It is 9:30 in East Nashville, a block off Five Points, and a group of
burly guys stand in front of the listening room The 5 Spot smoking tiny
brown cigarettes the size of lollipop sticks. “They’re unprocessed
tobacco,” Beau Hunter says, cupping his hands around a lighter. The end
glows, and when he takes a puff in the 45-degree weather it’s
impossible to tell what is breath or smoke. He’s half in the rain, half
Rain always seems to follow Radio Free Nashville. On April Fool’s Day, 48 hours before the city’s low-power community radio station was to go on the air, a monsoon hammered the studio location on a hillside in Pasquo. Nothing floated away, which was nice. But volunteers were forced to dig three-foot holes in several inches of mud to lay the supports for the station’s 75-foot signal tower. Electricians who offered their service for free kept a wary eye on the puddles of water pooling under the building.
On April 3, however, the skies cleared, and WRFN-98.9 LPFM signed on the air, to the jubilant cries of teenagers, hippies, punks, bikers, bluegrass musicians, transgendered individuals and grandparents high on a ridge off Highway 100 that RFN volunteers call “Freedom Hill.” It was the culmination of eight years of work. On this particular night in East Nashville, the station is hosting its first Christmas party for its more than 80 volunteer programmers—a chance for its founders to breathe and take stock of the station’s bumpy first year.
“This is nice,” says Greg Welsch, a journalist for the Spanish-language paper La Noticia and aspiring filmmaker who was present at the very first Radio Free Nashville startup meeting in 1997. He says this standing in a cold winter drizzle, which suggests the conditions that have faced the fledgling station since its start.
Welsch, along with his sister Ginny, a veteran radio personality, first met eight years ago at a Shoney’s with Hunter and a handful of other people to discuss the dire state of local radio. They were spurred by what they felt was a glut of right-wing talk stations and the fallout from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which paved the way for corporate consolidation of the nation’s airwaves at an unprecedented rate. They first envisioned an AM station for eclectic programming, then a low-power FM signal that could be operated at a fraction of the cost.
Over the years, members came and went, lured by the idea of a community radio station but frustrated by the lack of money and results. That changed in 2002. Under pressure from low-power radio organizations such as the Prometheus Radio Project, as well as high-profile supporters like U.S. Sen. John McCain, the FCC agreed to grant a small number of low-power radio licenses in each state, provided they didn’t interfere with an existing (commercial) signal.
Nobody was more surprised than Radio Free Nashville’s founders when they applied for, and received, one of the state’s few LPFM licenses. April’s sign-on capped an 18-month roller coaster ride that included the loss of the original site, a petition to deny the license from a Lebanon station with the same bandwidth, and the raising of the station’s signal tower during a windstorm—by hand.
But on arrival, Radio Free Nashville brought to light a different side of the city from anything else on the FM band—and not just because it’s the state’s only affiliate of the legendary left-leaning Pacifica Network. Here were zydeco, funk, jazz and indie-rock programs alongside unashamedly liberal, even multilingual talk shows covering issues ranging from TennCare to fire safety. Here were Native Americans, transgendered Nashvillians, Hispanics and homeless people with a megaphone to the public—albeit one with a weak signal that cuts out around White Bridge Road.
“It’s the only progressive radio station in town,” says Cecily Friday, a self-described “recovering Republican” who hosts the Wednesday-evening talk show “Left Turn.” “People are waking up to the fact that they’re being fed a line of crap [by the mass media].”
Even if true, that hasn’t eased Radio Free Nashville’s path. In late summer, the station learned of a potentially disastrous mistake: because of misread GPS coordinates, the station had installed its radio tower 700 meters from where it should have gone. The station had to dial back its already low power, making it all but unreachable by radio outside Bellevue.
“The bottom line is, we did misread it,” says Ginny Welsch, who does voice-over work during the day for local commercial stations. To make matters worse, a glitch in the station’s transmitter had been causing shows to cut in and out. The problem has been diagnosed and is under warranty, but it added to the technical woes of a volunteer-run, shoestring operation that has had to work out most of its kinks on the air.
And yet there have been triumphs as well. For a station whose listenership is almost impossible to detect, the surprise third-place appearance of “Liberadio” hosts Mary Mancini and Freddie O’Connell in the Scene’s “Best of Nashville” readers’ poll came as an encouraging sign. Shows such as the forward-thinking “Future Quake” and Roxanne Fox’s program “Nashville Gender Talk” have drawn listener response from as far away as Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., thanks to RFN’s streaming webcast at www.radiofreenashville.org.
Even though hosts like Nell Levin, of “Tennessee Progress Report,” admit they’re not sure how many people are actually listening, others appreciate the moments when they realize they’re connecting to a tiny but committed audience. For Ginger Bennett, who hosts a show called “Helping Hand” devoted to nonprofit resources, that moment came when an on-air plug brought some badly needed funds to Road Home Animal Rescue, a Crossville organization that takes in the pets of domestic-violence victims, soldiers and those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
“I’ve just had the best time,” says Bennett, a beaming blonde whose husband Michael hosts the popular “Future Quake.” “I’d have been horrified and terrified to do something like this before.” She takes her husband’s arm, and they step out into the rain that seems part of Radio Free Nashville’s indefinite future.
“I always thought these people would be good at what they did,” says Ginny Welsch, as she goes back inside to join the party. “But I didn’t think they would be great.”