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Bad news for local music broadcasting

WCOM, P2P and the demise of BZB 

Bad news for local music broadcasting

At a time when cell phone companies are rolling out models with TV screens, radio may seem like a quaint technology. But its sheer simplicity is what makes it a powerful medium.

All it takes is a transmitter and an antenna, and you've got a signal that can reach several miles. Carrboro's new community radio station, WCOM 103.5, already has those things, and it's already broadcasting a 15-minute loop (in Spanish and in English, recorded by Indy columnist Bob Burtman) to introduce listeners to the concept of the station. It's the first Low-Power FM-licensed station in the Triangle, broadcasting at 100 watts with no commercials to a 10- to 15-mile radius. It can be heard throughout Carrboro and the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, most of Chapel Hill and parts of southern Durham.

But while getting a signal on the air is simple, building a station from the ground up is not. It took two years for Ruffin Slater, general manager of Weaver Street Market and the primary initiator of WCOM through the nonprofit Public Gallery of Carrboro, to straighten out the technical specs with the Federal Communications Commission. After the initial euphoria of getting a license in 2002 and soliciting volunteers, the long dead air caused doubt and concern among some in the community who wanted to jump in. "We weren't sure it was going to happen," Slater says.

With the paperwork done and construction under way on a studio, he predicts WCOM will be live on the air by the first of October with a bilingual mix of live and recorded music and public affairs. If you wanted to host a show but didn't get a call back last year, try again. It's happening.

Weaver Street Market owns the bank building at 201 N. Greensboro St., across from the store. While the coop has grand plans to build a multi-store mixed-use building there within the next few years, for now it stands in all its brown brick glory. The old drive-up teller area is being enclosed to create the studio. DJs will look outside through the bulletproof glass of the ancient teller station, with its lever-powered drawer--we're talking pre-pneumatic tubes here. As old fashioned as community radio.

"We're located physically right in the middle of the community and we're very consciously trying to create the studio as a storefront studio," Slater says. "People can come in and visit."

LPFM licenses were created in 2000 in response to growing protest over the consolidation of ownership in commercial radio. Pirate radio stations were spreading across the country as a form of civil disobedience, and despite repeated raids, they were hard to control. Then-FCC Chairman William Kennard designed the license as a way for nonprofit groups with a demonstrated commitment to their communities to have a highly localized voice. So far, there has been only one short window of time in which North Carolinians could apply for LPFM licenses, and Slater squeezed in just in time. Most licenses go to church groups. But over in Asheville, the Mountain Area Information Network is on the air at the same frequency with WPVM, the Progressive Voice of the Mountains (www.wpvm.org).

Federal grants have paid for most of WCOM's broadcasting equipment. A 40-foot tower was installed last week beside the bank building; it will send the signal from the transmitter to the 73-foot antenna already installed at Scroggs Elementary School. WCOM's instigators are relying on volunteer labor and donations--they still need $10,000 to $15,000. It's being built on the cheap--it'll be torn down in two or three years, after all--just a 16-by-30-foot space with enough room for the DJ, guests and an enclosed editing room. Once construction if finished, Slater anticipates the station's annual operating expenses will be approximately $50,000.

As they deal with the nuts and bolts (literally) of building the station, WCOM is facing a much more complicated task: programming. Slater says they plan to be on the air 24/7, which means a lot of volunteer time and a lot of coordinating. "We try to think through from the point of view of the people trying to get information." Their Web site is frequently updated, and so far there are 100 volunteers signed up.

Programming is the great test of a community station. How devoted and reliable are the volunteers? How much oversight or freedom do the station's managers give to volunteer DJs? How much will the station rely on syndicated content like Pacifica? How will WCOM set itself apart from WCHL 1360 AM, a commercial station serving Chapel Hill, or UNC-Chapel Hill student station WXYC? The programming committee began interviews this week with prospective producers. If you want to host a show, go to communityradio.coop and sign up to volunteer.

Slater says they're using guides published by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which cover everything from managing volunteers to underwriting to legal issues. "Right now everybody's happy because it's brand new and we haven't had any issues. But we've tried to think along the road," he says. "We always want to keep flexibility in the schedule. We don't want to fill up all the opportunities; then it just becomes the original people, their station, not the community's station."

Chris Frank of the Red Clay Ramblers and founder of eFolkMusic.org is excited about the potential for broadcasting music that's ignored by commercial stations and not widely played by area college stations, either. Folk music, for example. "There will be a lot of music on it, and there's going to be a lot of opportunity for local musicians to play and be heard by local people."

He envisions many live, remote broadcasts of concerts.

"My dream is to do radio theater," says Jacques Menache, a fixture of Carrboro culture. He launched the ArtsCenter in 1974 and went on to open a Mexican restaurant-cum-Latin American Community Center called El Chilango. He says he's talking with Spanish speakers in the Carrboro community about the sort of public affairs and music programming they want to hear. As for his own dream, he's heard from a number of retired Carrboro residents who used to act professionally in radio dramas in New York back in the day.

"Our motives are pure," Frank laughs. "That will make a big difference. It should."

Cat's Cradle will host a benefit for WCOM Thursday, Sept. 9. Confirmed acts so far include Two Dollar Pistols and a set of "gonzo guitars" including Armand Lenchek of Armand & Bluesology. Stay tuned for details. Bad news for local music broadcasting An all-local AM radio station in Garner is no more. Readers may remember Bob Geary's profile last year of WBZB 1090 AM, a small commercial station dedicated to an all-local music format (indyweek.com/durham/2003-05-21/volume2.html). The station struggled financially, getting by on selling ads to local businesses. In June, owner Steve Bass sold the station to Triangle Sports Broadcasters for $1.5 million.

Triangle Sports Network, an ESPN affiliate, began broadcasting last month under the call letters WTSB. "The station previously operated at 800 watts with a local band format," reads its Web site. "But we decided to change all of this and give Triangle sports fans a better piece of the action. With a 9,000-watt omni-directional signal, we cover the entire Triangle pumping out 9,000 watts of Triangle Sports Talk and ESPN Radio." Great.... Victory for file-sharing Technology is not the problem. That's the decision the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down last week in a case against the makers of peer-to-peer software applications Grokster and Morpheus (descendants of the old non-legit Napster). Twenty-eight entertainment companies brought suit against the P2P makers, claiming their software products are designed to steal copyrighted material owned by record labels and movie studios and that those companies should be held accountable.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (best described, perhaps, as an online ACLU) argued on behalf of the P2P technology. They equate this victory to the landmark 1984 Betamax case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Sony was not liable for people using their VCRs to make illegal recordings. Imagine what the entertainment industry would be like today if they'd been successful in having VCRs declared illegal in the '80s.

Of course, things are a little trickier when you get digital. Copies are not only easy to make in large quantities, they also retain the same quality as the original in most cases. Still, because P2P has many uses that aren't illegal, and because artists can use the software to make money, the court agreed that shutting down a growing field of technology would only hurt enterprise, not help it. The corporate entertainment monopoly doesn't agree.

This one is likely to go to the Supreme Court. For more information about the case, see www.eff.org. Clutter Channel Clear Channel announced last week that it would cut down commercials on all of its more than 2,000 stations nationwide. No more 60-second spots, just 30-second ones. Apparently, when people turn on the radio, they want to hear music. It's understandable that Clear Channel is figuring this out late in the game--as its founder Lowry Mays famously said in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2003, "We're not in the business of providing well-researched music. We're simply in the business of selling our customers products." Wait a sec, they're still not in the music business. Turns out the demand for less "on-air clutter" came from the advertisers. "Introduction of premium positions within shorter pods will increase value to advertisers," says the company's press release. In other words, $.

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Nice article, one of the best I've read on the subject... thanks Fiona.

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