Community Radio Stations Respond to Charlottesville

On Saturday August 12th, events surrounding a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned fatal. Three people died and about 35 were injured. As the nation looked on, struggling to make sense of the violent clash between the alt-right and counter-demonstrators—noncommercial radio was ready.

Licensed to the University of Virginia, heroic college station WTJU-FM Charlottesville was front and center. Providing two live news updates a day, directly from the field, and a special segment the following Saturday to share each others stories, bring the community together to begin to heal, and air messages of support from around the country.

Like many others, radio journalist Jennifer Waits turned to WTJU to hear the breaking news from Charlottesville and try to understand what was really happening. She says, “I tuned into portions of the WTJU broadcast and it was incredible to hear some first-hand accounts of kindness in Charlottesville in the aftermath of the horrible violence there. It was powerful radio.”

This serves as a keen reminder that the left of the (FM radio) dial is protected to provide local public value. And, in times like these, it’s clear to see the why it is important to ensure every community has access to one of these small, hyper-local, truly independent stations. They offer local listeners shelter in a storm, critical information in a crisis, and a hub—to gather around in times of peril and uncertainty.

Outside of Charlottesville, stations around the country (and the organizations that support them)—rallied to do their part.

Leading the pack was College Radio Day, established to “raise a greater, international awareness of the many college and high school radio stations that operate around the world.” Founder Rob Quicke promptly issued a “Call for Unity and support for WTJU Charlottesville”.

Dozen of stations, from around the country, were quick to respond in solidarity. Quicke says, “The only other time that we have issued a call of support like this was in November 2015, when Paris had just experienced horrific terrorist attacks and we heard that college radio has lost one of its own in the attack at the Bataclan music venue. Then, like with Charlottesville, we saw college radio stations unite to show support. In moments like these, college radio is a unified force of goodwill.”

Coming out of Louisville, WXOX, ArtxFM GM Sharon Scott reports their DJs responded startling events in Charlottesville in powerful ways, saying ”This intense situation shook our staff to the very core. None of us expected to see this sort of torch-carrying hatred rear it's despicable head in 2017. Therefore, the station had no coordinated response prepared. Instead, each show reacted strongly, immediately, and viscerally through their broadcasts of songs, speeches, and custom mixes demanding freedom, redemption, and equality. Peaceful and Powerful, Music provided the expression when we could not find the words.”

Aaron Rosenblum, archivist and sound archivist, who hosts Radio Presque Rien on ARTxFM, collected audio from the Lville2Cville Solidarity March and aired the collage of “Black Lives Matter” chants on his program the following Monday.

In Chicago, CHIRP invited people at their local town hall to come on the air the following Monday. They discussed what had happened, responded to an outpouring of emotion, and played music in response. Throughout the conflict, they also aired news programming from Democracy Now, Pacifica, and Creative PR to provide independent reporting from the scene.

At KABF-FM in Little Rock, Arkansas—on-air labor show host Toney Orr says, “On my show, the discussion centered around how Charlottesville brought to light the issues of race and how some leaders in this country refuse to address the issue of race and the white nationalist movement. Callers were upset that the president didn't go far enough in denouncing these groups and what they stand for. I also had callers who wanted to discuss how they believe that their rights to embrace their heritage was being threatened … Our phone lines have been hot over this incident.”

This is just a small sampling of how non-commercial radio stations around the country showed up for their local communities to help people process their outrage and grief. While we have come to take these stations for granted, they are crucially important.

To understand why, it’s valuable to take a look back to an example of community radio’s role in organizing local communities—the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM).

Beginning in the late 1970's, AM/FM, part of the ACORN family of organizations, began supporting noncommercial stations. By the mid-1980s KNON-FM was successfully on the air in Dallas, WMNF-FM in Tampa, and KABF-FM in Little Rock. Now in 2017, AM/FM has also recently put WAMF-LP on the air in New Orleans, and agreed to manage WDSV-LP in Greenville, Mississippi.

All of these stations were designed to be "Voice of the People" stations, meaning they are programmed to provide a megaphone for low- and moderate-income families to air their interests and issues. As community, noncommercial stations—they service the broad interests and tastes of their community and are supported by their listeners, with a special emphasis on constituencies and organizations whose work most needs access to a larger audience.

AM/FM also distributes programming from these stations to any other interested non-commercial stations.Across the family of stations, public affairs and call-in shows have opened up their microphones to discuss the tragic events in Charlottesville. Wade's World interviewed Kristin Szakos, a two-term Charlottesville city council member (see previous article) about the years-long struggle to remove Confederate statues and her insights on the local police actions and tactics. Call-in programs including the Labor Show, Community Voices, and the Barbershop have all done special programming on Charlottesville

Like a flashlight in the kitchen drawer, it is easy to forget why these organic networks and non-corporate radio stations are important—until you need them. As FCC protections are eroded by brokers and profiteers— and mainstream news channels become increasingly less locally focused—these remaining stations are invaluable as trusted news sources and, in so many cases, first responders. Do your part to support them, by listening, lobbying, volunteering, or donating.

Kenya Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and community radio advocate. In 2011, she helped to organize the effort to Save KUSF.