DJ Cat Daddy at the studio of KUHS(LP).
Photos by Jennifer WaitsGRC sign is featured at Maxwell Blade’s Theatre of Magic. On a warm October weekend, community radio practitioners convened in Hot Springs, Ark., for the 2016 Grassroots Radio Conference. An extension of the loose-knit, 20-year-old Grassroots Radio Coalition, the conference is an annual event, typically hosted by a GRC station. This year, Hot Springs-based station KUHS(LP) organized the event, which drew a crowd of close to 100 attendees from all over the United States.
Hot Springs was abuzz with activity when I arrived during the Friday night opening festivities for the 25th annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which was being held at the hotel where I was staying. Celebrities and film-goers posed on a red carpet and spot lights shone in front of the 92-year-old Arlington Hotel. As an added perk, GRC attendees were treated to a day pass to the festival.
A national park, Hot Springs is full of fascinating history, known for its spring water and healing baths. Once a gambling mecca and an off-season training destination for baseball players; today, the town is home to gems, including public fountains, rows of bathhouses and a wax museum. Host station KUHS is housed in a vintage building, with lovely architectural details and lore (in a former life, it was stuffed full of pianos), and one of the conference locations was a quirky theater/oddities museum called the Maxwell Blade Theatre of Magic.
COMMUNITY AND LOCALISM
Conference sessions were spread out over three days, with the opening keynote, “Community Radio — A Global View” by Austin Airwaves’ Jim Ellinger. He has traveled all over the world helping to set up community radio stations, and he kept the crowd entertained with his tales from Haiti, Borneo and Panama. A common thread in his talk was the importance of radio as a “unique tool” providing local content and information to sometimes isolated communities.
A glimpse at the GRC schedule.Jim Ellinger of Austin Airwaves with his transistor radio. Attendees hailed from a variety of radio stations, including established full-power FM community radio stations such as KPFA(FM) in Berkeley, Calif., KABF(FM), Little Rock, Ark., KKFI(FM), Kansas City, Mo. and WFMU(FM) in Jersey City, N.J.; college radio stations like Hendrix College’s KHDX(FM) in Conway, Ark., Delgado Community College’s WXDR(LP) in New Orleans and University of Washington, Bothell’s LPFM-to-be UWave Radio in Bothell, Wash.; and many LPFM stations from as far afield as New Mexico, Arizona, California, Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas and Arkansas.
The importance of localism and community was a resounding theme throughout the conference, with LPFM playing a particularly large role. In addition to having a new LPFM as host, a large percentage of the attending stations held LPFM licenses or construction permits. Not surprisingly, much of the conference was devoted to topics that are particularly relevant to these stations. LPFM-specific sessions included Michael W. Richards’ talk “What’s Next? A Communications Lawyer Communicates (in Plain English!) About FCC Compliance Now That You’ve Got an LPFM Construction Permit or License,” Michelle Bradley’s “Compliance Calendar and Station Checklist,” an LPFM roundtable and an LPFM work session.
Nuts-and-bolts sessions of interest to all attendees included presentations about automation systems, live remote broadcasts, emergency broadcasting, marketing, management and open-source software tools for radio stations.
Keith Richards and Julia Rose of KPSQ(LP) hang out during a tour of KUHS(LP).Hendrix College students represented KHDX(FM) at the event.Cheryl Roorda tours attendees through her future restaurant space. Saturday night was capped off with a BBQ dinner and keynote presentation by legendary freeform DJ Clyde Clifford, famous for his show “Beaker Street.” Clifford regaled the room of radio enthusiasts with stories from his long career in radio, which started over Little Rock’s clear channel 50,000 watt AM radio station KAAY in 1966.
While the sessions were chock-full of information, equally important to many folks were the opportunities to connect with radio experts. Keith Richards, program manager for newly launched KPSQ(LP) in Fayetteville, Ark., told me, “It’s not that I’ve learned it all here, but now I know the people to go to to ask the questions.”
A TWILIGHT HIKE
A highlight on Sunday evening was a hike up to KUHS’s transmitter site. A group of us caravanned to the trailhead, taking a 15-minute trek to the solar-powered facility at dusk. After spending much of the day inside for conference sessions, it was nice to see a bit of the landscape and to take in a beautiful sunset. It was nightfall by the time everyone made it back to the parking lot, and cell phone flashlights were utilized to make our way down the hill safely.
Following the hike, many conference attendees met up at KUHS for dinner and tours. The storefront studio features a DJ booth that has a view of the lobby and street, as well as a window overlooking the general manager’s office. During our visit, the on-air host, who savors his normally quiet Sunday nights in the studio, was a good sport about the constant parade of interested folks who drifted in and out of his domain. A long hallway led to a separate part of the building, which will become brewery/restaurant SQZBX in a few months. While some GRCers gabbed with new friends and munched on leftovers, others took a look at the under-construction space.
KUHS founders Zac Smith and Cheryl Roorda were our guides throughout the weekend, and they happily led tours through the station and the restaurant/brewery. A married couple, Smith and Roorda were in the midst of renovating the old Hot Springs building when they learned about the LPFM application window. Through a partnership with local non-profit Low Key Arts — which also runs a short film festival, an independent music festival, a music and arts festival and a filmmaking program — they applied for and secured a license for the LPFM.
“The restaurant-brewery is a commercial venture that hopefully will generate an income for our family,” Smith said, “The radio station is legally separate, as a non-profit. But we built them both, with lots of help, and their co-location is a deliberate attempt to make a comfortable place that has a deep connection to the community and will serve nourishment in the form of food, drink, music, art and ideas.”
Currently, KUHS(LP) has around 70 DJs hosting a variety of programs, including shows that play almost every imaginable genre of music including soul, country, funk, soundtracks, hip hop, vaporwave, power pop, jazz and more. Live DJs blanket the schedule from early morning until late at night, and when I popped by the station for a daytime visit at the end of the conference, two Monday morning DJs greeted me.
KUHS entrance. After snapping some daytime photos of the station, I returned to the conference for a few more sessions before heading home. At the event’s conclusion, Roorda shared her impressions of the conference with me, saying she enjoyed getting to “compare notes on the struggles of getting stations on the air.”
She added that the weekend provided much-needed support for many stations. “This is a very special group of innovators, and I’d like to emphasize what a nurturing experience this is for everyone. I’m sure there are lots of people out there struggling with their radio station who could have used this sort of morale boost. A group radio hug of sorts.”
Sharon Scott, founder of WXOX(LP) — aka “ARTxFM” — in Louisville, Ky., has been attending GRC events since 2011, but this was her first since her station launched over FM. “In the past, I have come to GRC hungry for information and taking all I could get. This time, it really felt like our station had something to give back. We’ve learned so much since launching on Valentine’s Day, and it was awesome to share some of this knowledge with the other LPFMs who are just getting started.”
Like many in attendance, Scott is relishing the bounty of new community radio stations. She says, “This year, the most interesting thing for me was connecting with new LPFM stations that are popping up across the country … I am so excited about this new direction of American radio and can’t wait to see where these new community stations take it from here.”
Jennifer Waits is co-founder of Radio Survivor and a research associate on the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.