A Signal Apart
Employee-owned station breaks from corporate radio
The first thing Ellie Garrett does when she wakes up is the first thing many people do—she turns on the radio. For Garrett, the activity isn't recreation. She's checking. Checking to see that the station she cofounded with Sam Ferrara and Michael Warren in Santa Fe is on the air. Indie 101.5 FM began broadcasting July 4 with its "Declare Your Independence From Corporate Radio" campaign.
Garrett is the station's operations manager, "though janitor is probably more accurate," she jokes. It's hard for Garrett to spell out exactly what she does, because as one of only seven employees, she does pretty much everything. "It's been six months, and still, every once in a while, I hear a song and it's like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe we're playing that.' It's a rush." Those brief pauses in Garrett's busy day remind her why she left corporate radio—and how lucky she is.
Getting space on the FM dial these days is incredibly difficult, and if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expands ownership regulations again, owning your own station will become that much closer to impossible. In June, the commission once again split open the issue of how many radio and TV stations one owner can hold. Even without a change in FCC rules, Clear Channel alone palms more than 1,200 stations.
Garrett worked at KBAC, Radio Free Santa Fe, alongside wonderful people, all of whom had the same comment: If they were doing it for themselves, it would be so much better. "I personally could not work for Clear Channel anymore," Garrett says. "When we heard this station was available, we didn't think it would actually work, but we went and talked to the owners, and it did."
Program Director Sam Ferrara is bringing back "freeform," a term he says has nearly died. When we spoke on Thursday, Dec. 14, he had just passed a one-week anniversary of his freeform lunch program, on the air Monday through Thursday at noon. He plays whatever he wants, chaining together songs of any genre from the station's broad library. "That's a freedom that's long, long gone," he says. "That's a freedom that, if exercised elsewhere, would probably get you fired."
It was beat into the old-timers, he says. Consultants live and die by it. "Five-hundred, 600 songs, play the crap out of them, that's the formula for a successful radio station." But you have to look at your market, he says. Listening to Santa Fe's radio options, "I wasn't being served." The only genre his station won't dip into is classic rock, because there's so much of it available in our region. Everything else is fair game. "If there's a hole, then somebody needs to tell me about it. It's all there."
Buying and building a for-profit, independent station was a huge step to take, if an unexpected one. Garrett decided to start a think tank in the winter of 2005 to find out what it would take to get people to invest in independent media. "That's all it was originally going to be," she says. Then 101.5 was for sale, and Garrett took a chance. "We're trying to run with it," she says. "The goal is to set an example of what it can be instead of just talking to people about what it can be." Construction on Indie studios in Santa Fe's rail yard is in the works. Sometimes, sounds of nearby construction or the train going by traverse the station's signal. "We're hoping people will find it endearing," Garrett says.
Ferrara's about to enter his 20th year in radio, and the career he began right out of high school hasn't always sailed on calm waters. He helped Ira Gordon start Radio Free Santa Fe a decade ago. Clear Channel purchased the station, gave it a huge signal (104.1) and then grew unhappy with its performance, he says. "You have to understand, the bigger the signal the more it's worth and they felt as if they weren't getting their return on their investment. So they started fooling with us." Clear Channel changed the station's format and, predictably, gave KBAC a limited playlist, Ferrara says. Santa Fe threw its hands in the air. He describes the city abandoning the station as a mass exodus. Clear Channel knew it made a mistake, and scaled the signal back down, he says. Ferrara was embarrassed. He quit in November 2003.
Fast forward to January 2006. Ferrara's on a ski trip in Durango, Colo., as part of a promotion for the new station he's working for Blu 102.9. He's watching his son swim in the hotel pool, and his phone rings. It's Garrett. "I was just like, 'Wow. I can't believe this is happening to me,'" he says. Garrett knew who Ferrara was, knew he'd been burned a little. She wanted him to program Indie starting from scratch, "the whole new ball of clay sort of thing," he says.
Ferrara hope's Santa Fe will adopt Indie, as it adopted Radio Free Santa Fe all those years ago. The response so far has been huge, and with Radio Free's exit, there's a niche to be filled. But it's challenging to get those advertising bucks the station needs to survive.
Part of that trouble is the bad reputation corporate radio accumulated over years of trading stations. "A lot of businesses have become shy about advertising with radio," Garrett says. Indie wants to support local businesses, too, giving their ads prime-time play. "There's a standard policy when you get into corporate radio. National chains pay more money to be in the prime positions for advertising. Most local businesses are never even told that exits," she adds.
Still, in the short time Indie's been on the air, big things have happened. One day, Brian Hardgroove, bassist for Public Enemy, called and said he was moving to Santa Fe and wanted to be part of the station. Hence "Hardgroove's Fuse Box" on 101.5 Saturdays at noon. "He just jumped in, and he's making things happen for our station faster than we'd ever dreamed," Garrett says.
Indie doesn't have any huge plans, "no global domination," Garrett says. "It would be great if we could get to the point where everybody is being compensated for their work." The station has seven part-time employees, though they all work more than they say they do. Since they own part of the station, "it's important to us, and we put all our effort into it instead of just doing a job," she says. Any time an employee contributes to the station, it counts as a buy in, Garret explains. They're keeping track of any time spent in programming, production or behind the scenes doing paperwork. Further along in the process, all that time will be converted to a share of ownership.
"We're so grateful," she says. "We've been able to do what most people only ever dream of, which is leave a job to do it on your own."