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Crowding the Dial

New and independent stations struggle for positions on the radio spectrum — or take things online.



Main Line Broadcasting launched WWLB, Liberty 98.9, in September. The company, which started in August, owns nine frequencies (four in Richmond: Oldies 107.3, 93.1 The Wolf, 98.9 Liberty and one yet to be assigned).

Main Line Chief Executive Dan Savadove, speaking from headquarters outside of Philadelphia, touts 98.9 Liberty as a new format in which songs from its expansive library from the 1960s onward seem to be played randomly: Technotronic's "Pump Up the Jam" joins INXS' "Suicide Blonde," while Jewel is "Standing Still" alongside Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls." The tag line says it all: "We play anything."

The format is tailored to Richmond based on market research evaluating the tastes of the city, Savadove says. "We think radio has gone too far in super-serving the audience," he says, adding that other stations tend to define their audiences too narrowly. "We know people like to hear music from lots of genres."

The effect is like being carpet-bombed by genres and decades; eventually they'll play something you like. Prerecorded voices occasionally introduce songs, but Savadove says they'll be adding DJs and shows to round out the character of the station.

With WRIR 97.3 nearing its first birthday in January, listeners can look back fondly on the year when our local indie station took its first tentative steps, its first little falls. Those occasional nervous voices, the moments of dead air as the DJ fumbled for a song, the periodic skipping of a CD, the grassroots underwriters: All added to the charm and promise of the station.

Now station operators are making some big-kid decisions: where to put a donated radio transformer that will expand the broadcast area and adding such syndicated shows as the left-voiced "Democracy Now!" (To put it in perspective, WRIR survives on donated transformers and grants, while Main Line Broadcasting's purchase of the four local frequencies cost $25 million.)

When they started the station, says Liz Skrobiszewski-Humes, WRIR's director of development and communications, "We mounted the antenna and worked with it as best we could." Now they're looking for higher ground, but Operations Manager Chris Maxwell compares finding a new home for the transmitter with trying to rent an apartment when you own an 80-foot-high pet.

Getting that dial space from the FCC was a big win for WRIR, the result of a bidding war started when the radio spot became available. "Basically, it's a game of chicken to see who outbids who for the frequency," Maxwell says. Now they hope to expand that frequency by relocating the transmitter and buying a dual bay antenna, he says, which refocuses the transmission from a ball-shaped signal to a wider, disk-shaped one.

WDCE 90.1, UR's FM station, broadcasts to a 9-mile radius from the Near West End, but General Manager Amy Goodall-Ayres says its expansion into online streaming has enlarged the audience.

"It's on and off," she says. "We usually have a pretty good following online." She says world music, jazz and hip-hop tend to attract the online listeners. For an audience that is as familiar with the Internet as the twisty knob on the radio, the online expansion makes sense. And it may be the only way to attract new listeners, as the FCC restricts the station's output. There are two other 90.1s out there; expansion would overlap the signals from Washington, D.C., or Farmville, says Max Vest, director of student activities. So tuning in at is a way to burst that 9-mile bubble.

Goodall-Ayres says the DJ slots are coveted positions. "We usually have to turn people away," she says. And with shows like hip-hop-focused "Flava Shot" and "Vague Disclaimers About Sharks," which promises no two adjacent songs in the same language, they're pushing variety too.

Though Goodall-Ayres says their approach is very laid-back and the DJs play whatever they want, they still toe the line when it comes to Howard Stern-esque hijinks that might cause the FCC giant to stir. It works for them, though. "Most of our DJs are really dedicated and love our format," she says.

And though the radio station has taken the leap into online radio, there are some traditionalist DJs still in the radio ranks: It's not all MP3s just yet. "There are a lot of them that are really dedicated to their vinyl," she says.

As for VCU, the struggle to get its station, WVCW, onto the radio dial has been going on for almost 30 years. WVCW exists almost entirely online at — except for those times, says Greg Weatherford, director of student media, when the station uses a building as a broadcast tower. Even then, he says, there's only a slight chance you'll catch it on the carrier signal 640 AM.

Weatherford says the problem is too much competition. "Richmond has an incredibly tight radio spectrum," he says. The student-run station has, like UR, benefited from tech-savvy listeners. "Mostly we're getting away from broadcast because everyone has high-speed Internet," he says.

Now that the station has moved into the new Student Media Center in a storefront on Broad Street, the former home of Polkadot Arts gallery, Weatherford says he has more time to dedicate to finding a signal. The physical move was the priority, bringing together the student-run media on campus: the radio station, the Commonwealth Times newspaper, two literary magazines and a quarterly multicultural magazine.

In the meantime, the station behaves as if it's under the FCC's watchful eye, and according to Weatherford, the students "decided on their own to follow FCC guidelines." Broadcasting online, Weatherford says, is "a little looser in the sense of what you're allowed to put on." So for those folks huddled around their computer speakers, VCU radio promises constant doses of rock, metal and perhaps some youthful though responsible angst.

But getting a radio spot will take at least two years, he says. Until then, the station broadcasts 24/7 on the Internet, a teat that runneth over. S

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