Local radio continues to inspire and push new boundaries.
by Anne Pyburn Craig
|Mia Chin was a student throughout the program’s early years.|
Radio, early in its second century of existence, still has room for rebels. Ever since the early 1920s, when broadcasting began, the power of an individual being able to broadcast over the airwaves has been changing our world; even with the development of television and Internet, radio remains unique in that all a listener needs is a simple, inexpensive device and a couple of batteries (or a hand crank) to access information and entertainment.
This democratic, near-universal access on the receiving end has allowed radio some interesting moments. Franklin Delano Roosevelt began using radio to forge a direct connection to the citizenry while he was still governor of New York, reaching over the heads of the opposition and straight to the people. In 1938, thousands of minds were blown when a dramatic broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was mistaken for a news bulletin announcing an actual Martian invasion. Drama and comedy, live and on the air, created a cultural common denominator and frame of reference on a scale never before seen—by the time television arrived on the scene, 82 percent of Americans were listening to the radio.
As educational director of the Poughkeepsie-based Children’s Media Project, Mary Ellen Iatropoulos is helping to nurture the next generation of communicators. As a Vassar College grad, she found herself uniquely positioned to give them a voice in the community.
“As a Vassar student, I managed WVKR, the college radio station,” she says. “When I came to CMP, I stayed in touch with people there—and I remembered that they didn’t have any youth programming.” WVKR (91.3 FM) extends an open invitation to members of the community to propose programming, and when Iatropoulos approached them about an audio version of CMP’s high-energy, high-quality DROP TV format, she found ample enthusiasm.
“This May will be the fifth birthday of our Radio Uprising show,” she says, “and I continue to be amazed by what our youth producers come up with. We talk about space exploration, the future, uses of Twitter and Facebook—we run the gamut from controversial to tame.
“Radio is my personal favorite medium. It has the immediacy of TV without the need to always be at your most dolled up and polished—you can be in sweats in the studio and still deliver a moving, effective show. Getting in front of the camera can be nerve-wracking; the mike, not so much. It’s very freeing. People come out of their comfort zones in ways many of them couldn’t on TV.”
Even after video ended its golden age of dominance, radio has continued to cast a potent spell. DJs like Wolfman Jack and Cousin Brucie provided a lot of people with their first exposure to mind-expanding music. Personalities like Imus and Howard Stern became cultural icons. Right wing talk radio shows stroke the egos and stoke the xenophobic fears of like-minded dittoheads. Millions tune in to Christian stations to feel educated and guided in their spiritual journeys. Radio has bred scandals and reached behind enemy lines in wartime.
And it remains a powerful tool, for propaganda or enlightenment. Unlike visual media, we can listen to the radio while driving or working at other tasks, which may give its messages a certain stealth access to semi-conscious levels of thought and certainly broadens its reach. Iatropoulos believes that when young people become involved in media production, they’re empowered by a much deeper understanding of the constant barrage of messages coming at them.
“Young people are constantly being targeted as consumers of media,” she says, “but we don’t validate them much as producers. They have an enormous amount to add to the conversation. And in order to navigate life, it’s important for them to understand how media is created and how it affects people.”
Radio Uprising’s weekly hour-long show offers a refreshing antidote to the kind of agenda-driven echo chambers that the mainstream media breeds. The kids are honest, fresh, and unafraid.
“Right after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden,” Iatropoulos recalls, “we had two young men on the air who had diametrically opposing views. One perceived it as the day freedom won, a glorious day for American ideals. Another student believed no government should assassinate anyone.” This is, of course, the exact sort of territory that provokes acrimonious swearing fits from so-called “adults” from sea to shining sea, all over airwaves and Internet alike—but the kids, says Iatropoulos, took it to another level. “We debated what it means to be patriotic. Nobody was judged. And why not let youth debate? They get shut down a lot. We need to let them learn civil discourse. We live in a society that rewards win/lose conversation, zingers, and one-liners—we get conditioned to go for the joke instead of the deep thoughtful comment. That kills intellectual discussion, which involves mental muscles that need to be exercised. Raising questions, talking about subjects without judgment—that’s how you do that, and it had better not become a lost art.”
Despite the consolidation and homogeneity of the airwaves—Clear Channel owns 850 broadcast stations, Cumulus Media about 525—radio remains a refuge for independent voices. Satellite and Internet radio allow almost infinite variety, but the terrestrial variety—the kind that still requires only the most basic equipment for access—would be in grave danger of fading into a wasteland of syndicated sameness if it weren’t for the passion of local heroes who keep it real.
The Hudson Valley is blessed with several good independent stations that have found commercial success without knuckling under to control by corporate conglomerates. WDST (100.1) and WKZE (98.1) are both locally owned and dearly loved. Then there are the listener-supported community gems: WJFF in Sullivan County (90.5), besides rebroadcasting public radio content, fills 50 percent of its time slots with locally produced individual content. Kingston Community Radio takes over the WGHQ (920 AM) airwaves five mornings a week for local guest hosts and call-in sessions during which local political and other officials and personalities can connect directly with listeners in their homes, cars and workplaces.
And they do. Research shows that despite our ever-increasing menu of media options, over 75 percent of people listen to the radio at least a little every day, and over 90 percent at least once a week. The first video on MTV, Video Killed the Radio Star, has turned out to be more fantasy than prophecy.
When reporter Gary Lycan of the Orange County Registerasked radio personality Tim Conway Jr. about radio’s relevance, he had a quick and impressive answer. “Radio broke the name Christopher Dorner, carried live interviews from crippled cruise ship Triumph, and bested TV in reporting the asteroid that hit Russia…The Today Show even gave KFI credit for being the first media outlet to talk to the Big Bear resident that was carjacked by Christopher Dorner.”
Meanwhile, at WVKR, kids rule their Thursday afternoon time slot, opening with a pulse-quickening theme created by Delswan Madden in collaboration with the Turn It Up youth radio—a joint project of CMP and Mill Street Loft. And they’re getting educated by the experience in all sorts of ways.
“We have a few songs we play just to get a breather,” says Iatropoulos, “but it’s really hard for the kids to find music that’s not owned or subsidized by a major label, and the rules are strict—there’s no playing Katie Perry or Kanye West. The same major companies control Lady Gaga and P Diddy—it’s an illusion of choice that these corporations go to lengths to create. So the Radio Uprising youth learn to seek out more organic, local, underground stuff. First they’re dumbfounded, then they’re pissed—and motivated.”