by Vaughan Siker
XRAY FM is a local community radio station that aims to “hold a microphone up to the best and most distinctive of Portland” (XRAY). This now includes me.
Whether I qualify as Portland’s best and most distinctive is debatable, yet nevertheless there I was, on a Thursday at 7:30 am in the XRAY FM studio, talking into a boom microphone live on the radio, sporting large headphones and staring across the table at the station’s founder Jefferson Smith.
I had emailed Smith, who is also the station’s morning talk show host, a number of times to ask why he started the station and what needs he thought a new community radio station filled in Portland. Smith would only agree to speak with me if our interview was live on the air.
XRAY FM, found at 91.1 FM , 107.1 FM and online, went on-air in 2014 as a progressive alternative in a radio market dominated by three national companies: Entercom, Alpha Media and Clear Channel, also called iHeartMedia Inc. These companies own hundreds of commercial stations across the county, including a handful each in Portland, that rely on commercials to make profits. In order to make money, they need to provide content that will get high ratings and attract advertisers. That means playing music that is widely recognized, which results in a narrow playlist (The Balance). While these companies attempt to distinguish themselves in different markets by connecting with the local scene, investing in local events, using local DJs for shows and owning at least one AM sports station that focuses on local sports teams, the connection is pretty shallow. The shows aren’t focused on local events and they rarely, if ever, play local, less-known bands. Even the sports stations give lots of air time to nationally syndicated sports shows.
Take Entercom, for example. Based in Philadelphia, it has 127 stations in 28 markets across the country and makes about $500 million a year in net revenues (Entercom). Its eight stations in Portland each focus on one theme, like “Country,” “Alternative” or “Classic Rock.” One of its stations, called 105.1 The Buzz, is “Hot AC”, which stands for “Adult Contemporary”; it plays artists like Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes. The 105.1 Buzz hosts might live in Portland, but they seem very un-Portland: the host of “Cruze in the Morning” describes himself on the station’s website as “100% Italian originally from NYC! Brooklyn, to be exact,” while the host Sheryl Stewart says her “sunny SoCal roots blast straight through the Oregon rain” (Entercom). What all Entercom’s stations have in common is that they play a lot of very loud commercials.
In contrast, low-power stations can’t be for-profit by law and they can’t be owned by existing broadcasters, which means they attract people who want to use the radio for purposes other than making money (Logan). Because their signals must be no more powerful than 100 watts, limiting their reach to about seven miles in each direction, these low-power stations focus on the local community. As a result, community radio stations provide access to the airwaves to DJ’s and activists who don’t work for commercial radio stations; these small stations serve a local community at a grass-roots level, run and operated mainly by volunteers. Community stations aim to empower local voices and act as vehicles for social change (Prometheus Radio).
The idea for a more distinctive, uniquely local station struck a nerve: Portlanders instantly supported the station, and XRAY FM raised $103,762 on its initial fundraising effort on Kickstarter, more than double its $40,000 goal (Greenwald).
It was the Local Community Radio Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2010, that paved the way for XRAY FM. The bill, pushed through by a group of activists, including members of the Prometheus Radio Project, repealed restrictions limiting the number of frequencies available to low-power FM stations so they wouldn’t interfere with the frequencies used by the higher-powered, commercial radio stations. The goal was to restore some of the diversity lost when large radio companies took over many stations. The bill resulted in the largest single expansion of community radio in Federal Communications Commission (FCC) history (Echert 237-239). In 2013, the FCC begin distributing licenses to nonprofits to start low-power FM radio stations (Prometheus Radio).
Many of the first wave of new FCC licenses went to rural areas where commercial stations weren’t worried that new stations would interfere with their transmissions. I discovered an example of this when I was looking at a social justice group I’m interested in called the McKenzie River Gathering (MRG) Foundation. I read that MRG had awarded $9,000 last year to a community station starting up in Coos Bay (MRG Foundation). After some online research, I found Mary Geddry, the woman who applied for the license and is in the process of raising funds to get the station going. Geddry became an environmental and social justice activist after her son was sent to Iraq (Geddry). She never dreamed of starting a radio station until a friend told her about the FCC’s issuing of new licenses. Geddry received permits to start three radio stations in Coos County, including one in Coquille, which is up and running and doing pretty well, one in Bandon, which has until January to start and probably won’t get off the ground, and a third in Coos Bay, which will most likely start broadcasting by February 2017.
Geddry wants the radio stations she’s starting to have a “progressive liberal” agenda to counteract all the conservative talk shows that already air there. These conservative shows found a market in communities like Coos Bay in the 1980s, after the national economic recession. Coos County, once a shipping behemoth, saw its mills, docks, and log yards close. As young people left to find jobs elsewhere, the town’s population grew much older (Ivy). The target audience of conservative radio is older, white men (Brown). Geddry wants to educate listeners in order to expand the radio audience in Coos Bay. She plans on inviting everyone from the prominent to the homeless to tell their stories on air to create “a community dialogue.” The Coos Bay station will also have local music that isn’t on the existing radio stations now.
In contrast, XRAY FM’s talk shows and music are aimed at a broader audience because Portland is much larger than Coos Bay and more economically and socially diverse. The day starts out all talk: it goes from “XRAY in the Morning,” a talk show that focuses on a local take on the news, to the nationally syndicated “Thom Hartmann Project,” which is the progressive version of conservative talk radio in that it is not at all fair and balanced but just presents the liberal point of view. Next comes shows on nonprofits and do-gooders, gardening, the Portland Trail Blazers, and even a segment called Bitch Media Propaganda, a “feminist response to pop culture” (XRAY).
One day, listening to “XRAY in the Morning,” I heard that Bernie Sanders would be at Powell’s that night, followed by candidates for Oregon State Senator, discussing Oregon’s Ballot Measure 97. Later, a woman from Portland Underground Graduate School talked about a class on beekeeping. The overall effect is the inclusion of a lot of different points of view from a wide range of individuals on issues that affect Portland both directly and indirectly. The content I hear when I turn on XRAY FM is never the same: The local news doesn’t get repeated all day at the end of the national news, like it does on OPB. XRAY FM has in-depth coverage of local events.
In the afternoon and evening, XRAY FM is all music. I have listened to a show called “Night School,” which airs weeknights 6-7 pm and documents what the station calls “rare modern soul, boogie and outsider funk from way back when to the here and now” (XRAY). I’ve also heard the show that comes afterwards called “Traffic.” Some of the music is interesting, and I like that it is usually music I have never heard before, in all different genres. I am not much of a music guy, and I have to admit that some of it is a bit too weird for my tastes. Once I heard a song that lasted 20 minutes and sounded like a printer. What I like most about XRAY FM’s music is that my younger brother Teddy doesn’t like it, which gives me negotiating power in the car when he wants to listen to his music, either JAM’N 107.5 or Z100, “Portland’s #1 Hit Music Station.” Even a song that sounds like a printer is preferable to hearing the same Rihanna song ten times.
It was still dark at 7:15 am on the morning of my on-air interview with Smith when I arrived in the station’s inner eastside Humboldt neighborhood, on North Albina Street just off Killingsworth. The bus stop shelter was empty, as were the blue metal bike racks, most of the parking spots along the sides of the streets and the sidewalks, which had a few scraggly trees. Around the corner from the station were squat buildings with small shops, including an independent bookstore and bike store, but they were all closed; the only place lit up in the dark morning was Coffeehouse-Five, a corner coffee shop with big windows where I could see a twenty-something barista with a big beard making espresso drinks for people sitting on mismatched old wood chairs. The station was in the basement of a three-story, brown-painted stucco building with an arched orange entrance that said “Falcon Apartments” and “Falcon Arts Center.” The building, part of a privately funded arts organization called Falcon Art Community, included offices for artists, writers and musicians. The hallway leading to XRAY FM studio was narrow, with exposed pipes on the ceilings, cracked concrete floors and walls covered with large, neon fantasy paintings and charcoal drawings, all of which had price tags. This gallery wasn’t open to the public, but people could sign up for a private tour (Falcon Art Community). I had to be buzzed into the building from the outside by the producer of XRAY FM.
Wood pews flanked either side of the door to the XRAY studio, where people sat waiting to go on air. The station had three small rooms: there was an outer area, with a few wood shelves of CDs and a couple of metal chairs; a sound room, where one guy sat behind a lot of equipment; and the studio, where Smith, in jeans and a black T-shirt with a bulldog in a tuxedo, sat across a desk from his sidekick, the comedian Nariko Ott. The first thing I noticed was that the room was much warmer than the rest of the building and smelled like sweat. Smith leaned back as he talked and often ran his hand through his thick blonde hair. His eyebrows were also bushy and blonde. I could tell he was tall, even though he was sitting down, and I noticed his large biceps and a bit of a belly. He and Nariko both wore large black headphones and spoke into big boom microphones. Smith pointed at a metal folding chair, and I sat and put on a set of headphones.
Before I met Smith, I’d done some research. What I found, plus his insistence that he would only do the interview on air, made me worry he might be a bit of a bully. He is a well-known character in Portland, where he grew up the son of two politicians and attended Grant High School. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he attended Harvard Law School and stayed on the East Coast for a few years, working at a law firm in New York. (Law) In 2001 he came back home to start a community organization called The Bus Project, a nonprofit that promotes volunteer democracy; it busses volunteers around the state to go knock on doors to help get information out to voters about progressive politicians in local elections. (The Bus Project) In 2009, Smith became a State Representative in Salem, winning the House seat that used to be held by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. He ran for mayor of Portland three years later, but he lost in what was a controversial campaign after it came out that he had driven repeatedly with a suspended license and that he had hurt a woman at a party in college, both of which he admitted to the press (Law). I decided that while these incidents couldn’t be ignored, they had nothing to do with XRAY FM or my story, so I didn’t bring them up with Smith.
Smith’s friendliness put me at ease: his first question was whether I was a Millennial or another generation (I said I didn’t know). I focused my questions on finding out why he thought Portland needed a community radio station since it already has one called KBOO that has been on air for a long time (Sussman and Estes). Smith explained that he thought Portland should have a station that reflected what was happening in the city now. He said:
I saw what was happening with the consolidation of media. I saw some really brilliant and creative people in the music industry who didn’t have ownership of or connection to local medium, local radio station, and the special and distinctive things about our town weren’t getting sufficiently celebrated. We were getting essentially the same algorithmic content as an Oklahoma City and it seemed to me that what makes Portland great is what makes Portland different.
Smith told me that XRAY FM creates a stronger community by bringing people together to discuss issues. When people come into the studio and start conversations with each other and on the air, it helps find solutions. “Being a catalyst for community building is probably the greatest thing we can do,” he told me. Smith claimed that community building is important both in music and politics because both are important in Portland.
Smith’s response made a lot of sense to me. There are so many creative, talented and interesting people who live in Portland, but you’d never know that from listening to commercial radio stations. I realize now what I don’t like about my brother’s radio stations—it isn’t just that they play the same music over and over or that the commercials are too loud; it’s also that I don’t learn much about what’s going on in Portland from these stations. It was by listening to XRAY FM that I found out that Bernie Sanders would be at Powell’s and heard local politicians talk about Measure 97. I think it is cool to hear a band from Portland, even if it sounds like a printer, because otherwise I wouldn’t have known that band was in Portland. XRAY FM makes me wonder: how does a band make music that sounds like a printer, and why? Now that I listen sometimes to XRAY FM, I know a lot more about Portland, how it runs, and the people who live and work here.
To find out more about the music side of XRAY FM, I emailed Jenny Logan, the president of XRAY FM’s board. Logan was in Europe with her band, Summer Cannibals, but when she got back, we met outside the U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Portland, where she is a law clerk. Logan looks more like a musician than a lawyer, with her short black bangs and tattoos, but she has an impressive education: she was a philosophy major at the University of California, Davis, then got a masters in philosophy from New York University before she earned a law degree at Lewis & Clark.
It immediately made me feel better when Logan told me she also doesn’t like everything that’s played on XRAY FM. She said, however, overall it is important to have lots of different kinds of music. “There’s so much more stuff out there,” she said. Logan told me that XRAY FM’s mission is to be educational. As she put it, “I think education can be revolutionary, educating people but also empowering them, to not just be consumers of radio but also make their own stuff and make their own shows.” Logan has also started a record label called XRAY Records: “Part of what we do as a nonprofit is let people know about things that they otherwise wouldn’t find out about. The bands that we’ve put out so far are bands that me and a small committee thought were good but also not really marketable in the way that a for-profit label would want to take on.” In my opinion, that’s an understatement. The label’s bands, which include Blesst Chest, WL, and Sun Angle, don’t have catchy tunes or conventional singing. Their videos, seen on XRAY Records website, are strange and surreal, with one showing humans with giant hands where their heads should be (XRAY Records). These bands play music that’s unlike anything I have ever heard before, which is Logan’s point: they are unique and educational.
The kind of community building that XRAY FM promotes is happening all over the country right now. According to the FCC, since 2014 more than 750 new low-power FM community radio stations have been licensed, nearly doubling the total number to more than 1,500 low-power FM stations across the U.S. and its territories (Vogt). The FCC statistics show that 22 states have a moderate number of stations (20-39), though 3 have more than 100 stations each: Florida (121), Texas (114) and California (102); most have a broadcast reach of just a few miles and cater to intensely local and niche audiences (Vogt). Like XRAY FM, many of these new stations see community activism and education as central to their mission. They aim to increase local participation in community events and activate social and political change (Atton). In the 1990s, community radio was essential in helping the activists spread their message (Carpenter).
Some people question whether these new community radio stations will be able to keep going financially. To get a low-power FM station up and running, it costs about $100,000. Even though all the employees are volunteers, the operating expenses still run around $5,000 a month. Another issue facing community radio is competition from the Internet. Many people would rather listen to radio on the Internet instead of on traditional radio (McCabe).
XRAY FM was in the middle of a fundraising drive when I was there for my interview. Smith said if he had more money he would do more marketing and get a more powerful radio signal. The drive, which included matching grants from local businesses like Voodoo Doughnuts, was successful, and the station reached its goal of $50,000 by October 27, 2016. From what I have seen and heard, I believe XRAY will continue to raise money successfully. Before this project I had never heard of the station; now we listen to Smith’s show in the car almost every morning on the way to school.
Stay tuned: there might be even more XRAY FM soon. Logan told me the station has licenses in Vancouver and Beaverton that it is hoping to turn on in the next year or two and that after that it hopes to expand to Salem and the Oregon Coast. There might be a day soon when XRAY FM doesn’t just hold a microphone up to the best and most distinctive of Portland, but to the best and most distinctive of all of Oregon.
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