Sound salvation

Could a Reno Bike Project radio station get the community on the airwaves?

Economics student Thomas Snyder is the general manager of the university's Wolf Pack Radio.

Economics student Thomas Snyder is the general manager of the university's Wolf Pack Radio.

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"Personally, I don’t have any plans to be a DJ, but I know there’s a huge diversity of music in this town, and people that like music,” said Noah Silverman, director of the Reno Bike Project. “They’re called community radio stations—the idea being that people from the community have access to the airwaves.”

The Bike Project, a local bicycle advocacy nonprofit organization, might soon be launching a radio station. In early 2011, President Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which authorized the Federal Communications Commission to license local low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations. This new law overturned a previous act that effectively outlawed LPFM stations for more than a decade. LPFM stations operate with a maximum of 100 watts—about 10 percent of commercial radio firepower—and with no advertising. The licenses are given to noncommercial educational entities, like the Bike Project, which was recently issued a license.

LPFM stations are generally able to broadcast for a radius of only about five miles, but the stations are viewed by some radio enthusiasts as an important counter to the increasing homogenization of commercial radio, particularly after the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened regulations on media conglomeration. However, the majority of these licenses have been snatched up by well-organized, well-funded conservative church organizations that use the stations to broadcast religious material.

Todd Urick is the program director of the Davis, California, based organization Common Frequency, which helps organize grassroots community radio stations by partnering with students and community organizations.

“Common Frequency is a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to innovative new community and college radio,” wrote Urick in a recent email. “By providing free and low-cost aid to regular people educating themselves to be the media, Common Frequency has been supporting the launch of grassroots stations since 2006. Peace and justice activists, social service agencies, students, Spanish-language speakers and Native tribes are among our partner organizations. We believe every town should have a common frequency on which people's voices can be broadcast and heard.”

Urick approached the Holland Project, a teen-oriented, all-ages art and music nonprofit in Reno, about helping them apply for a license. After the Holland Project declined, primarily because of fundraising concerns, Urick approached Silverman, who was enthusiastic. Silverman had experience listening to non-commercial radio while living in Seattle.

“I was blown away by how much original music I heard on that station that I would never hear anywhere else, and the variety of the content,” he said. “We want to bring an alternative to commercial radio to Reno. … It’s also a huge asset to the Bike Project and to Holland Project, because it’s a way for the Bike Project to advocate for various cycling things—meetings and issues—and address those issues on the air, which now we can’t really do. And Holland Project can broadcast their shows—live shows and upcoming shows. And it’s for all the other community organizations that are making this town better. So, the Bike Project would be represented on air, which is why I think it’s worth our while.”

Urick helped Silverman successfully navigate the FCC’s application process and the Reno Bike Project obtained a license. And though Holland Project initially passed on the opportunity, Silverman recruited that organization to help develop potential content, especially music.

“The stuff that’s playing [in Reno] on FM formats is not the stuff that’s playing at Holland—but nationally, it is,” said Brittany Curtis, Holland’s director. The organization often presents concerts by a variety of underground and alternative music acts. “The stuff that’s playing on college radio nationally is the stuff that’s coming through Holland. That kind of thing—supporting an alternative community, an arts and culture supported community that’s not so mainstream or corporate—that’s always been super important to us.”

Tim Conder owns Cuddleworks, an artists’ work space, which is next to the Reno Bike Project on Fourth Street. Conder suggested to Silverman that the Cuddleworks facility would be ideal for hosting the station, and also suggested approaching the University of Nevada, Reno’s student radio station, Wolf Pack Radio, about a potential partnership. Wolf Pack Radio doesn’t currently have an FM presence, and instead the student DJs tailor their content to the stations’ website.

Those discussions are in a preliminary stage, and subject to university administrative approval. However, Thomas Snider, the general manager of Wolf Pack Radio, and a UNR student studying economics and entrepreneurship, is excited about the possibility of getting his radio station actually broadcast on actual radio waves.

“I’ve always loved music,” said Snider. “And when I came to the university, the radio station was one of the first things that I found, and it was something that I wanted to be a part of. From that, I just started volunteering and helping out, and two years later, I became the manager of the radio station.”

Snider acknowledges that, especially among younger people, who can subscribe to music streaming services, and load up their personal picks on portable electronics, radio is no longer the singular method of musical discovery that it might have once been, but he thinks that the medium still has unique niches.

“Radio is place where people can tune in to find artists that they’ve never heard, and broaden their tastes,” he said. “That’s where I see radio on one end. I also see it on the other side, on the community end, where it gives a voice to the community, a place where all members of the community can have an outlet to get their voice out there, and there can be discussion about whatever issues are facing the community.”

A community-oriented, student-run station might be a key bridge across the sometimes gaping chasm between the ivory tower and the rest of Reno.

“From my perspective, I noticed that there’s all these really cool things happening in Reno downtown, and there’s no reason that the university and the associated students in particular shouldn’t try to work with these different organizations, be that the Bike Project or the Holland Project,” said Snider.

Photo/Eric Marks

“We want to keep a very strong UNR presence, but then incorporate the community into it,” said Silverman. “We want to incorporate the community into Wolf Pack Radio. That’s what we’re going for as the basis for this partnership. It’s a great way for UNR to get its voice across I-80.”

One possible problem for any potential partnership deal is that the clock is ticking: If the station isn’t broadcasting by March of next year, the Bike Project will lose its license.

Up in the air

Jeff Cotton is wthe director of Open Sky Radio, a nonprofit organization “centered on providing radio and TV to rural areas that don't have any radio or TV,” as he describes it. He operates radio and TV stations in Northern Nevada and Northeastern California—in particular, in Surprise Valley, just across the California border a couple of hours north of Reno. He's also the station manager of KXNV, 89.1 FM, a noncommercial, full-power station that launched in Reno late last year (“Air waves,” Art of the State, Dec. 18, 2014).

KXNV was originally developed by Cotton for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a consortium of various activist groups. But, given his experience operating radio stations, Cotton and his organization eventually took over the project and the license from PLAN.

“We agree on a parallel mission of inclusiveness and localism,” said Cotton. Many of the programs on KXNV are externally produced shows, like environmental programs, and Native American and Spanish language news programs, but the station also features some original music content curated by, among others, on-air radio personality Bruce van Dyke, also one of the founding board members of Open Sky Radio. (He’s also an RN&R contributing columnist.)

“My core belief is that radio can be a cultural hub, much like newspaper,” said Cotton. “If there’s an area that doesn’t have a newspaper or a radio station or a TV station, it’s sort of disjointed. … If you talk to anybody around here, they don’t know what the valley would be like without [KDUP, his Surprise Valley station], because it’s sort of the center pole to so many different things related to arts and culture.”

Cotton emphasizes that he’s fully supportive of the Bike Project’s efforts and the potential partnership with Wolf Pack Radio. KXNV has also aired some Wolf Pack Radio’s content.

“Most towns Reno’s size have a college station, and in Reno’s case, it has a college station that has nothing to do with the students,” said Cotton, referring to KUNR, the city’s university-based public radio station.

Cotton said that, even if the partnership with the university comes together, the Bike Project will face an uphill battle with its LPFM station.

“Reno has one of the most crowded radio dials in the nation for a market its size,” he said. “We are one of the last ones on. … We’re full power, but compared to the other 45 stations on the dial on the region, we’re at 1,000 watts, and most of the big boys are at 10,000 to 25,000 watts. … We haven’t gotten our underwriting act together in terms of getting out and having sales people go out and bring in the business people to support us, which is going to be necessary. We’re so young. On the air not even six months. We don’t have any grants or foundation money, so just paying the power and the tower rent and little things like that is a really big challenge. I’m helping Noah Silverman with Reno Bike—I met with him a couple of weeks ago—and I really want to do what I can to help him be aware of the pitfalls. Even at that scale, which is a lot smaller than what we’re doing, LPFM, he’s got financial worries ahead of him—unless he finds a sugar daddy. … He’s got my shoulder to his wheel. I’m totally in favor of that. I’d really like to see student-run radio blossom in the area. That would be great.”

Conder sees a lot of potential for cross-platform promotions with the advent of a community radio station.

“Advertising and promoting things is difficult,” he said. “As fast as technology changes, so do those opportunities. Where Facebook was working two years ago to promote events, it no longer is. Where posters worked 15 years ago—it comes in waves, sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot you can do with [community radio]. It’s not like Top 40 radio. It’s not just going to cycle through the same 50 songs. There’s going to be a lot of different programming content—talk content, podcast style content.”

Something reiterated separately by Cotton at KXNV, Urick at Common Frequency, Conder at Cuddleworks, Curtis at the Holland Project, Silverman at the Reno Bike Project, and Snider at Wolf Pack Radio is that the key to the future of radio is locally oriented content. The internet covers the whole world, but a radio station with a broadcast radius of only five miles can’t help but be locally focused.

“The internet is a decent platform for global issues,” wrote Urick. “Radio excels in being an excellent conduit for local discussion of pertinent civic issues and promotion of local culture. Unfortunately commercial radio doesn’t utilize the medium for this. Radio is also ubiquitous—you don’t need internet access, a paid data connection. Everyone has a radio in their car, and its easy and free to connect to. This allows for a sizable audience compared to an internet station where an individual needs to actively seek out the streaming source that is costly to maintain by the operator.”

“Imagine how cool it would be to have, like, Pierced Arrows come to town,” said Conder, referencing a garage rock band that plays at the Holland Project periodically. “They do a show that night at Holland. The next morning, they have a cup of coffee, they come down to Cuddleworks, and they play a live set that we play that afternoon on the radio station. That’s it in a nutshell.”

“Most of the younger generations are already off on Pandora and Spotify, and we’re painfully aware of that, but we’re going to provide local content that nobody else does, and we’re going to provide content that’s not on the dial locally,” said Cotton.

Curtis, for her part, is very cautiously optimistic about the future of the station and the possible partnership with the student radio station. She said she’s seen similar efforts fall through with previous student managers of Wolf Pack Radio and other partners, including Sierra Nevada Community Access Television and Truckee Meadows Community College.

“It feels very fragile,” she said. “I’m very careful with it because I’ve seen it unravel so many times before with different parties involved. This seems like a really cool solution, but I don’t want to jump the gun on it.”

Community radio is something that people in Reno—at the very least, those people associated with community-oriented nonprofits like the Holland Project and the Reno Bike Project—have wanted for a long time. Previous efforts to create a community radio station like this have fallen short. So, the question is, maybe this time?