Some 150 community radio practitioners and supporters convened at the
Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center in Illinois in late July for the annual
Grassroots Radio Conference.
Tridish’s coat contains language from the Local Community Radio Act.
Formed 16 years ago, the Grassroots Radio Coalition is a loose-knit
group involved with and concerned about community radio. The GRC held its first
conference in the summer of 1996, spearheaded by station leaders at KGNU(AM/FM)
in Boulder, Colo., and WERU(FM) in Blue Hill, Maine.
to a treatise written by former KGNU Station Manager Marty Durlin and former
WERU General Manager Cathy Melio, grassroots radio stations are often
characterized by a “volunteer-powered, consensus-oriented, community-involved
model” and generally feature an eclectic range of programs.
I traveled to Champaign-Urbana by train from
Chicago and made my way to the conference site. Housed in a historic post
office in Urbana, the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is a large,
all-purpose space containing a tiny studio for community radio station WRFU(FM),
along with public computers, production and art studios, a library and meeting
post office boxes still line the walls across from the radio station and the
main room features grand pieces of three-dimensional artwork overlooking the
I arrived just in time to catch a screening
of the film “Corporate FM” followed by a question-and-answer session with
director Kevin McKinney. When I’d spoken with McKinney via email in April, I’d
asked him if he was a radio activist; he demurred, saying that he associated
that term with hippies “who only [care] about LPFM.”
Although McKinney acknowledged that he likes the idea of low-power FM,
he explained that, “Any ‘penny-whistle’ sized signal is too small to do what commercial
FM should be doing … I don’t see it unifying a large enough population to shape
and establish a unique style of a city’s music and culture.” Since much of the
Grassroots Radio Conference agenda was focused on LPFM, I was eager to see how the
film would be received.
“Corporate FM” focuses
primarily on commercial radio and the effects of consolidation, as well as what
the director sees as the role of private equity firms in the reduction in the
number of local owners.
Community and college radio aren’t really mentioned.
McKinney said during the Q&A that he thinks that community media works to
provide the “spark” that commercial stations can then pick up and share with
larger audiences, whether that spark is a new band or an underreported news
In his film,
McKinney argues that commercial radio has the power to reach a much larger
audience simultaneously, but that consolidation, voice tracking and the loss of
local owners have led to a decline in the impact of radio stations within their
communities. The audience was receptive, and several people (including some LPFM
supporters) said they could relate to sad, first-hand accounts of fired commercial
radio DJs depicted in the movie.
The following day, the main portion of the conference kicked off with a
range of session options — from nuts-and-bolts panels about fundraising, audio
editing and open source tools to broader youth media, policy and social justice
Stockwell makes himself heard during a ‘Get on the Air Clinic’ at the GRC
Since it’s been a year and a half since passage
of the Local Community Radio Act, the conference also was infused with optimism
and enthusiasm about the approaching application window for new LPFM radio
Prometheus Radio Project, which advocates for “participatory radio,” has
been working to inform communities about the LPFM filing window, which the
group anticipates will be as soon as spring 2013.
In addition to providing information and tools on its website,
Prometheus has been hosting seminars around the country. As part of this
outreach, Prometheus brought a crew to Champaign-Urbana to demystify the LPFM application
process and to help provide a road map for stations hoping to get on the air.
five-part “Get on the Air Clinic” outlined not only the steps that
organizations will need to take in order to apply for a LPFM license, but also
the basics of engineering and broadcast equipment as well as tips about station
operations. Related sessions delved into broadcast law and the relationship
between LPFM and social justice movements.
Danielle Chynoweth, a member of the Prometheus
outreach team and a board member at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media
Center, said that Prometheus had been gathering information about groups
wanting to start stations and was “looking for a face-to-face way to provide
support and training.” She estimated that 35 to 40 conference attendees were
from groups that are hoping to apply for LPFM licenses.
Attendees at the “Get on the Air
Clinic” sessions came various states, and many expressed hope that they would
be able to create new LPFM radio stations. I was struck by the range of people
who were enthusiastic about LPFM —from a man who hoped to start up a LPFM
station in an Illinois library, to a large group from a community center in
Minnesota, to a man who operates an online-only Christian radio station.
In the first session, Chynoweth talked about radio as
a “means for us to make a transformation” and said that the United States is on
the cusp of the “birthing” of the “next generation of community radio.”
When in town …
During my long weekend in Champaign-Urbana, it was also a priority for
me to tour as many local radio stations as I could. I carved out time to poke
around the on-site station WRFU (which was largely unoccupied) and also drove to
Champaign to see commercial college radio station WPGU(FM) and community radio
Owned by Illini Media, a non-profit that also
owns the University of Illinois’ student publications, WPGU is an intriguing
place — student-run, but not the typical freeform college radio station. The
music library is entirely digital and station managers schedule the playlist.
A sign on the front steps of the Urbana-Champaign
Independent Media Center welcomes community radio enthusiasts from across the
WPGU, which had no physical music library, WEFT’s walls were lined with CDs.
WEFT had a cozy, more casual feel to it with sticker-covered shelves and funky
artifacts. While touring the station, WEFT DJs even pre-empted their regularly
scheduled programming in order to allow for an impromptu interview about the
stations in person gives much more of a flavor for each station’s unique
personality. It’s another way to connect with and learn from other people
working in radio.
In keeping with that sentiment, a big aspect of the
Grassroots Radio Conference is building connections across stations. During the
sessions I attended, each member of the audience offered up an introduction so
that everyone had a sense of who was in the room and what they could add to the
As I trekked out of town at the end of the weekend, I
was reminded of the power of gatherings like GRC. I sensed a spirit of
camaraderie, not only between stations, but also between veterans and novices. Although
there were certainly discussions about the challenges of radio (after outlining
various pitfalls in a legal session, broadcast attorney Michael Couzens joked, “Does
meatpacking seem safer than radio?”), I left this year’s GRC feeling optimistic
about radio’s future.
Waits earned a master’s degree in popular culture and pens the blog Spinning
Indie. She is one of Radio Survivor’s three co-founders and has been a college
radio DJ at four stations. She has been on the air at KFJC(FM) since 1998.