A small-city rec department hopes for high returns as residents tune in to low-power radio.

Ben Dillard, the City of Jefferson (Ga.) Parks and Recreation Department director, is tired of feeling like his department is stuck on pause.

"We could just keep going along every year like every other rec department in the country, charging people what fees we can and asking the taxpayers to make up the difference," he says. "That's standard operating procedure. But I want something different."

That something, to be specific, is a revenue source that can give Dillard's financially strapped department some flexibility when it comes to expanding programming or building new facilities. But such money is hard to drum up in a city composed of a mere 6,000 residents. This past summer, in an attempt to bring more money in, Dillard and some other paid city staff members and volunteers launched advertiser-supported Radio Jefferson (1620 on the AM dial).

Guided by a special provision of the Federal Communications Commission, and aided by the cooperation of the local cable provider, the department linked 16 low-power antennas strategically placed around the 60-square-mile city. The result is a clear transmission that sounds as though it is emanating from a single multimillion-dollar radio tower - all for just $100,000. One of just a handful of city-owned radio stations in the country, Radio Jefferson is thought to be the only one operated by a municipal parks and rec department.

"We struggle to find funds just like everybody else," says Dillard. "We've got kids who want to play sports and nowhere to put them, so we go and tax people more. Well, I want to try to earn my money."

Initially, Dillard looked for guidance from David Moxley, the president of nearby Radio Sandy Springs, another low-power AM station, which launched in suburban Atlanta in 2005. "We offer a pretty economical way of starting a radio station, and we're definitely not big time," says Moxley, who has since consulted with other small-community organizations looking to delve into local radio. "We're not trying to cover a 10-county area or anything like that."

Radio Jefferson began streaming online (at jeffersonrec.com) in early summer and debuted on the airwaves in August with all-local programs that include live game broadcasts and discussion of local high school and youth recreation sports, city council meeting coverage, and talk shows tackling local politics, law and real estate.

That kind of programming satisfies a need that's been largely unmet since the FCC began allowing radio stations to hold licenses in towns in which they don't operate, says Moxley. "FCC regulations have left small cities sort of high and dry as far as communications specifically for their citizens," Moxley says. "This is one way for towns to do their own thing."

To fund Radio Jefferson's launch, the city council approved allocating special county tax revenue earmarked for local capital improvements to the project. "One hundred thousand dollars is a lot," admits Dillard, "but I could easily spend $100,000 on equipment that's eventually going to rust in the rain. The idea here was to spend money on something that is going to continuously generate some revenue."

Not only did the council agree to fund the station's startup, it agreed that any profits will funnel directly back to the parks and recreation budget. "So the harder we work, the more money we'll have," says Dillard, who has met some skepticism about the practical elements of the innovative radio project.

"Jefferson has no Wal-Mart, no Home Depot, no Red Lobster - none of that stuff. When people need something in Jefferson, they have to leave," he says. "People have asked me, 'How are you going to sell advertising in a town like that?' " The answer thus far has been to pit competing local economies against one another. "When people leave Jefferson, they can either go 15 minutes east or 15 minutes west," says Dillard. "So if you're in one of those towns east or west of us, you'd better advertise with us to make people head in your direction." Another strategy has been to sell ads on the cheap. Says Dillard, "Since we own the station and we're pretty low budget, we can charge less than what it would cost to put a quarter-page ad in the newspaper."

Dillard clearly doesn't lack optimism. He believes advertising sales will top $250,000 in 2008, which far exceeds the $100,000 to $120,000 he estimates it will cost annually to run the station. The department has hired a station manager and a sales team - which works on commission - and has tapped into the nearby University of Georgia, as well as high schools and broadcasting schools, for pro bono help in sales and day-to-day station operations. Radio Jefferson broadcasts from the rec department's former location, a four-bedroom house behind the city's police station. Dillard and his crew simply added sound-blocking walls, some microphones, a mixing board and a couple of computers with commercial radio software. "We don't have to pay rent. We just have to pay for power, phones and people," Dillard says. "Because of the technology and the software these days, the operation doesn't take a whole lot to develop."

Low overhead is what has allowed Moxley's young station to turn a profit, he says. "The technology today is very simple. I can fit everything I need to do a remote setup into a suitcase. It used to take a van."

A critical element of the radio business Dillard didn't see coming is the amount of time required to cut and edit radio programs and ads. "It's tremendous," says Dillard, whose duties as Radio Jefferson emissary have often included manning the microphone, though he still must find time in his schedule to oversee the more traditional recreation-related functions of his department. "I can't describe how much time this takes up." At the time of this writing, Radio Jefferson had just launched a campaign called "Take My Job," where residents were encouraged to audition to replace Dillard in his role as morning talk-show host.

Though Dillard maintains Radio Jefferson only exists to benefit the community - whether by airing the first-ever broadcasts of Jefferson High School home football games or city council meetings, for example, or by boosting the spending power of the thinly stretched rec department - there is an undeniable Orwellian element to government-operated media. And Dillard has fielded some criticism for the enterprise. However, he sees the prospect of denying a young Jeffersonian a spot on a rec sports team because of lack of department funds as a far more harmful moral or ethical breach.

"What Radio Jefferson does as far as community service ought to be enough," he says. "But the real goal is to make money. If we don't, we're going to have to start drawing a line in the sand and saying 'you can play' to the 14th kid and 'you can't play' to the 15th. You can't do that to a child."

Dillard has been thoroughly "worn out" by the rec department's entrance to the airwaves, but he strongly believes the investment will show some returns on the flip side. "I really believe that every dollar we spend on recreation today is $10 we don't have to spend in the future on police, jails and rehab centers," he says. "I'll be long gone when these kids are 40, and I may not see what kind of impact recreation had on their lives, but I don't ever want to have to say, 'We can't do this program or that program because we don't have the money.' "