Larry Weir, Wish You Were Here
Larry would have loved the latest news from Washington, I think. When I think of independent community radio, I think of Larry Weir. He was a beloved DJ and driving force behind KDHX radio in St. Louis, arguably one of the powerhouses of independent community radio in the Midwest. About a year ago, Larry slipped on ice and suffered a traumatic brain injury that resulted in his death. With his passing the world lost a fantastic advocate for community radio, which is the lifeblood of original, independent music and hopefully soon to be the great leveler of the commercial radio industry.
I am an independent musician and so yes, I am biased in favor of good music that challenges the monolithic music industry. I have a great deal of admiration for community radio all over the world. It has been community-based radio that has helped bring my band to the attention of new fans everywhere. Midwest Radio in County Mayo, Ireland; WEVL in Memphis, and Folkland radio in Germany have had DJs who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of what I would call “real people music.” Being an independent musician in the great music town of Chicago, I am embarrassed to say we don’t have an equivalent outlet for the variety of musical programming as KDHX. Our closest approximation of it is WDCB, a 5000 watt station in Glen Ellyn that has a broadcast signal which can’t reach the entire city. In comparison, KDHX is a 42,000 watt station. I was happy to find out that WNUR, the Northwestern University station, has a 7200 watt range and one of the most powerful transmitters of any college in the country. Admittedly, I don’t know too much about what is played on WNUR. The only person in commercial radio who seems to care a bit about independent music is Richard Milne, who is given a paltry 30 minutes on Sundays on CBS-owned WXRT to play his show “The Local Anesthetic.” Nevertheless, kudos for the 30 minutes!
WBEZ, our NPR station, gave up on music just as I was starting to get in the business. For a brief moment in time, WABT attempted to showcase Chicago music, but financially it couldn’t keep going. My wife bypasses Chicago stations completely and opts for KCRW on the net to listen to new music.
As I said, Chicago is a great music town. It started country music with its “Barn Dance” show on WLS. It was the town that created the blues that influenced the Rolling Stones. And it is home to a plethora of independent artists ranging from Wilco to Nicholas Tremulis to bands like the Yellowhammers. Yet it does not have one radio voice that represents our current musical diversity. Perhaps that has something to do with Chicago being known as the “City of Neighborhoods.”
That said, there is hope for Chicago and other communities. Congress finally passed the Community Radio Act at the end of last year. In layman’s terms this means that we can have 100 watt stations that can serve various communities with independent political and musical thought. It doesn’t help our situation much in Chicago as far as having one city-wide station. I did find out that even a 100 watt station on a 150 foot high mast can broadcast 50 miles. That could eventually help us here in the Windy City where we are known for some tall buildings which could support such a mast.
How that will actually work is better left to the experts, but there are a couple of golden opportunities here. The most important one is that neighborhoods and communities can support their independent artists and cultivate appreciative listeners. And in turn, indie artists and music fans can be a force in their communities. By streaming on the Internet, it is possible for a small station to garner a large following outside its community. The independent artist community and its fans will have that many more stations to reach out to as well.
If we do see a surge in the number of Low Power FM Stations, that will be an opportunity for musicians to get their music heard, both recorded and live. It will be the closest thing to the day when a musician would travel from station to station to showcase original music. It will also be a chance for music fans to be introduced to music they would not hear otherwise.
As a musician, I can say from experience that being heard and getting played and playing live are necessary for the growth of my career. It was crucial for Switchback to start out playing community and public stations. They provided the outlet for us to be heard. Since we never had the backing of a major label, this and the Internet would be the only media venues available to us.
The Internet didn’t really start “happening” for music until the 90’s. For youngsters that might bring about a yawn, but I can remember giving out my mailing address in America on Irish radio so people could buy our cassettes. A lot has changed quickly.
So what should people do? First, visit the Future of Music Coalition at http://futureofmusic.org/research and get acquainted with what can be done to help keep independent music alive. These people are working to make sure independent musicians keep making music for the masses to hear. Second, support your existing community radio stations, either by donating (which they love and need) or simply sporting their stickers on your car. Or both. I proudly carry KDHX on my bass guitar case.
My guess is that Larry would have loved the passing of the Community Radio Act. If only he could have been around to see this day when the chance of having community radio stations across the country was finally sanctioned by the government. I think he would have been happy to see communities creating low power stations that can enable more artists to create and provide more music for fans to appreciate those artists. And not only music, but drama, civic action, and neighborhood news can be presented as well! It took a long time, but it has finally arrived. Will it correct the past two decades of mainstream radio mismanagement? It’s up to the people to decide.