Eat it on the Radio
Written onMarch 01 , 2008
In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.
For the past three years, I have hosted a show on WMRW that is all about food. The show is called The Dinner Hour and it airs live on Tuesdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., replays on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and is re-broadcast on WOOL-LP Bellows Falls, 100.0 FM, on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The Dinner Hour is the essence of what McKibben is talking about when he writes of a “local institution that draws people together.” Most weeks I have a guest on my show, and this allows me to introduce listeners to neighbors they might not otherwise meet: farmers, chefs, food producers, food lovers. Some of my guests have included Randy George, the owner of Red Hen Baking Company, Elizabeth Shepard, the former managing editor of Epicurious.com, Liz and Dan Holtz, founders of Liz Lovely Vegan Cookies, and Jon Steinman, who hosts his own radio show in Nelson, British Columbia, called Deconstructing Dinner. Some of the topics covered on my show have included backyard sugaring, how to make great soups with restaurant owner Michael Flanagan, the procrastinator’s guide to eating locally in winter, and understanding the organic standards with NOFA’s Nicole Dehne. Though the signal for WMRW reaches only slightly beyond the Mad River Valley, topics discussed on the show can be of interest to all Vermonters. (Past programs can be downloaded from our web site, www.dinnerhour.org.)
Compared to a national radio show that is impersonal and fast-paced, The Dinner Hour might seem homely and amateurish. Guests sometimes show up a little late because they had to clean up after the lunch crowd or finish feeding their animals. But it’s that lack of slickness that makes The Dinner Hour and other community radio shows authentic and human. It is refreshing in today’s world of Clear Channel Communications and satellite radio to know that there is a real person on the other end of the radio signal. And because I control the whole hour of my show, listeners are not subjected to advertisements or sound bites; guests are typically on for the full hour, and that gives us lots of time to have in-depth and meaningful conversations.
The real beauty of community radio stations is that they can operate on a shoestring budget. In the Mad River Valley, our annual operating budget is $7,000 a year, which we raise through donations. Our low overhead means that we are not beholden to corporate sponsors or advertisers like Archer Daniels Midland or Cargill, two huge global corporations that control much of our industrial food supply. As long as I am not violating FCC regulations, my guests and I can talk about whatever we wish, and this enables us to have frank and timely discussions about our concerns with the worldwide industrial food system and the importance of strengthening Vermont agriculture.
There are a handful of low-power community radio stations throughout Vermont, and most of them invite anyone from the community who wants to have a show to fill out an application. To become a radio programmer, no prior experience is necessary and the station will provide the training. A few Vermont stations already have food shows (for example, WVEW in Brattleboro has Local Sprouts and WGDR at Goddard College has Food for Thought), but wouldn’t it be great if every community radio station had its own local food show?
I especially like hosting The Dinner Hour in the summer, when people can listen to it on Saturday mornings on their way to area farmers’ markets. People always stop me at the Waitsfield market to comment on that week’s guest or to ask me about a recipe I discussed that uses a certain vegetable currently in season. Clearly the show serves many community needs, and this is exactly what Bill McKibben means when he advocates for “rebuilding institutions that bring people together.” Here in the Mad River Valley, WMRW-LP and The Dinner Hour are doing just that.
Photo of Robin by John Barkhausen