If you're driving around Nashville and scanning the FM dial, tuning into 103.7 will give you a soupy mix of static and overlapping bits of country and commercials from neighboring channels. Most anyplace east of the Belle Meade Kroger, you'll get pretty much the same thing if you slide up a few notches to 107.1.
The difference is that while the lower frequency is currently unoccupied aural real estate, the higher is the home of Radio Free Nashville, the city's only entirely volunteer-created-and-operated community radio station.
Since the low-power FM station started broadcasting eight years ago, FCC regulations and corporate broadcast lobbyists have kept its power low and its content as hidden as its studio, which is tucked away in the hills of Pasquo west of town. But with some lucky rule changes, rights to that second frequency, and a plan to raise $20,000 for equipment upgrades, RFN is hoping that this fall it will finally reach the ears of listeners all across the city for which it's named.
The timing seems apt. Listeners still lament the closest thing Nashville had to a citywide community radio station, Vanderbilt's 91 Rock, which sold its terrestrial signal in 2011 to local NPR affiliate WPLN for an auxiliary classical station. That void remains unfilled in Music City, while similar stations in Memphis and Austin have made themselves vital parts of their local media cityscapes.
The station's website describes its mission as an effort to "be a community forum for the music, voices and viewpoints generally ignored" in the corporate media landscape. RFN went live in April 2005, but according to station manager Ginny Welsch, the seeds of the idea were sown years earlier, in the mid-1990s. Back then, Congress was about to pass a huge telecommunications overhaul that would open the door to mass corporate consolidation of public airwaves, making it even harder to express diverse viewpoints in the media.
Disappointed when the law passed, but not completely discouraged, Welsch, her brother Greg, a former Berkeley Barb contributor named Beau Hunter and a group of fellow concerned media-conscious Nashvillians decided to at least take lawmakers up on the supposed consolation prize: rights to operate a low-power FM station. They could use it to broadcast community content, as long as they set it up outside of town and didn't step on any neighboring frequencies belonging to their corporate competition.
From its very first meeting — at a Shoney's in 1997 — Radio Free Nashville faced obstacle after obstacle. Detractors said it was doomed even before the founders spent years slogging through FCC bureaucracy to obtain one of the few low-power licenses. Then came extensive fundraising, followed by a fevered barn-raising to build the station up from the foundation. The 65-foot radio tower was raised by hand on a muddy hilltop, just hours before the sign-on deadline.
Against the odds, however, the station made it on the air, beaming a puny 100-watt signal that barely reached White Bridge Road. Broadcasting over the Internet as well, RFN set to work developing programming that would serve, in Welsch's words, as a "singular voice for people so that they could actually speak for themselves."
"We wanted things on the air on Radio Free Nashville that couldn't be found other places," Welsch tells the Scene. "All that kind of stuff that has, historically, either been shut out by corporate media or misrepresented by corporate media."
The current programming lineup is a mix of locally produced talk and music shows and nationally syndicated news content. An affiliate station of Berkeley's stalwartly progressive Pacifica Radio Network, RFN carries shows including Democracy Now! and Free Speech Radio News, which put it squarely on the liberal end of the spectrum. Calling the station "proudly and unapologetically left," Welsch doesn't shy away from its status as an outlier among apolitical corporate channels and a sea of conservative talk radio shows.
"You have to be the counterweight to that because it's dangerous," Welsch says. "A lot of that right-wing stuff is propaganda — I mean, a lot of it is just simply not true. We don't need more megaphones for the right. We don't need more religious broadcasting. Radio Free Nashville doesn't have enough hours in the day to provide more time to stuff that's already out there."
Beyond political activism, the underrepresented voice of Nashville that RFN seeks to empower is an eclectic blend of things hyperlocal, way out there and downright quirky. The station's website boasts that it has trained more than 140 community programmers to date. Current programming extends from Whit Hubner's Wednesday-night Mando Blues show to poetry and local-author interviews.
During a recent visit to the tiny RFN studio, situated out back of a nondescript ranch house on a rural road, volunteer DJ Drew Laney was wrapping up back-to-back afternoon slots. The first is an hour of kid-friendly music with a different theme every week. The second, a show called Reminisce Radio, offers big-band swing and ballads geared toward the demographic who grew up dancing the Jitterbug. Laney, a music therapist, said that the shows grew out of her work with young children and elderly patients in cognitive decline.
On the drive back from the station, Laney's old-time tunes segued into a conversation about enlightenment, souls, the heart's right ventricle and blue-white celestial light. Tuning in to the station's streaming online feed at random moments during the week yielded an in-depth breakdown of NASCAR stats, then sample-heavy instrumental rock with interstitials about a journey to the surface of the sun.
While the potential for a bigger audience seems like a temptation to change the station for broader appeal, Welsch insists that won't happen, saying it would undercut the entire point of RFN. If anything, she says, the hope is to develop more local content and cut back on syndicated programming.
In keeping with that community focus, RFN's volunteers are asking for support from listeners and potential listeners to make its citywide signal a reality. The station is hosting a series of fundraising events later this summer and into the fall including a live broadcast 1 p.m. Saturday from the 5 Spot and a comedy benefit at Mad Donna's Sept. 4. They are also hoping to fire up the Internet crowd-sourcing engine with an Indiegogo campaign soon.
Moving forward, Welsch tells the Scene that she hopes extending the station's signal into Nashville proper will turn it into an interactive community resource unique among the city's radio stations.
Nashville has all sorts of "little communities in it, and these communities are doing all these great and wonderful things," Welsch says. "People just aren't even aware really of all the wonderful things that go on around this town; they're just small little things that are there, little support systems, little entertainment systems.
"We want these communities to be able to use the media to advocate for themselves if they want to."