Low-power but high-minded, 105.9 FM The Radiator builds up steam in Burlington
Lee Anderson, Sean Larock and Jim Lockridge
Radio is a sound salvation. Radio is cleaning up the nation. Unlikely as it may seem, the lyrics to the chorus of Elvis Costello’s 1978 anti-establishment single “Radio Radio” may be more relevant now than they were nearly 30 years ago. Especially given the slow but unmistakable decline in the importance of traditional radio. To borrow a phrase, video killed the radio star. Then file sharing killed the video star. Now a host of auditory options, from satellite radio to iTunes, are vying to become the next techno-gladiator to dominate an increasingly crowded aural arena.
As all those gadgets make the world community more accessible, it’s easy to overlook the thriving communities that exist in our own backyards. And that would be a mistake. Eschewing the idea that bigger is always better, a new low-power FM radio station, 105.9 FM The Radiator, recently set up shop in Burlington. It’s fueled by the efforts of two men with disparate backgrounds but like minds about what makes small cities such as Burlington so unique: community.
They say you better listen to the voice of reason. But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason. In the 1950s, low-power FM radio stations were common in virtually every community in America. Operating under what was then known as a Class D broadcasting license, 10-watt and 100-watt stations were run by a variety of organizations, including high schools, small colleges and American Legion posts. They tended to cluster at the lower end of the dial — radio’s “educational band.” In the late 1960s, the lobbying efforts of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped bring about the streamlining of this educational band to encourage continuity among the stations and fit a model closer to that of National Public Radio, which was then in its infancy.
In 1972, the FCC eliminated Class D licenses, and low-power stations were consolidated into much larger entities. Still, each company could own only two stations in any given market, and a maximum of 20 nationally.
But in 1996, Congress re-evaluated the original Telecommunications Act, which hadn’t been altered since its drafting in 1934. Though the revised bill dealt largely with Internet regulations, it would prove an incredible boon to corporate media outlets, particularly ones that specialized in radio. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 raised market restrictions so that one company could own as many as eight stations in a single area, and it eliminated the national cap altogether. Corporations began buying up stations in record numbers, resulting in the largest general media consolidation in American history. Independent radio was all but dead.
Or was it?
Though companies such as Clear Channel Communications soon monopolized the airwaves, they sparked a backlash — an explosion of underground “pirate” radio stations that broadcast without licenses using low-watt transmitters. Rogue low-power stations had existed in the U.S. for decades, but this growth was unprecedented. In 1998 alone, the FCC shut down more than 250 micro-stations around the country.
In January 2000, as a result of intense lobbying pressure, the FCC again began granting licenses to low-power FM stations (100 watts) in an effort to foster diversity on the corporate-dominated FM dial.
Later that same year, in an effort to foster diversity in Burlington’s bustling arts community, an eclectic little coffee shop with the curious moniker “Radio Bean” opened its doors for the first time.
“I started Radio Bean thinking I was going to have a station within, like, a year,” says Lee Anderson, 29. He opened the hipster haven on North Winooski Avenue with the intention of running a low-power FM station in tandem with his café. “I mean, I called it ‘Radio Bean’ because I thought this was all going to be happening immediately,” Anderson continues. “But then, years went by without any sort of indication that the license was coming.”
Meanwhile, a mere two blocks south on the same street, the Big Heavy World Foundation’s executive director, James Lockridge, entertained similar low-power ambitions. He wanted to operate a station under the umbrella of his nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to preserving and promoting Vermont-made music. “I had planned to build a radio station, to get a low-power FM license and to create an opportunity for regional music to have an outlet through traditional broadcast,” says Lockridge, explaining how he and Anderson joined forces. “Through the process, he and I came to understand that we were both seeking a license at the same time, and his interests and our interests were so complementary that we just went for it together in partnership.”
When the FCC began granting low-power FM licenses in 2000, potential takers were given a one-time, 30-day window in which to apply. “There were two frequencies available in Burlington, 94.3 and 105.9,” says Anderson. “There were eight other organizations applying for licenses. So I talked with all the other organizations and discovered that everybody was going for the 94.3 slot because it had more space on the dial, so you’d get clearer reception and could broadcast a bit farther. So I applied for 105.9.”
Anderson’s would be the only license granted in Burlington. “One day, about four years later and without any notice, the construction permit arrived in the mail,” he says, “and we were like, ‘Oh. Well, I guess we’ll go ahead and start a station now.’”
So you had better do as you are told. You better listen to the radio. The Radiator began test broadcasts, sending its first signals over Burlington airwaves in September 2007. Though Lockridge and Anderson were able to round up enough donated capital and equipment to get the station on the air, they lacked the technical wizardry required to put all the pieces together. They turned to engineering director Sean Larock, whose extensive radio experience — including a lengthy stint at the University of Vermont’s WRUV 90.1 FM — became an invaluable asset. “We get commercial radio folks who come by and are amazed,” says Anderson of Larock’s work in the studio.
The station is based in Big Heavy World’s office suite on the corner of North Winooski and College in downtown Burlington. The space was once the site of local music ’zine Good Citizen’s office and currently houses the Vermont Music Archive, a sprawling library of local music available to DJs for use on air. DJs are also encouraged to flesh out play lists using their personal collections. Licensing fees are paid to ASCAP and BMI by the station.
The enclosed radio booth will eventually be soundproofed, too. An adjoining room will host live studio performances. The station has already begun broadcasting live shows from Radio Bean, and plans to expand the scope of that project to include venues such as Club Metronome, Nectar’s and Higher Ground.
The walls of the dimly lit station are plastered with posters from BHW showcases dating back more than a decade. The space includes a cozy lounge where Anderson conducts orientation sessions for aspiring DJs. After orientation, they shadow experienced hosts until they’re ready to go live themselves.
On a recent Tuesday evening, a small group of Burlington residents gathers to listen to Anderson, Lockridge and Larock tell the tale of the station’s birth and to discuss The Radiator’s philosophy and its place in the community.
Anderson begins by asking each of the attendees about the type of show he or she would like to do. Their responses are as varied as the group itself and offer a telling portrait of the station’s broad community appeal, not to mention the eclecticism of its programming lineup. That lineup runs the gamut from DJ SP’s “Morning Woodwinds,” a Sunday-morning show focusing on classical music, to Ozrik Knob’s cognitive science and reality show “The Crux of the Biscuit,” to “Gentle Hardcore Radio,” which is described as “aural modern art insanity.”
Shelagh Shapiro, 44, was introduced to the station by her friend Cheryl Willoughby, a classical music DJ for Vermont Public Radio. “Her passion for the station is what got me involved,” says Shapiro, a fiction writer and mother of two who hopes to host a show highlighting Vermont writers. “Cheryl has a full-time DJ job, but came in and painted this room red last week. She just made it sound so appealing, the idea of the community coming together to create something special.”
David Symons, 29, is the accordionist for local klezmer band Inner Fire District and was involved with Free Radio Burlington, a pirate station. “I really love the medium of radio, and personally have had a lot of really menial jobs where radio has been the only mental stimulation,” he says. “There’s hardly anything very good on, so my image for the show is that person doing a soul-sucking job. I want to create the kind of radio that I would want to hear.”
Jason Liggett, 32, cites Burlington’s community spirit as a primary motivation for becoming involved with The Radiator. “There are so many music fans, people who dig really deep. And I want to be part of that and part of a collective that has this free format,” he says. Liggett is the lighting director for Higher Ground and intends to devote his show entirely to the band Ween. “I think it’s great for this community,” he adds.
The word “community” crops up often when Lockridge and Anderson discuss the station. Both men have a long history of fostering artistic growth in Burlington, and their shared philosophy is a driving force behind The Radiator.
“This is a total community endeavor,” says Lockridge, citing the 50-odd show proposals the station has received from local individuals. “The only piece of equipment that wasn’t donated was the weatherproofing for the antenna. VPR’s engineers come in and make sure everything is all dialed in. We’re legit because they’ve supported us so much.”
The station’s philosophy is also deeply rooted in strengthening the community. “I don’t want us to be pigeonholed as ‘liberal media,’” says Anderson, “but I’m sure in some circles we are. But really, we want to focus on solutions, not negativity.”
The station features a number of talk programs, including ones whose hosts voice politically conservative viewpoints. “I would never want my political beliefs to influence what they’re saying or talking about,” Anderson clarifies. “But I want whatever they’re proposing as a solution to be clear, and not just criticizing. That’s my only real policy: If you point out a problem, then you need to offer a solution.”
The Radiator’s broadcast range covers most of the Greater Burlington area, including parts of Shelburne, Williston, Winooski and Colchester, and it will soon be streamed online. Compared with the immense broadcast radius of stations such as VPR, The Radiator’s reach is tiny, almost quaint. But it’s precisely that small scale that may prove to be the station’s greatest asset.
“I think our range is sort of endearing,” says Anderson. “It’s somewhat unprecedented, at least in Burlington. When you take something that’s so small and you put it in this little tiny town like Burlington, what could potentially happen through it isn’t small,” he continues. “Hopefully, it will be a spark that other people will pay attention to, and that will generate more arts being created here.”
Radio is a sound salvation. Radio is cleaning up the nation. Costello meant his lyrics ironically — as a protest against the corporate radio stations that censored songs such as The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” But salvation is a fickle proposition, often found in the unlikeliest of places. If you’re tuned to 105.9 FM The Radiator, radio might just be a “sound salvation” after all.