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Radioactive Waste 

Washington University student radio station wants to make a change -- but is KWMU-FM standing in the way?

If there were a prize for St. Louis' best unheard radio station, that honor would go to KWUR (90.3 FM), which for 25 years has been broadcasting underground sounds to those lucky few who live within a stone's throw of the Washington University campus. When last we reported on Wash. U.'s wattage-challenged station, its staffers were trying to persuade the FCC to up the juice from five watts to a modest 100 ("Radar Station," August 7, 2002). Though the change from five to 100 watts might seem extreme, 100 watts is still laughably dinky. By comparison, KWUR's left-of-the-dial peers KDHX (88.1 FM) and KWMU (90.7 FM) boast 43,000 and 100,000 watts, respectively. At 100 watts, KWUR would still be a Class D station -- a dying breed, because the FCC no longer grants any Class D licenses, and the recently created "low-power FM" designation is granted only rarely -- but at least more than a handful of people would be able to hear it.

KWUR has been trying since 1994 to get a power upgrade, to no avail. Last summer its staffers applied for an experimental license, believing they'd found a loophole that might allow for a wattage increase. Accompanying the application was a petition with more than 2,300 signatures from members of the community. The FCC rejected KWUR's application late last month. "They've basically stated that they're no longer giving experimental licenses for broadcasting outlets," explains Jim Hayes, Washington University's coordinator for student media groups.

Undeterred, KWUR staffers are trying again. By the end of April, Hayes expects to have completed Form 340, the FCC's application for a major change to an existing station -- the same form KWUR submitted in previous years. "With our classification as Class D, the highest we can aspire to be is 100 watts," says Hayes, "and that's perfectly fine with KWUR. It would definitely reach our goal of expanding our audience."

In addition to the signatures, Hayes hopes to provide a letter from KWMU supporting the upgrade. Staffers have long suspected that the National Public Radio affiliate has prevented KWUR from getting the extra power. "I don't know what's happened in the past," admits Hayes, who has been on campus only two years. "I just want to open the lines of communication again. In reality, would a 100-watt station bleed into the signal of a 100,000-watt station? Never."

Lending credence to the theory that KWMU opposes KWUR's attempts to upgrade its signal is the fact that NPR joined forces with the National Association of Broadcasters three years ago to limit the proliferation of low-power FM licenses. The NAB/NPR juggernaut lobbied Congress, which instructed the FCC to grant only a tiny number of LPFM licenses, approximately 20 percent of what the FCC originally requested.

Patricia Wente, KWMU's station manager, did not return our phone calls requesting comment.

Allow us to editorialize for a moment: In this age of media consolidation, when fewer than five corporations control 90 percent of the radio options, diversity on the airwaves is a rare commodity. KDHX staffers understand this, which is why station manager Beverly Hacker has spoken out in support of KWUR's proposal. If KWMU is indeed keeping KWUR from being more accessible to the public, the pettiness is contemptible. Call us naïve hippie doofuses, but aren't the airwaves supposed to belong to the public, not to public-radio affiliates?

If the FCC accepts KWUR's application this time, the wattage increase would go into effect in the fall. In the meantime, the best way for off-campus listeners to hear KWUR is by way of the Webstream:

One of the programs you should definitely check out is Jeff York's local-music show, on Wednesday nights from 7:30-8:30. Although York's isn't the only radio show in town devoted exclusively to local music (both The Point and The River offer weekly local-music programs), it's the best. According to York, the difference between his show and those of the commercial stations is obvious: "I listen to their local shows, and it sounds like their regular radio programming on any other day."

Though there is some overlap here and there (the Dead Celebrities get played on The Point's local show, and they're one of York's favorites, too), KWUR's version is considerably more eclectic. Recent playlists include songs from garage-pop wunderkinder the Reactions; arty math-rockers Ring, Cicada; aggro-punk stalwarts Nineteen; live-house-music practitioners the Urban Jazz Naturals; and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club-wannabes the Living Things.

To submit your band's material for consideration, email York: [email protected].

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More by René Spencer Saller

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