ROCK ISLAND — Fans of WVIK, 90.3 FM, the Quad-Cities' NPR station — and public radio in general — will have a new station to welcome Oct. 1.
Following the lead of two other local stations, the nonprofit, public-radio institution is launching a new HD frequency, but it doesn't stand for “high definition,” rather hybrid digital. For WVIK, it'll be 90.3.2, and will available to be streamed on wvik.org, through smart speakers and the station mobile app. A translator will enable broadcast in analog format at 105.7 FM, a frequency that was available last fall after the unannounced shutdown of WKBF, WVIK general manager Jay Pearce said Monday.
“It's almost surreal how quickly it came together,” he said of buying the license from a Dallas-based owner. “This is a calculated risk we hope will pay off with additional listeners, business and corporate sponsors, and donors.”
The NPR station, based on the Augustana College campus, has seen its listenership plateau in recent years, averaging about 19,000 per week, Pearce said. So WVIK wanted to diversify and expand its programming to boost its bottom line, as well as serve its mission to provide first-class news, information and cultural programming for the region.
About five years ago, the station spent about $500,000 to upgrade its equipment; it just exceeded its recent year-end fundraising goal, and is borrowing from reserves to get the new frequency off the ground, and its attendant 24-hour programming, Pearce said.
“There is a lot more public-radio programming available, like talk/news shows and discussions that are increasingly relevant during this political season,” he said. “Will we double our audience? No, but we can reach more people.”
Broadcasting from an antenna on the old WQPT tower at Moline's Black Hawk College, the HD station will include some familiar programming, such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” and the popular Saturday/Sunday 5 p.m. “Live From Here” (hosted by Chris Thile).
New programs will include BBC News overnight on weeknights, “Fresh Air,” “Here & Now,” New York Times' “The Daily,” “1A" (with Joshua Johnson), and “The 21st,” an Illinois-centric show produced by Illinois Public Media.
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WVIK hopes to program more folk and jazz on top of its traditional classical music, and it also will start RME Radio on the weekends, an expansion of its five-year-old RME Radio Hour, now at 8 p.m. Saturdays in partnership with the Davenport-based River Music Experience.
Pearce said a longer-format show like this was a dream of Ellis Kell, the late RME co-founder, blues musician and its longtime head of education and community outreach, who died in December 2016. The format is to present roots, blues and Americana music, from local, regional and national acts.
“You go to see concerts, bands like Son Volt, which will be at The Rust Belt (July 12), it creates a lot of excitement, but then where do you hear music like that on the radio?” said Pearce, a five-year member of the RME board as well as a member of the national NPR board. “You see them, but you don't hear them on the radio.”
“We're a nonprofit in town partnering with another nonprofit,” he said. “The RME Radio Hour has been a good partnership. The music scene here is becoming really something. A lot of people are starting to think the Quad-Cities would do well to hang its hat on that as a big attraction. I happen to believe, if you look at many of the elements that make Austin and Nashville what they are, they're here. I think the time is right for a radio station to represent that.”
The weekend “Live From Here” (which succeeded “A Prairie Home Companion”) will likely just be on the new station, so WVIK will have to find a replacement program for that two-hour block each night. It plans to do a community survey soon on what the public would like to hear on the air.
KALA, 88.5 FM, at St. Ambrose University, was the first local station to start a new translator frequency, at 106.1 FM, followed by WLLR 103.7 FM, which has an alt-rock station at 104.5, Pearce said. The sound difference between an HD station (at the same number on the dial) and an analog translator is like a CD compared to a vinyl album, he noted.
Most new high-end cars are being made with HD radio capability, Pearce said.