KRUU Grassroots Radio, Dec 06 | Low Power in High Places


When Roger Farmer of Washington sent an email a few weeks ago asking what happened to me, I realized my life had undergone a major shift. Not a U-turn or an about-face really, more like an ascended declension, something with a little bounce, marshmallow root, Marconi, and planet Mercury mixed in.

You see, I’ve been sifting through the seismic-pocked political landscapes for years now. The senselessness of the Iraq adventure sucked me into politics like a dust bunny up the wazoo of an expensive vacuum.

Well, now that snowballs have regained control of both the House and Senate, and the winter of neocon discontent has fallen like an albatross across the war president’s brow, I find myself managing an all-volunteer non-profit community radio station that went from a seed thought to a 24/7 reality in four turbocharged months. I used to spend some four hours a day reading the New York Times and other political sources, keeping my pulse on Washington, DC, and international events. Now I’m lucky if I get four hours of sleep. Thanks, Roland.

Say You Want a Revolution

Roland Wells is the stuff community treasures are made of—a man of action, giving, a doer, a manager’s manager, a builder, inspired, driven, the bomb. Equal parts wherewithal, charisma, and moxy, the Australian-born visionary is to bottlenecks what hair straightener is to curls. I knew Roland from his successful efforts with the Beat Box, a youth center he directed for five years in kruu_1206.htm. Kids love him because he treats them the same way he treats everyone else—with respect, humor, open eyes, and purpose. The Beat Box provided shelter and engagement for as many as 125 visitors a day by the end of his tenure with the center.

It folded a few years back when funding sources dried up, misunderstood by some who saw the place as simply a hangout. Those who actually bothered to check in were amazed at what they saw: a safe haven for all manner of teens and tweens, a place with computer stations, break dancing, a boxing gym, a dedicated staff providing a variety of outlets, an inclusive space for kids of all stripes.

Currently operational manager of the Walker Insurance Group, Roland was a whopping 20 years old when he applied for and received a construction permit from the FCC to start a radio station, handling the engineering specs himself. Low power means the transmitter is limited to a maximum of 100 watts output. The government offered these licenses in each region only once, for a week. The bulk of these stations are church, college, or government afilliated.

Knowing this, when I’d bump into Roland from time to time on the street, I’d bug him about the radio station.

One day he told me to set up a town hall meeting. That was over six months ago. You have to be careful what you say to men of action. . . .

Flash Forward 

It’s 9 a.m. on an overcast Wednesday morning.

Steve Cooperman has just completed an installment of Around Town, a topical half-hour talk show, and is exiting out of the station’s studio booth known as “Mission Control” with this week’s guest, 1st Fridays Art Walk board member and gingerbread-contest promoter Holly Moore.

In front of a Mackie mixing board, headphones slightly ajar, Rodney Franz cues CDs for his upcoming hour-long music program. Best known in town as the director of countless plays over the past 20 years, he pushes up a lever on the board and begins talking into a microphone: “Hi. My name is Rodney Franz and you’re listening to The Show without a Name Looking for a Theme without a Title on KRUU-LP 100.1 FM, The Voice of Fairfield.”

Strands of Marianne Faithful seep into the room, slide over to the 100-watt transmitter, through the live web-streaming unit, up the 60-foot antenna behind the building at 405 N. 2nd Street in Fairfield painted with a large 100.1 and KRUU in orange and blue, and out across the airwaves in a 12-mile throw in all directions.

Next up is uillean pipe legend Tim Britton with two hours of Celtica and Other Musical Destinations, a sumptuous blend of Celtic, folk, and related musicalities, followed by a half-hour of Free Speech Radio News, the only non-locally produced programming in the entire schedule, and then local and state news with KRUU news director Mike Phelps. Mike showed up the day after the large call letters were painted on the outside of the building, asking if a news director was needed. He said he was never “hired” so fast.
Welcome to grassroots community radio.

Join the KRUU

When Fairfield was recently awarded Great Places status, KRUU radio was noted by the state selecting commission as one of the key elements that helped seal the deal. (Six Iowa cities will divide a total of $6 million among them.) Local Great Places’ liaison David Dubois was quoted in the Ottumwa Courier as calling the citizen initiative an example of “spontaneous creative eruptions,” something completely off the radar six months before that fully flowered into reality. The Des Moines Register referred to me in an Iowa Life feature as a “firm member of a why not generation of dreamers.” Nice words, but it took a lot more than dreaming and seemed anything but spontaneous in the day after night into the wee hours of month after month of hard work to get this puppy up and running.

Though some 150 people contributed time and talent to transform the former Beat Box building from a martial arts studio into the home of the KRUU, a hard corps of superheroes provided the major grist for the treadmill. Caleb Flynn, Sundar Raman, Steve Cooperman, Steve Fry, Tom O’Neil, Barb Fix, and Devin Wadsworth, to name a few. It was a scramble ballet I only wish we had videotaped. Did you ever see the old movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? When the community advisory board came to look at the broadcast studio prior to our Saturday, September 30th, launch, all they saw was an empty room without a carpet and a few folding tables. This was Thursday. (The board includes Mayor Ed Malloy, David Neff, Lee Gobble, Connie Boyer, Jeffrey Hedquist, Monica Hadley, Sonia Vera, Julie Stephens, Andy Bargerstock, Celio Mandjane, Caleb Flynn, and Tony DeFreitas.)

After months of reconstruction, painting, building nine-inch-thick foam walls, and installing double sets of double windows to mitigate train rumble and whine, setting up Linux-based open-source applications on computer stations (a direct continuation of the Beat Box legacy), raising the 60-foot tower on the 4th of July under Dwight Harris’s purview, setting up the live real-time worldwide streamer, and purchasing a transmitter and Emergency Broadcast System, it was literally show time. Over 50 deejays signed on to do music and talk shows and were shepherded through a fluid continually-evolving system. There are now 70 show hosts.

On September 30th, with the flip of a switch and a tune by Steve McLain and the Jefferson County Green Band, KRUU became a 168-hour a week non-stop reality (“feeding the beast,” as they called it at the 11th Annual Grassroots Radio Conference Roland and I attended this summer in Madison, WI).

No Homogenization Here

Sure, there have been a few glitches (when that happens, we plead “community” radio) but the buzz on the street has been good. People have been amazed at the variety and depth of the musical programming. An aural mosaic has emerged that is a far cry from the corporatized amalgamation so prevalent in so much of syndicated radio nowadays. As I write this, Clear Channel radio is talking about a buy-out priced at $18.7 billion. By contrast, KRUU is hoping to get a new ink cartridge for its printer. (Actually, the focus has been on getting up and running; fundraising efforts are just getting underway. One suggestion has been that appreciative listeners might consider contributing the cost of one meal a month to the station—$5, $10, or $15, depending upon one’s budget and appetite. Businesses can underwrite programming and banner space will eventually be available on the website.)

People from over 40 countries have tuned into the live stream available on the website We are getting over a thousand hits a day on average, with as many as 4,000. Not bad for barely two months old. LISCO has promised to hook us up to their new fiber-optic system in a few months, which will greatly expand our operating capacity.

Sample of the Goods 

Dennis James and his wife recently relocated from out west because they heard good things about Fairfield. It was the quality of life, affordability, and art scene that convinced them to move. They comprise the musical duo Truckstop Souvenir. Dennis hosts Gravel Road Radio Tuesdays from 2 to 5 p.m., showcasing Americana and Roots music.

Sonia Vera, hailing from Colombia via California, hosts a Spanish-speaking program called La Hora Latina Monday nights at 7 p.m. Dennis Raimondi’s Speaking Freely airs Tuesdays at 1 p.m. His interviews with Nation contributing writer Ari Berman and former Kansas City Royals and World Series star Buddy Biancalana have been highlights.

In Depth with Erika Richards, which airs at 8 a.m. Fridays, has featured election debates between supervisor candidates Dick Reed and Debra Williamson, and Iowa Senate candidates David Miller and Becky Schmitz, as well as conversations with Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy and Ottumwa Courier editor Jeff Hutton. Recent additions include the rollicking 7 a.m. Tuesday morning show Off the Subject with Diana Flynn and Therese Cummiskey, and Josh Young’s thrill music program Getting the Kinks Out Saturdays 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Then there’s Dick DeAngelis and his son Mickey’s Sleepytime with Grandpa D Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m., a bedtime program for the wee ones, which follows Sundar Raman’s Open Views show on the free culture movement. Clayton Miller’s Metal Health is midnight on Tuesdays and Saturday mornings at 7 a.m. (Cue the Clay People: “Wake up!! It’s time to die…”) followed by Bruce Miller’s soothing ambient Pirate Satellite show. God bless the contrasts. Steve McLain & the JCGB’s Friday Happy Hour show from 5 to 8 p.m. is always a hoot. The Drum Show by Ian Fry is sent in from Brooklyn every Sunday at 7 p.m. Matt Ahearn contributes three hours of original music 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sundays.

Other highlights include Lonnie Gambles’s Abundant Planet Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m.; Andy MacKenzie’s Beatles Undercover 11 a.m. Sundays; Theo Bowen’s The Short List Sundays at 8 p.m.; Tom LeMay’s Vox Populi Mondays at 10 a.m. followed by David Hawthorne’s Acoustic Stars at 11 a.m.; Scott Puffer’s pop culture musical living history program Lo-Fi at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; Fringe Toast with Andy Bargerstock 8 p.m. Wednesdays; Rodney Franz’s Adult Content Friday mornings at 9 a.m.; Ed Murphy’s The Whole Funk Saturdays at 1 p.m.; Doug Daller’s 10 p.m. Saturday evening show Fistful of Dallers—and that’s not even the half of it. (For a complete schedule go to the website.)

Open Source Listener-Supported Grassroots Community Radio 

I remember the day Sundar Raman burst into the station and declared, “Look it, I’ve been working with open source applications for two years and this station has to go open source.” I smiled and said, “Dude, you’re in the right place.” The station was already committed to this cutting-edge business model, one that incorporates only free downloadable software, Linux-based, neither Mac nor PC.

Sundar sums up the “free culture” movement this way: In the 50s, the very first community radio station in the U.S. started off with the objective being the “full distribution of public information,” amongst other things. In the 80s a similar ideology, called the Free Software Movement, was started by MIT graduate student Richard Stallman, in order to combat the rising control of computer “source code” by corporate interests. In 2000, Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School, created an alternative to restrictive copyright licensing called Creative Commons.

The above philosophies form what is collectively termed the Free Software and Free Culture movements. We at KRUU are using the freeculture movement as the foundation for our work. The reasons have nothing to do with the oft-repeated “anti-corporate” stance. There are far more pragmatic reasons—we’re responsible for creating something that works reliably, can be customized, and has no legal baggage, all while adding to the culture of the listening audience. This is what the “community” part of community radio is all about. We are adding to the cultural commons by using the products of the intellectual and software commons, and by deriving from the musical and artistic commons.

What an incredible thing to be a part of. It’s amazing what a shared vision and a dedicated core of volunteer activists can accomplish. I realized that this is where the revolution is for me—not dissecting, correcting, or second-guessing political leaders, expecting them to somehow make our lives better. No, the revolution is right here, right now—it’s how we treat each other, how we listen, dialogue, deal with differences, come up with viable solutions in our own neighborhoods, give voice to our own community. Why not? We can be the change—or stay the same, if that’s our choice.

So to answer your question, Roger, I’ve been putting in 100- to 120-hour weeks for months now without a day off. Even missed my regular music column for the Source last month for the first time in five years. My political weblist and even the twice-monthly Film for Thought Series have been put on mothballs. If I were better rested, I probably would have had two nervous breakdowns by now. Mind you, Roland has facilitated this project in his “spare” time. What a privilege it’s been serving the community this way. Imagine starting an all-volunteer, non-profit radio station from scratch with a group of people who’ve never done anything like this before except for a couple of ex-college deejays and one walk-in news director.

Well, you know what they say: To Air is Human, To Broadcast Divine. All I know is with the creativity and global reach of this community, the sky’s the limit. To paraphrase the immortal words of John Paul Jones—or was it Karen Carpenter?—we’ve only just begun. All metaphors aside—stay tuned.

Oh yeah, if you have an idea for a show, drop us a line.