Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio, LET’S GO!
WXNA wants the airwaves and it wants them now
On a cool, fall Saturday afternoon recently at Drifter’s BBQ in East Nashville, a mix of music filled the air — hot rhythm & blues, power pop, vintage hillbilly, Japanese rock & roll, punk rock, hip hop and more. I was one of several DJs manning the turntables. All of us are part of a dream that’s been in the works for more than four years — WXNA 101.5 FM, “Low Power, High Voltage Radio.” As we played music that you can’t hear on any commercial radio station in town, supporters of that dream milled about on the patio, proudly clutching T-shirts with the logo of Nashville’s newest, but not-quite-here-yet source of music, cultural, and public affairs programming — a reward for their financial contribution. As a member of the board of directors of WXNA, it’s been an exciting journey for me, and I’m honored and happy that The East Nashvillian asked me to tell the story of a dream for great radio that is only a few months away from becoming reality.
The story of how a group of seven Nashville music fans navigated federal bureaucracy and by-their-bootstraps’ fundraising to bring WXNA to life really begins with the death of Vanderbilt University’s former broadcast radio station, WRVU-FM. For over 40 years, WRVU broadcast an eclectic mix of music and programming on 91.1 FM. While “91 Rock” originated as a student-run operation, the station’s management gradually opened the doors to Nashville’s vast supply of music fans, welcoming a limited number of non-Vandy affiliated DJs. Nonstudent shows — D-Funk, Out the Other, Loud Love, The Kynd Veggie Show, Out ov the Coffin, George the Bluegrass Show, Best of Bread (and my show, The Hipbilly Jamboree) — brought a wide variety of music to the station, provided continuity to WRVU’s ever-shifting schedule, and attracted loyal followings.
Although the station evolved into a hybrid of student radio and community-freeform programming, control ultimately belonged to the Vanderbilt Student Communication board. In September 2009, the VSC board forced the station to remove the majority of nonstudent community volunteer DJs. A year later, the board announced they were considering the sale of the station’s broadcast license. Several months of protests from student DJs, Vanderbilt alumni, and Nashville residents followed, and a Save WRVU campaign was launched to oppose the sale.
Despite the protests, WRVU-FM suddenly went silent on June 7, 2011. The 91.1 FM frequency was transferred to Nashville Public Radio’s new classical music station, WFCL, pending finalization of a $3.35 million deal for the broadcast license. WRVU was to continue as a primarily student-only operation via webcasting.
While protests and legal challenges of the sale continued into the next year, Heather Lose, who had hosted a happening hoedown of rock and roots music, The Honky Tonk Jukebox, on WRVU, was hatching a plan B to revive independent community freeform radio, unfettered by academic ties or corporate control.
“I had met Sharon Scott through the Save WRVU campaign,” Lose recalls. “She was working on securing a Low Power FM license for a start-up station in Louisville, Ky., and encouraged me to do the same for Nashville. Once I knew the possibility existed, I called several ex-WRVU DJs. Some of them moved on after a few early meetings and others drifted in, but everyone believed in the vision.”
That vision was an independent, freeform, community-focused radio station freely mixing all varieties of music and fully reflecting the diversity of Nashville’s music and cultural scene. A place where knowledgeable DJs would program their own shows free of marketing or corporate restrictions; where niche cultural programming would be welcome. It’s a model that has worked for many other listener-supported freeform stations — from WFMU in New Jersey to KEXP in Seattle — and yet had never been attempted in Music City USA.
“It’s a two-way street. We want people to love our station, but that means we owe something to them.”
Lose had worked in commercial radio, including time at WRLT, Lightning 100, in Nashville, but she also had firsthand experience with listener-supported freeform radio at 3,000-watt station WDBX in Carbondale, Ill.
“That’s where I learned how it’s done,” she says, “pledge drives, events, building relationships. WDBX was supported by college students, Carbondale residents, and farmers from the surrounding community. They all loved the station so much, and if you produce great radio, the community will be there for you.”
Being a Low Power FM station — defined by the FCC as nonprofit, community-focused stations broadcasting at 100 watts or less — meant the broadcast range of the proposed station would be limited to the urban core of Nashville, although webcasting would extend its reach around the world. While the need for old-school, over-the-air radio in the 21st century might not seem obvious to everyone, some — like Pete Wilson, former host of the much-loved jumpin’ jive and rhythm revue, Nashville Jumps — have good reasons for their dedicated supporter of broadcast radio.
“We love radio because of the depth of its history and traditions,” he says, “but it’s not just a legend. It still works. When Nashville Jumps was on the air, any Nashvillian who stumbled upon it while they drove to work could keep listening if they liked it. That joy of accidental discovery simply doesn’t exist with online radio.”
Even though the proposed station shared similar goals with WRFN-LPFM, Radio Free Nashville, which had been on the air since 2005, there was still room for another independent voice. Ashley Crownover, who hosted the free-wheeling ’70s pop confections of Alphabet with Ashley on WRVU, had a very specific vision of combining musical alternatives with public service.
“With radio, we have the power to connect individuals into communities,” she says, “whether it’s just people who love Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons in the Sun’ or people who need some real help with their lives. It’s a two-way street. We want people to love our station, but that means we owe something to them. We can get information to people that will help make Nashville a better and more unique place.”
The first meeting of what would become WXNA’s board of directors met on March 20, 2012, at the Gerst Haus. Over the next 20 months and ample supplies of sauerkraut, giant pretzels, and fishbowls of Gerst, a group that included Lose, Wilson, Crownover, Roger Blanton, and me began untangling the mysteries of establishing a nonprofit organization, deciphering the application process, securing radio engineering studies, and most of all, waiting for the FCC filing window to open.
Then, on Nov. 11, 2013, the official application was filed with the FCC, and the group settled in for the long wait. Over the next year, it became clear that the application process wasn’t just a matter of filing and forgetting, as various amendments were required to stay in the running. Blanton bulldogged the process though many twists and turns. As a former Vanderbilt employee, he had launched his theme-driven, multi-genre jamfest, Delicious Elixir, on WRVU just a year before the station left the air and witnessed the dramatic difference between on-air radio and the lonely world of webcasting.
“It was like a ghost town.” Blanton says. “All the phone calls ceased — requests, questions, ‘Hey, that’s a great song’ — all that ended. It was kind of like dating an ex-girlfriend. You were there, but it was really difficult to feel any of the love you once had. That’s why I was determined to get back on the air.”
Finally, on the morning of Dec. 4, 2014, without any fanfare or ceremony, the FCC posted the construction permit on its website for Nashville’s newest radio station, broadcasting on 101.5 FM with 100 watts of power. After waiting for more than a year, the sudden announcement took the group by surprise. The construction permit meant there were now 18 months to raise money, build the station, and get it on the air. The dream had gone legit.
Along with the celebrations came a genuine, “Oh crap!” moment. What to do next? As the group scrambled to figure it out, one step was easy — the name for the new station. The consensus was something that embodied both independence and a focus on Nashville. Early on, the idea of having an “X” in the call letters had been appealing; the board members were all ex-WRVU DJs, and it just sounded cool. With that in mind, WXNA was a perfect fit.
Picking a name was the easy part. There was a ton of work to do — document filings, brand creation, tax issues, a fundraising campaign to build from scratch, and more. With these monumental tasks facing the board, two more ex-WRVU DJs were recruited.
Jonathan Grigsby had hosted Time Out for Fun on WRVU before teaming up with Crownover for Set Records to Stun, a morning mix of sly, sci-fi geek-centric humor with a musical menagerie of ’70s pop, ’80s new wave, and modern indie rock, guided by Grigsby’s musical mantra, “Music should make you move either emotionally or physically, or both.” Grigsby also brought 10 years of experience as a public accountant and a willingness to relieve the numbers-challenged board members of the financial and bookkeeping chores.
“On Record Store Day, I was struck by how many people we met who were new to Nashville and told us about how they missed the independent freeform stations in their old hometowns.”
The other addition was Laura Powers, the former host of the beloved morning cuppacoffee punk rock program Needles + Pins on WRVU. One part award-winning advertising, marketing, and business whiz and one part punk rock mom, Powers brought the organization skills of Joan Holloway combined with the gumption of Riff Randell.
With a “Magnificent Seven” in place, the group quickly began the process of building a radio station. In February, WXNA’s first public event was held at Grimey’s Too. For the informal meet and greet, expectations were kept low, but the response was encouraging as a sizable crowd showed up with not only good wishes but several donations. Two months later, WXNA made its “official” debut on Record Store Day with the “pop” of its explosive logo (designed by Blanton). With booths at Grimey’s, The Groove, Fond Object, and Third Man Records, the station was introduced to hundreds of Nashville music lovers.
“On Record Store Day, I was struck by how many people we met who were new to Nashville and told us about how they missed the independent freeform stations in their old hometowns,” Powers says. “They were surprised that Nashville didn’t have anything comparable and were really excited about WXNA. It confirmed for me how important building this station is.”
Although WXNA had received several donations, a much larger amount needed to be raised quickly in order to rent and build studio space, buy a transmitter and antenna, and get on the air. The group began building a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000, knowing that it would be necessary to tell WXNA’s story to as many people as possible. Local filmmaker Elvis Wilson volunteered his time and skills to produce two outstanding videos for the campaign. Richie Owens and the Farm Bureau supplied fantastic original music for one of the videos, while Los Straitjackets and Steelism were kind enough to allow their recordings to be used in the second video.
On Aug. 5, 2015, WXNA’s Kickstarter campaign launched, followed by a month of highs and lows, excitement and anxiety as the counter climbed toward the goal. Live DJ appearances at Tomato Art Fest and Yazoo Brewing helped spread the word. Kickstarter named WXNA “Project of the Day,” and WTVF NewsChannel5 leant their support with a series of news stories.
When the Kickstarter campaign drew to a close on Sept. 9, $55,310 had been raised. Since then things have moved quickly for WXNA. Prime studio space became available on the top floor of the building that is home to Grimey’s and The Basement. The station’s radio engineer is working rapidly to begin installation of the broadcast antenna in Germantown. And volunteers, potential DJs, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations have all offered support. Barring unforeseen problems, WXNA-LPFM should be on the air well before its June 2016 deadline. As exciting as the journey has been, the history of Nashville’s next great radio station is just beginning.
“What we are building really is a gift to Nashville,” Lose says. “It’s going to take everyone who loves great music to keep it alive and keep it interesting — call in requests, come to our events, post about us on social media, tell your friends you love us, apply to become a DJ, and contribute financially. What we really need is for people to feel empowered that this is their station. We’re building it, but everyone that loves the idea of great radio has to be a part of it.”