The humming nerve center of Riverwest Radio
The decision of station owners at
WMCS-AM 1290 to unceremoniously pull the plug last week on news and talk
programming for Milwaukee’s black community leaves a huge hole in the local
But inside a video store on Center
Street is the promise of something that could point the way to filling that
gap, or others like it.
The Riverwest Film and Video Store
at 824 E. Center St. is home to Riverwest Radio. You won’t find it on your dial
right now – it’s an Internet-only
broadcaster – but the organizers hope to see that change.
The operation is the brainchild of
store owner Xav Leplae, who says its
goal is to provide a public forum for the community.
Think of it as “Occupy the Airwaves.” Leplae, who has been involved
with other grass-roots media work in New York City and here, says that his
involvement in Milwaukee’s offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement helped
“I thought it was really good to
have a soapbox platform for people to come and have discussions,” he says. “The
Occupy Movement wasn’t just about people sitting in parks and wasting time. It
was about people building movements. This is a living example of that. The
movement didn’t just fade out – it created things like this, and this radio
station is one of them.”
Leplae and a group of volunteers
launched Riverwest Radio a year ago this weekend with an eye to making it one
of the new, low-power, non-commercial FM radio stations that the FCC will be
licensing around the country in the coming years.
With the passage and signing of the
Local Community Radio Act of 2010, the Federal Communications Commission was
required to expand LPFM beyond the rural locations that were originally
targeted, according to the Prometheus
Radio Project a nonprofit in Philadelphia that seeks to recruit and support
LPFM startups around the country.
Leplae knew a lot about the
procedures entailed in dealing with the FCC licensing process. He teamed up
with a store customer, Nick Rhyan, a
webpage builder and all-around techie who brought the technical expertise to
the project. “We discovered we both had an interest in a grass-roots, community
radio station,” Rhyan says.
Rhyan set up a computer and control
system in the back of Leplae’s store that streams the Riverwest Radio
broadcasts live while simultaneously recording them as podcasts and uploading
the recordings to an archive on the Internet. The Riverwest Neighborhood Association acts as
the fiscal sponsor for the nonprofit operation.
Sunday they’ll hold a one-year
birthday party at the Polish Falcon, 801 E. Clarke St. It’s a potluck, with
a $3 donation. Paul Cebar and Mike Frederickson will provide music
The Riverwest Radio broadcast booth borders the window at the front
of the store, and occasionally hosts have been known to invite passersby on the
street to sit down at the mic.
Program producer-hosts are all
volunteers. The shows are highly eclectic, ranging from radio theater and
comedy to commentary on news and culture.
Andrea Thompson, a freelance movie reviewer for Patch.com, hosts A Reel of One’s Own, mixing reviews and interviews with
filmmakers. Caitlin Reading, who works in landscaping, is a
host of Breaking Down the News, which takes
a distinctly skeptical look at politics and the news media.
“We’re trying to cover things
you’re not seeing on the mainstream news,” Reading says.
Some of the shows defy categorization, like Stone Soup. “We’re trying to be Democracy
Now! meets RadioLab,” says host Ian
Powell. Powell makes his living as a farmworker and selling produce, but
one of his passions is creating electronic music, and he uses his compositions
between and around segments discussing politics, agribusiness, the Riverwest
neighborhood, and a wide mix of other topics.
Ald. Nik Kovac hosts Packerverse – the topic is probably
self-evident, but it’s safe to say the slant is idiosyncratic (With apologies
to The Sports Nut, I don’t know that
SportsRadio 1250 would be likely to offer a lengthy discourse that ties
together the Packers, the Spanish conquistadors and the Latin American
indigenous people with musings about “the linear nature of time” and “the
sacred and the profane.”)
There are shows covering women’s
issues and the black community as well. And Riverwest Radio volunteers say
that, whether via Internet radio or LPFM, what they’re doing offers an option for
someone seeking to pick up where the former WMCS news and talk programming left
off – providing a new audio media source for Milwaukee’s African American
Although the station currently is free from regulation, on-air
personnel are required to abide by FCC rules – meaning no swearing or
profanity, and no unlicensed airing of copyright material, Rhyan says. That’s
intended to make the operation broadcast-ready should it win a license. It also
may help impose some discipline on the otherwise very freeform aesthetic of the
When a brief window for LPFM
applications with the FCC opens up for a week or so in October, Riverwest Radio
will have its paperwork ready to go, Leplae says, although it has a lot to do
to get ready between now and then.
With the growth of Internet radio
and podcasting, going to the airwaves at all might seem superfluous these days.
But radio can still reach people in ways that the Internet doesn’t. “The
Internet is great, but FM is very accessible,” Rhyan says.
Of course, that could change in
just a few years. Leplae acknowledges it may be two or even three years before
Riverwest Radio learns if its application has been accepted – and who knows
what the landscape might look like then?
“I think that FM will make a big
difference, but we’re not as worried about it being the be-all and end-all,”
Leplae says. “It’s kind of cool to realize there’s a lot of future in the Web.”
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