DIY Radio in Vail

by Tamara Miller, Vail Trail

Jaimie Rosen is a metal head stuck in a ski town of Top 40 radio.

With long, platinum hair, tattoos, and a black, newsboy hat slung low enough to tip over her eyes, Rosen, 33, harkens memories of those heavy metal heydays of the early 1990s. Think Pantera, Metallica.

Rosen’s not out of date. She’s nostalgic.

This Jersey girl still managed to find kindred spirits in the Eagle Valley, like Tommy Naab, a 25-year-old, bushy-haired Dial-A-Ride driver whose personal soundtrack would include bands with names like Hatebreed and Darkest Hour.

Naab exposed Rosen to the new, obscure, heavy metal bands of today. Rosen reminded Naab of heavy metal’s roots. They and their like-minded friends would carpool down to Denver to see concerts that never make it up to the Vail Valley. The two united over a love for music too hard to make it on the corporately-owned local airwaves.

Rosen, Naab and their music might have stayed in relative obscurity if Rosen hadn’t found out about Radio Free Minturn, a nonprofit radio station being formed in Minturn. These days the duo are the namesakes of Radio Free Minturn’s “Jaimie and Tommy’s Killer Metal Show.” The show, which airs every Sunday from 10 p.m. to midnight on 107.9 FM, is an auditory celebration of heavy, dark guitars, sinister lyrics and sometimes-harmonious yelping. Rosen and Naab liked it. Their friends who like metal liked it. And the station’s programming manager seemed to think they had something to add to the still-new station’s line-up. Then, about a month after broadcasting, the two heard from the show’s first real fan.

“I knew our friends were listening and our friends who like metal were listening, but I didn’t know that people we didn’t know were listening,” Rosen said.

They have a lot in common with Scott Willoughby and Alex Markels, who founded Radio Free Minturn. Back then it was a pirate radio station that operated out of Willoughby’s living room until federal agents issued a cease-and-desist order in November 1998. Willoughby and Markels favored Marley over Metallica, but the drive was the same – to free the airwaves from the corporately-selected playlists that make listening to the same Destiny’s Child hit four times in four hours possible. Radio Free Minturn’s music is and always had been selected personally, sometimes selfishly, but, most importantly, locally.

Saved by the Campbell
Nearly eight years separates the founding DJs and the hodge-podge of locals who now fill the airwaves of the freshly legitimate, alive-and-kicking Radio Free Minturn. The station went back on the air on June 23, 2006.

What fills the space between November 1998 and June 2006 is dead air. What links the two lives of Radio Free Minturn is Liz Campbell.

Campbell is a tall, willowy blonde with a Cheshire cat smile. The married mother of two calls herself a “music nerd” who still listens to Tom Petty and talks about the ’80s. During the day, she’s the director of education and community outreach for the Bravo! classical music series. Her early association with Radio Free Minturn was that of just a listener who was thrilled to hear music she liked played by people she knew.
“I was along for the ride,” Campbell said.

When the feds pulled the plug on the pirate station, Campbell got more involved. She joined the board of directors when the group applied for a low-power FM license in 2000. Months passed with little word. Radio Free Minturn did find out shortly after applying that they were competing for the same frequency as the Colorado Department of Transportation. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2004 that the group learned its application had been accepted.

“Alex called us, he just said you’ll never guess what we got,” she said. “We couldn’t guess. Four years had gone by, it was pretty much out of our minds.”

Gone were most of the original crew – Markels, a journalist, was still in touch, but he moved out East. Willoughby was still around, but busy with other things. Many had moved, had had kids, changed careers, Campbell said. So she stepped up instead.

“I felt like it would be such a waste not to do something with it,” she said. “I just thought this was a chance of a lifetime. Very few communites ever get an opportunity like this. To let it just fade away would be a tragedy in some ways.”

But it took nearly a year to create a new board. By then, Radio Free Minturn had six months to get on the air with little money and little expertise to do it.

So Campbell held a wake for Radio Free Minturn on May 7, 2005. She saw it as a final gesture for a great idea whose time had come too late.

Instead, more than 100 people showed up. Ken Laughlin came. He later donated hours of his engineering expertise to help Radio Free Minturn get on the air. Mark Gordon, the Vail Town Councilman, got involved. He now deejays a show at 7 p.m. on Mondays.

After years of visiting friends who lived in towns with great, community-run radio stations, Gordon wanted to help make sure the Vail Valley had one, too.

“Great radio is also part of the quality of life of a great community,” Gordon said. “I’m not taking away anything from the commrcial stations, but there’s no comparison. It’s just one more piece of that community puzzle.”

On the air
Across the country, an estimated 3,000 groups have tried to get a low-power FM license. The rules the FCC has set for these smaller, community-grown stations seem fairly lax. “The great thing and the kind of weird thing about the FCC is, (their) interpretation of the First Amendment is that they are supposed to just about know nothing about the content on the airwaves,” said Pete Tridish, co-founder of Prometheus Radio, a group that has made a mission out of helping groups get low-power FM stations up and running. Foul language and profit-making commercials notwithstanding, groups are pretty much allowed to broadcast whatever they want.

Tridish has helped groups that run the gamut – he once worked with a National Parks-associated station in Alaska that broadcasts nothing but the sounds of whales. Helping groups weave through the FCC process is a challenge. It’s common for the commission to take a few years to rule on a low-power FM license, much like Radio Free Minturn experienced. (After getting a new board together, Radio Free got an extension from the FCC, giving them more time to get the station on the air.) Tridish recalled calling up a woman associated with a group in Georgia to let her know her application for a license looked like it was going to be approved. The woman had applied for it in 2000.

“She said, ‘I just had twins,’” Tridish said. “Sometimes the organizations just fall apart.”

And then there’s fundraising. While Tridish has helped groups get on the air for as little as $8,000, Radio Free Minturn had a goal of $40,000 to cover equipment, rental space and operating costs. The group met the goal, with $20,000 of help from The Ginn Company, which is hoping to build a ski and golfing community just south of Minturn. The station was able to strike a deal with Minturn Realty to rent out a small room near the Minturn Cellars for $100 a month. The room is about the size of a janitor’s closet. Local developer and land owner Magnus Lindholm is letting the station lease space on a tower in Dowd Junction for $100 a month.

Home-spun radio
Finding local talent has been the easy part.

Leo Spaziani applied to be a DJ. He wound up becoming the station’s programming director and has the job of selecting the deejays and shows that make it on the airwaves.

Heavy metal, indie rock, jazz, Latin American music and hip-hop round out the line-up right now. Spaziani has his own show, too – Revolutions 33 and a 3rd with DJ Skillboy. American rock and local bands are featured on his show, which broadcasts at 2 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

He went to the Berklee School of Music and plays drums in the local band, All Strung Out. He moved to the area about eight years ago and had been less than impressed with the local radio offerings.

“I grew up in Boston, so I’m used to the college radio stations that have more variety,” he said.

“I always called the Vail Valley Never-Neverland; it never wants to grow up,” Spaziani added. “But this just feels like something that to me would happen in a bigger city. It would happen in a place that really has community.”

Bryan Jennings, the station manager, joined the team in a similar fashion. The Arkansas native has a science background, but grew up in a musical family and helped run a college radio station, he said. He recalled his parents fighting over music in the car, his father favored the American singer-songwriter types, while his mother preferred Motown, The Beatles and Elvis.

“As I got older I kept finding all this great music, and I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he said. “Just the music you heard that would push all the right buttons. And then when you kind of get in that, on it, you keep looking for it.”

A self-professed “sucker for nonprofits,” Jennings decided to hang back and watch what happened to Radio Free Minturn before he put his foot in the door.

“Because it’s the kind of thing where you are really into it and you like it, and you’ll work for it,” he said. “And if you have a history of working with nonprofits sometimes you find out, or like with any business, sometimes you find out that you might work hard and other people won’t and that makes you bitter.”

About a month before the station was going to go on the air, Jennings applied to be a DJ. His resume caught Campbell’s eye.

“I think the first words out of my mouth were, where the hell have you been?” she said.

Jennings is responsible for making sure the station complies with all the FCC guidelines and regulations. That includes making sure DJs keep their broadcasts clean, making sure the tower Radio Free is using is in working order and that the station keeps a log of any mishaps – like accidentally going off the air. He also has a show on the station, called Bloody Mary Mornings. It airs from 10 a.m. – noon on Saturdays and features what Jennings refers to as “Cosmic American Rock,” which ranges from Dylan to John Prine to Calexico.

Jennings and Spaziani are volunteers, though the board hopes to raise enough money to begin paying them for their work, Campbell said.

Volunteers – Campbell, in particular – have made the stations possible, Gordon said.
“Everyone is really commited to this thing, I can’t thank them enough,” he said.

In the meantime, Campbell is trying to wean herself off Radio Free Minturn a bit. She’s going on a vacation this month.

“I feel confident that we can build a really great community radio station and once we do that people will support this,” she said.

Maybe then, she’ll get her own radio show, too.

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