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Riverwest Radio on the FM Dial

A step forward for community broadcasting

Mar. 2, 2015
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Photo by Dave Zylstra

Last November, after operating for three years, Riverwest Radio (RwR) got the call from the FCC: FM frequency, granted.

The process was intense, competitive, exhaustive – and successful. RwR will now build a neighborhood radio tower - pending location, approval, and funding. “Not impossible, but improbable. Fortuitous,” said Caitlin Reading, RwR’s vice-president, and director of administrative, legal and financial affairs.

Engineer Garrett Lysiak’s diligence uncovered the open frequency by scrutinizing the FCC website. “A 20-hour mad rush resulted,” Reading said. RwR refitted applications, collected engineer and attorney reports, a sponsoring partner and cash.

RwR had lots of community support, including Tess Kenney’s Riverwest Artists Association. The two organizations share an ethos and connections: working artists, poets and musicians.

“The work they put in? We’ve nothing but admiration,” Kenney said.

Application fees to the FCC tallied at $1,500. Legal costs ($600) emerged. RwR counts 65 staff - producers, DJs, administration – all volunteers, with day jobs.

They found the money. And then, the hard part: “waiting on pins and needles,” Reading said.


The Roots


RwR began in a teepee. During the Occupy Movement, Locust Street’s Garden Park played epicenter. Within the park and teepee, people came and stayed, left and returned.

“Living together, eating together, standing together,” Reading said. “Brought back into proximity with one another. ‘Community’ was tangible. We wanted discussions to continue, and be amplified.”

Within weeks, RwR was broadcasting, live from a permanent home at 832 E. Center Street. Riverwest Film and Video provided space; a front-window studio. Owner Xav Leplae is now station manager. Both operations run concurrent.

“Karen Brooks got the ball rolling,” Leplae said. “Keith Gaustad, George Darrow, Al Hajny, Charles Carmichael – all crucial. Nick Rhyan and I set up the first iteration. I’m unorthodox and have struggled against many currents to survive,” he added. “RwR makes no money, but it is vital because it showcases an alternative approach to business. I believe every community should have a station. They should be common as public libraries.”

Today, 42 programs appear round-the-clock on Bamboozer.com, and Riverwestradio.com - call-in talk shows, news, religious, music and sports. Camerawork shows street views; store-traffic, pedestrians bound for Fuel Café. Next up: live-airing local events, from remote locations.

RwR remains copyright free. Royalty licenses run $1000 annually, Reading said. “Fortunately, local artists provide our material. It’s probably what we do best. Musicians do shows locally; visit us after, and perform.”


The Tower


RwR’s new frequency - 104.1 - is classified as LPFM (“LP” being “Low Power.”) Maximum 100 watts, five-mile radius – roughly highway 41, east over Lake Michigan.

“Unfortunately, Capitol Drive has [radio and TV] towers. They’ll bleach us out,” Reading said. “Downtown, we don’t know. Skyscrapers? The valley? We’ll probably hit Walkers Point.”

By comparison, she said, “two hours northwest, you pick up a Minneapolis station - at 50,000 watts.”

Wherefore a tower? Regulations specify: within the neighborhood, well above terrain; no dangerous rays. There are no safety or health issues, Reading emphasized. “We’re super concerned, because we have it in the booth. We double-checked: emanations aren’t high enough to cause damage.”

A months-long timeline persists. Milwaukee requires permits, requiring meetings; pending legal schedules. Construction, though, is mere weeks. Prefabs; poured cement and welding.

Finally: how much? Considerations include: purchase vs. rental; speed vs. cost; and height (60-100 ft.). RwR will build and remodel simultaneously; purchasing transmitting and booth equipment in one package. Store remodeling will open space for additional studios. Estimates run $40,000-50,000.


Moving forward


Unfortunately, LPFM stations cannot sell commercials. But the FCC does allow underwriting: 30-second blocks, bracketing each hour: sponsor names, locations and business descriptions. Prices and calls-to-action are prohibited.

LPFM requires changes, though none severe, between log-keeping, tax-filing, steady broadcast levels and quality, emergency broadcast system checks. RwR will join severe weather alerts.

The challenge now is everything, at once. Reading, Leplane, and Ian Powell (technical director) comprise the board. All are swamped. Needs include: grants, handbooks, broadcast and computer skills, volunteer coordinators – and yes, underwriters.

“An accountant, yesterday,” Reading laughed. “Social media coordinator. More UWM and MIAD. Interns, especially. Call the store [414-265-8433].”

New shows are invited. The schedule’s on a window chalkboard. “Anybody is welcome,” Reading said. “Literally—open the door. Walk in. We’re a public platform. That is important to us.”

Or join the party – March 8 (5.30-11 pm.) at Falcon Bowl, Reading said. “Second Biannual Art Auction, celebrating three years on-air, with one theme: Mardi Gras. Come masked, or costumed. We encourage expressionism.”

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