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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Hydro Radio

Air Date: Week of April 4, 1997

This week marks Living on Earth's sixth year on the air. We thought we'd note the occasion by dipping into our archives to listen to what we we're doing back in the spring of 1991. We came up with what we think is a prime example of the kind of radio we set out to do from the start: tell a good story about environmental change. Here's our profile of public radio station WJFF.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This week marks Living on Earth's sixth year on the air. We thought we'd note the occasion by dipping into our archives to listen to what we were doing back in the spring of 1991. We came up with what we think is a prime example of the kind of radio we set out to do from the start: tell a good story about environmental change. Here's our profile of Public Radio station WJFF.

(A car engine runs)

CURWOOD: In Jeffersonville, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains and just down the road from the site of the Woodstock Music Festival, the Calcoun Creek backs up behind a 20-foot-high dam to form Lake Jefferson. A decade ago, Lake Jefferson was just one of about 250 small dams in New York State with the potential for small-scale hydro power. Today, a hydro facility there generates enough electricity to supply nearly 30 homes and one nonprofit business.

(Woman: "And you are listening to WJFF, Jeffersonville. Stay tuned for Terri Gross and Fresh Air." Fresh Air theme up and under)

CURWOOD: On the air for just over a year, WJFF is one of the country's newest public radio stations. Malcolm Brown, recently retired from teaching philosophy at Brooklyn College, is the station's general manager.

BROWN: There's literally no electric company meter on the studio building, because all of the juice for the radio comes from right here. We're rather proud of that. And we're told by our network friends that we're the only station that can claim that.

(Loud sounds of turbines spinning)

CURWOOD: WJFF's "juice" comes from Jefferson Hydro. Located at the foot of the Lake Jefferson Dam in Malcolm Brown's basement. Water rushes down an intake pipe from the lake 20 feet above and spins 2 small turbines. The turbines drive a generator, which makes electricity.

BROWN: Today they're putting out roughly 40 kilowatts. This one does about 15 kilowatts and that one does about 25.

CURWOOD: The turbines are running at full force today, propelled by a torrent of spring runoff. Come late summer, though, Brown says the flow from the dam may be just a trickle.

BROWN: But even the trickle, 20 times less than I have today, is still enough to run it. See, because the studio part of the station just requires roughly what one household requires.

(Turbines continue)

CURWOOD: Jefferson Hydro provides free electricity to WJFF and to Malcolm Brown's house. When there's power to spare, and there is usually plenty, it flows backwards through Brown's power lines and into the local utility grid. The utility pays Brown the
wholesale rate of 6 cents a kilowatt.

BROWN: Essentially I send them a monthly bill.

CURWOOD: You send the power company a monthly bill?

BROWN: Yes, sir, I send them a monthly bill. You can see that that might be some of the fun of it, that so?

CURWOOD: I guess so.

From the money he makes selling his electricity to the utility, Brown covers the hydro plant's expenses. And, when all the bills are paid, there's a little left over.

BROWN: You see, so it can be, to a small extent you can get a profitable little enterprise out of it.

CURWOOD: Forgive me if I'm wrong, but are you trying to prove something here?

BROWN: I think it's fair to say that I am, yes. I do want to say that little guys can make at least a little difference, and you can maybe do something that'll spread.

WOMAN RADIO ANNOUNCER: And I think you'll find that if you were maybe having a little after lunch slump and feeling like a nap, that this will wake you up.

(Accordion music)

CURWOOD: So, where came this idea to have a radio station?

BROWN: Well, now, that happened in an odd way. A visitor from Vermont wanted to listen to a radio show. In fact, the Garrison Keillor Prairie Home Companion. And I said Joe, we don't get public radio here. To which his response was a rather cavalier: well, then, you're going to have to make a station. So anyhow, it was a bit of work, and we didn't get the show that night. In fact, we still can't afford it. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: WJFF is a low-budget operation with just a couple of paid staff members. But the station's audience is growing, and its programming reflects the same unconventional approach that led Malcolm Brown to build his hydro plant. It's got a little bit of everything: news, classical music, jazz, rock.

There is even opera on this station.

BROWN: Yes. Now, we're going against the advice of our industry friends, you know. They say must never do opera. Audience research will prove you shouldn't do it. So I say to hell with the audience research.

(French Opera plays)

CURWOOD (Then): And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our program is produced by Peter Thomson, Gary Covino, and George Homsy, with help from...

 

 

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