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Filling the Gaps
Volunteers are trying to bring low-cost, low-power FM to Milwaukee.

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 media landscape.


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 inspire him.


“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 community.


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 operation.


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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