The first time I tuned into WHUP-FM, a low-power radio station centered in downtown Hillsborough, I prepared for disappointment.
The show coming from my speakers was called She & Her, "an hour-long talk and music show about millennial women." As someone who is neither millennial nor female, I assumed it was my best shot at not connecting with WHUP's eclectic programming. But I was wrong.
The first episode I heard—and I've listened again, and often—featured Jessamyn Stanley, a Durham-based yoga instructor. The segment was artfully produced and, although I don't practice yoga, actually riveting, in part because it ranged so far beyond the topic. I contacted the show's two hosts, Anita Rao and Sandra Davidson. I wanted to know how their program could capture my interest and sound so expertly produced—all on a volunteer basis, all on a radio station that starts to fade from your FM dial not long after you leave Hillsborough, and all on a radio station that's only been on the air since October.
"I worked at StoryCorps in New York. That's a highly edited show," Rao, also a producer for WUNC's The State of Things, explains a few days later. "Usually, we would spend like fifty hours on one StoryCorps piece."
"I founded Bit & Grain, a digital publication about North Carolina," adds Davidson. "Both of us have worked in narrative storytelling since we graduated."
Rao and Davidson, both 26, met in a women's studies class at UNC-Chapel Hill. The goal of their show, they tell me, is to offer an opportunity for "intersectionality"—that is, to feature people with diverse backgrounds sharing their experiences of being a woman, however different or related those stories may be.
"I think we're both very skilled at bringing people into a vulnerable place where they can share in a comfortable way," Davidson says. "If people are earnest and humble, that is going to be more listenable than people being angry. There are times where it is OK to be angry, to say something really radical. Our show would be a safe space for that, too."
WHUP has become a safe space for a lot of things, actually. The station provides total creative freedom, so, like a college radio station, the programming is all over the map. But its mix of talk and music, with musical emphasis on Americana, seems to represent its community. And despite the open-ended format, it somehow feels curated.
"They were so supportive of our vision: 'Here's this space. We want you to make exactly the show you want to make,'" says Davidson.
Rao joins: "In our first meeting with WHUP, they were like, 'We trust you all. Here's structure. Here's an audience. Here's a place for you to record. Do whatever you want.'"
WHUP-FM sits above the Dual Supply hardware store on Hillsborough's King Street. The store is the station's landlord and, apparently, an enthusiastic booster: A bright yellow DeWalt boombox sits at the entrance, blaring the signal.
Finding someone in Hillsborough who's down on WHUP is nearly impossible. Finding someone who doesn't have some sort of connection to it is almost as difficult. From the station, for instance, I walk a couple doors to Purple Crow Books. The owner, Sharon Wheeler, helps by connecting authors with WHUP's literary show, The Spine.
"Do you remember the TV show about the little town in Alaska, Northern Exposure?" she asks, evoking a popular comparison. "Hillsborough reminds me of Northern Exposure, and the radio station just caps it off."
Just around the corner at The Wooden Nickel, bartender Tony Rignola says he participated in a benefit for the station—a crochet fashion show. One quick jaywalk across the street, and Yep Roc Records executive Billy Maupin tells me he is on WHUP's board of directors.
Really, the story of WHUP is the story of Hillsborough, a town that, in recent years, has exemplified community in the modern South. Loaded with restaurants, a brewery, a distillery, a cheesemaker and dozens of other established or upstart small businesses, Hillsborough has become this area's unlikely incubator.
One may wonder how much impact a 100-watt station in a town of just more than 6,000 can actually have, but like the concentric circles used to animate a signal emanating from a radio tower, some ideas reverberate. And Hillsborough has plenty of them.
"It's a very supportive, artistic community," Maupin says. "A station like WHUP adds to the mix and gives people a different way to express their voice. People were like, 'Of course, we need this.'"