Maryland Journal

Quiet, please! Locals on air

An Anne Arundel radio station grows into a community voice

December 17, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,Sun reporter

The weekly local political roundtable is in full swing and the discussion is heating up: The farmlands of southern Anne Arundel County are fading. People trying to escape sprawl are being pushed out to West Virginia. Soil erosion and nutrient runoff are polluting and degrading the bay.

"The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, are you listening?" asks Erik Michelsen, one of the impassioned voices at tiny 97.5 WRYR-FM radio in Churchton.

Michelsen's show hits the airwaves for an hour on Saturday mornings, and Charles "Big Daddy" Stallings, a Baltimore blues artist, presses lips to his harmonica on Tuesday nights. Carol Bennett, the station's resident fortuneteller, offers love advice Mondays.

All of it finds a home on the low-power community radio station that broadcasts from the second floor of a strip mall, over a Domino's Pizza.

Funded through listener donations and local businesses, the no-frills nonprofit station is staffed solely by volunteers. In a nod to these everyman radio amateurs, taped to the walls are signs instructing, "Speak directly into the microphone" and "On Air SSSHHHH!!!!!"

Though its 100-watt signal reaches only from the Eastern Shore to Annapolis, it streams on the Internet at www.wryr.org and reaches around the world - but many of its personalities will say they are perfectly content to play for a minuscule local audience.

Who needs ratings when your wife is listening?

"That's not what we do," says Robb Tufts, the station manager and a producer. "What we do is we provide a voice to our community. As far as ratings go, that's not our game; our game is giving our community a voice."

The grass-roots citizens group South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development launched the station - whose call letters stand for "We aRe Your Radio" - in 2002, after the group won two high-profile land-use battles.

Those fights, to prevent a housing development on Franklin Point and the building of a Safeway in Deale, are chronicled in photos of protests and news articles that adorn the walls. "Save the Point," a sign reads. "Stall the Sprawl," says another."

Community radio was popular in the 1960s and 1970s before federal restrictions made such stations illegal. The low-power radio movement gained momentum during the past decade as pirate radio stations went on the air to protest the trend toward corporate media ownership.

About 3,000 applicants for low-power licenses flooded Federal Communications Commission offices after noncommercial stations under 100 watts were permitted access to the radio dial, and SACReD was one of the first to land one.

"When you're fighting sprawl ... you can best define your community when you understand who you are. And the radio station was the best way to do that," says Michael Shay, a vice president of SACReD. He and three other community members recently took over ownership of the station.

"The community had no way to work through this," Shay says of the Safeway fight, which pitted neighbor against neighbor. "But the radio station has been a healing process, where we can have all types of people in our community work through the tough issues. It leveled the playing field. These developers go to the areas of least resistance, and we own a piece of the media."

Brett Keller, who hosts a late-night music show called Volatile Contents, says of the station, "We're a voice for the underrepresented or voiceless, whether it's music or politics."

The programming, which is interspersed with automated content, is limited to neither.

Bennett, on her Chesapeake Moon show, invites listeners to call in with their "supernatural experiences."

"I'm live, and I will use my noetic travels to fill the gaps in your knowledge," she says in an even, instructional tone. "There's no hocus-pocus. I'm simply sharing words, images, feelings and knowing."

More than 20 minutes in, as Bennett has taken to reading from a book on the air, the phone rings, audible to listeners.

"I'm dating a wonderful guy," a regular caller named Linda says. "I just wanna ask a couple of questions about him. He's turning out to be a real treasure. Could you see it possibly going to the next level?"

But at WRYR, like at most radio stations, music is king: a classical show on Sundays, Music for Memories with Mel Price and Jukebox Oldies with Wyatt Coo. The deejays take care to play local artists.

"Sometimes we'll be playing stuff and people will call up and say, `Oh, we like what we're hearing tonight,'" says Bill Leebel, who co-hosts Bay Blues with Tom Rodilosso.

He continues, "A lot of the station is about local politics and stuff. I just come in here to get away from all that."

In walks a few teens interested in getting a show.

Totally a possibility, says Shay. "You get people who are just the average person on the street who want to express themselves. ... It's just another way to open the door to the average citizen."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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