Open Air

Anton Bader/flickr

Several years ago in Viroqua, Wisconsin (pop. 5,079), a group of serious radio-heads started a community station. The station, Radio Driftless, is now on FM and broadcasts full-time, and since they hit the airwaves, Viroqua has had the radio bug. This Wisconsin town sounds like a sound guy’s fairy tale, but the story doesn’t end here. Someone left Viroqua for the city.

Last Thursday, snow fell, quieting the pothole-laden Hyde Park streets. The world took on a muffled quality–it was like hearing through a curtain of radio static. Outside of the Southside Hub of Production (SHoP), a notice read, “Please come in to talk about community radio.” Inside a large multipurpose room with art on the walls, four people had gathered, presumably there to talk about talking.

After waiting for stragglers, Gabriel Piemonte, editor of the Hyde Park Herald, greeted the group and started discussing his vision for the community. Piemonte worked on Radio Driftless in Viroqua and knows what can be done with community radio. He wants to start an Internet radio format station called Bughouse Radio, based on the Driftless model, where locals can produce their own radio programming.

“I have been thinking about community radio for a while,” he said. “It has tremendous potential.” He told the small group that the meeting marked “the launching of the idea.” That idea, he said, was to create a “station focused on local voices.” He continued, “My hope is that in a fairly short period of time we’ll be able to find people who want to be those voices.”

Piemonte is excited–he too has broadcast fever. He regaled the group with tales of Viroqua, where a passion for radio is contagious. “They have a license and a tower,” he said. “They’re broadcasting FM, and they have a substantial local donor. They also have online radio: radiodriftless.org. They have a full commercial license and they’re being supported by this tiny community,” Piemonte said, pausing for breath. Viroqua’s a place where community radio has a very loyal audience–a large percentage of the small town is involved with supporting the station in some way.

“That’s another dimension of what’s exciting about bringing community radio,” Piemonte continued. “Being part of the network of radios that’s coming up. We’ll have access to communities on the South Side that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”

Piemonte believes a grassroots radio station could have a very positive impact on Hyde Park. “In places where community radio is really earnestly pursued, it really enhances the neighborhoods in a tangible way,” he said. Piemonte thinks SHoP would make for a good host to the radio because it already brings together a host of South Siders with varied interests in the arts and community development.

It begins with a few people and a great deal of enthusiasm. A number of community organizations have expressed interest, including the Hyde Park/Kenwood Transition Initiative, First Unitarian Church (which hopes to broadcast their “First Forum” speaker series), and the Hyde Park Players (who put on the popular performance “An Evening of Horror & Suspense.” ”We are starting from here,” Piemonte said, though he admitted, “we don’t have anything yet.”

What’s the next step for Piemonte? Recruiting voices, setting up an online station, and working on building content and a following of listeners. He hopes to start with a podcast and a partial broadcast schedule, and work on developing a full schedule before eventually becoming a low-power FM station. Although the station is still getting its sea legs in Hyde Park , Piemonte thinks the idea should take hold in the neighborhood. “Hyde Park is a perfect venue, there’s so much going on here,” he said. “If [the new station] isn’t going to get the average Hyde Parker listening and coming out, there’s no point.”

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