ARE YOU an optimist or a pessimist? That question seems to be the key to predicting the future of XRAY.FM, a progressive nonprofit community radio station celebrating its launch in Portland on March 15. Its arrival has been hotly anticipated, even as a few self-imposed deadlines have been missed or pushed back over the course of the last year. Perhaps the most well-known and profound measure of the community's receptivity has been the station's Kickstarter campaign, which began with a $40,000 goal and ended up with $103,762 in pledges.
In the final weeks of that campaign, which ended on January 17, XRAY went viral, with news of its mission racing through the city's vast channels of liberal, culturally engaged communities, indicating a wide enthusiasm for what XRAY plans to deliver. Word of mouth and social networking combined with brand-building events, like a Dead Moon/Poison Idea show at the Crystal Ballroom, to help spread the word. But the excitement of the Kickstarter's ticking clock and mounting funds helped put awareness into overdrive.
The outpouring of passion was beautiful to behold. As the station's Kickstarter video pointed out, corporations control most of the radio on your FM dial, Clear Channel being the biggest elephant in the room. Other options, like Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and KBOO, serve the community in their own ways, but XRAY.FM argues that there is room for more—much more. Their content will reflect Portland's spirit of progressiveness, its independence, and its youthful cultural riches (complete with a nod to the legendary X-Ray Café embedded in its name), with former KPOJ progressive talk-radio hosts Carl Wolfson and Thom Hartmann secured as the stars of the new station's political talk programming. As victims of Clear Channel's decision to kill off KPOJ in favor of Fox Sports Radio 620 in 2012, Wolfson and Hartmann are emblematic of XRAY's grassroots movement to take back the airwaves. The casting is perfect.
The scope of XRAY's programming only gets more appealing as it grows. (You can even get a taste without waiting for the launch; the beta version of XRAY's streaming broadcast is already available at xray.fm.) A mounting list of confirmed weekly talk shows includes podcasts, organizations, and interests with already-proven followings:
• Kick Ass Oregon History
• Bitch Media's Popaganda
• Comedian Shane Torres' Help Wanted, in which he interviews local creatives about their day jobs and their true passions
• The Adam Klugman Show, another former KPOJ host
• The XRAY.FM Nonprofit Hour, hosted by Phil Busse, former Mercury
managing editor and executive director of the Media Institute for Social Change
• Funemployment Radio
• The bike-centric The Sprocket Podcast
• The film-centric Real Reel Chat
• Local theater reviewed in Five Useless Degrees and a Bottle of Scotch
• Nick Jaina's The Story of Your Life, described as "a mixture of experimental music with recorded conversations, pieced together in inspiring and surreal ways"
• Oregon Health News founder Diane Lund-Muzikant's The Lund Report
• Jefferson Smith's Thank You Democracy—with Smith also serving as XRAY's senior advisor on board development and community engagement
Of the mix of existing podcasts and original content, Smith adds that they are also developing more original concepts, like a show with Intisar Abioto from the Black Portlanders blog and a local-news roundup called Five Quadrants of Portland (to which the Mercury news team has been asked to contribute), as well as "inviting people to submit proposals for 13-episode series."
Smith says, "At the same time we feel very good about providing a place for strong existing digital shows to find a few more ears and minds. If we are going to do our tiny part to foment a new golden age of radio—which we think might happen across the country—we need to be thinking digital simultaneous with broadcast. Most really good podcasts work well on the air (as long as you cut out the swearing). Many really good traditional radio shows don't work as well for download. So we want to 'think digital first' or at least 'digital at the same time.'"
Sound good? Great. We haven't even talked about the music. Dig a Pony co-founder Aaron Hall is XRAY's music programmer, and has amassed some of the city's best DJs.
"We're really just curating curators," Hall explains of the formidable roster. "Our DJs are all savants of their respective styles, so whether a show is hosted by the owner of a record store, a record label vet, a venue booker, a top-shelf club DJ, or just an old-fashioned record nerd, you're likely hearing from the person who knows their genre best."
Also notable is that part of XRAY's Kickstarter funds will be used toward a studio fit for live performance broadcasts. "Our current studio is a shoebox," admits Hall. "In the short term, we'll be recording live broadcasts off site at one of our venue partners or at one of several recording studios that have generously opened their doors. Live in-studio performance will be a major component [of] the new studio we hope to build in the next year or so. As for who we hope to land? Local, national, international... if it's good, plan on hearing it on XRAY."
Though the full schedule wasn't available by press time, Hall confirmed DJ slots from:
• Theo Craig of Smoke Signals booking and Rontoms
• Holocene booker Gina Altamura and Redefine magazine's Vivian Hua
• Bunk owners Tommy Habetz and Matt Brown
• A trio known as Strange Babes, made up of the Thermals' Kathy Foster, former
Valentine's booker Jen Olesen, and CASH Music/former Kill Rock Stars' Maggie Vail
• Former OPB In House host Jeremy Petersen
• "A rotating cast of characters" from Mississippi Records, PDX Pop Now!, and Beacon Sound
• Rev. Shines of Lifesavas and Colton Tong
• DJ Beyonda
• DJ Cooky Parker
• Holla 'n' Oates of various dance nights around town
• Party Damage Records' Ben Hubbird
• Wieden + Kennedy's former music supervisor Shayla Hason
• Fresh Selects owner Kenny Fresh
• The hiphop DJs known as the Ante Up crew
• Metal maestro (and former Mercury contributor) Nathan Carson
• DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid
• Sun Angle musicians Marius Libman and Charlie Salas Humara
• Yeti magazine publisher and gospel/blues authority Mike McGonigal
Phew. And, more importantly: WOW!
Between XRAY's talk and music programs, it has amassed a Portland dream team, making it little wonder that the station's launch has elicited a groundswell of enthusiasm. Maybe you're already planning to make 91.1 KXRY (the official call sign of the station otherwise known as XRAY—basically because all West Coast FM radio stations must begin with the letter K) the new default setting in your car or in your kitchen... but hold up just yet. If you like what XRAY's doing, they're going to need your help. And lots of it.
XRAY.FM's roots go back to Reed College, which originally owned it as its campus station. It's a Class D station, a category the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no longer assigns. Class Ds are limited in how far they are capable of broadcasting—only a few miles—since their original raison d'être was to service micro-communities, like college campuses.
A California-based nonprofit called Common Frequency acquired the station in 2012. Common Frequency connects interested and capable community members with access to low-powered radio stations. It's a founding member of a larger organization called Radio for People Coalition, "a nationwide team of organizers, consultants, attorneys, and engineers working together to promote democratic access to broadcast media." In the case of XRAY, it was Common Frequency's Todd Urick who approached Jeff Simmons, now designated XRAY's founding music and media maven.
Technically, Common Frequency holds the FCC license under which XRAY.FM operates, not XRAY itself. In order to facilitate a transfer, XRAY has to prove that it can sustain itself—not an easy proposition. XRAY's Fundraising and Underwriting Coordinator Tim Marcroft estimates the station will need an annual operating budget of $250,000 to $380,000 in its first few years, even though he also says it "will always be a volunteer-driven organization... the budget allows for a hybrid-model of sorts: a too-small staff and stipends for a few indispensable volunteers and interns, with room for growth if the station should be more successful than expected."
"Growth" is the key word here, especially when it comes to XRAY's ability to actually reach the radios of would-be listeners throughout the city. If you're imagining yourself rolling out of bed on Saturday in your centrally located apartment and flipping on Portland's hottest new station as you make your morning coffee... there's a good chance it ain't gonna happen like that.
XRAY has one 10-watt transmitter situated on Rocky Butte. There are a lot of variables, but it's only expected to reach a swath of the Eastside, as far north as the Columbia River and into Northeast Portland to around NE 162nd, but only as far west as NE 33rd and as far south as SE Powell. Expect decreasing east-west coverage as you move south—for instance, by the time the signal hits E Burnside, it will only reach what's between 56th and 122nd. At SE Division, coverage is expected between Interstate 205 and Mount Tabor. With its limited power, XRAY's signal is also susceptible to interference from trees, thick walls, hills, and other signals—so the only real way to determine whether you'll be able to tune in at home is to try it out at 91.1 FM. (Go ahead: To fulfill an FCC requirement, XRAY is already broadcasting a placeholder loop of noise and Morse code.)
"The location of the first transmitter was dictated by the frequency assigned to us by the FCC," says XRAY Board President Jenny Logan. "It had to be far enough away from downtown to prevent interference and get away from the second adjacent channels, that are KBOO and KOPB respectively. Other issues included finding an established site with power, height, connectivity, and freedom from liabilities. Unfortunately, 91.1 FM is subject to interference from a strong signal from Kelso, Washington, which as you get closer to the inner city becomes increasingly stronger. Either by design or random propagation, their signal destroys our signal. Fortunately, our transmitter is agile and the antenna is broad, and as other opportunities appear we can adapt."
Compared to the reach of a station like KBOO, much less a larger commercial station, XRAY's is undeniably weak—but it's a start, and it's important to remember that anyone with an internet connection will be able to listen to a high-quality stream online. But that's not the only endgame here.
"The Class D that ate Cleveland. Yeah, right."
That's Andrew Brown. He's a multimedia engineer who's been working in radio since the early '70s, including stints as chief engineer of KMJK Magic 107 "when they were number one on the dial before Z100 was started," and 10 years as a maintenance and satellite engineer at KATU. In the last decade, he's done "extensive" work with non-commercial, education-focused broadcasters not unlike XRAY. He's been following the station's progress closely, even driving out to examine the antenna site and testing his ability to receive it while driving through the city.
Keegan Meyer, KPSU station manager and an XRAY DJ (he holds down Saturdays from 2-5 am with From the Garage), cites Brown as an invaluable resource for guidance in his own work applying for a Low Power FM (LPFM) designation for Portland State University's radio station. LPFMs are basically the modern equivalent of Class D stations like XRAY, though they have slightly better power capabilities. The FCC is currently reviewing a number of applications for LPFM licenses, which could result in nine or so new mini-stations in the Portland area in the near future. Meyer says he expects to get word about KPSU's by June. Brown warns that these new LPFMs could make XRAY's hopes for expansion more difficult.
"To me, KXRY's rollout has been disappointing because they have been agonizingly slow to get on the air," says Brown. "So much so, that they are going to be overshadowed by about nine new LPFMs around the Portland metro, which will have slightly better coverage and will steal the buzz, so to speak.
"It's my opinion that KXRY has overstated its capabilities, technically speaking," Brown continues. "Especially when they purported to be the answer to throwing Thom Hartmann off the air and neutering KPOJ as a liberal progressive voice on the Portland dial. If it were true, I'd be shouting, 'Hell yeah.'"
Even without potential competition from new stations, XRAY faces challenges just by virtue of its classification. A Class D license can't increase its power or upgrade to a higher class. (Though Brown says the FCC did allow a window in which Class Ds could upgrade to Class A, while the station was still in Reed College's possession, but the school chose not to.)
"KRXY as a Class D will never have citywide coverage," says Brown. "Their only options are to purchase or lease a translator already in service, and that is unlikely at this time, although it could be possible in the future." (A translator can't originate its own broadcasts, but it can carry programming from an on-air station to extend its coverage, according to Brown.)
"KXRY could also arrange to be carried by a full-service FM station on one of their digital auxiliary channels," says Brown, "but that is unlikely as well, since there aren't many commercial broadcasters that are going to give that space away at an affordable rate, and the few non-commercial full-service stations (KOPB, KBOO) are either using those channels or don't have them due to the expense of adding them.
"Nowadays," he continues, "there is no space anymore in the Portland metro for any Class As or new translators. The current LPFM [applicants] are going to use up all the remaining openings, more than likely, but that proceeding has not yet been finalized, so we'll have to see."
Unsurprisingly, XRAY's outlook is a little more optimistic. "We are looking at, and for, alternatives to traditional methods of distribution," explains Logan, board president. "Rather than a 70,000-watt transmitter and a power bill of nominally $5,000 a month (not including rent, tower space, etc.), we are looking for a bunch of 60-watt light bulbs scattered throughout the region."
In other words, XRAY might be able to propagate its signal by forming a network of partnerships or deals to rebroadcast it. Those "60-watt light bulbs" would be other secondary services: other Class Ds, translators, or LPFMs. It may also be worth noting, however, that the FCC doesn't allow for any one entity to own more than one LPFM. So take the example of XRAY's Simmons: He applied for an LPFM for his non-commercial radio station, Radio23, and if that license pans out it would be an obvious potential partner for XRAY. However if ownership of XRAY transfers successfully from Common Frequency, Simmons' involvement with both could also present a conflict in the eyes of the FCC.
"Anything's possible," allows Thor Waage, chief engineer at Alpha Broadcasting, which services stations like KINK. "They could be completely successful. But it's going to take a lot of money and a lot of support and a lot of work. They're going to have to spend some money to make people aware of them. I wish them all the luck in the world."
Brown, for his part, referred to Logan's explanation and her contention that "technology is on our side and the days of the big stick on the hill are over or in decline" as "a bunch of bull" and "wishful thinking."
"They want to get their programming on other people's stations, and that's not so easy," Brown explains. "They have to prove they can successfully run and support KXRY before they even become a licensee and expand their reach through purchase, lease, or distribution of programming. They have a lot of dues to pay, and will soon find out that it all costs lots of money."
Considering the challenges XRAY faces, it raises some questions: Why bother? Why not pour all that time and resources into their work online, like the planned development of an XRAY.FM app? Launching a new terrestrial broadcast station is clearly difficult, and doesn't online broadcasting ultimately represent the future?
"Terrestrial radio is still important," contends Logan. "It's not susceptible to the sort of content blocking that's currently possible on the web. It's not clear that effective protections of web-based independent media from discrimination by more powerful interests will ever stand up to legal scrutiny. Second, receiving an FM signal is still easier and cheaper than streaming something online. Broadcasting terrestrially thus expands our reach to a wider socioeconomic population, even if it limits our geography for now. The plan is to continue focusing time and resources on developing our FM signal as we continue to beef up our online platform. I'm confident we can have it both ways."
Logan also seems optimistic that as technology progresses, it will have the effect of lowering some of the barriers to terrestrial broadcasting. "Not to say that terrestrial broadcast assets are not valuable," she explains, "just that their value in the best of circumstances has plateaued, and in many cases has declined. You can't tell me that the radio stations of the world do not fear Detroit dropping the car radio, or the fact that most FM/AM radio chipsets are old, and new ones are not being developed at the same pace as the '70s and '80s.... So yes, we have just started with our first 10-watt Class D FM, but it is just the beginning. There are a lot of smart, innovative people and minds at work here."
Whatever your outlook on the future of broadcasting, and with it the future of XRAY, everyone agrees that they are facing an uphill battle. It's going to be expensive, and potentially very slow, and it's going to be important for them to remain in the public consciousness. The funding model they are working with, according to Marcroft, their fundraising coordinator, will depend heavily on memberships, in combination with "gifts from generous individuals, grants as we mature, and underwriting by members of the business and nonprofit community." In other words, it will largely depend on sustaining the enthusiasm of people like you.
"Even with the best of intentions, sustaining a grassroots media organization requires dedication, talent, deep love, and more than a little bit of luck," says S.W. Conser (AKA "Conch"), KBOO's former board president and a current board member. He credits KBOO's ability to have sustained itself for 45 years by "responding to the needs of the community," and based on XRAY's initial programming, they have the pulse of Portland.
Longtime KBOO news and public affairs producer Lisa Loving concurs, and captures the appeal of XRAY's potential success (the other aspect virtually everyone can agree on): "They have an excellent chance to build something beautiful, and because this group is also clearly passionate about the need, I expect they're going to succeed. The niche is there, just waiting to be filled."
If XRAY fulfills its goals, it will be a triumph for independent media and local culture—and a bridge over the digital divide for Portland to be proud of. But will it really happen? Well, that depends... are you a pessimist or an optimist?