire station, and many Islanders tuned into 1650 AM to hear updates on power outages, road conditions and emergency shelters on Vashon.

“Everybody quickly found out why we existed,” Dougherty told the crowd. “Some people even told me they would periodically drive out in their cars to where they got reception to see what we had to say.”

The PSE Foundation’s grant to VoV is the largest of about 60 grants totaling more than $272,000 that the foundation gave this fall. The grant will fund equipment upgrades, professional training for 1650 AM volunteers and the installation of at least three more flashing-light signs that tell drivers when to tune in to 1650 AM for ferry alerts, road closures or emergency information during storms. New signs will be installed on existing Vashon Island Fire & Rescue fire danger signs around the Island.

Wallace said VoV has been planning the additional alert signs since it installed the prototype at the north end about four years ago, and only now has the funds to do so. He’s pleased that by summer more drivers will know when to tune in to 1650 AM.

“Emergency radio isn’t something you sit and listen to in your car as you ride around,” Wallace said. “It’s very possible we could have any kind of urgent situation on the Island that people wouldn’t know about.”

Fire chief Hank Lipe, who has worked closely with VoV on the emergency alert system and attended the ceremony, said he too was pleased that the system would soon be complete.

“I think that every form of communication we can offer our residents is what disaster preparedness is all about,” he said.

Since a small handful of Islanders first dreamed up Voice of Vashon in 1999, planning to bring the Island its own FM station, VoV has grown to include everything but an FM station. The organization, powered by a large volunteer crew and a shoestring budget underwritten by Island businesses, now offers a web radio station and a community access television station in addition to its emergency alert system. Church of Great Rain, the increasingly popular Vashon comedy troupe, is also produced by VoV.

Jeff Hoyt, a longtime volunteer who helped found Voice of Vashon, said he’s always called VoV the “little station that could.”

In late 1999, VoV began broadcasting Vashon-themed radio content online on a very low-power FM station, flying just below the Federal Communication Commission’s threshold. The station, with a small budget but energetic volunteers, was especially known for airing The Morning Scramble, a show that included live music and interviews of Islanders in the morning. Dougherty said the one-watt radio antennas VoV used had about a one-block radius. The station could be heard right in town, as well as at the north-end ferry.

“If people were waiting for the north-end ferry in the morning, they could listen to The Morning Scramble,” she said.

Hoyt said he still has fond memories of hosting early VoV radio shows, which included plenty of Vashon humor. At times he even dragged the studio’s equipment to the baseball diamond at  Sunrise Ridge and aired live commentary of little league games.

“We did a lot of fun things, but always to an extraordinarily tiny audience,” Hoyt said.

The FM station was ultimately shut down, and in 2001 VoV suffered another disappointment when its application for a bonafide FM station was denied due to new federal regulations that made it more difficult to find a spot on the dial.

Voice of Vashon refused to call it quits, though. They continued to stream live radio on the web and in 2006 took on a public access station, cable channel 21, which still airs shows produced by Islanders, events filmed on Vashon and Northwest-themed programming. In 2007 the organization was granted its AM radio license through the Vashon Park District, and since then VoV volunteers have been “live and standing by” with traveler and emergency information.

Hoyt said that after VoV’s FM application was denied, he heard from a colleague on the east coast that more than 1,500 groups across the county had applications denied that year, and Voice of Vashon was the only one that didn’t disband shortly after.

“He said, ‘Do you realize you’re the only group that is still together?’” Hoyt said. “We have found a way to survive by doing all these other things.”

This year Voice of Vashon, which has grown to about 80 volunteers, including Church of Great Rain participants, decided to reassess its role on the Island by administering a survey that ultimately turned up surprising results.

Wallace said that about 350 Vashon residents responded to the survey, telling their opinion of VoV’s current programs as well as what they’d like to see the group provide.

Wallace said that although he has just begun to analyze the survey results, one thing is already overwhelmingly clear: Islanders want to see VoV back on the FM dial.

“I think that going into (the survey), we assumed people would want us to be available to them on their smartphones,” Wallace said. “But way more popular than the idea of being on a smartphone was the idea of being an FM radio station.”

Coincidentally, Wallace said, federal regulations for low-power FM stations recently changed in favor of small-town stations, and an application window that VoV could take advantage of is expected to open in 2012.

A committee has now formed to study the technicalities of applying for and operating a low-power FM station on Vashon. Wallace said that VoV may ultimately approach other community organizations with the proposition of sharing an FM station.

“That will be the next step after we know that technically we have the possibility of doing this,” he said.

Hoyt said he would be thrilled to see an FM station broadcast Vashon-centric content, as that was VoV’s original goal a dozen year ago.

“Prospects are a little brighter now,” he said, “but there’s still no assurance.”

FM station or not, Voice of Vashon will have plenty on its plate in 2012. Richard Rogers, who does marketing for the Church of Great Rain, is heading up a new marketing campaign to make Islanders more aware of what VoV TV and radio has to offer. Dougherty said it was clear from survey results that more Islanders might tune in if they simply knew what they were missing.

“I think we need to get out there in more ways,” she said. “For example, right now we’ve got a great (television) piece on the formation of the Japanese Garden in Seattle. It’s a wonderful piece, and I’m thinking people don’t even know it’s there.”

Voice of Vashon also hopes to draw more viewers and listeners by unveiling a new smartphone app in the next year and offering more on-demand content on its website — videos and radio shows that can be played at any time.

In February VoV will team up with the park district to offer a six-week video production class that they hope will encourage Islanders to generate new content for VoV TV.

In the meantime, though, a group of VoV volunteers is working to get its newest flashing-light signs, which will be powered by solar panels, installed as soon as possible.

Andy Wappler, who is chair of the PSE Foundation and presented VoV’s check, said he was pleased to give the group the foundation’s largest grant, as it has a proven track record on Vashon.

“It was clear that Voice of Vashon was making a difference on the Island, and that our foundation could provide the support to take them to the next level,” he said.

Wappler, who was a meteorologist for KIRO for 14 years before becoming vice president of PSE, noted that the region is experiencing a warm, dry La Niña winter, and VoV’s emergency alert system likely won’t be needed like it was last year.

“But, you never know,” Wappler added. “Sometime the forecast is wrong.”


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