By MIKE KILEN REGISTER STAFF WRITER November 4, 2006 Fairfield, Ia.
In Fairfield, any breathing resident may be stopped on the street and asked to host a radio show. The person asking is usually James Moore, 52, a long-haired musician and a firm member of a why-not generation of dreamers.
He hit up Laszlo Papp one day. It was a "maybe" conversation. The next time Moore saw Papp, he told him, "Your spot is Sunday."
So, Papp showed up at the new Fairfield community radio station carting music from Hungary, his native country. His show is called "Magyar Mix," which is a far cry from Tim McGraw and Toby Keith.
It's part of a new wave of community radio, wedged into a market dominated by commercial stations that typically air sports or political commentary or some kind of rock. The Federal Communications Commission authorized the establishment of low-powered radio in 2000, and 764 stations across the country have sprung up as a result.
There are 23 licensed low-powered stations in Iowa, and a new station is preparing to launch later this year in Des Moines. Nearly all of the licenses are held by schools, churches and other government agencies such as the Iowa Department of Transportation.
Papp's show is on a station that airs seven days a week, all day and night, and includes all manner of music from chamber to techno, blues to TV theme songs. Hosts range from a 15-year-old who collects rocks to a seasoned marketing consultant. One man who lives off the grid talks on the air about sustainable living; another has a program on news that doesn't usually make the news.
If you're trying to put the kids to bed, a local wine shop owner reads bedtime stories. Perhaps you want to have "Coffee with Monica & Caroline," a mother-daughter team in the early afternoon. At 4 a.m you can listen to Brother Joel's "Rasta Roots." There's a Spanish-speaking show from Brazil and a drum show from Brooklyn, N.Y., hosted by former Fairfield residents.
Moore calls the station a slice of freedom. "C'mon," he asks Fairfield residents, "what have you got to say?"
KRUU-FM at 100.1-FM is a nonprofit radio station that airs no commercials and operates entirely by volunteers, the solid majority with no radio experience. The station calls itself "the voice of Fairfield." The idea for it was cooked up by Moore and Roland Wells and powered by 100 watts, "or basically a light bulb," Wells said. It can be heard a dozen miles in every direction from its concrete block home in the center of Fairfield and online worldwide (kruufm.com). It flipped the switch last month with only a half-hour syndicated world news show and 23 hours of local programming.
KRUU also uses all "open source" software, meaning the computer programming that runs the station was downloaded for free, a democratization of technology that fits in neatly with its fight-the-power message. "There is a philosophical aspect," said Sundar Raman, the computer guru behind the station. "This is for the community, not for building up someone else's pocketbook." Raman helps gather music that doesn't hold a copyright for an open source music show at 5 a.m. He hosts another show called "Open Views" for computer users.
Community radio lets people do what they wanted to do since they were kids. In the studio on a recent midday, Rich Sims, 58, was hosting a jazz show. He also does a show called "Ultra Lounge," which plays compositions from movies and television shows from his vast collection. In his San Francisco childhood, he set up a little transmitter in his basement that sent out a signal for six blocks. Decades later, he's still playing. "It's just a fun, creative outlet," he said. It's like inviting fellow residents down to the basement to spin records.
Fairfield residents tell the radio hosts they are listening. After all, they know most of them, even if some of their shows are a little choppy. "It's the realness that people are responding to," Moore said.
Wells had secured the FCC license in 2000 while running a nonprofit teen center called the Beat Box. When funding dried up for the center and it closed, so did the idea of running a little radio station. Wells, 26, works for an insurance company in Fairfield and knows the community well.
The town is widely known as the home of Maharishi University of Management and its cadre of residents who come from all over the world to practice transcendental meditation, eat at vegetarian restaurants and start new companies. He knew about their hunger for a creative outlet. So when Moore asked Wells if he still had the radio station license, the pair swung into action.
The license was set to expire. They raised just enough money to get the station going and enlisted volunteers, a handful that quickly grew to 150 or more. They slapped up drywall and hooked up makeshift equipment around the clock in the two months before launch in a building near the railroad tracks that had been a restaurant, American Legion and teen center. A community garden was planted outside, so anyone could stop by and eat a berry or snap off a carrot.
The diversity of the shows surprises even the founders. Dennis Raimondi, a Fairfield marketing consultant and New Jersey native, does an interview show. In the first month, he chatted on the air with U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, with Leach calling the Iraq war "the greatest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country." "I love it," Raimondi said. "I've been waiting to do something like this all my life." He and a few others have college radio station experience. They are called "experts" by the others.
With a small bandwidth that restricts the number of people who can listen at the same time online, the station is exploring other creative, community-minded solutions. They are setting up "mirrors" to other computers to expand the bandwidth for free. The station plans more fund-raising and grant applications to add paid employees. A recording studio for live shows with local bands is under construction.
"It's an exercise in democracy," Moore said. "The revolution is right here. A revolution is about making your community better."
There have been magical moments already. Mike Phelps walked in one day because he once worked for a radio station in Washington, Ia. A few minutes later he committed to a local news show.
Dick DeAngelis is a gregarious, heavyset Italian American who runs a couple of businesses, including a local wine shop. He has a soft spot for soft, sleepy music and a deep concern for children who need to be in bed on time. He and a son in junior high decided to play soft music and read bedtime stories to kids on a show, "Sleepy Time With Grandpa D." He's not old enough to be a grandpa, he said, but uncle sounded too creepy. "I tell them to put their jammies on before we start," he said. "Then I tell them night-night."
The spirit of KRUU continues to snowball. When the host of the heavy metal show didn't show up for his program, Tony DeFreitas stayed on air with his "techno and hard house" music show until 3:05 a.m. At one point, nearly a half dozen people joined him in the booth. Asked what they talked about in the wee hours of the morning, DeFreitas gave a truly community-radio response. "Anything that came to mind," he said.