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Passion without ego

Philly’s Germantown neighborhood remembers Jim Bear, the founder of G‑Town Radio

5 minute read
Jim Bear sits behind a desk with a monitor, speakers, and microphones. He is smiling and talking to someone out of frame.
Jim Bear, in his element in the G-Town Radio studio. (Photo courtesy of G-Town Radio.)

Tom Casetta, station manager of G-Town Radio, used to joke with the station’s founder, Jim Bear, that colleagues should mount a vitrine holding Bear’s photo and phone number with a sign: “In case of emergency, break glass.”

That’s because Bear, who died of lung cancer last month at age 48, was also the community radio station’s unassuming captain, its quiet motivator, its calm voice amidst the clamor.

Devoted to local media

Bear, who founded G-Town Radio in 2006 as a means to keep local residents connected and informed after the demise of the Germantown Courier, had dabbled in internet radio after graduating from Franklin & Marshall College. For a few years in the early 2000s, he worked with RadioVolta, an internet station based in West Philadelphia.

That station was launched during the Republican National Convention in 2000, recalls co-creator Pete Tridish, and Bear managed to keep his equanimity during a tumultuous time. “We were all running around during the convention—half my friends went to jail for weeks—and Jim was just remarkably calm and collected,” Tridish says. “He was someone who just jumped in and was devoted to making local media work.”

Later, Bear left RadioVolta to start a new station rooted in his own Germantown neighborhood. It was a passion project, his colleagues say, but never an exercise of ego.

“It wasn’t ‘Jim Bear Radio,’” says Casetta, who sent an e-mail to Bear 10 years ago, inquiring about the station, and quickly became a part of the all-volunteer cadre. “It wasn’t his project. It was for the community—participants had the platform to share their ideas, their passions, their love of music and conversation.”

The jump to FM

Initially, G-Town Radio was an internet station—housed first in Bear’s home, then in a snug studio at Maplewood Mall—with a listenership that grew to 18,000 and spanned the globe. The station’s offerings were idiosyncratic: a Friday-night music show hosted by a 17-year-old; obscure electronica; interviews with local authors. But not everyone had internet access, especially in the under-resourced neighborhoods closest to the station.

In 2011, a new law ended restrictions on where the Federal Communications Commission could issue licenses for low-power FM radio stations—those with signals just strong enough to reach listeners within a 3.5-10-mile radius. Bear applied, and in early 2018 the station secured a place on the FM dial, at a frequency of 92.9.

“[Broadcast] legitimizes you,” Casetta says. “It’s a regulated space in the ether; you are trusted by the government to give you a plot of airspace so you can serve your community.”

Affirmations and fun

Throughout the complicated process of landing that license—indeed, through every kind of logistical obstacle or interpersonal drama—Bear retained his steady, good-natured presence. Colleagues noted his lack of ego, quirky humor (his Facebook profile photos depicted him in a variety of animal masks), and generous style of leadership.

“He had this can-do attitude, and a lot of trust in people,” says program director Joanna Wikander, who tuned into G-Town Radio by accident one night in 2018 and was immediately hooked. She signed up for programmer training and never left.

“Jim was not a micro-manager. He trusted people to run with an idea,” Wikander says. That meant saying yes to Reuben Dickstein, a high-school junior, when he approached Bear with the idea to DJ an eclectic music show; it meant encouraging Dickstein’s mother, Jill Saull, to move from being an ad hoc producer to a member of the station’s board.

Joanna Wikander, a white woman, poses smiling with Jim Bear at an outdoor community festival. She holds an inflatable T-rex
G-Town Radio program director Joanna Wikander, Jim, and station mascot Radiosaurus at an event in Nicetown. (Photo by Jill Saull.)

“If you came to Jim and you weren’t sure about something, he would say, ‘No, I think you’ve got a good thing here; I think you might just need some support,’” Saull says. “He was a kind person who wanted you to succeed.”

Wikander recalls a birthday party for Bear’s son—the child might have been turning six—at which Bear officiated over a raucous potato-sack race, using sacks he’d found by scouring the internet. “It was the biggest hit of the party,” Wikander says. “Jim really enjoyed kid-antics. He embraced fun.”

Where locals speak to their community

Bear, colleagues say, always remained focused on G-Town Radio’s mission: to make space on the airwaves for community-generated content and non-commercial voices.

“I think he felt it was important that media not be something the rich own and the rest of us consume,” Tridish says. “He thought it was important that local people have a chance to speak to their community.”

And when it was time to step down, even before his illness, Bear did so with grace. “With community radio, it often takes a big weirdo to get the ball rolling. Often, those people have a hard time planning for their departures. With G-Town, it was the opposite of that,” Tridish says.

Bear left the station in 2019, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family—wife Maura L. Heidig and children Leo and Julia—and colleagues marked his departure with “92.9 Day” on September 29, inviting listeners to show up at the Maplewood Mall studio with a favorite record to play on the air.

“We were so nervous that the station wouldn’t make it without him,” Wikander says. “And we did.” She credits that success to the people Bear drew to the station, and to his faith that community radio filled a need. She recalls asking him, after G-Town Radio was granted its FCC license, “So now you’re on the FM dial. Now what?”

Bear’s answer: “Now, people will come.”

There will be a public memorial for Jim Bear at Cliveden Carriage House, 6401 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, on Saturday, April 30 from 2-6pm.

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