Ordinary people: They’re gonna bring the good things back — Neil Young
The decline of local, independent radio has been thoroughly documented and rightly lamented.
Clear Channel and similar conglomerates have turned formerly vibrant, small stations into arms of the corporate octopus. Meanwhile, listeners eager for local reporting and music seem to have fewer and fewer options. The musical menu is deafeningly bland and talk radio becomes an endless audition for the role of Rush Limbaugh’s understudy.
Before dropping the hammer on the dial, those listeners who want more than jabber or a music package from Nashville can now take heart and turn an ear towards the Internet for a little stimulation and sanity. Small towns across the Midwest—from Iowa to Indiana—and throughout the rest of nation are tenaciously clawing themselves out of the corporate cage by creating, maintaining, or enhancing local, independent radio. The preferred sickle of these small-in-wattage, but mighty-in-content stations is the Internet, which enables them to broadcast beyond the borders of their communities and into the headphones of people across the globe.
The intellectual and artistic value in these stations is surpassed only by their communal vitality. Not content to simply waste away or eternally wait for New York, Washington, or L.A. to provide a solution, they are building something of meaning and importance on their own terms and in their own towns.
Many of these stations broadcast from towns with fewer than 10,000 residents, and are therefore heavily dependent on volunteers to run offices, organize fundraisers, find listeners, and recruit local businesses—ranging from neighborhood bars to funeral homes—willing to buy ad time.
And, of course, serve as on-air talent. Talk show hosts and DJs come out of the county’s woodwork. Earnest and energetic personalities with a passion for an underappreciated musical genre—such as bluegrass, political hip-hop, or local songwriters — can be found on these stations. Local hosts take on talk topics like classics in American literature and theater, female-focused news, or regional recommendations on dining and entertainment. Small town radio is becoming an audio sanctuary.
Discovering small town stations through one’s own research and inquiry, according to one’s own preferences, is the most rewarding way to listen to independent radio. However, for those looking to get a jump on the process, here is a list of five noteworthy stations that broadcast from small communities, in no particular order.
Please add your own picks! The Bottle Rockets play live in WMMT’s studio in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Every Monday night, WMMT carries a show for the thousands of prisoners housed in jails built in the Appalachian mountains. The show is called “Holler to the Hood.”
It should be acknowledged, and applauded, that all of these stations offer the diversity of content that an unknowing listener would associate with a major city market. However, due to their independence they can offer the wide array of programming that the corporately-attuned city stations cannot.
1. WHAY 98.3 FM Free Range Radio from Whitley City, Kentucky. Featuring an endless selection of Americana, Delta Blues, and Bluegrass—even a Bluegrass Gospel show—Free Range Radio is an invaluable source of great, underplayed country music and entertaining local personalities. Moreover, WHAY has one heck of a good “swap shop” late in the afternoons.
2. KRUU 100.1 FM The Voice of Fairfield from Fairfield, Iowa. The variety coming from Fairfield is nearly shocking. Musical programs dedicated to global dance music, reggae, and 1960s folk music are all part of KRUU’s lineup, as are talk shows on poetry and philosophy in popular film.
3. WVLP 98.3 FM Valpo Radio from Valparaiso, Indiana. The community station in Valparaiso, Indiana, offers original music programming in the genres of Big Band, Jazz Fusion, Blues, and much more. They also serve a healthy selection of progressive talk—featuring three different local hosts with their own programs on American politics, a debate show on Indiana issues, and a rebroadcast of the national treasure, Democracy Now.
4. Hounddog Radio from Loganville, Georgia (internet only). Hounddog boasts of offering the best in Americana, Country, Rock and Blues, and may very well fill that tall order. From “Indies Only” rock shows to live broadcasts showcasing regional songwriters, this husband-and-wife owned station from Georgia is consistently exciting. It also offers a talk show hosted by a favorite columnist of the Loganville Tribune.
(Hounddog Radio came near to closing in mid-January, but as of our last listen, was still up and playing.)
5. KHUM 104.7 FM from Ferndale, California. KHUM gives listeners a satisfying blend of blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop. They also broadcast a weekly live performance of a local musician from “Curley’s Grill,” dedicate an hour of weekly programming to discussing local environmental issues, and extensively analyze the latest news from Ferndale.
Editor’s Pick: WMMT 88.7 FM Mountain Community Radio from Whitesburg, Kentucky. WMMT comes out of Appalshop, the long-time arts center located in the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. Volunteer jocks play what they want. Ben Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle (Whitesburg’s newspaper) holds down the rock and roll slot on Friday night. Basically, however, anything goes and the music changes as volunteers rotate their shows. There is a weekly hip-hop show (Monday nights) for those jailed in the region’s many prisons called “Holler to the Hood.” This week there was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of James Still’s great mountain novel, River of Earth. Oh, and once a week, the morning show reads from Speak Your Piece, the Eagle’s totally insane and revealing feature made up of transcripts of calls from phoned in to the paper from readers.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com