by J. Pamela Barbour
In early 1997 Vincentian Jules Williams, an Electronics Engineer and Musical Arranger rolled out his brainchild to the public, when he launched WEFM, his own radio station in St Vincent and the Grenadines. His action came at a time when the government of St Vincent and the Grenadines was seeking to transform its media landscape by introducing FM radio frequencies. The government was at the time trying to meet a World Trade Organisation (WTO) deadline in implementing its policy of expansion in trade in services. The old pattern of government monopoly in radio was about to be dismantled after over two decades of separation from the BBC World Service. The dominance of AM frequency radio in St Vincent and the Grenadines was about to be snapped.
What WE FM had to offer was unknown territory. Some embraced the idea as a positive move, executed by one who was no stranger to broadcast media in St Vincent; others were dismissive, claiming that the marketplace was too limited to accommodate the expansion into multiple FM frequency radio stations, which is not likely to be able to sustain itself, even with the best of intentions. The government was at the time trying to meet a World Trade Organization (WTO) deadline in implementing its policy of expansion in trade in services. Williams was aware of the prevailing situation that would work in his favour in realising his dream. Vincentians and others would soon understand that WE FM had many positive elements that would set it on a memorable path and in an enviable position in the Vincentian media landscape.
Programming, technical capacity and staff
The entire Williams family is fully committed to the advancement of WE FM, not just as a past time, but as a twofold business: – for the family and for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines wherever they are located across the world. In addition to its regular programmes for a local Vincentian audience, the station hosts social media platforms for interaction with its listeners and Online Streaming to the Caribbean and the Diaspora. It broadcasts 24 hours each day, providing entertainment, news, information and also addresses social and national development issues.
The day-to-day operations of the station are managed by Susan De Freitas, a business woman, who has motivated and supported Williams in many projects.
Williams’ brother Willis, his nephews and son assist him with the technical aspects of the station.
De Freitas says: “The station launched its online radio station in 2004 and has quadrupled its streaming bandwidth since then, to accommodate the tremendous response it has received from the Diaspora”. She further added, “the online radio station is not just another radio station, it is a community”.
Williams says his vision is to “take Caribbean radio to the next level… by making WE FM the premiere online radio station serving the Caribbean and the Caribbean Diaspora”.
The station’s owner is an Electrical Engineer who has in the past been contracted by the government and other local and regional radio stations to boost their technical capabilities. He is, therefore, quite familiar with the technical capacity needs of a radio station and knows the media marketplace. His son and nephews are professionally trained in Engineering and Computer Sciences. Embracing digital technology, positioning social media and live streaming were obvious choices for this station.
The station’s employees are mainly fully time and committed. They have a sense of social responsibility and share the overall vision and mission of the station with the family. It is a very close-knit group that is fulfilling the mission and realising the vision of the station. The station also engages some dedicated part-time players. Williams says WE FM is totally committed to building capacity and competence among its staff members, but they also seek to engage versatile and creative persons for development.
WE FM made the quickest and most incisive connection to the people by programming to meet their social and existential needs – they voiced their problems “On Air” and a solution is assured. This initiative was not intended to “shame” anyone but to secure more responsible and accountable social operatives and give rise to a society of action oriented individuals. They have demonstrated to Vincentians that there is an avenue open and free to them to not only comment on issues, but to advocate for changes within society. This key unlocked the critical doors for WE FM, while others stations languished precariously with their dependence on the output of the music industry, which has not been able to fix the problems within the Vincentian society.
Environmentally Friendly escape
We are in an era where environmental degradation is unprecedented. The Vincentian society has had its own experiences with climate change – areas that were once densely forested are now the “Mecca” for concrete structures with little or no vegetation, other areas have been violently deforested and lay bare, with even the top soil very loose and unstable, escaping into the sea when it rains, causing more damage to the environment. The Vincentian society has experienced many disasters that are the results of climate change. The force of winds has significantly increased, sea levels are rising continuously and the weather patterns are rapidly changing for the worst. Do many businessmen think about the environment when they decide to develop or expand business? Williams works with a commitment to environmental sustainability.
The main studios of WE FM are consciously situated in an environmentally friendly space. The station is nestled and carved into the rugged, rocky terrain of the hills of Windy Point, overlooking the Lower Questelles Bay and the Campden Park area on the west coast of St Vincent. It is uniquely positioned to give a feeling of open space, with a full circular view of the villages around it. One will hardly recognise the frame of a radio station within the space, as it merges seamlessly with the space. The station is at one with nature, as a building is not immediately observable on entering the compound.
Williams says his plan was “to create a natural space that is environmentally friendly, without disturbing the natural habitat and design the station to use cutting-edge of technology, in an environmentally friendly manner”. He further added that he had two agendas in mind (1) how he “prepared the space for his workers to deepen their appreciation of the environment” and (2) “equipping the studio for his employees to develop a deep appreciation for technology”.
“In preparing the site for the building, I had to carve the studios into the rock, which was quite tedious, but necessary for me to retain the natural environment, which I desired”. He said he went further: “I restored the lawn I had removed from the space back to its place which became the roof of the studio building”. He pointed out that “more than 50 per cent of the studios have been set underground to considerably lessen noise interferences and all operations are virtual, controlled only by the use of a mouse and keypad”. He noted that as an electronic engineer, maintenance is critical at all levels, in studio and for transmission equipment: “every moving part gives problem if it not maintained with consistency”.
The spaces in the studios are also environmentally friendly designed, without the use of conventional foam or Styrofoam egg holders. They are panelled in wood which transport the sound at different levels and become levers of sound production to ensure more effective natural sound production. The technology is built into these panels. The carpeting on the floor is used sparingly, yet the studios are not “hard” but “soft” spaces, ideal for the efficient production of top quality sound.
As WE FM celebrates its 25th year in operation, it can celebrate its efforts in the making of a sustainable and environmentally friendly media space and a medium for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
J. Pamela Barbour is the Communications Manager for the Institute for Sustainable Development, The University of the West Indies (UWI); Former Co-ordinator of the Radio Education Unit, UWI and Former Deputy General Manager of NBC Radio St. Vincent and the Grenadines.