April 20, 2011

Erin Radio boosts power with shift to 88.1 FM

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin Radio has propelled itself into a new era, now broadcasting on 88.1 FM with 250 watts, and a new antenna atop the water tower that delivers its signal beyond the town borders.

Almost a year ago, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) approved an application from Erin Radio to boost its signal strength from 50 watts to 250 watts and change frequencies.

"With this move, we will get to the entire Town of Erin and a little bit beyond, so this is a big moment in our life," said Station Manager Jay Mowat, just after the new signal was activated on April 11. "We managed to find the one and only frequency that we can broadcast on, higher than 50 watts."

The station is now in a three-week test phase, during which they are simulcasting on both their old and new frequencies. Transmission on 101.5 FM will end in early May.

The jumble of equipment now decorating the Erin water tower consists of the new Bell transmitters, with the Erin Radio hardware attached above – saving the substantial cost of a new mast.

"This is the culmination of two and a half years of work on a lot of people's part. And we still have to pay for it," said Mowat. "We will spend over $30,000 in this move."

Erin Radio is selling rain barrels as a fundraiser, with Scotiabank of Orangeville matching funds dollar for dollar up to $5,000. The barrels are available for $50 at Credit River Motors on Main Street, on Saturdays from 10 am to 3 pm until May 7. The Town of Erin gave the station a $10,000 grant last year and a $10,000 loan to help buy the transmitter and antenna.

The signal is being directed mainly north-east and north-west as required by the CRTC, to avoid intruding on the signal of Ryerson University in Toronto, which also uses the 88.1 frequency. Erin Radio had to buy a special antenna to protect them – custom-built and shipped from Italy at a cost of $10,000.

By coincidence, late last week, Ryerson Radio was forced off the air by the CRTC due to problems in meeting licence conditions. It could be revived, or another station might get the Toronto-based frequency.

Regardless, the Erin Radio signal is weak south of 5 Sideroad, where initially it was blending with Ryerson's. The absence of Ryerson has not improved the reception.

The signal is strong and clear in Erin village, Hillsburgh, west into Eramosa and north to the townline of Orangeville. The headline on the station's website says, "Here we come into Headwaters!", since the signal will extend into Caledon and Dufferin County. People can also listen on the internet, at www.erinradio.ca.

"Our primary motivation was not to get into Orangeville," said Mowat. "If it was and we said that, the CRTC would have made us go through a major public hearing, because that's a whole new audience. All we wanted was to hit clearly the residents of the Town of Erin. People in Orangeville will hear us on a reduced signal, and we will go in and try to connect up with advertisers and community organizations."

Erin Radio is a volunteer-based, not-for-profit group that has been on the air since 2006, providing opportunities for local programming. They are also the official emergency broadcaster in the area. Operating until now at just 50 watts, the signal could only reach homes close to Erin village. As well, their original licence was conditional, meaning they could have been forced to give up their frequency to a commercial station.

That did not happen, but power on 101.5 FM could not be expanded without intruding on other stations in the crowded southern Ontario radio market. With approval to move to 88.1, they not only have 250 watts, but a permanent, protected status.

"We have to go out there and make sure everybody knows the kind of range of what we do. We need to do a lot more advertising based on our programming schedule," said Mowat, who eventually wants to provide podcasts of some shows. "Our whole focus as a station is local voices, local news, local music."

On weekdays, Erin Radio plays mainstream easy listening music, along with news, sports, weather, business, talk radio with the Motts, lunch hour oldies and a spotlight on local performers. Evenings and weekends are more specialized, with shows on various styles of music, plus comedy and selected topics.

"Now that we have the increased power and can be heard in a much larger area, we need a way of taking a look at what our marketing strategy should be and what kind of an audience we can get," said Mowat.

Erin Radio has received a $29,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to develop a five-year marketing plan, including a local audience survey to be conducted by Erin Research.