Free Yr Radio Broadcasts the Eclectic Waves of Indie Stations
By Clare R. Lopez on April 7, 2011
It was one of those moments when you just had to be there.
Sandwiched between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, Chicago’s Grant Park overflowed with people and pulsed with the sounds of newer artists and veteran musicians alike. Local community and student radio station WLUW-FM, owned by Loyola University Chicago, had never done a live broadcast from Lollapalooza. Their first ever tent sat nestled comfortably between the trees; inside, station volunteers deejayed onstage as concertgoers lined up to spin a prize wheel, make as-seen-on-television Shrinky Dinks and jump into a Toyota-Corolla-turned-photo-booth.
While there were others who initially wandered over to relax in the shade, they wound up sticking around for the hourly performances and interviews with bands like Balkan Beat Box and Mexican Institute of Sound. But for Danielle Basci, WLUW-FM’s general manager, an energetic set by the soulful Jamie Lidell was one that she will not soon forget.
“Jamie Lidell just blew it out of the water—there were tons of people and he jumped into the crowd and gave a really enthusiastic interview with our volunteer afterward. We were just glowing,” says Basci. “We get bands to come in the station all the time, but to have him be so charming and excited to be with us meant a lot.”
For some noncommercial radio stations, broadcasting for a few days from a festival like Lollapalooza is not typically an experience they can fit into an already tight budget. But with the support of the Toyota-sponsored Free Yr Radio program, WLUW-FM and six other independent stations across the country were able to broadcast from or expand the reach of their coverage at major festivals last year. If you have ever volunteered at one of these stations, you know they are important not only because they have the freedom to give airtime to an eclectic mix of genres and up-and-coming musicians, but also for the fact that they bring communities together. Now in its fifth year running, Free Yr Radio works to spread the word about noncommercial stations and help them continue to give a voice to a diversity of artists.
Free Yr Radio’s mission to benefit independent radio and the music it fosters has not changed since the program’s inception back in 2007. Seeing it as a way to both reach an audience passionate about music and lend a hand to stations mostly dependent on the generosity of their listeners, Toyota teamed up with Urban Outfitters to put on free in-store concerts that put the spotlight on these local, noncommercial radio stations. With huge areas of the stores cleared out to make room for stages and custom backdrops designed by Urban, these events have transformed a place where you shop into an intimate space where you can share air with some great bands.
“Music was a core element of the Yaris launch, and the Free Yr Radio program provided a perfect opportunity to engage fans in a truly meaningful way—by both celebrating music and supporting independent radio,” says Keith Dahl, Toyota’s national manager of engagement marketing, of the project’s beginnings.
These shows did just that in both select locations and Urban Outfitters across the U.S., which were also as activity-filled as the Free Yr Radio tents for stations are today. From screen-printed poster and Yaris giveaways to the Ice Cream Man parked out front and handing out his wares gratis, Free Yr Radio has curated memorable shows with some truly beloved musicians. In addition to a special Seattle concert with No Age and Mudhoney in KEXP-FM’s parking lot, the first year’s finale show in Santa Monica saw people lined up for a block and half on the Third Street Promenade for none other than Sonic Youth. After two years, Free Yr Radio sought to do even more and the in-store events evolved into giving noncommercial stations a presence at the major festivals that best suited their programming. Making this shift to such a large platform has greatly expanded the ways Free Yr Radio can benefit their partner stations.
On the most basic level, it meant giving smaller, independent radio stations the opportunity to experience broadcasting live from festival grounds. For a station like Chicago’s WLUW-FM, this in itself was huge and also gave many of their volunteers the chance to be on the radio in front of an audience for the first time. While the hands-on Free Yr Radio team provided the equipment and engineering expertise, they also gave the student and community volunteers a crash course in the dos and don’ts of remote broadcasting—most importantly: make sure you’re facing the audience. With WLUW-FM running the stage and Free Yr Radio behind the scenes, everyone came together for the station’s first broadcast from Lollapalooza. Since part of the stations' volunteers are students and others are members of the community, it was an opportunity for them to be in one place at the same time and bond through their broadcasts.
“We were putting on this showcase of bands for the festivalgoers, but really it felt like [Free Yr Radio] was giving us this experience—like, ‘Here’s this chance for you guys to do all this stuff, we’ll take all the stressful parts away. You guys just go out and have fun,’” says Basci.
For independent stations that already conduct regular festival broadcasts, Free Yr Radio is able to help them take what they are doing even further. With an established presence at many festivals, Seattle’s KEXP-FM is one of those stations. Its budget took a dive along with the economy, but it did not mean the station wouldn’t make it to these festivals; it would just have to cut back on coverage—less broadcast days, DJs and bands. Since first partnering with Free Yr Radio for the show with No Age and Mudhoney, KEXP-FM had the program’s support with their remote broadcasts at both Bumbershoot and the CMJ Music Marathon last year.
“At CMJ we did a unique remote broadcast—that was a first for them—out of the lobby from the Ace Hotel in New York,” says Gregg Flotlin, who manages Free Yr Radio. “They’ve broadcast from CMJ before, but in this situation we were able to come in and help make it more of a public event; whereas in the past they would broadcast out of a studio.”
Photo by Christopher Nelson
At Bumbershoot, the station was also able to add another dimension to its festival coverage and incorporated The Vera Project, a nonprofit that gives people (young adults in particular) trade experience in the world of radio. For four hours over the course of two days, KEXP-FM deejays taught classes on conducting interviews and music programming at the station. Once their training was complete, these students put what they learned to work on their very own stage at Bumbershoot with the help of the Free Yr Radio team. On top of being able to maintain the quality of their broadcast, KEXP-FM was also able to provide a learning opportunity for their community’s youth.
An aspect of the festival broadcast that benefits independent stations across the board is Free Yr Radio’s partnership with the College Music Journal to keep the performances from the stations’ stages alive. When the festival is over, the station edits the audio into tracks and Free Yr Radio passes it along to CMJ for syndication. Afterward, any North American stations with a subscription to CMJ’s website can access interviews or performances from the festivals and play them on the air, which extends the reach of this exclusive content beyond just one station’s broadcast and the time it took to record them.
While making a station’s interviews and performances available to other noncommercial stations can spread awareness, the festivals themselves get a radio station’s call letters out there on a whole other level. It’s one thing for the people of a community to support their local station. However, some stations lack the resources to inform people outside of their circle about what they are doing and why independent radio matters. Right now, the Web and social media are one way to spread news quickly. But having a station’s volunteers deejaying and bands performing in front of those who appreciate music enough to go to festivals is just as immediate. At Lollapalooza, Danielle Basci got to meet and greet the station’s devoted listeners as well as people just discovering them for the first time.
“People would come up and be like, ‘I have no idea who you are, but you guys are obviously awesome.’ That was really wonderful for us because we were getting all this exposure that we didn’t have before,” says Basci of the effect their stage had on the concertgoers.
Yet, Free Yr Radio is not alone in realizing the influence noncommercial radio stations have over both their local listeners and the music community at large. Aside from the stations themselves, the artists that walk onto these stations’ stages know it perhaps better than anyone else. Whether their songs are just making it onto independent airwaves or their music has done its time there and allowed to them to cultivate a following, the bands that lend their talent to Free Yr Radio-supported stages do it for a reason. When Screaming Females were asked to play a stripped-down set for New York-based WUSB-FM’s stage last year at Siren Music Festival, they played a song they’d recently written using a cigar box guitar.
“Growing up in northern New Jersey means that I had the world’s greatest independent radio station, WFMU-FM, right there on my dial,” says Jarrett Dougherty, the band’s drummer. “I definitely listened to hours of garage rock and noise shows that I would have never found on my own.”
When the festival grounds emptied and the stations abandoned their tents, they returned to the studio with a physical manifestation of the time they spent onstage: a banner with the station’s logo and the signatures of all the artists that stopped by to chat and play a few songs. Back in Chicago, this memento from the Free Yr Radio team hangs proudly in WLUW-FM’s business office. When people come around, staff and volunteers will point to it and talk about the summer they broadcasted live from Lollapalooza.
“It’s really great bragging rights that we were there and that we had people like Jamie Lidell and Balkan Beat Box on our stage—that we even had a stage at all,” says Basci. “Being able to say that… It’s forever in our history as a station.” F
All photos courtesy of Toyota's Free Yr Radio, except where noted