On a quiet side-street in Trumbull, tucked inside the basement of an unassuming suburban home, a radio revolution is taking place. A small revolution, to be sure, but as Gary Vollono sees it, "We are just scratching the surface of what radio can do."
Vollono's hopes are dialed to Cygnus Radio (cygnusradio.com), an Internet station he owns with four partners and, as its program director, keeps running 24/7/365 with a continuous stream of mostly independent and eclectic music and original programming billed as "Old-School, Free-Form Radio."
His ASCAP- and BMI-licensed operations are run out of a snug man-cave stuffed floor to ceiling with CDs, vinyl, posters, photos and memorabilia from a lifelong love of music, including a guitar pick given to him by Mick Ronson, David Bowie's former guitarist, which is housed, like a holy relic, under glass on his desk.
Cygnus Radio dropped into Vollono's lap, so to speak, in 2013. For years, he ran IndepenDisc, a website he founded in the 1990s devoted to independent musical artists from around the world whose CDs he reviewed on the site and then sold over the Internet.
"I beat Google and CD Baby," says Vollono. "The only thing I didn't have was money."
One day in 2005, he got an email from Cygnus Radio, which had been exploring and ordering music from his website. The station wanted permission to play some of the independent music without having to pay royalties. Vollono worked that out with the artists, who were happy for the exposure, and then Cygnus asked him to host a show.
The show, Radio IndepenDisc, debuted that September. All would have likely remained that way had David Vessel, Cygnus's founder, not died in April 2013. Vessel's partner was ready to pull the plug on the station, despite its having gained loyal listeners worldwide.
"She couldn't afford to keep it going," says Vollono. "I begged her to give me a month before pulling the plug. It was too valuable to lose something like that."
Vollono put out an email alert to friends who were, like him, embedded in the Connecticut music scene, and four partners quickly stepped forward to buy Cygnus.
"That really just means we took over paying the bills," says Vollono, laughing.
By October 2013, with the help of their tech whiz Bret Logan, the new Cygnus crew was, says Vollono, "able to pull up Vessel's old logs in order to retake command of the continuous stream. At that point, we could program the station ourselves."
Vollono shut down IndepenDisc at that point and put out a call for deejays. Dennis Lamar, who'd previously worked at WPLR in New Haven and WLAD in Danbury, came on board, as did Rick Allison, one of the best-known indie deejays in New England, also from WPLR. Tim Dittmar, a musician in Austin, signed on to do an "Indie Go Round" show, and Chip McCabe pitched in "The Metal Dad," a popular show devoted to heavy metal co-hosted with his two sons.
Chicago-based Matt Wells created "This Year's Model" on which each segment is devoted to a single year of music starting in 1950. Fran Fried, a veteran Connecticut arts writer, hosts "Franorama 2.0," an update of a show Fried did for WPKN in Bridgeport called "Sleep Deprivation Project." The "Goldmine Radio Hour" builds a show around the latest issue of a vinyl collectors' magazine. Most recently, Vollono brought on Lindsay Hiltz, a high school student whose "Days Like These" show has become a hit.
"Her on-demand is off the charts," he says with paternal pride. "We realize our demographic is an older audience, and hope to change that."
Though Cygnus radio seems to run itself, it's harder than it looks, requiring all five partners to pitch in to keep it going. The other partners, besides Vollono, Allison and Lamar, are Rob DeRosa, who hosts his own local band show on WESU in Middletown, and Meriden-based musician Frank Critelli.
"We don't bowl, fish or play cards," Vollono says of the five partners. "This is our bowling, fishing and card playing."
Meanwhile, 25 miles away, on the top floor of a harbor-view condominium in Branford, two of Vollono's comrades at (tone) arms, Allison and Critelli, are preparing their weekly Cygnus Radio show.
"Let's start with something noisy, put the quiet stuff in the middle," Allison suggests. "How about 'I Still Want You?'"
"Gosh, thanks man," says Critelli with mock affection.
"That's just the name of the song," says Allison.
He and Critelli work well together. Between spinning yarns about his long and winding career, Allison has to run back to the mike, because his show is that rarity of rarities in Internet radio: a live broadcast. He leaps into his chair, with a shout, "Stand by." As soon as he gives Critelli a nod, the latter launches into an announcement about the Apple Harvest Festival in Glastonbury and raves about Brian's Guitars in Hamden, one of the show's sponsors.
Allison calls the light and airy studio in Branford his "Crow's Nest."
Allison, Critelli says, is the "spiritual adviser" for Cygnus, though Allison describes himself as "the anchor store in the music mall."
"That's only because I do this show every day live," says Allison, who began his radio career in 1972 after moving to New Haven from his native Syracuse. "I have done radio for so long that this is what I'd be doing anyway for fun. It gives me a reason to wake up each morning."
One of Allison's first radio jobs was with Yale University's station, which in the 1970s was a commercial venue.
For Cygnus Radio, Allison creates and hosts a daily two-hour show that runs from 10 a.m. to noon called "The Allison Transmission" on which anything can and will be played, including Critelli's ukulele cover of U2's "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." He also partners with Critelli to promote local artists. Critelli took over as Allison's partner from James Velvet, the beloved New Haven music legend who died in 2015 and with whom Allison had worked for nearly 30 years.
A former Meriden schoolteacher, Critelli now tours as a musician and works as a field laborer at the Franciscan Life Center in Meriden. With his close-cropped hair and long, flowing beard, Critelli exudes a reverential intensity, and he is passionate about his role as Cygnus's promotional/media director.
"I want to learn new things, hear new things when I listen to the radio," says Critelli. "But you can't find that anymore outside of Cygnus and a few other places. When I listen to us objectively, I realize that this would still be a favorite station even if I had no connection to it."
Dennis Lamar arrives at the Crow's Nest. He claims to be Cygnus's assistant manager because "I look like the quintessential assistant manager. I can stand in any store and people will come up to me and ask me questions." Lamar also hosts "The Backroom," a Cygnus show devoted to funk music. He says, "The ultimate conundrum is this: When you can play any song you want, what do you play? It's harder than you might think."
Critelli adds, "I proved I couldn't do it. I tried relentlessly until I got out of my 20s. And it's true, we don't have a business model, per se. What we do have is passion and good taste in music. Neither are good for making money, though."
Vollono has been trying to change that of late. They have advertisers/sponsors, which helps them break even. Listeners pay no fees and those involved do it partly for the love of the medium and the music, and for the prospects that they'll be able to turn a profit eventually.
In early October, the station got a technical upgrade.
"We just updated our Continuous Stream, as we finally got the new server working," he said. "This now allows us to broadcast in 128 kbps (as opposed to 96 kbps), and opens our available pool of songs immensely, from 320 to more than 2,200. It also changes the playlist from a fixed 20-hour [repeated] format, to a random format with no time/repeat regulations."
Vollono feels that he is having to bridge two different cultures with Cygnus.
"It's partly our age, having to embrace all this new technology and Internet savvy," he says. "But millennials have a learning curve, too. It's like having to educate a new audience about free-form radio. We're old enough to have been exposed to the best of radio, when it introduced us to new artists and didn't play the same 30 songs every day, when it was not a corporate entity. Cygnus wants to play that educational and informative role again, especially with local and independent music. There's so much great music that's come out of Connecticut dating to the 1960s that's dying to be heard. We want the whole world to hear it."