Halloween marks the fourth on-air anniversary of Reno’s KWNK 97.7 FM, the tiny radio station with the big alternative sound.
While scores of local commercial radio stations spew sales pitches, morph among different formats and live and die by ratings, small, ad-free independent stations run by volunteers serve up eclectic playlists of music and programming. In Northern Nevada, KWNK FM in Reno and KNVC 95.1 FM in Carson City have been providing those ad-free community alternatives to growing audiences.
Both stations hit the airwaves in 2017, six years after the passage of the Local Community Radio Act. That 2011 federal law allowed student-run radio stations, churches and other non-profit groups to apply for low-power broadcast licenses utilizing transmitters rated under 100 watts.
“That was done to make room for smaller stations and push back against corporate control of the airwaves,” said Tom Snider, KWNK general manager. In the Truckee Meadows, the Reno Bike Project was granted a low-power license. The Holland Project and Wolf Pack Radio, a student-run internet station at the University of Nevada, Reno joined the effort; Jive Radio, an internet radio station and a regional Johnny Appleseed of community radio stations, provided expertise to build KWNK’s infrastructure.
Jive Radio, which hosts several veteran Reno disc jockeys who had programs on Reno’s now-defunct KTHX FM, is the subject of a sidebar to this story.
Supporters held steady
For the first two years, KWNK broadcast 12 hours of local programs and 12 hours of Jive Radio’s music and news programs while it built a base of supporters.
“Then we were able to go with the full 24 hours of nearly all local programming,” Snider said. “We are a listener-supported station. People in the community give monthly donations. When we reached our goal of 500 supporters we went local around the clock.”
That community of support has held strong during the pandemic, he said.
“The community support is really awesome in the Truckee Meadows and that’s what keeps us going on the air. It was really a matter of being able to staff and fund the station before we could go 24 hours.” — Tom Snider, general manager, KWNK 97.7 FM, Reno.
Snider and the program director hold paid positions, but everyone else involved, including about 80 disc jockeys and on-air personalities, are volunteers. The DJs produce weekly hour-long programs or bi-weekly, 90-minute-long shows in a wide variety of music genres, including classic rock, punk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, folk, blues, country and theme shows. The station still carries one Jive Radio program: Bruce Van Dyke’s “Gratuitous Echo.”
All walks of life
The disc jockeys include retired broadcasters, teachers, students, factory workers, clerks, librarians and “quite a few local bartenders,” Snider said.
“We really try to reflect our community,” he said. The station produced a series of videos, “No Static At All,” that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the volunteers and their work at KWNK.
So what keeps the volunteers in front of the mics?
“People want to be involved,” Snider said. “They want to share the music they like, they want to have fun and be a part of this community effort as well. They focus on genres and themes. It’s hands-on; they have creative control and we work with them on the technology. What gets on air is very much a part of them.”
The Holland Project
The Holland Project, which was there at the start, is “a big piece of this whole thing reason we’re able to have this station,” Snider said. “KWNK exists because of this community and because of the Reno Bike Project and the Holland Project and the communities they helped foster.”
Jeff Cotton, the creator of Jive Radio, which was instrumental in getting the Reno and Carson City stations on the air and is the subject of a sidebar to this story, said both cities have benefitted from the independent alternatives.
“KWNK in Reno is a really vibrant station and it’s making a difference in the cultural fabric of the community,” he said/ “And KNVC in Carson is no shrinking violet station either… (Both) are living up to their promise.”
From the top of Duck Hill
Joe McCarthy, founder of KNVC, said that freeform station got its start when the Brewery Arts Center applied for a low-power radio license. The arts center transferred the license to End of the Trail Broadcasting, the non-profit entity that runs the operation.
The Carson City station sends out its 100-watt signal from the top of Duck Hill to 100,000 pairs of ears in Eagle Valley, Carson Valley and Washoe Valley. KNVC is funded by 100 individual donors and 12 small business underwriters, including Hanifin Antiques, Benson’s Feed and Sassafras Restaurant.
“Our station isn’t laid out in a standard radio-station format. It’s freeform programming. Each DJ decides what they want to play and we cover everything from jazz to punk to hip-hop and whatever genre you can think of. It’s all kinds of different styles, depending on which DJ you are listening to.” – Joe McCarthy, founder, KNVC 95.1 FM, Carson City.
Music, news, public service
On the news side, KNVC is the only Pacifica Network affiliate in Nevada. “They were the original community-station format that came out of Berkeley in the 1960s,” McCarthy explained. “We carry things that aren’t available anywhere else in the region, such as “Democracy Now!” Amy Goodman’s show. That’s our intent – to provide programming that listeners can’t get anywhere else.”
Neither McCarthy nor program director Joe Bly – who runs the day-to-day-operations — make a salary. As at KWNK, all the on-air personalities are volunteers. It’s a labor of love for all involved, McCarthy said.
“It actually costs me money,” he said. “I’m only 74; I’m just getting started. It’s fun to add something to a community and have it slowly grow into it.”
Community stations, he said, do more than provide entertainment.
“When the fires were blazing all over Northern California and the internet went out and 911 didn’t work, all you needed was two double-A batteries and a transistor radio to access information about evacuations,” McCarthy said. “There are now 200 community radio stations nationwide, according to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Community radio stations can do a great service.
“That’s what we want to build KNVC into — another valuable asset for the community.”