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Benoit in WEFT Quilt

Friendships Forged in Community Radio

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the 14th annual Filmed by Bike Festival here in Portland. As an avid cyclist and enthusiast of independent, grassroots filmmaking, it’s pleasure to take it in.

But it also so happens that founder and festival director Ayleen Crotty is an old friend whom I first met in community radio nearly 20 years ago. That station is 2,100 miles away in the college town of Champaign, IL, WEFT-FM. I’m pretty sure Ayleen was in college when we first met and began collaborating on any number of volunteer projects at the station.

The film festival brought another old WEFTie friend to town. He goes by the moniker Mr. WA, and he’s an independent film maker and public access TV show host in San Francisco, who also takes over DJ duties for the Filmed by Bike street party.

WA (as he’s known) came to the University of Illinois, located in Champaign and its twin city Urbana, in the mid–90s as a graduate student on an exchange program from Liège, Belgium. As we were catching up last weekend he recalled how his only music device was a clock radio that he bought when he landed in town.

Scanning the dial he kept coming across this one frequency that was always playing something interesting or different, from old time country to hardcore punk. It was a kind of radio he hadn’t heard at home. Not long after first encountering WEFT WA heard a call to take a training class to learn to become a DJ. He didn’t hesitate.

The mid-to-late 90s was a special time for me at the station. It felt like there was a truly copacetic group of volunteers equally interested in creating great radio as having fun–often at the same time. The internet had yet to pose a serious threat to “old media” and listeners in search of new, different, weird or local sounds still looked to the left end of the dial. There was a great deal of camaraderie bonded by a shared sense of purpose, and so many folks I met then I still call friends today.

I do think that potent cocktail of cooperation, community-minded spirit and creativity is what makes community radio such a magical place for so many people, whether they are active participants, or avid listeners. In some ways community radio experience is like a secret handshake–when you meet another community radio person, you’ve found a fellow traveler who may be a little crazy, but just like you, in all the right ways.

All these years later it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Ayleen founded this awesome film festival that attracts entries from all over the world. When I met her at WEFT she was a devoted bicyclist, who believed in the power of bikes as not just a form of healthy transport, but a positive force to help transform communities. She moved to Portland at the end of the century, quickly getting involved in the very active bike scene and helping to start the Bike Show on community radio KBOO.

As the person who introduced me to Sun Ra, I’m so glad to see that WA continues to be engaged in very creative pursuits, while still finding time to spin music from his expansively eclectic collection–just like the old days. Though I don’t see my friends often, we’re never strangers when we do get together.

It’s not unusual to have lasting friendships that come from shared endeavors. But I contend that friendships forged in community radio are a little different, and special.

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