Former Radio Pirate Celebrates Legit LPFM Station’s 15th Birthday by Wendy M. Levy

It takes a lot of love to devote years of your life to radio. The author at work.

Editor’s note: when Wendy Levy reached out to let us know about WVEW’s 15th anniversary, our interest was piqued. We always love a good story of community radio staying alive, but we also like to hear how people got bit by the radio bug in the first place. We asked Levy to send a bit of personal backstory. What follows is some of Wendy’s own story and a tale of Vermont low-power radio. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

BRATTLEBORO — In a national landscape of extreme media consolidation and focus-group-tested, lowest-common-denominator, homogenized radio, southeastern Vermont boasts something music- and free-speech fans in other regions can only dream about: two commercial-free community radio stations, within about 20 miles of one another. Brattleboro Community Radio WVEW-LP FM, and Black Sheep Radio WOOL-FM, run completely by volunteers, are member-owned stations where program hosts can do almost whatever they like on the air, as long as it doesn’t offend the FCC.

I feel very lucky to be affiliated with both of them.

WVEW, located in Brattleboro—population just around 12,000—celebrated its 15th anniversary in September; their first official on-air date was September 1, 2006. I have hosted a show there, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, since April, 2012.

Well, that’s not entirely true. In 2017, I left WVEW for about a year to host Choose Your Own Adventure at WOOL.

My broadcast experience goes back to 1998, when radio free brattleboro [sic], a pirate station I helped launch, clandestinely went on the air (more on that later). I don’t remember what I was calling my show back then—I changed my show’s name a lot, and it was usually something absurd. It might have been Phrenology Today. I didn’t ever talk about assessing and assigning personality traits by the spurious method of measuring the shape of a person’s head. I just thought it was a funny name for a radio show.

My interest in radio goes back much further than that, though.

Radio was a near-constant presence in my life since childhood. At my mother’s house, my grandmother’s house, in my dad’s car, and in my childhood bedroom, the radio was always on. Some of my earliest memories are of hearing a particular song on the radio. K.C. & The Sunshine Band’s “(Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty” in my grandmother’s chocolate brown convertible when I was three years old. And yes, she was singing along. On a very rainy day when I was four, “The Things We Do For Love,” by 10cc, on my mom’s car radio as we drove down a flooded East Clinton Street in my hometown of Dover, N.J.

The only thing I remember wanting to be when I grew up was a DJ on the radio, and that idea’s seed was first planted when I was 10 years old. I used to record songs I liked from the radio onto cassette tapes. Using the boom box at my dad’s house, I’d also record my own mic breaks. No, I don’t have those tapes now. I kind of wish I did.

A few years later, in my early teens, I started spending more time flipping around the left of the dial, where most of the really interesting stuff could be found in suburban New Jersey. Well, at least when the wind was blowing right and the balled-up foil on my antenna took on the correct shape to collect a clear signal. Then I could pick up WSOU for metal (when there wasn’t a boring basketball game on), random psych stuff on WNTI, folkie stuff on WFUV, WNYU’s New Afternoon Show, the occasional broadcast from the Morristown high school station, and the grandest radio prize of them all: WFMU. It was the best company a lonely weirdo kid could ask for.

Later on, as a young adult, I started volunteering for WFMU on and off. Then, for about 6 years when I lived in New York City and Jersey City in the early- and mid-2000s, I was a regular volunteer, sometimes going to WFMU every week to help stuff envelopes, put up gems on the station’s eBay account, answering phones for the annual fundraising marathon, and learning to edit audio files of bands’ live performances. It was a place where I actually fit in, which was rare and wonderful.

I toyed with the idea of having my own show on WFMU—and it certainly influenced my decision in 1998 to help get radio free brattleboro on the air—but I only ever got so far as submitting an audition tape right before I returned to Vermont.

Still, I was on the air at WFMU numerous times.

One afternoon in 2005, I was at work, listening to Intelligent Design, Kenny G’s show on WFMU or maybe he was calling it Hour of Pain then, or possibly Anal Magic. (This was well before he was invited to read his poetry at the Obama White House.) Kenny was reading some sort of academic text on the air. Strangely enough, it was not interfering with my work; it was enhancing it. So, I wrote an email to Kenny to tell him. It went something like, “Dear Kenny G. Your show is helping me do my job. My job is writing descriptions of cheese for the Zabar’s website. I’m not joking, so you can stop laughing.”

Within moments, instead of making fun of me, he wrote back and invited me to be a regular guest on his show. Every week I’d bring a cheese or two, and we’d eat it on the air and talk about it. This expanded to a special event, in 2006, that Kenny G. billed as “The Cheese Orgy.” I brought in a pile of cheeses, and we invited a bunch of WFMU staff, program hosts, and regular volunteers to join us and eat the cheeses on the air while I explained what made them special. And, the guests chimed in with their reflections. You can listen to it here.

More recently, I spent a few years submitting weekly cheese- and food-related segments to WFMU’s Wake & Bake weekday morning show, hosted by Clay Pigeon. If the name “Wendy del Formaggio” is familiar to you, well, that’s me.

But, up here in Vermont, at WVEW, I just play songs I like every Monday night. Just as I had wanted to do when I was 10 years old.

WVEW, Brattleboro Community Radio, is a 100-watt station, and our studio is downtown, on Main Street.

WVEW’s transmitter and antenna are on the campus of a former school for deaf children, overlooking I-91. This part of Vermont—like most of the Green Mountain State—is hilly, and putting the antenna in this location was about the best we could do to send the signal anywhere substantial. It’s high on a hill, and the antenna sends the FM signal a few miles up and down the Connecticut River valley.

The station broadcasts seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The schedule consists mainly of live, locally-produced shows featuring music, interviews, and educational and political programming one does not often hear on commercial radio or NPR. WVEW also broadcasts a selection of syndicated programs, including “Democracy Now,” and “Economic Update.”

The station’s directors encourage anyone of any age with an interest in hosting a program to apply for a spot, even if that person has no prior experience. Current program hosts train newcomers to use the equipment and speak on the air, and many of them first learned how to be on the radio from other WVEW disc jockeys. I’ve trained more program hosts than I can remember. On a somewhat regular basis, someone at WVEW will thank me for training them however many years ago. I don’t want to hurt their feelings by forgetting our sessions, so I pretend I know what they’re talking about.

As mandated by its FCC license, WVEW airs no commercials. In addition to being operated and funded by volunteers who pay membership fees to host their shows, the station is supported by local business owners who donate money in exchange for underwriting spots. These brief and simple messages merely inform listeners of the business’s existence, and that its owner believes enough in WVEW to finance its operation.

The “LP FM” portion of WVEW’s official call letters indicates the radio station holds a low-power FM license. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) began issuing LPFM licenses in 2000, in response to pressure from radio enthusiasts, artists, educators, religious leaders, and free-speech activists and organizers. What all of these groups had in common was the desire to establish an affordable radio outlet on the nation’s publicly-owned FM airwaves. WVEW certainly fills that need. One of our longest-running shows is hosted by a woman who raised her two daughters on the air; they have both co-hosted the show—playing children’s music and fables and tales from around the world—since they were able to talk. Now, the older of them, a teenager, has her own program.

Prior to the FCC’s decision to allow low-power FM licenses—which can range from 1-100 watts of power—all licensed radio stations had to broadcast at 100 or more watts. The costs of establishing a full-power FM station, which include expensive engineering studies to ensure their signal will not interfere with extant radio stations’ signals, prohibited nearly every group or organization from legally broadcasting—except for commercial radio, NPR affiliates, and stations run by large colleges and universities. One of the Congressional acts that brought LPFM to communities throughout the country was supported by Vermont’s own Senator Patrick Leahy.

Vermont Earthworks, a non-profit formed to take advantage of the opportunity to bring low-power, all-access, commercial-free radio to Brattleboro, filed for this new class of broadcast license in 2001. Four years later, the FCC granted Vermont Earthworks’s request to construct a 100-watt FM radio station to serve the greater Brattleboro area. Within about 18 months, the station’s volunteers began testing its broadcast signal. And, on September 1, 2006, WVEW officially went on the air.

The individuals who created Vermont Earthworks were inspired by the existence (and demise) of radio free brattleboro. RFB was an unlicensed station a group of us Brattleboro-area radio nerds created in 1998 as an act of civil disobedience to protest the lack of accessible space on the public FM band. We knew—as did WVEW’s founders—that some day the FCC would likely come calling and raid the station and seize its equipment. In 2005, after a prolonged court battle, that is exactly what happened: radio free brattleboro was shut down.

Thanks to the foresight of Vermont Earthworks’s first directors, and the dozens of dedicated volunteers, radio nerds, audio engineers, music-lovers, talk show hosts, and hundreds of individuals in Brattleboro and across the globe who donate money, time, and expertise to keep the signal airing, WVEW has done the improbable: it has remained on the air, providing a radio home, even for old pirates like me.

WVEW-LP, Brattleboro Community Radio, is operated by the non-profit Vermont Earthworks. WVEW-LP airs in the greater Brattleboro area at 107.7FM, and online worldwide at wvew.org. Its studios are located at 139 Main Street in Brattleboro, and its mailing address is P.O. Box 653, Brattleboro, VT 05301. For more information, visit https://www.wvew.org/.

WOOL-FM, Black Sheep Radio, is a full-power non-commercial educational station covering a wide broadcast footprint in and around Bellows Falls, Vermont. Its studios are located at 33 Bridge Street in Bellows Falls, and its mailing address is P.O. Box 110, Bellows Falls, VT 05101. For more information, visit http://blacksheepradio.org/WOOL/.

Published by Frequency and Amplitude, an NYC Radio Roundup

Surveying what's left of the analog NYC-area radioscape.

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