At 10 minutes to airtime, the studio clock was three minutes slow. Marika Partridge climbed up on a folding chair to fix it, exchanging a “Close one!” glance with her fellow founders of the Washington area’s newest radio station.
After a cutthroat Federal Communications Commission application fight and five years of begging for help and money, it wouldn’t do to blow the on-air debut because of a $15 wall clock from Target.
But at exactly 9:43 a.m. on a July Saturday — right after the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, the Patuxent tribal blessing and the search for a ponytail tie to fix a droopy microphone cover — a volunteer engineer clicked a button on a laptop and Takoma Radio was born.
“We are automatically forgiving ourselves for everything that really isn’t ready yet,” said a harried Partridge before shooing well-wishers out of the studio so she could deliver the inaugural station ID.
When “Good morning, world, this is Takoma Radio” beamed across a swath of the Washington region for the first time, the station became the latest outlet in the low-watt, high-risk world of low-power FM. All across the country, the government is shoehorning new 100-watt community stations into the radio dial. It’s lawful pirate radio, with the feds granting precious slivers of the electromagnetic spectrum to folks who have things to say and songs to play you won’t hear on commercial radio: environmentalists, fringe preachers, James Joyce fanatics, antiabortion activists, lovers of Estonian pop, Japanese rock and the accordion.
Almost a dozen stations a week are going on the air following the FCC’s second wave of license approvals. Most are local churches that want to extend their ministries a few miles from the pulpit. Several are colleges and school systems, where programming ranges from the morning announcements to afternoon homework clinics.
Among the latest wave on the airwaves, according to LPFMDatabase.com: Milwaukee’s WPJQ with a mix of old-school gospel and “expletive free hip-hop.” KALY in Minneapolis just became the country’s first Somali-language radio station. KXWR is broadcasting across Navajo Nation from Diné College in Arizona.
But getting on the air is often the easy part. Of the 1,200 licenses awarded in the first round, in 2001, nearly 750 have already gone silent, according to Rec Networks, a Maryland-based low-power-radio consultant group. One of those lost: Alaska’s KAQU, which broadcast whale mating sounds from an underwater microphone.
In the case of Takoma Radio, the ticket to sound off to almost 250,000 potential listeners went to a volunteer group of radio veterans who hope to create a potluck mix of music and talk reflecting the politically liberal and ethnically diverse suburb.
“Other stations say it, but we really are live and local,” said Partridge, an NPR veteran who lives two blocks from the closet-size studio volunteers built under a Takoma Park, Md., hardware store. The signal cable runs up past the keymaking machine to the roof, where it is relayed to an antenna on top of the 11-story senior center across the street.
She wants WOWD-LP (94.3 FM) to be the town mic.
“If you’ve got a good idea for a show, we want to hear it,” she said.
Among those filling the host seat in the first two weeks: a 10-year-old reggae DJ, three blind African American disability activists and a pair of feminist hip-hop aficionados, one Iranian, one Israeli. The music offerings are college radio for adults, a mix adhering to no known format, ranging from Bulgarian wedding bands to film scores. Jazz factions from cool to classic have locked in their hours.
Ed Smith, 72, has been listening to jazz since he was 10 years old. Now the retired health-care administrator with the gray chin beard and the Carmel-by-the-Sea cap is broadcasting his collection to radios in parts of the District and the Maryland suburbs, and worldwide on takomaradio.org.
“He spent all weekend going through the CDs,” said his wife, Margo, looking through the studio glass as he tentatively punched buttons on the board. “He’s having the time of his life.”
The gaps between actual hosted programs — more than half the hours of the week are still blank — are filled by an automated playlist that is nearing 8,000 tunes, a randomized jukebox of Gene Autry yodels, Sid Vicious solos, Bengali opera and tree-frog calls. The mega mix tape was curated largely by Partridge, who as a longtime director of NPR’s “All Things Considered” is credited with honing the distinctive world-beat variety of the network’s music buffers.
“All I asked is that we take out all the Christmas music and the Nirvana,” she said of the WOWD house soundtrack.
The station has already attracted refugees from the commercial side of the Washington dial, which these aficionados dismiss as hopelessly homogenized.
“Commercial radio today, and even public radio, is not very local,” said Jonathan “Weasel” Gilbert, 67, the alt-rock veteran from the once-radical WHFS who is doing a Sunday gig on WOWD along with local music guru Robbie White. “I think Takoma Radio is trying to get some of that back on a small scale.”
It’s free to apply for the license, but the cost of equipping a station — about $10,000, minimally — and the demands of managing it have silenced many.
“You get it up and running, but then you have to run a nonprofit,” said Sally Kane, head of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. “A lot of them are just helpless.”
Michael Shay, an environmental activist in Maryland, launched one of the region’s first low-power stations in southern Anne Arundel County in 2002. He kept WRYR’s mix of green development and Chesapeake culture on the air for almost 10 years until another station stepped on his signal. It didn’t help that regulations forced him to locate his antenna on the other side of the bay.
“We had to broadcast all the way back to our community with the power of a light bulb,” Shay said. “It became unlistenable.”
Following a change in the law that was hotly opposed by existing broadcasters, the new low-power licenses can be sited much closer to major markets. Shay is hoping to get his antenna moved to his side of the bay.
Like most community radio projects, Takoma Radio is a volunteer effort, except for two half-time employees who work on laptops in Partridge’s spare bedroom. It was five years ago that Partridge learned that the FCC was going to accept applications for low-power licenses for only the second time since 2001. She posted an invitation on her neighborhood email group for anyone interested in starting a local radio station to come meet on her front porch.
The call-out eventually attracted an only-in-Washington cast of media and legal experts. One of the volunteer engineers came from WAMU, the local NPR affiliate. The volunteer lawyer has been a specialist in FCC issues for more than a decade. Partridge had started a community radio station in Sitka, Alaska, before working at NPR for more than 15 years. She left to home-school her autistic son.
“Oh yeah, you can’t surprise us with anything,” said Partridge, who is 60.
The group raised more than $65,000 through concerts, T-shirt sales and an online funding campaign. They enlisted Historic Takoma, a local heritage group, to be the official applicant and license holder.
But the brain trust proved decisive in the unforgiving FCC process, which relies on competing license seekers to rat out the mistakes in each other’s applications.
One by one, Takoma-based lawyer Michael Richards combed the documents filed by three other finalists for the same frequency, 94.3. The group persuaded the Maryland Highway Department, which wanted to beam traffic updates from a College Park antenna, to drop out after finding a mistake in its proposed tower location.
“I basically went with the message that there was a tremendous application coming from my constituents in District 20 and that there appeared to be a problem with their own application and asked if they would consider stepping aside,” said state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a Takoma Park resident.
Richards next notified the FCC of a flaw in the nonprofit status of another finalist, a group related to the D.C. jazz club HR-57. And in the case of the Washington Peace Center, which had sponsored an application on behalf of the Latino Media Collective, he found that a key document had been signed not by an officer of the center, as required by the FCC, but by the office manager.
It was enough. In January 2015, the FCC announced that the other two were disqualified and Takoma Radio had won the license.
“By the time I found out, it was too late to do anything,” said Norberto Martinez, the head of the Latino Media Collective. He wanted the license to create a Spanish and English station along the line of progressive public outlet WPFW, where his group hosts a one-hour show on Hispanic issues.
Martinez denies there were any mistakes in his group’s application and maintains he never received word of Takoma Radio’s complaints. But documents from the FCC website show that a copy of the Takoma group’s petition to deny was sent to the Washington Peace Center.
“I don’t have any hard feelings,” Martinez said, “but it didn’t feel like a clean process.”
Partridge, too, lamented the “finger-pointing exercise” that leads to an FCC license award. Since low-power frequencies that fail don’t get re-licensed to new stations, radio advocates tend to root for groups that offer as much competence as passion.
“It’s a horrible process,” she said. “But we’re determined to make it work, and we definitely have the skills to do it.”