WBRU programming returns to FM airwaves, for now

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The alternative rock music that used to air on 95.5 WBRU is back on the FM airwaves, for now.

A new, low-power FM station in Providence has assumed WBRU’s call letters and is currently broadcasting the station’s programming on 101.1 LPFM, a low-power station that covers the city of Providence and some surrounding areas.

It’s been a decade-long process for the group behind the new radio station, Brown Student and Community Radio (BSR). (BSR is a separate group from Brown Broadcasting Service Inc., the nonprofit entity that formerly owned 95.5  FM.) The FCC granted BSR a construction permit for the low-transmission tower back in 2014. That tower is now located in South Providence.

BSR is partnering with the arts organization AS220 and a group called Providence Community Radio to create programming for the station, which went live on Jan. 2. BBS funded construction of the transmission facility that carries the new non-commercial radio station; a spokesman said it cost about $20,000.

John McGarry, a Brown University alum and community member of BSR, said the station’s leaders are currently filling their airtime with WBRU’s online stream until their new programming gets off the ground. McGarry said the station will ultimately be “free form,” with a blend of news, music and other programming.

Although much of the WBRU programming airing now will be phased out over time, McGarry said, they have an agreement with WBRU and plan to maintain some of the alt-rock station’s shows including the Sunday “360” programming, which features hip-hop, soul and R&B music.

360° programming has been a central part of culture in the greater Rhode Island area for over 40 years for black and brown people, particularly incarcerated men and women,” said Kyle Tildon, outgoing co-director of the 360 unit at WBRU.com. “In addition to the resumed Sunday broadcast, 360 programming is already available 24/7 at www.WBRU.com and the WBRU apps for iOS and Android, and a new podcast, The Amplifier, is set to launch in the spring.”

The alt-rock station ended its 51-year run on 95.5 FM in September, making way for Christian adult-contemporary music. The 95.5 signal was sold for $5.63 million to Educational Media Foundation (EMF), a California-based nonprofit. WBRU has said the money will be used for an endowment.

BSR used to broadcast over the FM airwaves in the early 2000s using leased airtime on 88.1 FM. But when that station became one of the homes for Rhode Island Public Radio, BSR moved entirely online. Now, just as WBRU is moving off the airwaves and to an online-only format, BSR is doing the opposite.

“FM has this magnetism that we’re hoping pulls some people our way,” McGarry said. “We hope anyone that wants to find space on FM radio will come to us.”

“Some broadcasters who have been with ‘BRU and are passionate about radio have approached us expressing interest in continuing their programming on this new station,” Willem Helmet Pickleman, BSR’s acting station manager, told Eyewitness News in an email last summer. “This has been met with open arms; BSR is willing to acquire new content in order to supplement its own programs and fill out a 24-hour broadcast day.”

The low-power signal is limited to 100 watts, a fraction of what a standard FM station transmits. The signal covers Providence, but McGarry said he’s told people have been able to tune in from as far away as East Greenwich and Scituate.