NCPR has expanded greatly in 50 years

NCPR hired Dale Hobson and Bill Haenel and in 2001, with support from the private Sweetgrass Foundation, to modernize their digital platform. (Photo provided — Bill Chaisson)

CANTON — Not everyone is excited to turn 50, but the mood was jubilant in the Canton offices of North Country Public Radio this past Wednesday.

In middle age, WSLU can look back on a life that has included a number of milestones that would be impressive for any station, let alone one in a part of the country with such a thinly distributed population. Because public radio is funded in large part by its audience, it helps to have a lot of potential listeners who then become donors.

According to Station Manager Ellen Rocco, in its earliest days half of WSLU’s revenue came from St. Lawrence University, its landlord and license holder, and half came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was established by the Public Broadcasting Act only a year before WSLU’s founding. Now, things are different. The university contribution is only 5 percent of the budget, 10 to 12 percent comes from the CPB, and the station raises the rest. At its first fundraiser in 1978, Rocco said, the station collected $2,000 from its listeners. Rocco, who joined the staff in 1980 as development director, became the station manager in 1985.

WSLU has greatly expanded its coverage area since 1968, when it went on the air with a single 3,000-Watt transmitter. In 1984 Saranac Lake became the site of their first repeater transmitter, and the station signal was boosted to 40,300 Watts. WSLU rebranded itself as “North Country Public Radio” and began to erect transmitters and acquire frequencies across northern New York. In 2009, it even moved into Vermont, adding a transmitter in Bristol, 30 miles south of Burlington.

In 2000, NCPR created an Adirondack Bureau, which was initially based on Paul Smith’s College and staffed by reporter Brian Mann. “That has really helped us a lot,” said Rocco, “when it comes to covering the mountains.”

Martha Foley is the news and public affairs director at NCPR. (Photo provided — Bill Chaisson)

In 2014, it established a Plattsburgh/Lake Champlain bureau and hired reporter Zach Hirsch.

In 2008 Mann broke the story on the white nose syndrome devastating bat populations. As recently as this week, Hirsch uncovered a local story at SUNY Plattsburgh that served as a local example of the national unease with race relations.

This kind of robust reporting began in the mid 1980s and was accompanied by the hiring of new staff and production of more local programs. Martha Foley arrived in the North Country in the 1970s as a St. Lawrence student. At the time, WSLU had a largely student staff, and she became one of them, signing up for the “sign-off shift.” This, she recalled, consisted of changing reel-to-reel tapes of classical music, knitting, and then shutting the station down at midnight. After a five-year stint as a print journalist at the St. Lawrence Plain Dealer, she returned to WSLU in 1980 as its first morning host.

Sending and receiving audio had received its first boost in 1979, when satellite transmission replaced phone lines between NPR and its affiliates. According to Foley, it wasn’t until 1991 that WSLU started transferring digital audio files over the internet.

In 1982 it hired Pat McKeown as the news director, Foley said. She had been working at the newspaper in Massena. In that era, WSLU traded stories with commercial stations WMSA in Massena, WYBG in Ogdensburg and WTNY in Watertown. “We would read the spots to each other over the phone,” Foley recalled of the pre-internet era.

Amy Feiereisel is the “North Country at Work” correspondent for NCPR. (Photo provided — Bill Chaisson)

“We started ramping up local news,” Foley said. “As NPR began to distribute more national programming, some local stations replaced their own programming with that. We never did; we always generated our own.” During the late 1980s, NCPR produced and distributed nationally programs like “North Country Music,” and “The North Country Storytelling Festival.”

In 1998 the station hired Todd Moe as a reporter, and he became the local morning news host. In 2000, David Sommerstein was added to the news team.

With this team in place, NCPR began to rack up journalism awards. The Public Radio News Directors Inc. recognized Moe and Foley’s “8 O’Clock News Hour” as well as stories about North Country prisons and the justice system, Native Americans, the environment and outdoor recreation, and Fort Drum.

All media organizations have had to evolve to integrate the internet into their business model. It began as a way for news professionals to transmit data, evolved into a medium for the public to view the news at websites, and is now dominated by social media platforms.

In 2001, NCPR hired Bill Haenel and Dale Hobson, with support from the private Sweetgrass Foundation, to modernize their digital platform. Hobson described the distribution of the duties: “Bill made the teapot, and I made the tea.” They replaced a non-interactive 1990s relic with a PHP-MySQL-based site that “replicated public media in digital space,” said Hobson. “We put what we did on air online.”

First, they built a content management system for the news team. Then they added the interactivity for the public, making it possible for the posting of listener-generated content. By 2003, NCPR was streaming on the web.

Haenel and Hobson’s focus is on constant improvement of a system that stores the content produced by NCPR staff. Advances in software and hardware allow them to make simpler the curation of and access to the digital database.

In July 2016, Amy Feiereisel began the series “North Country at Work,” a project that spurred Haenel and Hobson to develop new software. Feiereisel travels the region collecting images and stories of people’s working lives. “It becomes richer as time goes on,” said the project coordinator of her database. “For example, after two years you can now pull every story that has to do with dairy industry and watch what happens [through time] with individual voices giving you their perspectives.”

They have seen a leveling off of direct hits on their sites and an increase in social media hits. “Social media is changing media now,” Haenel said. “Reaching people is easier than it used to be, but it is difficult to reach them deeply.”


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