Barbara Dacey knows what keeps a song on the radio. For the past 18 years, she's worked at WMVY, sifting through popular music and engineering a special blend of tunes for the eclectic Island radio station.
The station is throwing itself a 20th birthday party at the Hot Tin Roof on Thursday, June 12, with singer/songwriters Dar Williams and Patty Larkin. The event is aimed at dedicated listeners, as tickets are not for sale, but are being given away over the air.
With those listeners in mind, Ms. Dacey looks back over two decades of the station's growth. How those behind the microphone choose what music to play has remained very much the same, she says. "It was always a goal," she says, "both consciously and unconsciously - to have the station have a continuity from those early days as we went forward."
With the morning broadcast humming in the background, she sits in the basement office of a small converted white and blue house near Vineyard Haven. The house has a cozy, intimate feel. A bulletin board near the front entrance is covered with snapshots of Ms. Dacey with the likes of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel. An ornamental lacquered picture of Elvis Presley hangs in one of the sound rooms. The atmosphere is almost collegiate.
Ms. Dacey remembers her days as music director, sitting in what would become her office and making decisions with then-program director Jeff Damon about the songs to put in their playlists. This perspective allows her to estimate what sorts of music listeners will hear season after season and what will go out with the next fad.
"It just has to do with the songs that are durable over time," she says. "It's like a well-made shoe or a piece of furniture or a house. If a song is well-constructed and it has something that's almost beyond words, then that song is going to sound great no matter when you play it.
"Think about Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix or early Dylan tunes," she says. "I'm surprised sometimes when I look at the date. That Dylan tune was 1965? You've got to be kidding me. But there could be another song that was released that same year that you would never, never play." The goals of the station are the same, she says: to bring a broad range of the best artists, new and old, to listeners.
And while spotting durability is one part of her job as program manager - a post she has held for 10 years - spotting new artists is another.
"You put your ear to the ground," she says, and musicians like John Mayer or Nora Jones get your attention. Artists like this, who possess in her mind that something "beyond words," find their way into rotation as the station adds new music at the beginning of every week. "People expect us to be finding those artists," she says. From that point, it's just a phone call or two, and she can steer those artists into the studio. Mr. Mayer stopped by on his way to some gigs in Nantucket. His picture is on the bulletin board, too.
Ms. Dacey first saw the Vineyard as a child peering over the rail of the ferry on the way to Nantucket. In the summer of 1970, she came to the Vineyard with college friends. "From that day on," she said, "I always spent a lot of time here and was always trying to figure out how I could get back." A musician herself, she played on the Island in subsequent summers and became a permanent resident in 1985.
Knocking on the door of WMVY that same year, she asked to be put to work. "I realized very quickly, ‘I've got to get behind a microphone'," she says. Recording commercials was more or less a volunteer job, and when a full-time air shift became available in 1987, she grabbed the opportunity. "I wasn't really thinking at that time," she says, "that this was going to be the thing that I was going to be doing for 18 years."
The decision to move from the musician side of the business to radio wasn't the easiest, but she feels that seeing both worlds affords her an appreciation for those singer/songwriters trying to make it.
This has led her to cultivate some special relationships with Island musicians. Local music is "part of the fabric of the Vineyard," she says. Artists such as Maynard Silva, Kate Taylor, Mike Benjamin and the band Entrain, have partnered with the station at one time or another. "Those people make friends with us and we make friends with them," she says.
Service to the larger community has also been a part of WMVY's mission. The station has sponsored the Big Chili Contest in Oak Bluffs, a benefit for the Red Stocking Fund, for some 18 years.
Moves into the digital world have expanded the station's reach and efficiency over the past few years. Computers handle the playlists and store music on hard disks. The bulky tape decks that formerly had to be queued up for a show look downright archaic next to flickering monitors. Additionally, a 3,000-watt station like WMVY that has a limited broadcast range can benefit from the power of streaming services that allow listeners to tune in over the Internet.
Broadcasts go out over two services of differing sound quality: Windows Media Player and the RealOne Player. Internet streaming has become a pivotal focus of the station and has helped grow the fan base and pull in advertisers. And the station's format is getting critical respect from those in the industry. The Internet feed was recognized on the Windows Media Player site as a top 10 Editor's Choice pick for one week in May.
Vacationers can hear Island DJs anywhere in the world. Station owner Joe Gallagher had a vision for this type of expansion when he bought the station in 1998. "He knew that this was the future," says Ms. Dacey.
Mr. Gallagher's company, Aritaur Communications, has an interest in one station in addition to WMVY. He is the third owner since Robert and Linda Forrester founded the station in 1981, when it had an R&B format. The shift to the current album format came in 1983. Between 1990 and 1998, WMVY was owned by Broadcast Properties Inc., a Minnesota company.
WMVY falls into the Adult Album Alternative or Triple-A format, a designation that didn't even exist when the station began broadcasting. "From 1983," Ms. Dacey says, "there was no categorization for the radio station. We fell between an album format and a New Age format." When Triple A developed, it provided a structure for a community of like-minded, albeit diverse, stations. The eventual national recognition of the Triple-A format meant greater respect for the station.
But Ms. Dacey emphasizes independence. While she keeps up with other Triple-A stations and what they're broadcasting, she doesn't follow suit. Day-to-day decisions about what to play, she says, are "gut level."
The most plays any song gets in a day at WMVY is just two. But Ms. Dacey says a certain amount of repetition is required to familiarize an audience with a song. That familiarity is what makes a song accessible and, combined with its own construction and durability, can turn it into a staple. Glancing over a current playlist, she points to the Coldplay piano ballad Clocks as a current song that might have the right qualities to make it. "The repetition can only do so much," she says. "The song has to do it on its own."
Since Memorial Day weekend, the station has been highlighting music from the 20 years it's been around, counting down each year over the course of the days leading up to next week's celebration. Sprinkled in have been interviews from the station archives - mostly with musicians who have sat in the sound booth.
One of her goals for the station, Ms. Dacey says, has been to serve the Island community in a way that translates the Vineyard ethos onto the radio - to "represent that life over the air." Next Thursday, they're ready to celebrate 20 years of doing just that.