When it started in 1972, the proudly uncommercial “free-form” station broadcast at a measly 10 watts, barely enough to reach the city limits. After the station boosted its signal to 200 watts in the eighties, it could be heard in Barton Hills and parts of Saline, Dexter, and Ypsilanti.

Now WCBN has a new broadcasting tower on the roof of the Dennison Building. And sometime in the next few months, it will switch on a new, 3,000-watt transmitter that will expand its coverage area three- or four-fold.

The upgrade wasn’t cheap. “The cost of the whole thing–tower, directional antenna and transmitter–will be pushing six figures,” says chief engineer Jim Campbell. That’s huge for a station whose operating budget this year is just $32,000. But like everything at the station except his halftime pay, Campbell says, “this entire project is being financed by our listeners.”

Fans of WCBN’s breathtakingly eclectic programming–depending on the host, it plays everything from vintage country to Turkish pop music to Philip Glass–provided the funds, but the upgrade wouldn’t have been possible without two regulatory changes–one national and one local.

First, TV broadcasts went all-digital three years ago, reducing interference at the low end of the FM radio spectrum. “Television used to be right below the FM band, and sometimes if you were down far enough, you could get the audio for Channel 6. We used to say to our listeners that if you were any further left [on the radio dial], you’d be listening to television,” Campbell says.

Second, WAQQ out of Onsted stopped broadcasting. Like WCBN, it was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast at 88.3 MHz, and as long as it was on the air, WCBN couldn’t boost its signal to the southwest.

An antenna and transmitter that wouldn’t conflict with WAQQ’s signal “would have been twice as expensive,” Campbell explains. “I was holding my breath hoping the FCC wouldn’t renew their license.”

The engineer drove down to Onsted to see if he could tune in the station. “But I couldn’t hear anything. All radio stations are supposed to have an office in the community, but I couldn’t find that. Then when I couldn’t find the transmitter and the tower site, I knew they weren’t real.”

So Campbell wasn’t surprised that “when they went to apply for renewal, the FCC rejected them because they weren’t actually broadcasting.”

This cleared the way for the feds to approve WCBN’s upgrade, but it didn’t resolve every issue.

“There’s a radio station in Plymouth, WSDP 88.1, a high school radio station, and because we’d interfere with their signal, we can’t increase in that area,” Campbell says. So the directional antenna’s signal has a heart shape, with an indentation to the east: “The direction towards Plymouth won’t improve, but every other direction will.”

The new transmitter atop the building that houses the Department of Physics will likely be put to use in a couple of months, says Campbell–once the physicists are reassured it won’t draw enough power to impact their work.