SKOWHEGAN — A once grim, concrete cellblock in the 1865 Somerset County Jail will soon be home to the musical strains of blues, jazz, rock, folk and world music.
A new radio station is coming to the former jail and should be on the air this summer, said Maine radio veteran and project coordinator Annie Stillwater Gray.
Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission granted a construction permit to the Wesserunsett Arts Council to operate a station at 98.1 on the FM radio dial.
“It’s a community station. That’s the main thing everyone ought to know,” Gray said. “It’s a noncommercial frequency, low power.”
Studios will be built in three jail cells and a stark day room at the former jail, now home to the Somerset Grist Mill and other businesses, including The Pickup Cafe and Community Supported Agriculture program and the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market.
Grist Mill co-owner and founder Amber Lambke, of Skowhegan, is offering the space free to the arts council in exchange for on-air promotional considerations.
“They’re affiliated with the Wesserunsett Arts Council, so we’re actually going to be donating this space for them to use because the visibility that can be obtained by having radio in Skowhegan will benefit us as well,” Lambke said. “They’ll need to outfit the space themselves, but rent will be donated.”
Lambke said she will install electrical outlets for the radio station studios and broadcast space. There also will be extra space upstairs at the old jail for a music library, which Gray said will be populated immediately with CDs donated by Colby College, where she and her husband, Andy Wendell, host on-air radio programs on WMHB.
There are no call letters for the new station yet.
The FCC construction permit was free, but Gray said the arts council still needs to raise money in order to be up and running by an FCC-imposed deadline. The council needs to raise $35,000 to outfit the studios.
Gray, of Solon, and arts council president Serena Sanborn, of Canaan, said they will apply for grants to purchase of equipment and renovate the former cellblock — numbered E-13. Each of the three 7-by-10-foot cells in the block had two metal beds fastened to the wall and a stainless steel commode.
The Somerset County Jail moved to new space in East Madison in 2008. Lambke and business partner Michael Scholz, of Albion, a baker and wheat farmer, bought the property for $65,000 the following year. The old hoosegow is also home to Happy Knits, a yarn shop; the Tech Spot, where schoolchildren teach older people how to use the Internet and social media; a suite of cells used by an online trader of Asian antiques; and a seasonal pop-up shop in the former jail administrator’s office. That space also will be used this summer by Somerset Public Health as a temporary dental clinic, according to Lambke.
Inside the cellblock this week, with its menacing, sliding metal door and prisoner dinner-plate slot, Lambke said she hopes the radio station will help Skowhegan become a hub of commerce, art and food. She said windows will be replaced for a better view of the farmers market, which operates outside in the former jail parking lot.
“I am so excited to have a radio station here,” Lambke said. “A couple of trips I’ve taken down to New York City — you see the role that radio plays in getting the word out about food issues and food scenes. I think artists and writers and radio — I think it all ties to this cluster of goods and services we’re trying to build and promote here. I think it’s great.”
Gray said the signal will be broadcast from Bigelow Hill in Skowhegan, with support from station technician Timothy Smith. Smith said the walls of the former cellblock will be covered with material that will be more acoustically friendly than the existing concrete and cinder block construction.
A donation already has been received for the purchase of a computer, which will be used in the new station’s initial broadcasts, Gray said.
“We’ll be able to go on the air this summer with just a computer,” Gray said. “No one will be able to do any shows, but this is just to get the signal up and running because of the deadline of 18 months to graduate from a construction permit to a license. Most radio stations are run by computer now.”
Gray said the ultimate goal is to have a fully equipped studio at the grist mill for people to come in and host their own community radio shows.
Sanborn said anyone interested in helping with the fundraising can visit the Wesserunsett Arts Council website: www.wesarts.org. Donations are tax-deductible.
“We are so excited about starting a radio station for our community,” Sanborn said. “Our goal is to have a truly unique and special station that has programming by and for central Maine.”
Sanborn said that although the station will be very low-power and available only within about three miles of downtown Skowhegan, the council eventually will do live streaming on the Web.
“We will even be able to do remote broadcasts,” she said. “Imagine live interviews with farmers at the farmers market or broadcasting live from local parades and plays. Students at the high school could learn how to create radio stories too. We can’t wait for all the various exciting ways we can use this awesome new community radio station.”
Low-power FM radio service was created by the Federal Communications Commission in January 2000, according to the FCC website. Low-power FM stations are authorized for noncommercial educational broadcasting only — no commercial operations are allowed. They operate with 100 watts of power or less, at 100-foot antenna height above average terrain, according to FCC rules. The approximate service range of a 100-watt station is 3.5 miles from the studio, but an assortment of factors would make the signal heard beyond that distance.
Major commercial stations often have power of 20,000 to 50,000 watts.
Gray said a “very small window” of opportunity for an FCC permit for new frequencies opened earlier this year, and station organizers had to scramble to get the necessary paperwork filed on time. She said she and other radio aficionados waited years for that window to open.
“Skowhegan had four radio stations at one time,” Gray said. “I worked on all of them, and they’re all gone. Gone. There still are transmitters and computers, but there are no people. This way, Skowhegan gets back a radio station that’s theirs. It’s Skowhegan’s station, and no one can take it away.”
A construction permit, which the Skowhegan station has been granted, is required before a low-power radio station can be operated. Low-power stations are available to noncommercial educational entities and public safety and transportation organizations, but are not available to individuals or for commercial operations.
There are 19 new and existing low-power radio stations in Maine, including those run by the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Princeton, the Society of Franciscan Fathers of Greene, the city of Belfast and the Fifties Preservation Society in Biddeford.
Current broadcast licensees with interests in other media, such as broadcast or newspapers, are not eligible to obtain low-power radio stations.
Sanborn said the goal of the radio station is to provide an outlet for local people to have their own radio shows for a musical creativity, live broadcasts, drama, poetry and storytelling in central Maine.
“We hope to have many local high school students, college students, community members and teachers be able to provide programming for our new station,” Sanborn writes in the council’s application for a construction permit. “We also plan on beginning to explore with young people how to create podcasts of our programs.”