A Tale of Two Stations

Tony Ballz

Here in scenic historic whitebread Flagstaff, I believe it is one’s civic duty to improve one’s surroundings however one can in order to make one’s community more … umm, human? Tolerable? Not sucky? What’s the opposite of depressing? I’m currently involved with two radio stations, one imaginary (sort of) and one real (sort of).

A while ago I decided to stop bitching about how utterly awful Flagstaff’s airwaves are (OK, I still do that) and get off my duff and contribute to their beautification. Radio Free Flagstaff is the brainchild of Noise contributor and local broadcaster John Abrahamsen. RFF is designed as a community-access station open to all, no experience necessary. John has a much more eloquent statement of purpose on our website radiofreeflag.org. In a nutshell: send us money. Please. We need to get on the air. It will be worth it, promise and swear to God.

Ideally, Radio Free Flagstaff will broadcast 24/7 with a signal as strong as any other local station. And y’all are invited! Let’s get it together, boys and girls! The FCC will be listening so we have to keep it kind of clean, but subversive is A-OK, encouraged even.

The fact that a city the size of Flagstaff (stop calling it a town) doesn’t already have community radio is ludicrous. Remember when there was a local television station with a nightly newscast? No? That’s because it went off the air fifteen years ago and never came back on. We’ll speculate on why that happened another time.

In December 2010, Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act, which basically loosens the FCC’s stranglehold on the FM dial and encourages small towns to start their own grassroots stations with a local slant. We’re on the list for approval, just need to get that bread together.

Frank Chipotel and I started doing shows in September 2010. We’re like two of those wacky AM DJs, except funny and with WAY better music. I do silly voices and Frank gets grumpy and yells a lot. And we bring in good tunes. There’s tons of other quality programming posted as well.

If you’ve ever seen a radio station on TV or in a movie, that’s where we record. It’s cluttered but clean. It has a broadcast booth with fairly expensive mikes and headphones and a bunch of mysterious electronics (I try not to touch too many knobs), a central office/meeting room with a door, and a general “bullpen” area with several desks.

There’s radio-centered effluvia everywhere: trade magazines, framed certificates and awards on the walls, stacks of promotional CDs and Public Service Announcements, a utility closet with all sorts of wires and stuff, sports knick-knacks, filing cabinets, and a huge satellite dish out in the parking lot about three dumpsters tall surrounded by a concrete barrier with a locked gate. You need a key or a security code to get in to the studio. The public restroom is usually cleaner than mine at home and it’s always empty. I’ve had several satisfying bathroom experiences in there.

The whole place screams “professional”. As I said, just like the movies.

My other gig is on KWHY (106.9 FM), a pirate station with a low enough wattage to fly under the FCC’s radar. Heading south from downtown, the signal dies around Wal-Mart; heading east, around 4th Street. A girl we know started it but then she moved and now I don’t think anyone is in charge.

KWHY is located somewhere most of us have lived, usually in our early 20s: The Party House. There’s five or six roommates and several dogs and cats cohabitating there. Every week or two they’ll have bands play in the living room while dozens of drunk punks roam the premises and break stuff and knock over beers and pee in the yard and fall down.

The day I started doing my show was the first time I had ever seen the place empty. I’m never sure if the people I meet live there or are just hanging out. The recycling bins are ridiculous; this single household may be the Pabst Blue Ribbon company’s best customer in Flagstaff.

I don’t think they ever lock the front door. Everybody just walks in, no one knocks. The kitchen is usually pretty horrific. I’ve never had the courage to sit down on their toilet. There’s a second bathroom in back by the broadcasting equipment, but it’s been out of service for months and stinks really bad so the door is kept shut.

Sometimes there’s a group practicing two rooms over that completely drowns out my show and I have to either put on headphones or give up and go home. I bring my own headphones because the ones there are broken in half. The whole joint usually smells like spilled beer and/or week-old trash. They could really use one of those hand-san dispenser. The transmitter is about the size of a paperback book. It came from Radio Shack and only requires a two-prong plug for electricity. From it, a cable runs between the washer and dryer in the next room, out a hole in a window screen, and up to the antenna on the roof.

The main amplifier is the same kind of receiver I have for my stereo at home (meaning nothing fancy). There’s two turntables, a CD player, a dual cassette deck with one of the doors missing, a two channel DJ mixer with a cheapo built-in microphone, and a four-way junction box that includes an 1/8 inch plug for an MP3 player or laptop. Except for the transmitter and the dish, all the equipment could have been found at Savers or Goodwill or a garage sale. A lot of it is held together with duct tape.

How do you know you’re on the air? You simply tune the station in on a portable radio/CD player, the kind with two inch speakers that ten year old girls get for their birthdays, and crank that sucker up. Not too loud, or the mic will start feeding back.

The entire operation gets its juice from a single power strip (piggybacking a second one) with an adaptor on the end going into a two-prong wall socket. That’s it. The whole damn station. The first time I came in there, the plug was hanging out at a 45 degree angle. I rigged it with some duct tape so now it sits full in the outlet.

Your grandma has a better stereo setup than this. So does the average technophobe. Everything looks like it might fall apart at any minute. Sometimes it does.

THIS IS HOW EASY IT IS TO GET ON THE RADIO. When you don’t need a license, that is.

When no one’s broadcasting live, the iTunes shuffle is on. The DJs and residents of the party house have packed it full of goodness from our personal collections. Sometimes I’ll be listening at 2 or 3 AM and some truly WEIRD people will be on that mic.

Like I said, KWHY’s wattage is so low the FCC has no jurisdiction over it. That means we can play and say whatever we want. The first time I uttered the f-word on the air was quite liberating. I immediately said it six more times in a row, just because it felt so damn good. The novelty hasn’t worn off yet.

Wednesdays are my night. I cart over about 30 LPs and a handful of CDs from home. I’ve always wanted to hear bands like Husker Du, Mission of Burma, Big Black, Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, The Melvins, Guided by Voices, Skinny Puppy, Bastro, The Fall, Gang of Four, and Pere Ubu on the radio and now I’ve made it happen. Sometimes I talk, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes the albums skip really bad. Sometimes the needle gets all fuzzy and you have to lift it off the record and go brrt brrt with your finger and put it back on.

The other week I played nothing but Frank Zappa for four solid hours. It was awesome. I’m thinking of bringing in Live at Carnegie Hall 1961 by Lenny Bruce and spinning the whole thing, all six sides. Maybe follow it with some Lord Buckley. It really frees you up when you realize no one is listening except maybe the other DJs.

There is one major difference between the two projects. All the shows we’ve done for Radio Free Flagstaff have been recorded and edited and are available on the website. I have MP3 copies of them on my hard drive.

When I broadcast on KWHY, the words and music are released into the ether and then they’re just gone, whether or not anyone out there is hearing them. It’s a moment in time that passes undocumented.

My greatest fear for RFF and KWHY is that they succumb to the Flagstaff Curse. It goes like this: Everyone sits around bitching about how everything sucks now and how cool it was back in the day. Something new with potential for greatness pops up. Those involved try to get people excited about it. People get into it for a while, the excitement wanes, the new thing dies. Everyone sits around bitching about how everything sucks now and how cool it was back in the day. Repeat.

Radio Free Flagstaff and KWHY may have radically different approaches, but the intended result is the same: to let the voices of our community be heard. No matter how incoherent they are.

Except for KZXK (98.9 FM), all of Flagstaff’s radio stations are corporate owned. That means they are all driven by one goal: profit. None of them are interested in doing anything beneficial for our city. But some of us are.

Maybe if we yell loud enough, someone will hear us.

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