Woonsocket's Media Rich Town

PROVIDENCE, RI – Rhode Island's northernmost city faces many of the same challenges as the state as a whole, including a lack of jobs. But one thing that sets Woonsocket apart is an unusually rich array of local media.

Lorraine Corey is a grandmother of seven who self-deprecatingly puts her age as older than the dinosaurs. She might seem like an unlikely candidate to be the latest entry in Woonsocket's local media, but she cares deeply about how her tax dollars are spent.

"I work hard for my money as most of us do," Corey says. "You take a penny away from me and I want to know why."

It was this curiosity about local government that led Corey to launch her local news Web site, mywoonsocket.com, last September.

"It started because every time I wanted some information," she says, "I'd have to do a lot of research, you know -- go into the state's Web site. Go into the city's Web site, try to find state laws, mandates, city charters. And I thought, now that I have the information, why don't I just share that, so people don't have to keep doing all the research?"

The website also features links to the latest news articles about Woonsocket, from a variety of sources. Corey says the reason for that is simple: "If you're not informed, you're lost. You can go to city council meetings, town council meetings. If you have no idea what they're talking about, you're lost, and then you get your tax bill and you're wondering, how did this happen?"

If Mywoonsocket.com is the latest entry in Woonsocket's media landscape, the city's daily newspaper, The Call, is the oldest. It's located in a classic newspaper building on Main Street, a stone's throw from City Hall

Founded in 1892, The Call was once a must-read in the Blackstone Valley. Locals say the paper's former owner, the Journal-Register chain, decimated The Call with cutbacks before selling it in 2007. Four years later, The Call still plugs away while competing with Internet sites like Woonsocket Patch and The Valley Breeze, a free Cumberland-based weekly. Call publisher Barry Mechanic acknowledges that finding the best way forward for a small daily in the Internet age defies easy solutions.

"If I knew that," Mechanic says, "I could probably make a fortune by teaching everybody else."

But Mechanic and editor Dan Trafford say The Call still plays an important role by emphasizing local news in Woonsocket. Trafford points to a recent anecdote to illustrate the paper's connection with its readers.

"Just today alone we received five phone calls about a truck that was struck under the bridge on Social Street, to let us know about it, so we could go down there and take a picture after we had already gone down," Trafford says. "It says the people of the community are still looking to their daily newspaper for local news."

Woonsocket's Republican mayor, Leo Fontaine, says the city's local media put this city with a population of 43,000 residents under a microscope -- and he says that's a good thing. "It allows for the community to be closer," Fontaine says, "and everybody knows what's happening."

Woonsocket's media includes two locally owned radio stations, each of which is more than 50 years old. Fontaine isn't so crazy about frequently being on the receiving end of brickbats from one local talk-show host, WNRI's John Dionne.

"Obviously, he is not so fond of me, so it does become a little frustrating," Fontaine says.

Dionne was a city department director under former mayor Susan Menard. "I kind of refer to him as Woonsocket's own Buddy Cianci," says WNRI program director Jeff Gamache. Gamache says Dionne's two-hour daily show is just part of how his station serves its audience.

"We have four hours of French music on the weekend," he says. "We have the polka music hour. We have African heritage radio, which has a host from Nigeria. We have Cape Verdean programming, we have Spanish programming. Part of the reason we have so much ethnic programming is to reflect the people in the communities around us."

Woonsocket's other leading local radio station is ON radio, which operates from a small house on Park Avenue. "It's always been Woonsocket radio and that's our slogan," says station owner Dave Richards. "Most radio stations that I've worked at are always trying to make themselves look very, very big. Our success has been in embracing how small we are."

The programming on ON radio extends from a healthy eating show to the Coffee An roundtable. Richards says the latter is the longest continually running panel discussion show in American radio.

"It started on the morning of Monday, November 11, 1946," Richard says, "and has been on the air every single weekday since, over 24,000 episodes. It is the radio representation of the morning coffee shop. People come and go. They drink coffee, they eat donuts which we provide through wonderful sponsors and they just talk about what everyone's talking about."

Nationally and locally, the media remain in a state of flux and uncertainty. Considering that, Woonsocket seems fortunate to have a broad representation of local media.

Listen to more stories and interviews in our series, One Square Mile: Woonsocket.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.