In the age of digital activism, the online petition reigns supreme. Got an axe to grind? Voice your displeasure with a petition on change.org or one of the scads of similar venues. While some may deride them as slacktivism, such petitions can at least play a role in raising awareness. And sometimes that's enough to get the wheels of change a-turning.
Like, for example, when a niche local radio station is in danger of losing its air space.
In January 2016, the folks behind the Burlington Big Cat, or WCAT 98.3 FM — 1390 on your AM dial — launched an appeal on ipetitions.com to save the radio station's unusual format. On the air for about six months at that point, the Big Cat had proved itself unique by commercial radio standards. For one thing, it didn't broadcast commercials. But more importantly, the station focused on a golden age of early rock and roll and country music, deep cuts from the '50s and '60s, that you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else on the radio dial.
The experimental format had developed a small but cult following in the Burlington area. That didn't prevent the station's parent company, Northeast Broadcasting Inc. — which also owns local radio station 104.7 FM the Point and others around New England — from threatening the Big Cat with extinction. The plan was to switch formats to 1970s rock.
Shared widely on social media, the petition to save the station's format caught fire in greater Burlington. Though it only garnered about half of the hoped-for 1,000 signatures, the outcry sufficed to convince NBI higher-ups that the Big Cat was worth saving. On January 15, almost exactly one year after the petition launched, the golden-oldies format reappeared with a new name on a new frequency. Mid Century Radio can now be heard on 103.7 FM WPLB and 1070 AM.
"I don't think they were very happy about the petition," says MCR cofounder and former Big Cat director Aaron Ishmael from his station's new digs in Burlington. "We started the petition mostly to see who was listening, because, in terrestrial radio, it's kind of hard to tell sometimes. But it seems like it got their attention."
Inquiries to NBI went unreturned as of press time. But the rebirth of Ishmael's format seems to bear out his assumption. He says the company has been supportive and open-minded about the new venture.
"They've been terrific," Ishmael says. "They understand our passion for the format." He adds that the new signal, which originates from Plattsburgh, actually has a broader reach than did 98.3 FM. NBI has kept the Big Cat's programming on air through most of the transition to Mid Century Radio.
Ishmael and his wife, Jessica, operate Mid Century Radio under the banner of their own soon-to-be-Burlington-based production company, A&J Radio LLC. (Currently living in Connecticut, the Ishmaels will relocate to Vermont.) The couple also runs another Champlain Valley-area station, 97.9 FM the Moose, based in Au Sable, N.Y. That has yet another niche format, catering to fans of 1980s and '90s country music. John Nichols, a local radio vet who started 95 Triple X, will serve as general manager of both stations.
Ishmael says the new station will sound almost identical to the Big Cat. As for paying the bills, he says to expect a mix of traditional commercial spots and less conventional revenue streams, likely in the form of sponsorships and partnerships with local companies.
"Format-wise, it will be exactly what you heard on Big Cat," Ishmael says. However, he plans to expand the station's library from the Big Cat's unique but modest automated rotation. Live programming will be another addition — specifically, a noon-hour music and call-in show hosted by Ishmael's father, Roger, a former program director at "hometown" station KFTM in Fort Morgan, Colo.
"My interest in radio and this music really comes from my dad," says Ishmael, a career radio engineer who recently worked as the director of radio technology for ESPN Radio in Connecticut. "I grew up at that radio station, so there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't hear him playing those records.
"And they're so good, so fun," he continues. "That's the foundation of modern music. And it's really exciting to be able to bring that music to people here."
Mid Century Radio can be heard at 103.7 FM and 1070 AM. Stream it at 1037wplb.com.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Mid Century Radio Saves the Big Cat From Extinction"