Look closely between a car dealership and an antique store off Midlothian Turnpike and you might see a new radio tower in the sky. It’s the newest FM game in town, WRWK, The Work, 93.9 Low Power-FM, and it hopes to serve its limited signal range with local voices and civic issues within a 6-mile radius.
Low power stations are community, school or church-run radio outlets that usually have a range of less than a dozen miles. The successful WRIR 97.3 LP-FM is one you might be more familiar with here in Richmond, and WRWK founder and secretary of board Christopher Maxwell was instrumental in the creation of that station, too. But now he’s turned his love of LP radio into a regional effort.
In 2013, he and others applied and received licenses for four networks in Virginia — one each in Floyd, Kilmarnock, Portsmouth and Midlothian. Maxwell picked those areas because he thought he saw a window of open political discourse in each of them.
“[These are] places where change is happening, where there’s kind of a split in the population,” he says during an interview inside the new Midlothian station with blank walls and a homemade sound booth sitting in the corner. “I want to push the envelope of weaving the civic fabric.”
The conversation about changing political winds and the desire to create a space for rational voices on both sides started long before Trump. But with the advent of the 45th administration, Maxwell thinks local voices and discourse are more important than ever.
“I knew we needed it back then, and now it's really obvious,” he says. “We need to find a way to have neighbors talk to neighbors.”
Maxwell says WRWK will complement his old project, not compete with it, by offering news and talk at night and music during the day — the opposite of WRIR’s schedule. The new station’s signal also picks up just about where WRIR’s cuts off south of the city.
“WRIR is an amazing thing,” he says. “So, we’re positioning to fill in what’s missing.” Further stressing their positive relationship, Maxwell points to the old transmitter the station bought from WRIR that is currently broadcasting WRWK.
If you want to tune in today, you’ll need to be within a few miles of WRWK’s location. It’s currently running an audio loop featuring techno music and the station’s call sign, but Maxwell hopes to broadcast Chesterfield County board meetings and offer a platform for local voices in the coming months. The skeleton operation is what was needed to get on air and meet Federal Communications Commission guidelines. There’s no live studio, and the ancient mixing board that the staff plans to use is sitting cold on a folding table, waiting to light up the airways.
“We did the absolute minimum, a transmitter transmitting, and on-air,” he says. “Now we can do the fund drives and get volunteers in to make the actual live situation.”
The small crew at WRWK includes fellow WRIR founder and former mayoral candidate Alan Schintzius. The two also got help from Caitlin Reading, a low-power startup specialist who travels the country to help establish stations such as this one.
“We have to start teaching people they are empowered,” Reading says. “And one of the best ways to do that is to get them talking freely on a community radio station.”
Reading said she ran into some roadblocks with Chesterfield County when she was helping set up WRWK. The lack of knowledge around LP-FM and the perceived possibility of a massive radio tower complicated things. But after some explaining over a number of months, the station is now live. The broadcast tower stands less than 20 feet tall and is barely noticeable.
Reading stresses that in the digital age, it can be easy to forget about FM broadcasting. But she’s found that community radio offers a unique outlet for folks once they start to get on air.
“Radio is contagious,” she says. “Once people get involved, they keep coming back.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this online story incorrectly named the call letters for the new station. They are WRWK. Also, Brad Kutner volunteered with WRIR from 2009-2012 and held a paid position with the station from 2011-2012.