During my summer road trip to the Pacific Northwest, I visited a trio of radio stations (including college radio stations KWVA and KAOS), concluding with a journey to see community radio station XRAY.fm in Portland, Oregon.
XRAY.fm first went on the air in 2014, thanks to the non-profit Common Frequency allowing them the use of the former Reed College class D license for KRRC-FM. The KRRC license was donated to Common Frequency after the station struggled to be heard over its very low power signal. Common Frequency was able to move Reed’s old channel to 91.1 FM in order to achieve better coverage in Portland, Oregon and the call letters have subsequently been changed to KXRY-FM. Following the launch of XRAY over 91.1 FM, the station added an additional translator signal at 107.1 FM.
On Tuesday, August 4, 2015, I headed over to visit XRAY’s digs in the Falcon Art Community building in Portland. The more than 100 year old apartment building was renovated with the specific purpose of being an artist space and arts community. Full of apartments, artist studios, and galleries, it’s also the hub for XRAY.fm.
The station’s offices are housed in an apartment on an upper level of the building, complete with vintage kitchen, open area for meetings, bathroom (where I spotted some XRAY T-shirts being stored) and an office nook. However, the basement is where much of the action is.
Unaware that the building was an art community prior to my visit, I was amazed when we ventured to the basement and were surrounded by dramatic, large-scale oil paintings and other pieces of art. My guides, Development Director Timothy Marcroft, Executive Director Jefferson Smith, and Engineer/Board Operator Arthur Rizzotto told me tidbits about the artists while we wandered through the gallery.
They pointed out the rooms housed by improv collective The Liberators, band rehearsal spaces, and an unfinished room that will become a performance space. The building also has its own artist-in-residence: Alexander Rokoff.
Down the hall from the gallery and art studios is a small office/storage area for XRAY.fm, which includes some seating and a hidden, yet storied, cat mural. I was told that the cat was inspired by a Chuck Palahniuk short story, which was also significant because Palahniuk was the first person interviewed in the XRAY space. The interview’s producer painted the mural after the interview and now four people sport tattoos of the image.
The XRAY studio space is sort of unassuming, compared with the intensity of some of the artwork just outside its doors. Two small studios face each other and are equipped with quite modern equipment. Even though I’ve been to more than 100 radio stations, I’d never seen the futuristic-looking Studer mixing board that XRAY has in its studio. A hand-me-down from Marketplace’s now closed Los Angeles studio, it’s quite the presence in the XRAY studio.
Although XRAY has live DJs (and there are more than 80 of them) about 90% of the time, the studio was unoccupied at the time of my visit. In place of the scheduled live DJ, a music mix played that was prepared by the regular host. Generally DJs bring in their own music, with around 70% of shows playing at least some vinyl.
DJs have the ability to play digital files, CDs, vinyl, and cassettes. Although there isn’t a physical music library at the station, I was told that they would like to eventually have one and they already have some shelving available for that purpose.
In addition to a wide variety of music shows that play everything from punk to experimental to hip hop to blues to dance mix, XRAY has a healthy schedule of talk programming, which generally airs from 7am to 2pm on weekdays and includes the daily progressive talk shows “Carl in the Morning” (7am to 9am) and “The Thom Hartmann Program” (9am to noon).
In a nod to the marriage of progressive talk and underground music at XRAY, Marcroft characterized the station as a “peculiar mix of activists and music nerds.” With all of the community radio activity happening in Portland right now, particularly due to some new low power FM (LPFM) stations on the horizon, I was curious to hear about how XRAY is connected with the broader radio scene.
Rizzotto explained that he feels like the other stations are “allies,” rather than “competition,” and characterized new LPFM Freeform Portland, in particular, as “friends,” who are fighting the “same fight.” Smith added that he thinks that radio stations can actually play a role in shaping the culture of a town and that radio is “democratizing.”
Even the name of the station, XRAY, is a reference to the broader Portland music scene, as the moniker was inspired by a former, influential all-ages club/music venue X-Ray Cafe, which existed in Portland from 1990 to 1994. A documentary, X-Ray Visions, delves into the club’s history.
Everyone I met with at XRAY shared with me their passion for radio. Marcroft rhapsodized about radio theater, reminiscing about listening to stories on the radio late at night. The topic somehow turned to Dr. Demento and I was pleased to hear that he had been a special guest on the “Mr. Ghost Goes to Town” show on XRAY. A Reed College and KRRC alumnus, Dr. Demento’s appearance on XRAY was actually a return to his former radio home, since XRAY is using KRRC’s old license.
Thanks so much to the crew at XRAY for the great tour. This is my 94th station tour report. Coming up, I have one more tour recap to post from Portland, one more from the Minneapolis area, as well as a couple from California. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see all of my station field trips on Spinning Indie.
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