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Syracuse Community Radio: Rock 'N' Roll and so much more

By Scott Jameson

It's 9:30 on a Sunday night. Dana Bonn and Carl Cafarelli have wedged themselves and their boxes of CDs into the tight, closet-like confines of the main studio of WXXE, Syracuse's community radio station. They're a half an hour into their weekly three-hour show, This is Rock 'N' Roll Radio, a tribute to "power pop" bands like The Raspberries, Bay City Rollers, and the patron saints of the genre: The Ramones.

For the moment though, the talk turns to a little known group out of Sweden called Hello Helen. Carl, an unabashed connoisseur and cheerleader of the power pop sound, marvels that the group has managed to record a brilliant album in, of all places, their living room. As he pauses in the midst of his spirited rant, Dana muses drolly that "they could be the Abba of Sweden."

Hello Helen may or may not be the next big thing in Sweden, but don't expect the radio stations owned by media mega-companies like Clear Channel Communications to be the group's pied piper here in the states. That chore is left up to the little guys like Syracuse's all-volunteer WXXE, which, in its own 49 watt way, is rallying the troops for the Hello Helens of the world and the John Rossbachs of the Salt City.

Dana and Carl's show is just one square of a music and talk patchwork quilt of sorts that makes up WXXE. The station's mission is to promote "radio which positively reflects and actively promotes the many diverse identities, talents, and concerns which exist in our local communities."

The eclectic roster of programs produced by the station range from Sunday night's homage to power pop, to the edgy Radio Liberation Front, three hours of radical, dissident, and working class music hosted by poet, writer, and activist Dale Gowin whose writings include "Post-Apocalyptic Paganism" and "Confessions of an Amerikan LSD Eater." There's Danny Danhauser's ska, rock steady, and reggae show Kingston Beat and Sharing the Earth, an animal rights program hosted by Linda Destefano. And that's just a sampling of the weekly offerings in music, community discussion, and political opinion. But, don't look for the next Howard Stern to emerge from WXXE; the station has "no desire to stir up controversy just for the sake of controversy," as volunteers are encouraged to "park their egos at the door."

That door is on the second floor of the Westcott Community Center, a former Syracuse city fire station at 826 Euclid Avenue which WXXE has called home for several years. Tucked away snugly into two tiny rooms, WXXE is giving listeners and would be programmers an alternative to the cookie cutter formatting that pervades much of today's commercial radio landscape.

Station history

Syracuse Community Radio's roots go back more than a decade to the days of WNMA, a similarly volunteer-driven project that served as the soundtrack for Time Warner Cable's message wheel. When WCNY II took over that channel in 1992, WNMA went dark.

But not for long.

A few years later, the time was right for another go at it, but as a true over the air venture. Unfortunately for WXXE, its resurrection came at a time when the ripple effects of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 were being felt across the country and here in Central New York. With the loosening of federal regulations regarding radio ownership caps, the battle was on for available frequencies as emerging media conglomerates like Clear Channel, Cox, and Infinity Broadcasting began circling the wagons in an effort to snatch up any station they could.

Syracuse Community Radio was able to secure a non-commercial license for 90.5 FM in the Madison County town of Fenner. The same town that would eventually house the largest windmill farm east of the Mississippi, generating power for 7,000 homes, is also the home of Central New York's 49 watt community radio station. The station later added a signal broadcasting from the rooftop of the Westcott Community Center which serves the immediate Westcott neighborhood.

From Fenner to Slovenia

While its traditional broadcast reach is anemic compared to the 100,000 watt Y94FMs of the world, the station's largest audience could come from the Internet. WXXE is one of several hundred stations that can be heard over the web via Live365.com. So, while the station's reception may fade and crackle with static as you head north on Teall Ave., listeners as far away as Indonesia, Slovenia, and Australia are tuned in loud and clear on the web.

And people halfway around the world are listening. That has helped to generate interest in Dana and Carl's show from both power pop fans and new artists hoping to keep the genre alive. It has even resulted in a record deal for the two who hooked up with Jeremy Morris of JAM Records out of Michigan to produce a 39-cut CD, due out sometime next year, featuring songs from veteran and up and coming power pop artists along with some clips from their show.

The CD, This is Rock 'N' Roll Radio - Volume I, is a milestone of sorts for the show and its hosts who have been getting together every Sunday night for the past five years.

Dana, 42, who also serves as the station's president and operations manager, is a special education teacher for the Syracuse city school district and is active in the local arts community.

Carl, 43, an appliance salesman by day, is a writer/reviewer of note in the world of power pop, with publishing credits which include articles for Goldmine Magazine and the in-depth online piece, An Informal History of Bubblegum Pop. Another article, about the legendary local group The Flashcubes, wound up as the liner notes for the band's 1997 album, Bright Lights. His tight, long-running relationship with the group also resulted in the band penning and recording the original tune, "Carl (You Da Man)." Might you hear it someday on the show? Almost every week.

And how do they decide what gets played on a given Sunday night?

"It's really quite simple," says Carl. "I play a song, then Dana plays one, then I play one, and before you know it, it's midnight."

Do they always agree on song selection?

"For the most part, yes," says Dana.

Carl quickly adds, "But if I come across something I don't like and I think Dana might, I'll pass it along."

Where their opinions differ for sure is in their choice of in-studio snacks. For Dana, it's the "local connection" of Terrells plain potato chips, while Carl opts for the salt and vinegar variety of stacked Pringles. They are in total agreement on what to wash it down with though: Minute Maid Lime Aid, joking that they should recruit Minute Maid as an underwriter for their show.

"Show me the money!"

Funding, though, is serious business for the struggling enterprise which relies totally on member and listener contributions.

"A while back we almost had to go off the air, so we pleaded with our audience to send in contributions. And they did!," says Carl with a hint of bewilderment that the appeal for support actually worked.

Since the station is staffed entirely by volunteers, they're spared the pesky expense of payroll, but the cost of power for the transmitter, studio equipment, and Internet fees, not to mention EAS hardware and ASCAP/BMI royalties -- which still apply to non-commercial stations -- can add up. With a new PayPal option on WXXE's web site, supporting the station is just a few mouse clicks away. Suggested donation amounts listed on the station's web site range from $20 for those on a budget to a $200 level which nets the contributor charter member status. But they'll take any penny they can get. At a recent staff meeting, volunteers talked of holding a group yard sale and encouraged everyone to bring in their bottles and cans to help fill the station's coffers.

Those nickels and dimes are needed to keep the lights on and the equipment at least operational. As Dana and Carl spin a cut from the Spongetones, the studio monitors aren't functioning. The pair makes do though with a boom box perched precariously near the console, just below a sign alerting volunteers that management is aware that there is a buzz in the headphones.

Part of the problem of cash flow is letting everyone know that the station actually exists. Volunteers do what they can, from hosting a stage at the annual Westcott Fair to encouraging everyone to tag their email messages with a plug for the station. But the biggest drawback when it comes to getting the word out is the station's weak signal. With a coverage map that is limited to central Madison County and the Westcott neighborhood, the odds of someone stumbling on the station are small.

Carrying a bigger stick

One of the station's top priorities is to increase its reach by acquiring an additional FM frequency. According to the FCC, Syracuse is up to its gills in "stand alone" FM stations. Fortunately, since WXXE already broadcasts at 90.5 FM out of Fenner, their 49 watt foot is in the door. With that, they can apply for a repeater in the city of Syracuse, of which there are two currently available: 93.9 FM and 92.9 FM.

That's easier said than done though. Earlier this year, the station used an engineer from Portland, Oregon to apply for those two commercial translator frequencies. Unfortunately, they were not alone. Over 14,000 applicants from across the country applied during the FCC filing window, about half of them were religious broadcasters. Locally, dozens of applications were filed, several with the same goal as Syracuse Community Radio. At this point, it's a wait and see situation.

What about the AM dial? They haven't ruled that out. But, because AM frequencies are just as hard to come by as FM licenses, and the necessary equipment to broadcast on AM is totally different than FM, the station's overhead could potentially double.

Providing an alternative

None of this seems to dull the enthusiasm of the staff of volunteers who believe that Syracuse desperately needs an alternative to the bland, repetitive programming being churned out by commercial radio.

And, for WXXE, that alternative means diversity, not only by producing programs that are different from what other stations have to offer, but also by serving up an eclectic "stew" within its own schedule. The walls of the station's tight studio, lined with CDs from the likes of Martin Sexton, The Nixon Clocks, Radio Birdman, 13 Curves, and Sex Clark 5, bear that out.

And, yes, as one might expect, WXXE is a bit of a haven for aging hippies and tree hugging Gen Xers. The studio door has copies of fliers asking "Who Owns Planet Earth?" and proclaiming "No Justice -- No Peace." But Dana is quick to point out that balance and diversity is a primary goal of the station. "Some of our programs do lean to the left, like Radio Liberation Front, but we look to provide a forum for a variety of and music and ideas."

That variety extends beyond a broad palette of musical genres and political commentary. It also means getting as much of the community involved as possible.

From the start, WXXE has included area youth as part of its programming efforts. A recent project, funded by a grant, brought together students from the Syracuse, Jordan-Elbridge, and Baldwinsville school districts to interview each other about the differences between city, suburban, and rural youth. In addition to its broadcast on WXXE, the student produced show ended up airing on WAER, WBXL, and WNTQ.

Through a new youth initiative, currently in the planning stages, the station hopes to involve area students in WXXE's day to day operations, both in programming for all age groups as well as specialized shows focusing on topics of interest to teens.

But for our two This is Rock 'N' Roll Radio hosts, all of that will have to wait until another day.

It's nearly midnight. Carl's can of Pringles sits empty as Dana pours out the final bits from his bag of Terrells.

What songs will they play next week? Who knows, but "that's what makes it fun!"

And hopefully the lights will still be on, and with any luck, the buzz in the headphones might be fixed.

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For more information on Syracuse Community Radio or to get involved with WXXE as a volunteer, check out the station's web site: www.wxxe.org.

December 12, 2003

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