The current media landscape is a mess, riddled with corporate interests and commercialism. As people continue to shift their primary sources of information and entertainment to the internet, consumers are caught up in debates about media monopolies and the battle for net neutrality. But amid all of this noise, a subculture has been quietly emerging, resurrecting and reinventing a thing of the past: the indie radio station. In the fall of 2013, a legislative reversal resulted in an open application period for low-power FM radio broadcasting licenses. Several area groups seized the opportunity, and are now in the process of getting licenses, setting up shop, and honing their visions for community radio.
At present, two groups — Rochester Free Radio, and what is informally being called Radio MuCCC (with a to-be-announced name that will be determined by its official call letters, once chosen) — have acquired station placement on the dial, as well as construction permits from the Federal Communications Commission. Three other groups within Rochester are in competition for a third frequency, which may result in the FCC's decision to create a time-share situation. (Those groups are Rochester Community Television, the Ibero-American Action League, and a group based out of Rochester Institute of Technology.) A Christian group in Fairport also applied for and acquired a station.
With a legal ceiling of 100 watts, low-power FM radio stations have a limited reach — roughly a 3.5-mile radius — but can be used to offer communities a broader range of niche content. Low-power stations in other communities frequently highlight local music, politics, culture, and creative personalities.
Although electronic devices continue to become ever slicker, the trend for nostalgic, homemade products continues to gain steam. Inkjet printers and e-cards made letterpress obsolete, but that art form has resurged due its aesthetic, and the time and care placed into the construction of the created objects. Musicians are releasing new music on vinyl for the depth and richness in sound. Similarly, an interest in indie, DIY community radio stations has been renewed. The difference is that broadcasting never really went out of popularity — it just became overwhelmingly commercial.
"Radio is easy to produce and free to consume, and it is responsive in a really cool way," says Radio MuCCC co-founder, Mike Yates, who is also a DJ for WITR. He says one of the unique elements about hosting a radio show is that it's so immediate. "I came to the [WITR] station an hour before my show, and found out Lou Reed had died. Being in a radio station, I had this time, and a communal library to draw from, and I was able to put together a show in an hour to respond to something that had happened two hours before," he says.
American airwaves used to be clogged with pirate radio stations, says Rochester Community Radio co-founder Chuck McCoy. In the year 2000, then Federal Communications Commission Chairman Bill Kennard discussed the idea of regulating the spaces between commercial stations by allowing community groups to apply for low-power FM broadcasting licenses. The National Association of Broadcasters, a lobby group representing the interests of for-profit, over-the-air radio and television broadcasters, argued that these stations would interfere with commercial radio broadcasting. In response, the so-called Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which limited LPFM to rural areas, was passed in Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.
Activism and petitions called for legislators to revisit the case for LPFM broadcasting in cities. "The FCC's engineers are second to none, and they said it would cause no interference," says McCoy. A new law passed in 2010 to allow cities in on the fun, but the FCC dragged its feet for a while, McCoy says. The FCC announced it would hold a filing window for applications in the fall of 2012; a year later the public was given roughly 30 days to submit applications for LPFM licenses.
The three founders of Rochester Free Radio are no strangers to the airwaves. Jeff Moulton, who currently works for the Greece Central School District, has worked in radio and television since the 1960's, with stints at WBEE, Channel 13, and other stations. McCoy has worked in and out of radio professionally, mostly as a DJ, since the 1970's, and currently hosts the evening show at WLGZ Legends 102.7FM.
McCoy plans to keep his show on the commercial station after the community station takes off this summer, and doesn't see a conflict of interest. McCoy sees the need for both commercial and community radio. "The whole point of LPFM is to be an alternative," he says.
In fact, LPFM radio isn't meant to compete with the commercial stations. The signal is very low power — enough to cover the city and parts of surrounding suburbs, but nothing compared to the reach of WXXI or any of the commercial stations. If someone gets into LPFM broadcasting looking to make a dent in the ratings, "they're going to be deeply disappointed," says McCoy. But ratings aren't why he and his co-founders got into free radio. "We did this because we wanted to play disc jockey on our own station," he says.
The other Rochester Free Radio co-founder, Dave Sutliff-Atias, is assistant director of advocacy at Center for Disability Rights and has run for the Rochester City School Board twice and Rochester City Council on the Green Party ticket. McCoy says the trio has been kicking around the idea of developing a community radio station for years. They experimented with broadcasting on AM with low-power transmitters, but without very impressive results. Then in 2010, Congress changed the LPFM laws to include urban areas, and they knew the FCC would soon hold an application period for LPFM stations.
That filing window took place between October 17 and November 14, 2013. Because there are only so many frequencies available between commercial stations, the FCC has no plans to host another application period, "so this might have been an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says McCoy.
Rochester Free Radio and Radio MuCCC received their confirmation notices from the FCC within a day of one another, and both parties congratulated one another. McCoy says there might be ways in which the two groups will work together, and have already referred people interested in shows to one another.
Radio MuCCC's Mike Yates has been a DJ at WITR 89.7 since the summer of 2008. Like the founders of Rochester Free Radio, Yates had been considering starting a community radio station for years. His interest was sparked in late 2009 when WITR's bylaws were changed, requiring everyone working at the station to have some affiliation with RIT (though Yates was grandfathered in and continues to work at WITR).
Witnessing this change at a station that had historically been a place where the wider community could participate in radio opened Yates's eyes to the need for a place that would encourage community participation, he says.
Yates tossed around ideas with a colleague that didn't really go anywhere. In late 2012, Yates spotted a Facebook post by musician Matt Werts, a friend of some friends, expressing the desire to start a station. Yates contacted him, and soon brought in another WITR DJ, Johanna Buran. (The group also initially included Genevieve Waller, who was a DJ at WRUR 88.5 and gallery director at the University of Rochester's Hartnett Gallery, but Waller has since relocated to another city.)
Together, the group developed a vision for the free-form station: its identity would be created by the people who are creating the content. "We wanted something that would very actively pursue community engagement and something that would emphasize diversity of people, visions, voices," says Yates.
Yates and crew had heard about the reversal of the 2000 Radio Broadcast Protection Act, and knew the FCC would be taking applications last fall. But they had neither a 501c3 status — a requirement for LPFM licensing — nor did they have enough time to acquire it before the application period closed. A partnership with an extant non-profit provided a solution.
Yates met with John Borek, who is on the board at the nonprofit Multi-use Community Cultural Center on Atlantic Avenue, and determined that a partnership with MuCCC would be a good match, "MuCCC was a perfect fit," says Yates, citing the parallel missions of the two groups. "MuCCC is a theater for people who don't have a theater. They provide the space without editorial content, and they allow people to enact their visions, to share their talent and their passion," he says.
Radio MuCCC also received some assistance from Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia seeking to support the creation of community radio stations. Out of a national pool, Radio MuCCC was recommended for, and awarded, a scholarship for the Torch-Bearer program, through which Prometheus provides applicants with a case manager, and connects them with an engineer to help with the required engineering study the FCC requires before issuing a construction permit. (The study, among other considerations, ensures that the station's signal won't interfere with those of nearby commercial radio stations.)
Radio MuCCC's antenna was originally going to be placed on a tower atop the Anderson Alley building in the Neighborhood of the Arts, but is now slated to join North Coast Radio's tower at the Fedder Industrial Park on East Main Street, where the Radio MuCCC studio will be located. The group will take over the space currently inhabited by Dave Anderson, who runs Saxon Studios, which is moving around the corner to Hayward Avenue. "It's a recording studio, so it's laid out well for radio, and it's got a lot of history with so many great Rochester bands and national acts," says Yates. "It's a nice space to have the baton passed to us."
Though founders of both stations plan to present free-form programming, each group has a vision for the kinds of shows it would like to include.
"We're going to give people who want to do music shows free rein to put together diverse and idiosyncratically curated shows," says Yates of Radio MuCCC. "We're going to provide a space for people to do original, comedic, dramatic, and musical performances. We're going to have a space for relevant and interesting talk, and a place for experimentation — a place for voices that are underrepresented in the Rochester media. And on the other side of that, we're going to provide really engaging experiences for listeners. We're going to expand the range of musical and cultural expression on the radio," he says.
Rochester Free Radio's founders "pledged on our license to do eight hours minimum of local programming, but that's only to start. It will be more," says McCoy.
The board of Rochester Free Radio also plans to give a voice to the voiceless of Rochester. Sutliff-Atias says they're working on securing hosts for some programming on African culture and history, and reaching out to Rochester's Latino community as well. They plan to feature local music, curated music programs, student showcases, and talk radio, including in-depth conversations about local politics.
Rochester Free Radio would like to give time slots to Rochesterians who are interested in reporting, too. "I know people who are at every City Council meeting. And they take that knowledge and take their perspectives and just go home with it," Sutliff-Atias says. "They might complain on Facebook, but they don't actually do anything with it." Rochester Free Radio may be an outlet for such citizens to share what they've learned and gain more audience interaction.
MuCCC's board of directors will provide oversight for the radio station. Yates, Werts, and Buran are currently developing a fundraising strategy, developing an intake process for participants, and doing targeted outreach to that end as well. "It's becoming more and more real every day," says Yates.
Though non-commercial radio has a wider, freer range of viable programming by nature, these new community stations won't be without regulation. "We'll be under the same restrictions as full-power stations," says Yates. "There's no cursing, and there are legal restrictions against defamatory talk and things of that nature. But as long as we are reporting to the FCC in a timely fashion, keeping paperwork, and people aren't broadcasting hate speech or obscene content, we're basically free to do what we want," he says.
Rochester Free Radio organizers also want to promote free speech, but won't tolerate vitriol. "Glenn Beck wannabes need not apply," says McCoy. "We don't want to get down in the mud. If you don't like someone, you can give your opinion, but no attacks," he says.
"We don't want people to come on air and say, 'This person is corrupt,'" says Sutliff-Atias. "Now, if you want to say this person has done A, B, C, and make a case for it, that's fine. There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated with the way things are, but we want to talk about solutions," he says.
Neither station is interested in religious programming. "That doesn't mean you can't talk about religion and its role in society, but we're not putting your sermon on air. There are other outlets for that," says Sutliff-Atias. The stations won't consider infomercial-esque programming, either. You can talk about your expertise in line with your work, says Sutliff-Atias, but overt self-promotion is out.
Aside from callers and donations, measuring the success of the radio programming can be a tricky matter. In our online era, feedback is instantaneous (and sometimes hollow), but there isn't a "Like" button on the radio dial. And commercial-free radio means the absence of a ratings system, by which stations prove to advertisers that a certain quantity of listeners are being reached. Both groups say they'll gauge their success if they are financially solvent, and able to maintain creativity and diversity in their spectrum of programming.
For Radio MuCCC, success means "bringing people onboard who get what we're trying to do, and really thrive in the kind of environment we're trying to create," says Yates "And within those shows, reaching out to people, having bands on, doing interviews, creating original content that is interesting and evocative," he says.
An ultimate goal for Rochester Free Radio is helping to bring about positive change in our city, with regards to our segregation, poverty, expenditure of tax dollars, and issues with our schools, says Sutliff-Atias. "We'd also like to be an example — down the road, we'd like our radio station to be off the grid, in terms of its electricity usage," he says.
Each group has received a construction permit from the FCC, which is a green light to begin installing an antenna and building a station. The LPFM broadcasting license is given after construction and an inspection are complete.
Sutliff-Atias received confirmation that Rochester Free Radio will be based at the Main Street Armory, and the plan is to be on air by the end of the summer. Radio MuCCC organizers aim to be on air by the fall. Both stations will broadcast from the east side of town, and though the signal is meant to reach the whole city, it will need to pass through the buildings downtown, and will be weaker on the west side of the river.
Funding remains one of the biggest challenges for both stations. Because we're talking about ad-free radio, the groups' options are limited to donations, grants, and considering underwriters without compromising the integrity of their mission. Costs to consider include rent, electricity, heat, equipment, an emergency broadcast monitor, publishing fees, service fees for online streaming, web hosting fees, and archiving costs.
"To makes something like what we're offering financially sustainable will be a challenge," says Yates. The economic climate being what it is, asking people for donations is always a challenge, but Yates says he's confident they are providing something that people will recognize the need for. "And we have been very lucky to work with people who want this to succeed," he says. Radio MuCCC has been collecting second-hand equipment, which will go a long way toward cutting costs.
At least initially, programming will be filled with radio hosts on a fully volunteer basis. "If you have an idea and want to put in the time, get in touch with us," says Sutliff-Atias. Learn more and reach out at facebook.com/rocfreeradio and rochesterfreeradio.com. You can eventually tune in to hear the station at 106.3 FM.
Yates says he isn't looking specifically for people to fill a genre of music, "more like a genre of person: someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about music, who wants to share what they love," he says. In terms of other programming, Yates is interested in a wide range of diversity in age, race, and background, and is conducting targeted outreach for contributors. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can eventually tune in to hear Radio MuCCC at 104.3 FM.
Favorite radio shows
The personalities of the new community stations are still undetermined, and will be shaped by programming and participants. But you can get a sense of what the founders are looking for through their descriptions of their favorite radio shows.
Mike Yates (Radio MuCCC): "I wanted to get into radio because of WFMU, which is a station in Jersey City, New Jersey. They are one of the oldest free-form stations in the nation, one of the most famous ones. They have a huge range of people doing primarily music shows that are just adventures. A mix of new and rare and classic and crazy. Great music shows, great comedy shows, great interviews. There was one show, "The Best Show," which was around for 13 years but just ended in December, and was hosted by Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster, the drummer for Superchunk. They're just so funny and weirdly moving sometimes. It's the most important piece of entertainment in my life." Archives: wfmu.org/playlists/BS.
Dave Sutliff-Atias (Rochester Free Radio): "Vin Scelsa's 'Idiot's Delight.' It's a radio show that has traveled all over the dial down in NYC for years and right now is on WFUV at Fordham University. You can hear the last two shows at wfuv.org/archives. Right now, Vin does two hours pre-recorded, but the show used to be four hours live and included live performances, interviews, etc. He would read prose on the show, play long sets of music...it was free form in earnest. Even now, I don't necessarily like everything on there, but you can tell he plays what he likes and enjoys what he's doing. That matters."
Chuck McCoy (Rochester Free Radio): "I used to enjoy listening to Don Imus when he was on the old WNBC in NYC (I don't think he's that funny anymore). There was a show I listened to up here off WHAS 840 AM in Louisville back in the old days, an overnight all-oldies show hosted by the late Joe Donovan. At 3 a.m. he would do an entire hour of odd and obscure songs. There was a very funny guy named Tim Kincaid (a.k.a. local TV's Ranger Bob) who did mornings on the old WNYR 990 AM here in Rochester. I listened to him in Buffalo — his comedy voice character bits definitely inspired me to do the same. A couple other funny guys I could sometimes pick up early in the morning: Don Weeks/WGY in Schenectady and Fig Newton/WWWE in Cleveland. Of course, I'm very big into comedy, so I tend to gravitate in that direction."