Out of Thin Air: UTAHFM.ORG

By Katherine Pioli

Some said it couldn’t be done. But a team of volunteers with a DIY ethic created an internet radio station. Utah Free Media celebrates its first birthday next month.
by Katherine Pioli
People from every aspect of the working world volunteer at Utah Free Media,” says Rachael Bradford, programmer of the Satur?day afternoon show “Completely Random.” Pushing her blonde hair back from her face, she turns to her computer to type in the next three songs on her playlist. “Most of us are not trained for radio,” she continues while typing, “and honestly, that’s where the fun comes in. When you get people who aren’t bred for this—when they haven’t been groomed—the styles, backgrounds, musical tastes, everything… is so eclectic.”

The station broadcasts from the basement of a downtown building near the Gateway. At the end of a hall, beyond the exposed grey cement walls that soak up the winter chill, a small, comfortable room is filled with microphones, music players, computers and a radio console. This room is the realization of a vision started last February when changes in local radio programming produced a collective cry for a new voice in community radio.

Mike Place, current board chair for Utah Free Media, was one of the first to respond to the pleas. With countless hours and a few dollars, Mike and many other volunteers built Utah Free Media by hand, piece by piece. Mike recalls with pain and pride the hours spent accumulating the necessary pieces. “It took me two solid weeks of working till midnight or later to make 250 feet of cables for the entire studio,” says Mike. With plenty of help from people both experienced in radio and new to the medium, Utah Free Media was born. 

From the beginning, the response to calls for donations in money and equipment surprised Mike Place. Pete Ashdown of XMission offered support. A radio station in Oregon donated a console. Babs deLay offered studio space.

“That’s what I love about community radio,” he says. “That commitment is what makes it great.” The new grassroots station made its debut broadcast online just six weeks after work began.

“We still have people coming in off the street wanting to volunteer. Our new volunteer meetings are always packed and lots of ideas for growth in programming are still being generated,” reports Mike, who hosts his own show on Monday afternoons.

In addition to music, podcasts such as Pinpoint SLC have been a source of particular interest. Produced by another station founder, Patrick Commiskey, Pinpoint explores the arts and culture scenes in the city by spotlighting community members.

Utah Free Media’s independence from corporate monies allows programmers to play the music they find the most interesting without the stress of striving for consistently high listener numbers. Not trying to cater to everyone’s musical tastes all of the time allows shows such as Rachael’s “Completely Random” to exist.

“I hear a band I like and research it, maybe find a tangential band that I also like,” says Rachel. “That’s the beauty of it—all the programmers have the freedom to play what they want whether it’s really obscure or commercial.”

Tune in and you’ll hear what I mean. Utah Free Media has some of the most creative playlists around, and you have to wonder where they find some of this stuff. Utah FM flouts this independence, counting on listeners to appreciate that very quality and respond by spreading the word, volunteering and donating.

Internet radio is able to survive on much less cash than the most frugal of FM station budgets. “But all of the money we receive is essential to our existence,” Mike reminds us. “It all goes into the operating budget.” He says in these next few months community support will be particularly important.

If you have not yet set your browser to www.utahfm.org, do it now. If you like what you hear, support the station by attending their first fundraising event this month (see below). In addition to a good show, you can meet other supporters and applaud the volunteers who committed to their vision and pulled what may well grow into a great music station out of thin air.

UtahFM.org presents Carrie Rodriguez
When: Sunday, January 18
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center (Black Box)
Admission: $35 (VIP pass, $75, includes food, drinks and an opportunity to meet Ms. Rodriguez.) 21+ only; “adult” beverages available
Info/ticket sales: www.arttix.org or www.utahfm.org

This article was originally published on December 31, 2008.