The Birth and Death of Free Range Radio

Article by Jane Carpenter

Local Media – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

IMAGINE HAVING a neighbor who loves the blues or music from Africa or some other exotic arena, and that you knew at a certain time once a week you could turn your radio on and hear him share that passion with you. Or maybe you have a favorite collection you’d like to have others hear.

In December of 1997, a group of local artists in Salida donated various pieces to a motley collection of radio wannabes who raised $600 in a silent auction at a local cafe. It was enough to buy a ½-watt transmitter kit, a 6-watt amplifier, an antenna and mixing board.

With donations or loans of two CD players, a microphone, turntable and cassette deck, Free Range Radio began broadcasting on March 20, 1998 at 101.1 FM, initially reaching most of Salida on three evenings a week from inside an 8′ x 11′ space. You could hear everything from bluegrass to classical, big band/swing, cowboy poetry or an hour of Australian music and news, just to mention a few. Creativity and diversity were encouraged.

Program schedules were posted and meetings of the Salida Radio Club brought more new people — including teens who loved heavy metal and had no place to hear it. A program committee organized scheduling and airshifts. About three-quarters of the program hosts had no previous radio experience but learned quickly how to segue from one disc to another, and in time how to cue up old vinyl records and tapes without much hesitation or dead air.

Of course, it wasn’t a slick seamless product, but we didn’t have to listen to the same top 40 hits interspersed with advertising. We had nearly 50 active people, including a dozen teenagers. Everyone was a volunteer, and anyone who wanted could be on the air with minimal training. All airshifters were required to sign a contract agreeing to follow FCC regulations on obscenity and slander.

Enforcement of those contracts got a little tough sometimes, but overall the enthusiasm and diversity of the airwaves in Salida took a huge leap.

The FM frequency of 101.1 MHz was picked after a volunteer drove around the area documenting which frequencies were already in use, and we picked one with more than two megahertz of dead air on either side, not an option in cities with an already full FM bandwidth. FCC regs normally allow four megahertz between stations to avoid interference.

Fundraiser parties with food and live music raised enough money to upgrade some equipment and were so fun that people are still asking when the next fundraiser is scheduled. Towards the end of summer we’d built a new antenna, had a 20-foot mast donated, and got together for a rooftop erection party to raise the antenna high enough to cover the town clearly and reach into Poncha Springs and Maysville. On-air hours expanded to five afternoons and evenings a week with classical music on Sunday mornings. We got a phone so people could call in with requests, and give feedback or even an interview.

Our chief engineer had built electronic gadgets as a teenager — before he moved on to other career interests — and had a great time assembling the kits and hooking everything up. Our first kit came from pirate radio guru Stephen Dunifer of Radio Free Berkeley, and yes, if you are brave enough to venture out as a micro broadcaster with more than a ¼ watt (not quite enough to reach a full block), you’ll have to assemble a kit because it is still illegal to sell a fully functional low-power transmitter in the United States.

This entire venture was done without a license or approval from the FCC.

All volunteers were informed that FCC agents could visit unannounced at any time. Guidelines on how to handle this “courtesy call” were posted at the station: Ask if they have a warrant, and don’t hand over any equipment not specified in writing.

WHICH LEADS to why you can’t hear the voice of Free Range Radio at 101.1 FM in Salida anymore. The FCC won’t issue licenses under 1000 watts and current requirements are time-consuming and expensive. There are an estimated 1,000 or more microstations operating illegally across the United States, many of them in big cities, where some of them bleed into already licensed radio stations. The people behind them range from militant political activists (left and right and beyond), to church groups, Grateful Deadheads, and groups in rural and mountain communities who are just trying to fill in some of the dead air on their tuner with entertainment or issues of interest by and for the people of their community.

Free Range Radio cruised on the generally agreed upon philosophy that first-time visits to microstations by FCC representatives were seldom pleasant encounters, but usually resulted in a warning to shut down or else.

Then the FCC began busting microradio stations — perhaps due to an increase in lobbying (the FCC received over 13,000 letters last year in regard to issuing low power broadcast licenses), or maybe because they were alarmed by the increasing boldness of people “taking over” the public airwaves. For whatever reason, the FCC started making unannounced first-time visits with guns and warrants to seize equipment. Fines were issued, up to $11,000 per person to everyone inside the station at the time.

A number of Salidans had written to the FCC asking them to reinstate low power, low cost licenses, citing Free Range Radio as an example of an all-volunteer community group filling what would otherwise be dead air. Several airshifters decided to cease their involvement after hearing of large fines possibly looming in their future. And after reviewing the lone response from FCC Commissioner Susan Ness, who advised that our operation was probably not legal, the Salida Radio Club decided to shut down — at least for a while.

We continue to meet, are writing bylaws and articles of incorporation, and are forming a board of directors to begin again as a nonprofit organization in hopes that the FCC will renew low-power community radio licenses. Our nine-month foray onto the air was a successful experiment to find out if this town had interest in this kind of radio, and if anyone would actually commit to showing up regularly.

MY PASSION for radio began 20 years ago when KGNU went on the air as a community station in Boulder and exposed me to a multitude of cultures and issues I’d never heard before. The more I listened, the more I was drawn in by hosts who obviously put thought into and cared about what they were able to convey on-air. I helped answer phones and was recruited to host an early morning music show which I named Restless Mornings as it followed Sleepless Nights. From there I moved into Dreamscape, mixing acoustic, electronic, and choral music into a blend to “expand the peripheral vision of your imagination.”

As a radio host you may be clueless as to who is really listening, but the ability to inform, educate and entertain the audience is seductive. I like to do it through music and usually spend an hour of prep time for every hour on-air exploring new songs, many by artists I’ve never heard before.

Stories and poetry are fun to mix in, and it is thrilling to interview songwriters — like Laurie Lewis, Junior Brown, Robert Earl Keen, Dar Williams, and Peter Rowan — to find out how and why they do what they do, and to know that at least a few people find something they wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

I still travel to Boulder twice a month for business, to care for my elderly mother, and to host a free-form acoustically based music program on KGNU as well as Honky Tonk Heroes. Every month or so I travel to KRZA in Alamosa on Saturday morning for Ballads and Bluegrass, a wonderful way to play some fun music mixed with poignant stories in song. All of this is volunteer — I don’t even get reimbursed for gasoline — and it definitely keeps my business from becoming a highly profitable enterprise. Radio-activity is a hobby anyone with an inclination should be allowed to indulge.

The FCC is taking comments through April 6th on low power radio. Please write to the FCC Commissioners and your Congressman encouraging them to support this means of bringing low cost community radio to your area. The National Association of Broadcasters is fighting this with lots of money, so a flurry of letters is important. Then get together with some neighbors, find a small space, assemble some equipment and have fun!

In her spare time Jane Carpenter is a precision machinist who owns and operates Wheel Works machine shop and welding service in Salida with her husband.