Richmond independent radio station WRIR is learning what it means to grow up.
The low-power FM outlet started in 2003 as a Web-stream-only outlet in a dusty basement across from Lowe's Fan location on Broad Street. It began broadcasting on 97.3 FM in January 2005 and continues to stream at wrir.org. Today, WRIR boasts modern office and studio space upstairs in the same building.
"When we started, we were amazed that we could get something on the radio," says James Hickman, president of the Virginia Center for Public Press, WRIR's nonprofit parent.
Now there are hundreds of volunteers broadcasting original music, news and talk programming, as well as a handful of progressive syndicated shows, 24 hours a day.
Some of the station's homegrown audio is finding its way to audiences far beyond the city. The Rainbow Minute — a 60-second spotlight on heroes of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community — has been integrated as a regular segment on This Way Out , a Los Angeles-based show airing on more than 150 affiliate stations.
The station also serves as the official emergency-broadcast outlet for the city of Richmond under a five-year, $300,000 contract funded with a U.S. Homeland Security grant.
Finances are high on WRIR's radar as a major challenge, according to Hickman. Public support has remained relatively flat over the past several years, with biannual pledge drives typically netting between $21,000 and $25,000 each. The station's total annual revenue is about $180,000, including income from pledges, sponsorships and the city contract.
WRIR now has just one paid employee; still, Hickman says, more consistency is needed than the station's volunteers can provide in the areas of leadership and newsgathering. A higher level of community engagement will be critical to its future success, he adds.
"We have got to expand our role in the community," Hickman says. "Our challenge now is to get more involved in City Hall, more involved in more nonprofits who are making a difference in Richmond to give them a voice."