The first time I tuned into WHUP-FM, a low-power radio station centered in downtown Hillsborough, I prepared for disappointment.
The show coming from my speakers was called She & Her, “an hour-long talk and music show about millennial women.” As someone who is neither millennial nor female, I assumed it was my best shot at not connecting with WHUP’s eclectic programming. But I was wrong.
The first episode I heardand I’ve listened again, and oftenfeatured Jessamyn Stanley, a Durham-based yoga instructor. The segment was artfully produced and, although I don’t practice yoga, actually riveting, in part because it ranged so far beyond the topic. I contacted the show’s two hosts, Anita Rao and Sandra Davidson. I wanted to know how their program could capture my interest and sound so expertly producedall on a volunteer basis, all on a radio station that starts to fade from your FM dial not long after you leave Hillsborough, and all on a radio station that’s only been on the air since October.
“I worked at StoryCorps in New York. That’s a highly edited show,” Rao, also a producer for WUNC’s The State of Things, explains a few days later. “Usually, we would spend like fifty hours on one StoryCorps piece.”
“I founded Bit & Grain, a digital publication about North Carolina,” adds Davidson. “Both of us have worked in narrative storytelling since we graduated.”
Rao and Davidson, both 26, met in a women’s studies class at UNC-Chapel Hill. The goal of their show, they tell me, is to offer an opportunity for “intersectionality”that is, to feature people with diverse backgrounds sharing their experiences of being a woman, however different or related those stories may be.
“I think we’re both very skilled at bringing people into a vulnerable place where they can share in a comfortable way,” Davidson says. “If people are earnest and humble, that is going to be more listenable than people being angry. There are times where it is OK to be angry, to say something really radical. Our show would be a safe space for that, too.”
WHUP has become a safe space for a lot of things, actually. The station provides total creative freedom, so, like a college radio station, the programming is all over the map. But its mix of talk and music, with musical emphasis on Americana, seems to represent its community. And despite the open-ended format, it somehow feels curated.
“They were so supportive of our vision: ‘Here’s this space. We want you to make exactly the show you want to make,’” says Davidson.
Rao joins: “In our first meeting with WHUP, they were like, ‘We trust you all. Here’s structure. Here’s an audience. Here’s a place for you to record. Do whatever you want.’”
WHUP-FM sits above the Dual Supply hardware store on Hillsborough's King Street. The store is the station's landlord and, apparently, an enthusiastic booster: A bright yellow DeWalt boombox sits at the entrance, blaring the signal.
Finding someone in Hillsborough who's down on WHUP is nearly impossible. Finding someone who doesn't have some sort of connection to it is almost as difficult. From the station, for instance, I walk a couple doors to Purple Crow Books. The owner, Sharon Wheeler, helps by connecting authors with WHUP's literary show, The Spine.
"Do you remember the TV show about the little town in Alaska, Northern Exposure?" she asks, evoking a popular comparison. "Hillsborough reminds me of Northern Exposure, and the radio station just caps it off."
Just around the corner at The Wooden Nickel, bartender Tony Rignola says he participated in a benefit for the stationa crochet fashion show. One quick jaywalk across the street, and Yep Roc Records executive Billy Maupin tells me he is on WHUP's board of directors.
Really, the story of WHUP is the story of Hillsborough, a town that, in recent years, has exemplified community in the modern South. Loaded with restaurants, a brewery, a distillery, a cheesemaker and dozens of other established or upstart small businesses, Hillsborough has become this area's unlikely incubator.
One may wonder how much impact a 100-watt station in a town of just more than 6,000 can actually have, but like the concentric circles used to animate a signal emanating from a radio tower, some ideas reverberate. And Hillsborough has plenty of them.
"It's a very supportive, artistic community," Maupin says. "A station like WHUP adds to the mix and gives people a different way to express their voice. People were like, 'Of course, we need this.'"
Bob Burtman meets me at the front door of WHUP. He shows me to an office just off the control room, sits down, and attacks an enormous cinnamon bun from Cup A Joe, just across the street.
"Sorry," he offers, crumbs tumbling down his shirt. "I'm starving."
Burtman is a longtime investigative reporter and a veteran of several local radio efforts. He was WHUP's primary motivator, but he's quick to deflect focus from himself.
"This thing wouldn't have happened if not for the three hundred or so people from this community who pitched in," he says.
I get it, I tell him: I had been hearing about WHUP, after all, for several months from various volunteers, and their enthusiasm and excitement felt contagious. Like the anticipation around the opening of Mystery Brewing Co. in Hillsborough several years ago or the launch of the Cajun restaurant LaPlace in early 2014, the thought of a new, local radio station, just off Churton Street but available to the whole world, animated Hillsborough.
When I question Burtman about the station's limited range, he's dismissive.
"Our range is the entire universe," he says. "People need to rewire their thinking about radio. We still have an over-the-air service, and we always will, because we are an old-school radio station. We are harkening back to a time when radio was a force in its community. But the community's expanded, and we have no limitations, no geographical barriers. Everything is moving in that direction, anyway."
Burtman is adamant about the assets that make this station different, like live music performances and on-demand access to the station's archives.
"We have an on-demand service that only a handful of stations do. Every show gets archived for the two weeks allowed by federal copyright law," he says. "When a show is broadcast over our airwaves, it is streamed, captured by our systems, and placed into these different directories. All of this shit is automated, and there is no software that is off-the-shelf that does this. This is why only a few stations do it."
I pause and turn away from Burtman. I can make out "The Rainbow Connection" playing from the monitors and a pack of dogs raising a ruckus in the street below the studio. Burtman appears unfazed and finishes his pastry, washing it down with the last of his coffee.
I first caught site of Will Baker while I was interviewing Burtman. It was a Monday, just past noon, the typical time slot for Baker's weekly show, The Lunch Crunch. I had glanced into the control room and spotted him playing a melodica with his musical guests for the day.
Baker is Hillsborough's assistant utilities director. The Lunch Crunch begins with live music and ends with him interviewing someone else who works for the town. After I left the studio, I caught the end of his show as I was driving out of town. He was interviewing the town's videographerlike I said, eclectic.
Baker is one of the better examples of town-and-station cooperation. Initially, his job was merely getting the station's antennas installed on top of a few water towers, but the station soon beckoned him toward the control room.
"I have a musical background myself," he explains. "I've got my own studio at home and write and sing and play and produce my own music."
Baker drives me a few blocks over to show me the Hassell Street water tank, upon which one of the WHUP antennas stands.
"We're a small town, and our whole government is very community-oriented. We just felt this was such a great deal, this radio station, as far as providing information, news, entertainment for the town," he says. "We felt we should help if we could."
I ask Baker how far a hundred watts gets you.
"If you're in Hillsborough and you got a Hillsborough address," Baker says, "you can hear the station."
But, as Burtman has already told me, that metric is somewhat meaningless. WHUP exists online, too, in ways few similarly sized stations can.
A good number of tech-sector types prefer the relative quiet of Hillsborough, and a core of four such volunteers form WHUP's ad hoc IT department. I finally coaxed one of them, Johnny Shepherd, to talk to me on its behalf.
Shepherd is an electrical engineer by trade. By hobby, he is an enthusiast in the open-source world of Linux"because I'm just a general nerd," he explains. When a Hillsborough neighbor learned Shepherd's day job was ending, she persuaded him to join WHUP's IT team before beginning a new consulting gig.
"We wanted a clockan accurate clock," Shepherd says of one of his early endeavors at the station. "An industrial, digital-network, time-protocol-synced clock is four hundred dollars. 'This is a nonprofit,' I said. 'This is freakin' ridiculous.' So I took a little Raspberry Pi out of my closet of goodies and made a little clock."
Hang around WHUP long enough, and the vibe suggests an anarchist bicycle collective that has grown up. WHUP folks place a high premium on things that are free and open-source. To wit, the IT team's proudest achievement is the customized Linux-based software that drives the station.
"We've had other people look at it," Shepherd boasts, "and say, 'Yeah, this is just as usable as the one other stations paid a big five-figure license fee for."
Shepherd harbors no romantic fantasies about the exigencies of maintaining a radio station with an all-volunteer force. Many of his peers are self-employed, retired, or kid-free, he explains, allowing them to turn their tasks into temporary full-time jobs when necessary.
"For about three months, it was a full-time-plus job, forty to sixty hours a week," he says. "For volunteer work, it's really hard to have something that is always up, always supported. Professional corporations have 24-7 staff on call."
But, like the rest of Hillsborough, even this rational, brutally honest engineer seems to have caught the WHUP bug.
"I think it's got legs. There's enough talent that's unique," he says. "I'm an engineer, not a radio programming director, but I can see some of these shows getting syndicated. The Wine Fellers is basically Car Talk with wine. Those guys are hilarious."
I ask everyone I interview in Hillsborough where they see WHUP in five years, even a decade. Some dream about on-location music broadcasts. Others imagine a more vibrant, packed schedule that doesn't rely on automatically generated "WHUP Tunes" playlists to fill open slots.
For his part, Burtman dreams of a paid station manager and program director. After all, five years have passed since his first caffeinated conversations at Cup A Joe about his idea. He must be exhausted.
His mantra is "three hundred people"you know, the army that helped build the station and keeps it going now. But without a dozen or so core people, it would all come to a halt. Those people have poured their power into the station as if it were a paying, full-time gig. The trick for WHUP will be how to recycle pieces of that core if they burn out.
But you know what? All the enthusiasm on the streets and through the airwaves of Hillsborough seems legitimate, infectious even. Sure, the initial ardor might fade, but as the on-air signal at 104.7 starts to crackle as I leave Hillsborough one more time, the overwhelming impression is of a community that will not let this thing fail. The pride seems too visceral.
"What we want to do is export the Hillsborough experience to the rest of the world," says Burtman. "We've got a good thing going here."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Low Power to the People"