By Thomas Baker
Radio can be a special place to escape the monotonous and overreaching world. A place to listen to the strings of a banjo pluck the blues from under our tired eyes. A place where beats fall like leaves from a dancing forest of culture. I turn on the radio in Gainesville, in search of this special place, hoping to find something worth listening to…
I am hounded by car commercials, religious preaching and rightwing fabrications. I find myself listening to elevator jazz, the unchanging classic rock stations, overplayed corporate post-grunge rock and hip-hop that has lost its original appeal. Turn on the radio right now and listen for yourself. With just a few community stations barely getting through to Gainesville, and I am not talking about NPR, it is time for the community to take back radio for themselves.
“Community radio is important,” says Bill Bryson, founder of Grow Radio Gainesville, an online community radio station. “It coalesces a community. It gives people not only communication, but a rallying tool; it gives people something they can identify with in their community.”
Before Grow Radio and WGOT 94.7, which is Gainesville’s only community station on the airwaves, there were countless battles for those trying to make a community/alternative station in Gainesville. Community stations are found all over the country, but Gainesville has been missing out. It is baffling to see that UF, the sixth largest university in the country, still doesn’t have a student-run college station.
“One of the most interesting things to see not happen is the students pushing for their own station with the administration,” Bryson says, “The administration has deflected those calls for a student-run station by saying we have Rock 104 and AM 850, but it’s not an answer. A student-run station is a whole other entity. It is free-form radio; it’s fluid, it’s dynamic; it changes from generation to generation of college students. ”
The music the University of Florida broadcasts does not represent the multiplicity of culture found in the UF student body. It is also true that almost all the stations in Gainesville do not represent the broad interests of the town. There seems to be countless stories of stations trying to provide something for the community and being shut down as they gain listeners.
One the most dramatic endings was that of 97X in the late 1990′s. 97X built its reputation by playing an “eclectic variety” like REM and Ani Difranco, “that didn’t follow genres as much as instruments,” said Joe Courter, longtime Gainesville resident and radio buff. “They supported acts that would come through Gainesville. They were a community-minded station.”
The owner of the station completely changed the programming to make more money, and overnight 97X became 97 The Sky – with Rush Limbaugh and other rightwing talk.
“It was very painful” says Courter, with a puzzled look to the ground, “to see it go from one of the best stations to one of the ‘not best’ stations.”
Free Radio Gainesville sprouted in the ‘90s with the infamous Free Radio movement that sparked pirate radio stations across the country. Riff Raff the Radio Rat was one of Free Radio Gainesville’s unique anonymous spokespersons. He says Free Radio Gainesville’s mission was to “put quality music and information on the airwaves in Gainesville from progressive and radical points of view.”
As the Radio Rat talked about how the station was run “in a tool shed and an antenna on a pine tree in the student ghetto,” I was shown the antenna and touched its chrome finish, with marks from torn off tape and scratches from an assaulted past.
“We got chased around by the FCC, federal marshals, and eventually harassed by GPD. We moved around. Federal marshals raided our studio and took all our equipment and left us with $11,000 in fines,” the Radio Rat says. With a legal team, Free Radio Gainesville defeated the charges but ended up shutting down anyway.
“The government wore us out,” the Radio Rat says. “People got tired, burnt out, and scared.”
Grow Radio is taking advantage of the new technological age and freedom of the Internet by streaming their radio online. Bryson, who listens from his iPhone, through Bluetooth, to his car stereo system, says the Internet is a powerful tool for community radio. “Grow Radio is focusing on being local. Hopefully college students and the community will identify with that. We’ve got local people on the air playing music they are interested in and the community is interested in.”
Community radio is in its infancy in Gainesville. WGOT 94.7 (the same frequency as Free Radio Gainesville) received its low-powered license after years of waiting and hard work. The station is shared with two churches however, so be aware of its schedule.
Jimmy Schmidt of the Civic Media Center who helped start WGOT 94.7 says, “I thank the volunteers who make community radio work. It is when people try to be a part of radio that it becomes successful.”
The community must stay involved if these stations are going to last; after all, they are supported by the community. Either students bring about the change on campus or the few stations in town hit it big with the community. Gainesville community radio is in need of a promising future.
“Real community radio is inherently noncommercial” Jimmy says. “The next step is to reach more people and get more people involved.”