Beating the System
It's Saturday night and Alan Freed is having the time of his life, holding court over the board at the WWTC (AM 1280) studio in St. Louis Park. A liberating house-music thump-thump-thump-thump is pumping from the monitors. Freed locates a small radio receiver in the studio, and scans the FM dial to see if the paid jocks of the Twin Cities are having as much fun. They're not. Finally, he hits the air, leaning in with a booming and seasoned radio voice that recalls classic '50s announcers and belies his smallish frame: "Beat Radio is in the house! Dance music on your radio! You are not imagining things!"
When the mic is off, he adds a mock announcement: "This one's going out to Frank and Albert, our listeners in White Bear Lake and Hudson!" Everyone in the studio grins. See, Frank and Albert are the FCC field agents who busted the enterprise the first time it went on the air. In 1996 Freed debuted Beat Radio, an all-night, high-energy dance station with a truly innocuous 40-watt transmitter on the unused 97.7 FM. The unlicensed "microstation" lasted all of 103 nights, and it won a large enough following to make the complacent broadcasting establishment scream bloody murder. The FCC seized Freed's gear, and Beat Radio has been in federal court ever since, fighting a battle against the corporate deregulation of the Telecommunications Act, for nothing less than constitutional, "reasonable" regulation that could make low-power independent radio programming possible.
In the middle of all this, the Beat is suddenly back with a vengeance. It now broadcasts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the former Aahs World children's network, which beams out to 10 major U.S. cities via satellite, including New York, L.A., and Chicago. And this time, it's indisputably legal.
Editor of the music trade magazine Insight and a longtime radio pro, Freed looks like your basic clean-cut club hopper, and his professed goal is to change the system, not circumvent it. He swears there's no relation (blood or otherwise) between him and the other Alan Freed, the legendary DJ whose career was ruined by the infamous 1959 "payola" scandal. Still, he's more than adept at embellishing his story in a flood of ostentatious metaphors, especially ones that underscore the differences between the Beat's history and the pirate-radio stereotype they've been saddled with. "It's like the thief who steals because he's lazy," Freed says, "as opposed to a person who partakes in civil disobedience with a conscience, which is what we did."
The Beat's 1280 coup is the latest strike in what could be called the Twin Cities' radio-diversity wars. And while the group still basks in the glow of this recent victory, there is a palpable sense of sadness throughout the WWTC studios--something eerie about the pink elephants on the walls, the Lego sculpture in the corner, and the poor confused kid that calls Freed and wants to know, "Do you have any songs from a Goofy movie?" That's when it hits you: This is all just a temporary fix, an unforeseen and ultimately fleeting opportunity.
This strange series of events began a few years back when Disney approached the Minneapolis-based Children's Broadcasting Corporation about sharing resources, a proposition that allegedly resulted in the new Radio Disney network forcing CBC's Aahs World out of business. When Aahs was yanked off on January 30, opportunity knocked via media veteran Mark Durenberger (brother of ex-senator David), a radio old-timer who'd publicly defended what the Beat was attempting in its 1996 incarnation. Durenberger heard that CBC wanted to "keep the seat warm" at WWTC, so he put CBC in touch with Beat Radio, and Freed signed on as a volunteer.
But the demise of Aahs was also more proof that the warning sirens Beat Radio had sounded in 1996 were prophetic. "The reason we started Beat Radio (in '96) was for the same reason you should fear for what you like on the radio: It could happen to you," Freed says emphatically, his voice reaching a fevered pitch. "And guess what? It did happen--to listeners of REV, of Edge, of BOB 100... Beat Radio was the first! We said, 'Get ready people, the Telecom Act will screw you up!' And everything snowballed after that."
The Beat's trained producers and ready-made format provide no-cost filler for WWTC, and this newfound state of flux grants national exposure to experienced DJs from nearly every major Minneapolis dance club. Consequently, the format's main strength and liability is that it's tailored primarily to the keyed-in clubber mainstream. This bedroom listener, however, yearns to hear a lot more hip hop, drum'n'bass, and pop-based dance forms. (Though I was gratified to hear a 2 a.m. jungle session provided by DJ Drone of Bassment Records, as well as some of the more eclectic specialty shows dotting the Sunday night lineup.)
But the Beat's paucity of diversity and its relatively low level of announcer personality can only be expected on a station this short-staffed. And by sticking to club music, Freed is exemplifying one of Beat's key arguments: Straight dance music has an enormous potential audience, one that is virtually ignored by the current radio structure. He claims that there's only one other station in the country that sounds like Beat Radio, Groove 103.1 in L.A. "But I think this all represents something much larger than the format," Freed says. "Hopefully we're introducing what we do, and a new way of thinking about radio, to a whole lot of people in and out of the business. Who knows where it could go from there?"
As exciting as this all might seem, one basic downside looms over the giddy Beat vacation: It won't last. CBC, which has taken Disney to court over the betrayal, has put all of its 10 stations up for sale, and they're expected to disappear one by one, with the WWTC flagship perhaps the last to go at a suspected $3 million. Still, there's no telling how long that will take. Orphaned amplitudes would seem to be a hot commodity in this quality-starved radio market, but how many media corporations are really interested in another AM station? When the Edge replaced 93X in early '94, its simulcast at AM 980 was not part of the deal. Nearly three years passed before a permanent Christian talk format came to 980--approximately the life span of REV 105. So, as the FM band is further clogged with monotony, the AM zone may already be shaping up as the haven for creativity and freedom.
Regardless, the Beatkeepers aren't counting on any miracles, and remain happy with what they've got: a great, fun PR stunt on their long haul to viable independence--a goal that should interest anyone who cares about radio. That goal still hinges on their federal court battle, which is looking promising at the moment thanks to precedents recently set in the similar case of Free Radio Berkeley in San Francisco.
"This industry has gotten so bloated, so fast," charges Freed. "They are going to get lost in the dust if they don't come up with some new concepts." For now, Beat Radio's volunteer staff can sit back with the satisfaction--fleeting though it may be--that they're living a broadcaster's (and fan's) dream: beaming your favorite music clear across America.
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