Sound Check

Radio On

JANUARY 20 MIGHT go down as historic in the annals of local radio, if local radio ever gets any annals. Not only did the black-owned Blue Chip Broadcasting chain announce its plans to turn KARP-FM (96.3) into the Twin Cities' first commercial FM station broadcasting hip hop and R&B; the date marked an unprecedented loosening of corporate radio's grip on the spectrum nationwide.

Readers may recall that the William Kennard-led Federal Communications Commission proposed licensing low-watt FM stations last January (see "Fight the Power" March 3, 1999). Kennard seemed sympathetic to the view of a broad coalition of activists that the airwaves had effectively been divvied up by a small number of conglomerates in the wake of 1996's deregulatory Telecommunications Act. Now, despite pleas for a decision extension from big radio's lobbyists, the FCC has voted three to two to start licensing low-power stations.

"I'm pleased, overall," says Beat Radio founder Alan Freed, whose 40-watt station was shut down by the FCC in 1996. Freed has been fighting the action in federal court ever since on the grounds that telecommunications policy is unconstitutional. "Who would have thought three and a half years later that the commission would be moving in that direction? It validates everything that we've been saying."

The new Low-Power FM (LPFM) service would license noncommercial FM stations at 50 to 100 watts (with an estimated seven-mile service diameter) and 1 to 10 watts (with a 1- to 4-mile service diameter). No 1000-watt stations will be licensed--in apparent deference to concern over signal interference. (For details, check out the FCC Web site, www.fcc.com, or that of the Twin-Cities-based Americans for Radio Diversity: www.radiodiversity.com.)

"In any major city, you're dealing with a pretty crowded band," says microradio activist Doctor Diogenes, a pirate-radio disk jockey on the local Free Radio Twin Cities (96.1 FM), which airs alternative rock and left-labor coverage. (The station's collective includes members of the resurgent International Workers of the World--a.k.a. the Wobblies.) Diogenes says the vote may bring a few more stations to the local dial. "But New York, for example, is not going to get anything out of this."

Commercial chains nonetheless took the vote as a serious blow. Last week a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters told the Wall Street Journal that it would consider filing a lawsuit if the FCC goes forward with its plan. Representatives Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) and Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) have introduced legislation that would block the service.

As always, stay tuned.

Publish or Perish

HOW DOES AN aspiring local songwriter succeed in music publishing? According to ex-Revelators frontman Kevin Bowe, there are two options available. You can move to L.A., New York, or Nashville--"where your fucking cabdriver has a publishing deal." Or you can co-write with someone you know is going to sign to a major label.

And how does one do that?

"I've only had that feeling about twice in my life," says the 20-year local-scene veteran and current singer-guitarist for the Okemah Prophets. "I was thrown into a drug halfway house in high school in the early Eighties, and on a Friday night I went to an alcohol- and drug-free dance. The Replacements played. Half of their set was Johnny Thunders covers."

It took the 'Mats about four songs to get kicked off the stage, Bowe says. "But I knew they were going to change everything."

The second time Bowe felt that way was seeing Jonny Lang for the first time. The blues prodigy was only 13 at the time and hadn't yet played Minneapolis. "He opened for me when I played in this shithole bar in Fargo. It was 40 below outside and sports was blaring on the TV. My thing with him wasn't his guitar playing, though. It was his voice."

Bowe went on to write songs for Lang's first two albums, including last year's single "Breakin' Me." He also went on to build a notable résumé as a collaborative songwriter, working with Leo Kottke and Dan Wilson, and contributing seven songs to Langian singer/ax-grinder Shannon Curfman's debut, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions. His reputation got an early boost from a tune he wrote for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, which came to the attention of none other than Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Leader of the Pack," "Hound Dog"). The duo has since signed him to their publishing company.

Bowe seems unconcerned about achieving similar sales figures with the subtle Americana of the Okemah Prophets' recent debut, Restoration. "When I'm writing a song for others, I'm like tailor-making a suit of clothes for them," he says. "If I'm writing alone, I don't care what anyone thinks. I've managed to hang in there and keep doing this through my stubbornness."

 
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