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Danielle Johnson’s Spark FM lighting up Boston airwaves

Danielle Johnson is the first black woman in Boston to own an all-digital radio station

Kenneal Patterson
Danielle Johnson’s Spark FM lighting up Boston airwaves
Danielle Johnson broadcasting from the studio of Spark FM. COURTESY PHOTO

Danielle Johnson is the first black woman in Boston to own an all-digital radio station. Spark FM boasts its success as the city’s #1 station for Urban and Caribbean music, attracting listeners, artists and DJs who perform live every week.

Small businesses are shutting down across the country, but Johnson hasn’t let the pandemic stop her. Instead, she’s adapted.

“It’s important to have live, up-to-date information and good music to try to keep us going throughout this really terrible and isolating time,” she told the Banner last week. “We really don’t have anything that’s catered to us other than statistical numbers about how bad we’re dying.”

Spark FM was launched in January through a KickStarter, or online fundraising campaign. Johnson said that her team set out to raise $19,000.

“We were actually blessed to raise $21,200, so all of that has literally come from donations from people in the community,” she said.

Support for the station came from 27 sponsors, said Johnson, and all of them are local black or brown businesses. The station has, in turn, channeled donations to its listeners. Johnson said that businesses have donated everything from facemasks to t-shirts.

“What we’ve noticed in our community is [certain businesses] can’t really give financial donations, but what they can do is donate some of the things they have going on,” she said.

YourWeaveDealer, a hair extension supplier, donated wigs for people who can’t go to hair salons. Salvaged Roots offered gift cards for their natural hair products. Some businesses offer self-care items and body oils. Some donate essential products like gift-cards for food.

Johnson said that many in local communities are experiencing anxiety and depression. Manifest Peace, another sponsor, is providing mental health checks starting next week. The company will provide instructional resources to keep people healthy and safe.

Johnson said that she’s learned how to “pivot” since COVID-19’s outbreak. In typical circumstances, she said, Spark FM’s radio hosts would work in their new state-of-the-art studio. Now, DJs use home studios to broadcast remotely.

Johnson said the transition was hectic. “It’s been a challenge. But because we’re a digital radio station, we have been able to kind of pivot and proceed with our plan. For the most part it’s been working out really great.”

Spark FM recently had an online party to celebrate the station’s launch. Johnson said that DJs donated their time to play, so the party only cost about $100. Nevertheless, Spark FM is struggling to bring in revenue.

“That’s what’s so up and down for us,” said Johnson. “Because we were projecting raising about $5,000 per month from ad sales.” So far, she said, only a couple people are reaching out for ads.

“We’re not even probably going to make $1,000 a month,” she said. “So right now, we’re kind of just winging it and just kind of giving people good music until we can get out of here and we can put our marketing plan into effect.”

Due to sponsor donations, she said, the station doesn’t have many other costs beside rent. Rent is paid through the KickStarter-raised funds.

“Right now, we’re not really struggling,” she said. “But I know in the coming months it’s going to be hard.” 

Johnson is using social media to get the word out. She said that her team is using their social network to spread information in a cost-efficient way.

“Corona’s giving us a run for our money,” she said. “But we started out being a digital station and we’re going to use the digital aspect of everything to our advantage.”

So far, the station is attracting 500 daily listeners. Johnson’s goal is 1,000 listeners by next week, and for the numbers to increase in increments of 500.

“The software that we’re using to actually run the radio station gives us up-to-date stats at all times of who is listening,” she said. “Right now, unfortunately, the numbers are not as large as we would want them to be.”

Nevertheless, listeners are coming from all across the country. People from Ohio, Rhode Island, Georgia and Connecticut have all tuned in. New England listenership is especially picking up, said Johnson.

Spark FM is available online through sparkfmonline.com, or through a new Android app.

Johnson acknowledged incoming information about COVID-19s disproportionate impact on the black community. She said that it’s important to have an up-to-date, independent media source providing information “that we need and want to know, and that is marketed to us.”

“We have live people in studios giving them real information, and playing music that’s better than their Pandora stations and their streaming services,” she said.

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