By Jessica Newman
Bill Bryson is one of the founders of Grow Radio, an online Gainesville community radio station with both musical and non-musical programming, as well as the former publisher of Satellite Magazine. He moved to Gainesville in 1992 and opened the Covered Dish, a music venue that operated for eight years. He was involved in college radio in North Carolina before moving to Gainesville and has always had an interest in music. Grow Radio went live in 2009 and has been gaining popularity ever since. Bryson talks about his involvement with the station and how it will play a role in shaping the future of alternative media.
Jessica Newman: What is Grow Radio, and where did you get the idea?
Bill Bryson: Well, going way back, I was involved in college radio in North Carolina and got my taste in radio from that. Music has always been my passion, so it was just a natural outlet for me. Then I moved to Gainesville to open up a live music club. Then over the years, being in concert promotion and publishing a magazine, I kind of evolved into radio as the next wave of what I’m doing here. I moved here in ’92, and between ’92 and 2008 or 2009, there wasn’t a lot of success with alternative radio in town. There had been pirate radio even long before I was here, coming and going. You kind of had to be in the know to get them. Then I helped the Civic Media Center get their low-power FM license, which has its limitations, as well. Then Kiss 105 let Wayne Erwin run their AM signal as an alternative community radio in the mid-’90s, as well. It was successful enough to indicate to me that there was demand for it in the community. Over the years, there have been a few attempts to get a student-run station going, but it’s never really gone anywhere. Then Classic 89 has always been an option, I thought, that could have really taken advantage of community resources to create more locally generated programming because they had a couple of shows like that. But it was limited in terms of the air time they were getting. They could have dedicated a lot more energy and effort to that for minimal input expense-wise and probably maximum output.
Grow Radio has evolved out of a combination of all those things. I want to make it into a hybrid in terms of the model of the station between community radio and student-run college radio. I’m going to try and fill the daytime shifts with college kids and give them as much of an educational, as well as an enjoyable, experience with it. We’ve also gotten started just by me tapping some of my immediate resources as far as people in the music community. We’ll have a good balance of community members who aren’t necessarily affiliated with the university and students that are affiliated with the university. Commercial radio now is very automated; program selection is very much determined from the top down. There’s very little DJ input in terms of what you’re hearing on the air, if there’s any DJ at all. Sometimes it’s all just computer-generated. So my point with this is to get human beings back behind the media. With that in mind, even though we’re using the Internet as our medium, we are operating as a local radio station. I think we can have a small but relatively significant impact as a local station, just in a different medium as opposed to FM. I believe in the power of radio; I believe radio can really reach people, even without visuals. Having a real person talking to you, especially someone that’s from Gainesville, presenting a very Gainesville perspective on what they’re broadcasting, creates the locality of it and creates the uniqueness of it that hopefully people will embrace here.
JN: Why did you decide to do Grow Radio online?
BB: Over time, the benefits of being on the web are just going to expand in terms of: if people are listening to this radio station while they’re living in Gainesville, and they move someone else in the world, they can still tune into their Gainesville station. And you talk about the Gator Nation; it’s all over the world. So eventually Grow Radio could have an expansive audience all over the world. It’s not our primary focus, but I think that’s just, down the road, what’s probably going to happen. The technology of podcasting just creates lots of options for the listener in terms of how they want to receive their radio, as well. So I think all those things combined are kind of what is creating Grow Radio. It’s still very much embryonic right now, and it’s going to evolve based on who gets involved, what kind of community support comes forward and so on.
JN: What kind of a business model are you using?
BB: We’re setting it up as a 501(c)3, so we’ll operate on the same model as public radio. We’ll be reliant upon listener donations for support, as well as grants and any other kind of sponsorship money we can get.
JN: When did Grow Radio go live online?
BB: We went live about a year ago. This past year has been kind of an experiment to see with very little promotion whether this idea would get legs or not, and it seems like it has.
JN: What kind of success have you guys had so far?
BB: I’m very encouraged. We’ve noticed a lot of people listening from work. And I think, once students become more aware and interested, that we’ll see a lot more listeners coming from UF.
JN: What kind of programming is there on Grow Radio, and what kind of people are on the air?
BB: Right now it’s mostly music, but we’ve got a couple of monthly shows that are not musical right now. I think they’re kind of figuring out what they’re doing as they go along, and that’s great. That’s sort of what this is about — teaching people who have an interest in creating something within the community. They can learn something from it, as well as get some reward by contributing something to the community. A few people have been on the radio before. But for the most part, it’s starting from scratch. So our production side of things is a little bit clunky and pretty loose. But personally, I find that charming. It keeps it fairly organic and grassroots because we’re letting people do this regardless of their experience. If they have the passion and the interest to do something like this, then here’s the platform for it.
JN: Why does Grow Radio need to exist, and why is it important to Gainesville?
BB: It’s real personal for me. Music has always been a really important part of my life, through both my personal and my business life. I think through both of those avenues I’ve learned that I’m not the only one. It can help a community flourish, not just by adding to the musical culture, but also creating a platform like I’ve been describing where the community can actually get involved with this and give people the opportunity to create a creative culture within their own community without having to be a performer or a filmmaker or a writer.