It’s been particularly exciting for me to visit some of the new low power FM (LPFM) community radio stations that are in development thanks to the Local Community Radio Act. After an all-day field trip from Washington, D.C. to Culpeper, Virginia (to see the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center), I headed to Takoma Park, Maryland to learn about and see new LPFM station Takoma Radio. The station, WOWD-LP, will begin broadcasting on 94.3 FM in just a few weeks.
A project of Historic Takoma Inc., the station was working towards its launch when I visited on February 25, 2016. Station founder Marika Partridge and her husband Larry Ravitz met up with me at the nearby Metro stop and we walked over to their house to talk about Takoma Radio’s plans over dinner. In a nice coincidence, my friend and fellow college radio historian Laura Schnitker lives nearby, so she joined us for the conversation.
Since the station was still being built, Partridge’s house was functioning as the home base for Takoma Radio, with meetings, training, and listening sessions taking place there or at Historic Takoma’s headquarters. The hope was to get into the new station space by April 1st (which they did), with an expected FM launch date in June or July. When I checked in with Partridge this week, she told me that the plan is for WOWD-LP to officially launch its 94.3 FM signal and online stream on July 16 at 9:43am. Partridge shared that, “We are planning a fabulous launch event at our studio and in the parking lot and park in front of our space at 7014 Westmoreland Ave – starting with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony – the fun starts at 9:43am on July 16 – celebrating our launch on 94.3FM.”
A corner of Partridge’s living room was Takoma Radio central. A large cardboard Takoma Radio sign was perched atop audio equipment and items for an upcoming auction were stacked nearby. We moved into another room for Thai food and as we sat at Partridge’s kitchen counter on that Thursday night in February, she shared not only her passion for and background in radio (she’s worked in radio for 40 years and co-founded community radio station KCAW in Alaska), but also her excitement about building a new community radio station for Takoma Park. Wearing many hats, she was immersed not only in fundraising (the station was having an Art & Artifacts Auction event soon after my visit), a “vinyl drive,” building the studio, writing an equipment manual, and soliciting applications from future DJs and program hosts. Partridge explained, “I’m a guerilla. I’ll do whatever is needed.”
Keenly focused on programming, Partridge has deep experience in news and was Director of All Things Considered for 15 years. A Canadian Studies major in college, Partridge explained how she was drawn to the Canadian model of immigration, which is seen as a “mosaic,” vs. the “melting pot” of the United States. Applying that idea to radio, she explained, “What I don’t want my radio station to be is a melting pot,” adding that, “it’s not about homogenization. It’s a mosaic…We’re not trying to be the same.” With that in mind, she wants many communities to be reflected in the programming and hopes for shows in different languages. Partridge added that it’s a very diverse community and that even the local middle and high schools translate communications to parents into “easily over 70 languages.” She added, “we need to have a lot of different languages on the radio.”
Specific programming was still in the works when we spoke in February and the station was working to put together a programming committee. One thing that was in place was the ambitious plan to have live programming 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Everything will launch on the first broadcast day, including the online stream. Partridge added, “I don’t want it to be online first,” in part because she wants to ensure that programmers are following broadcast and FCC rules from the very beginning. She explained the need for community radio in D.C., saying, “We’re bringing something that’s radical, really, to D.C.” Reflecting back on the history of community radio in the area, she gave credit to Georgetown University’s college radio station WGTB (which I visited the day before), a station that had a huge following in D.C. when it broadcast over FM.
Explaining what she’s drawn to on radio, particularly college radio, Partridge opined, “I like unprofessional radio…It makes you stop in your tracks” and added that, “It’s so not corporate radio…They’re taking risks and they’re acting real and how can you resist that?” She concluded her thought telling me, “I’m so sick of safe radio.” It’s her dream to work not only with a diverse population of adults, but to also bring young people to the studio by hopefully working with high schools, with the county’s Latin American Youth Coalition, and through internships. She already has some teenagers interested in radio and sound engineering, adding that, “we are dependent upon teenagers.” A few of her colleagues work closely with high school students, so she was confident that there would be a strong youth component to the station.
As she reflected on the new station, Partridge explained that they were trying to create a new culture “where all the voices can be heard.” She said, “I have a really good team” and also acknowledged the station’s supportive license holder: Historic Takoma. According to Partridge, “they’re visionaries” and believe that “history happens every day.” The station also benefits from its location in funky Takoma Park, a town known for its liberal-leanings. It’s been described as the Berkeley of the East, is a nuclear-free zone, and has had a socialist mayor. Additionally, teens as young as 16 can vote in municipal elections in Takoma Park. Partridge said, “We’re an unusual town. I’m proud of that unusual town-ness.” Not far from D.C., Partridge describes it as being “a small town on the edge of a big city.”
Beyond the engaged community of Takoma Park, I was also interested in learning more about the station’s connections with the broader radio community. Partridge’s former NPR colleague Andy Rosenberg is on the board of another new LPFM in the D.C. area, WERA-LP in Arlington, Virginia, which began broadcasting in December, 2016. Partridge said, “I’m working with them a little bit” and told me that she’s helped connect them with some programming sources. She added, “I’m a collaborator.” As we spoke, she and Schnitker began talking about possible collaborations, including shared training sessions. I was pleased to hear that after my visit, Partridge brought a group from Takoma Radio to visit University of Maryland’s college radio station WMUC (see my tour here). That trip was facilitated by Schnitker and I couldn’t have been happier to have helped make more local radio connections.
After wrapping up our conversation, Schnitker headed home and Partridge walked me to the site of the still-in-progress Takoma Radio studio. The small, store-front space is located in Takoma Park’s own little music row. Adjacent to the station is the Airshow recording studio and a new performance space, Allyworld, is right next door. Hand-made signs populate the station’s windows, proclaiming, “We are community radio.”
Walls were freshly painted and a whimsical artist’s rendition of a mixing board and other faux audio equipment could be seen through the window. We walked inside to get a closer look and I was charmed by the hand crafted interpretation of a radio station, which served as a placeholder for WOWD’s future broadcast equipment.
It was incredibly inspiring to see a brand new LPFM station on the brink of its launch and I can’t wait to hear the first sounds of the station in a few short weeks. Partridge told me that when listeners tune in to the station in July, they can expect to hear “lots of music – from blues to jazz to zydeco to afropop to classic hip hop and go-go to reggae to freeform to avant grade classical and beyond” in addition to “local and live magazine style radio shows about cooking, parenting, you name it – shows by seniors and shows by teenagers. Lots of diverse voices from all over the globe – representing the richness of our community.” In the meantime, interested listeners can check out some snippets of promotional spots and sample programming on the WOWD-LP website and Soundcloud page.
Huge thanks to Marika Partridge and to her husband Larry Ravitz for their hospitality, particularly since they welcomed me with open arms in spite of the lateness of the hour. This is my 103rd station tour report. See my most recent field trips on Radio Survivor and see a full list of my station tour reports on Spinning Indie. September 13 update: Hear more about this visit on Radio Survivor Podcast #57, which includes audio from my interview with Partridge.