WJFF Radio Catskill History

In Memory of Malcom Brown, WJFF Radio Catskill Co-Founder

Malcolm Brown co-founded WJFF Radio Catskill. He passed away on November 3, 2021. We honor his vision and dedication to public radio, the environment and the community.

More about Malcom here.


Hydroelectric Beginnings

Lake Jefferson has delighted residents and visitors for decades as a place of recreation and natural beauty. Most people don’t know, however, that the lake and its dam were originally constructed in the 1920s with the intent of producing hydroelectricity. The dam was designed in 1922 by Joseph B. Rider of New York City for the Clarke Water and Power Company, but was only partially completed. In 1927, the company Lake Jefferson Inc. took over construction, and the project was redesigned by Nial Sherwood of Liberty, NY. The dam was completed, but the original hydroelectric project was abandoned in favor of generation using coal, at the site. Guests at the Lake Jefferson Hotel became the main users of the lake. Then, 57 years later, Malcolm Brown, a former philosophy professor-turned-sustainable energy activist, revisited the lake’s potential for producing green electricity.

Generating the Current

In 1984, Malcolm Brown and Anne Larsen bought the old generating site next to the dam and began the work of transforming the man-made lake into a resource capable of producing power. Hydro electricity is produced by directing water from Lake Jefferson into a pair of turbines, where the force of the moving water causes the turbine to spin. The spinning action of the turbine creates electricity by turning a shaft that is connected to a gearbox which in turn is connected to a generator. In order to bring water from the lake down to the turbines, a hole was punched through the core wall of the dam and a long steel tube called the penstock was attached to direct the falling water into two turbines (one 25 kw and one 45 kw) in the powerhouse situated below the dam.
Jeffersonville Hydroelectric Company began generating power in 1986, producing power for the powerhouse and selling the rest of the energy back to the utility NYSEG, New York State Electric and Gas. At full power, the hydroelectric facility can generate enough power for 20-25 homes.

Water Power Spawns Radio Tower

The hydroelectric station’s potential for serving the community was given a vehicle with the founding of WJFF Radio Catskill. Filling a dearth of independent public radio available in the mountainous Catskill area, WJFF Radio Catskill began broadcasting February 12, 1990, and the offices and studios were powered by the hydroelectric energy being produced just down the driveway. Spearheaded by Malcolm Brown and the enthusiasm of local residents, the station was constructed almost entirely by volunteer labor.

Dam Damage

In 2005, veteran WJFF Radio Catskill volunteers, hydro operators, and dam crew members Kevin and Barbara Gref bought the dam and powerhouse from Malcolm Brown.

Several severe floods have hit the Jeffersonville area since 2000 and in the flood of June 2006, which destroyed the Briscoe Lake dam, the spillway of the Lake Jefferson dam was damaged and Lake Jefferson was filled with silt. The repairs needed to restore the spillway are estimated to cost approximately $200,000. A group of residents along Lake Jefferson have formed the Lake Jefferson Conservation Association to save the lake by repairing the dam and to conserve and restore the environmental, recreational and flood management qualities provided by Lake Jefferson.

How Much Power?

The hydroelectric turbines at the base of the Jeff Dam has a potential 70 kilowatt capacity, which means at full capacity they can produce enough power for 20-25 homes. This is considered a micro-hydro power facility according to US Department of Energy Standards, which categorizes as small all facilities producing between 0.1 and 30 megawatts of power.

When Can Hydro Power Be Produced?

Hydroelectric power produces safe, clean energy that has a low impact on the environment, but it is also dependent on the weather. Hydroelectricity can be produced most of the year, but during hot summer droughts, when there is little water in the lake, the turbines must be turned off to avoid draining the lake too low. Though too little water can be a problem, too much water can also stop the production of electricity. Very high water and flooding is dangerous, as the hydro facility, which sits below the residential portion of the powerhouse and very close to the flowing water of Callicoon Creek, may be flooded. If the electrical components are in danger of being flooded, all equipment is turned off and power production stops.

Who Makes the Power?

Jeffersonville Hydroelectric is owned and operated by Kevin and Barbara Gref and is monitored by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Radio Catskill in the News

Malcolm Brown

Flinty broadcasters power up with water, wind
By Jim Krane / AP Technology Writer

JEFFERSONVILLE, N.Y. — In this era of cookie-cutter corporate radio, few stations stand out. Flip on your car radio and you’d have a tough time guessing whether you were in Alaska or Alabama.
Even rarer than stations that decide what they’ll play are ones that also generate the very electricity powering the broadcasts.
At least two radio stations in North America display such flinty self-sufficiency.
In Jeffersonville, a country town of 1,600 in the Catskill Mountains, a tumbling trout stream supplies the power for WJFF.
Malcolm Brown, a former philosophy professor who helped incubate the station, built a tiny power plant by knocking a three-foot hole in the side of a 21-foot-high dam on the creek. He piped water to a pair of turbines in the basement of his creekside house.
“I’m more of a wind-power, waterpower guy than I am a radio guy,” said Brown, 70, a wiry man with a fringe of white hair and beard. “The radio station, you might say, was an afterthought.”
The turbines supply enough juice to power the house, WJFF’s studios — which sit in a rustic chalet on the hillside overlooking Lake Jefferson. There’s enough leftover electricity to sell to the local utility, said Brown, leaning on a broom in the cool shade of his cinderblock powerhouse.
Even though Jeffersonville sits less than three hours’ drive from New York City, none of the city’s radio stations can be counted on to penetrate the Catskills’ deep green valleys. Only a handful of local stations bother to broadcast to the region.
But radio offerings in the Catskills must look like a Chinese restaurant menu to the 1,400 residents of the dusty casino town of Jackpot, Nev., which languishes in one of America’s loneliest areas.
Until March, radios were silent.
“In this little old town? You’re lucky to get static,” said Jackpot resident Joe Creador, 36. “We don’t get no news, no weather, no nothing.”
Now, three windmill generators loom above the barren 8,700-foot peak of Ellen D Mountain, 12 miles south of Jackpot.
The region’s relentless wind allows the generators to grind out 5,000 watts, powering the transmitter that beams all-news KBSJ to Jackpot and the 2,000 or so daily motorists who drive through the empty northeast Nevada scrublands, heading, perhaps, to Cactus Pete’s casino or the Covered Wagon Motel.
KBSJ’s embrace of alternative power stemmed from cost considerations, not individualism.
The wind-generating system, with its 13,000-pound storage battery and voltage inverter, cost less than $300,000 — much cheaper than an eight-mile spur from the nearest utility lines, said Tom Lowther, the station’s chief engineer.
Jackpotters can now get storm alerts and emergency broadcasts via KBSJ, based in nearby Twin Falls, Idaho. The station is run by Boise State University and mostly offers programs from National Public Radio.
“I was quite enthused about a radio station that you could actually hear,” said Jackpot Town Clerk Dixie Choate. “We’re beginning to join the 21st century.”
Jackpot sits on two-lane U.S. 93, which carries trucks ferrying nuclear waste to a nearby federal repository. Civil defense officials needed a local station to broadcast news in case of a spill or highway closure, according to Boise State University.
An Internet search turned up no other references to water-powered radio and only a few, such as Utah’s KRCL, partly powered by wind. In British Columbia, a broadcaster uses wind and solar energy to transmit underwater ocean sounds to boaters off Vancouver Island.
Neither KBSJ nor WJFF runs on nature’s energy alone. The two FM stations use backup power in August, when the Nevada winds die and the Catskill rains dwindle.
In addition, KBSJ’s Twin Falls studio runs on the electric utility grid, as does WJFF’s transmitter, which pokes from a hilltop above Jeffersonville.
WJFF began broadcasting in 1990, beaming National Public Radio news along with homespun shows like “Out, Loud and Queer” and “Ballads and Banjos” to the Catskills’ vacation homes, dairy farms and working-class summer resorts.
The station owes its existence to Brown’s decade-long quest to go “off the grid.” After researching the project since the 1970s, Brown spent $100,000 building the powerhouse, laying pipe from the dam, installing generators and a pair of water-powered turbines the size of dining-room tables.
In 1986, with the power flowing, a friend visiting Brown complained he’d miss the next episode of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion because of the Catskills’ dearth of radio stations.
“Why don’t you build one?” Brown quoted his friend as saying.
So build one he did. After four years gathering signatures, raising money, filling out government grant forms and building a studio, the station hit the airwaves.
Among North America’s independent radio stations, WJFF’s modest signal carries a disproportionately large presence. This month, the station hosted the yearly Grassroots Radio Conference, which brought 200 representatives from dozens of stations across the continent.
WJFF’s unique hydropowered independence lured the conference, Brown and others said.
“Many community stations are talking about it,” said Paul Mischo, a board member of KGNU in Boulder, Colo. “They’re an example for us to start thinking longer and harder about getting off the grid, too.”