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Finding a new frequency

Shauna Farnell
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyHarry Gray, Anne Ralston, Liz Campbell, Scott Willoughby, Pia Vidal and Karm Trygg are trying to resurrect a Minturn radio station that brings the voice back to the community.
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MINTURN – On Election Day 2000, Scott Willoughby was cranking music in his living room when two agents from the Federal Communications Commission knocked on his door and told him it was time to turn it off.”They were plain clothes officers with clipboards in hand – a man and a woman. I looked out and saw these guys and I was like, ‘They must be polling for the election.’ I went and opened the door. They dropped their clipboards and whipped out their badges. The guy was packing heat. They’re like, ‘We’re here about your radio station.'”That was the end of frequency 94.9-FM, also known as pirate Radio Free Minturn. It was the end of the living room disc jockey career of Willoughby and his roommate, Alex Markels, and the end of the commercial-free airwaves several listeners had grown attached to, which began in 1998 as an effort to build a stronger sense of community in Minturn and the Vail Valley. It began with a build-your-own pirate radio station kit that Willoughby and Markels found on the Internet and with a handful of avid local supporters.”I thought it would be a great avenue for the town to do something that nobody else could do,” said Minturn resident Liz Campbell, who was among the original crew to kick off the pirate station, which Willoughby and a slew of others are resurrecting as a legitimate, licensed frequency.”We had started the (Minturn) market and shortly thereafter, Vail started theirs. When you tried something, other people tried to duplicate your efforts. This was something they wouldn’t be able to duplicate,” Campbell said. “It started with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that essentially allowed all of these mergers and acquisitions in the broadcast industry and created these big giants that didn’t really have any connections with their communities. As far as radio was concerned, there weren’t a whole lot of choices.”

Oscillating in any given hour from the likes of Frank Zappa to Peter Tosh, The Clash to world music, or simply from one living room visitor’s commentary to another’s, Radio Free Minturn prided itself on being “genre-free.””I’m an original listener,” said Pia Vidal, who was on hand at Harry’s Bump and Grind in Minturn earlier this week, where a forum will take place Saturday to unite anyone and everyone interested in taking part – whether as future DJ, fund-raiser, or advisory board member – for the bigger, better and legal Radio Free Minturn.”I remember the one time that JB was on the radio, and we couldn’t hear anything because it was so low. Some people were shy,” Vidal said. “I just listened to anything that was on. There was everything – Genesis, bootlegs, and just stuff that I loved.”Facing a threat of a $30,000 fine and two years in jail, Willoughby, who suspects somebody from one of the legitimate local radio station was responsible for tipping off the FCC, shut down without a fight and proceeded to apply for a Low Power FM license that would allow the station to broadcast legally up to 100 watts.With the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent war, it took four years for the FCC to approve the license. Now the station is slated to broadcast on 107.9-FM, has an advisory board, an attorney, a governing board and a logo – “Hammer and Sickle with Sombrero,” adapted from a still life photo by Tina Modotti, circa 1927.

“We are not, of course, communists,” Willoughby said of the logo. “I don’t know why exactly that image came to my mind when we started the project, but I suppose it had something to do with the symbolism of revolution and the alliance of workers and peasants uniting in a struggle against The Man. There just seemed to be something that fit our motives in attempting to break the commercial mold that our local airwaves were confined to. (Modotti’s) socially and politically oriented subject matter became powerful revolutionary emblems of the era and the combination of hammer, sickle and sombrero seemed to capture the essence of our own little socio-political revolution here in Minturn. After doing a little more research, we adopted her as the patron saint of Radio Free Minturn.”The missing linkArmed with a proper license, 501c nonprofit status and even a patron saint, it would seem that there is really just one thing that Radio Free Minturn is lacking.”All we need is money,” Campbell said. “Being legal brings a lot of complications. We just have to actually buy the equipment. Ideally, to make it as automated as possible, we would need $40,000. We would need a minimum of $20,000 just to get it going.”

Fund-raising efforts are already in the works, and Radio Free Minturn has to be financially viable by October in order to set sail. What the group is looking for, while similar to what it was in the beginning when the station was a 10-watt pirate outfit in Willoughby’s living room, is a conglomeration of local news, live performances, educational commentary, as well as music to represent every genre across the board, piloted by anyone who thinks they can spin tunes.”What we need now is community involvement, whether it’s through fund-raising, programming, engineering or any of the myriad other roles that need filling in order to make community radio in the Vail Valley a reality,” Willoughby said. “The idea is to create a true local public radio station the likes of KOTO in Telluride or KBUT in Crested Butte – commercial free with a variety of programming ranging from jazz to hip-hop, classic rock to classical, punk, talk … whatever. None of this crap that we’ve all suffered through for way too long, with its top-40 pop and lame commercials. Although we accept sponsorships and underwriters, we’re a nonprofit, commercial-free enterprise seeking nothing more than to enhance the community through the medium of radio. We’re sick of hearing how this area has no sense of community.”Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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