DMA - Dance Music Authority Magazine
June 1998, 5th Anniversary Issue
Feature: Beat Radio
By Steven Ratz, Jr.
Did you ever wonder what happened to Christian Slater in the movie "Pump Up The Volume" after the FCC seized his broadcasting equipment? Perhaps one look at Beat Radio's Alan Freed could provide a real-life example of a gripping sequel, except that the story is far from over.
On July 21,1996, Alan Freed, senior music and radio editor of the music trade magazine Impact, founded Beat Radio, an underground dance station on 97.7 FM in Minneapolis, MN. The 36 year old Minnesota native had everything he needed to start his low-power FM (LPFM) 20 watt station. Well, except for one crucial thing he may have needed most, an operating license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They won't license anyone under 100 watts, and the cost of a license application is prohibitive at a cost of $10,000. "In most metro areas, spectrum for 100 watt stations is not even available," he said.
Freed felt that the dance music community wasn't being served by any other station in his market, so he decided, "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. We looked at ourselves and decided to do it. It was civil disobedience, not unlike Rosa Parks (hero of the Civil Rights Movement). The laws on the books are overly restrictive. The FCC provided no means for us to get a license, and I didn't have 30 million dollars to buy a commercial station."
Beat Radio's 20 watt signal was heard "from downtown to uptown," and continued to gain popularity by the appreciative Minneapolis dance music community. Unfortunately, some established radio stations were not so appreciative of Beat Radio's existence. Complaints about the micro-broadcaster from several larger commercial competitors in Minneapolis and Rochester (85 miles away) prompted the FCC to seize Freed's equipment and transmitter, and shut the station down on November 1, 1996.
Since then, Freed has been in court with the FCC to fight for the rights of all micro-broadcasters. He's fighting to establish a national low-power FM radio class, which would create community stations serving their respective towns or neighborhoods. The case hinges on the First Amendment right to free speech, and the costly court battle continues to this day.
"We took the story to the people," Freed explained. He said that Minnesota is a high quality place to live, but local radio doesn't reflect it. "It's boring. It's a wasteland outside of big formats. We're not going to give up." Freed frequently sent press releases, and distributed flyers when he needed to. "People responded," he said. "They always ask, 'What ever happened to that station?' and 'When is it coming back?'"
Freed was able to get Beat Radio back on the air, albeit in a very limited form, in November of 1997 on a community radio station. KFAI 90.3 FM/106.7 FM broadcasts Beat Radio from 2 AM to 5 AM Monday mornings. "It's only three hours a week, but it was better than nothing," he explained.
In January, not long after Beat Radio's KFAI debut, Minneapolis-based Children's Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which had local affiliates on the AM dial in numerous U.S. cities, closed its network in the face of competition from Radio Disney. A planned sale of CBC's stations fell through at the last minute, and the company found itself with no programming for ten stations. CBC had been broadcasting Aahs World Radio, a nationwide American radio network providing syndicated children's programming.
As luck would have it, Mark Durenburger, the technical consultant with the company that uplinks the CBC network feed, was following Beat Radio's story. He got Freed together with CBC executive vice president of programming, Gary Landis, and the two struck a deal to simulcast Beat Radio across America on the ten stations. "Gary went out on a limb and said 'ok let's do it,'" said Freed.
Landis gave Beat Radio twelve hours a day, every day of the week. "There were no obligations, they didn't even know me," Freed said, as though he still can't believe it. "We were at the right place, at the right time. We're doing something new, fresh, and exciting." Sharing the Beat Radio production and airtime duties with Freed is "The voice of Beat Radio," production manager Charley Stroud, known on the air as Charlie B. Rounding out the staff at Beat Radio is Brother Jules of Prince's Paisley Park.
Freed doesn't mind being on the AM dial in an FM world. "AM's the place to be! You can take more risks," he asserted. He's also excited to broadcast dance music. "Dance just appeals to me. It's almost an artistic passion," he noted, adding, "No one else is doing it."
However, the CBC stations are still for sale, and Freed expressed that the new owners will certainly have their own plans. "All ten stations are for sale, and there's no obligation for the new owners to keep us on," he explained. "We came on knowing it wasn't permanent. We're hoping to use this as a launching pad and take Beat Radio to a new level."
Dance music labels should take note, your product has a great vehicle for increased exposure on a major scale, according to Freed. "I can't play what I don't have. Some labels won't service us," Freed said in disbelief. "Some people don't understand. We're not a typical dance station." Freed quoted Monty Python to make his point, "And now for something completely different!"
Chicago's Jammin' Down JD, executive producer of WLUW 88.7 FM's dance music specialty show, "Club Jam!" commends Freed for fighting to keep dance music alive on the airwaves. He faced a similar situation where the "powers that be" (in his case, the Department of Communication at Loyola University) changed the station's format from all dance to alternative music and freeform student shows. He saw Chicago's only real outlet for club/dance music disappear, and was quick to act, creating the "Club Jam!" specialty show on Friday nights, as well as involving himself with weekend dance station Cyber Radio. Of Freed, JD said, "Alan Freed really wanted to promote the dance beat. He saw a need and a craving, and fulfilled it. He has a strong love of dance music. I commend the guy. He found an outlet for his music."
The Beat Radio founder was doing radio long before Beat Radio was born. "I had a dance show back in 1980 when I was 18," he remembers. He was on the air weekend nights on KBEM in Minneapolis with "Dance Night." It was there that Freed honed his skills as a beatmixing DJ and air personality. "That was the real roots of Beat Radio," he said. Freed thinks that there are plenty of people listening to CDs and tapes, rather than to the radio because there's nothing on radio that speaks to them. "We're bringing people back to radio. We're helping to keep the medium of radio alive," he said. Freed noted that it's good for other stations too, because people will sample other stations on the dial as well. "They have to have the radio on first to do that and we're making radio relevant again for a lot of people who have abandoned it."
The dance music format is very appealing, according to Freed. "Dance is uplifting and makes you feel good. Dance music is about love, and taking control of your life. It's fun music with vitality."
Freed feels that dance music has staying power, and that radio can embrace and reflect that. "Dance music will always be around because people demand it," he asserted. "Radio is a powerful medium. If we can apply radio to dance music, it can only be a positive thing."
Having a background in broadcasting gave Freed a unique sense of the radio business. "Radio is now a business controlled by richer and bigger corporations," he observed. Freed also thinks that the people in power positions don't understand dance music. "No one they know listens to dance music and they don't think anyone listens to it. They don't understand the culture. These people only understand money. They're not in the business of music, or programming, but to make money. That's the priority." As such, Freed stated that advertisers, who want to reach certain demographics, have the real say in the format of a radio station. "Big stations play it safe. They take the easy way and really don't care what format they broadcast. Proctor & Gamble, Ford, Pepsi, etc. dictate the music. They are the real program directors."
Freed believes that Beat Radio can change the misconceptions about the feasibility of a true dance station. "We're doing something that I believe is commercially viable," he promised. "We have a good variety of music, and we're proving it can work. We're busting our butts. Listener response is great!"
The eventual sale of Beat Radio's affiliate stations doesn't worry Freed too much. "We've had inquiries from stations about carrying Beat Radio. I'm not saying there's any guarantees, but people know we exist, and that we're dedicated, passionate, and organized."
Freed had some heartfelt advice to share. "If you believe in something, pursue it!" He offered his own example: "Once Beat radio took off, it happened quickly. We could have dropped it after the Feds closed it down, but we knew that we were doing the right thing. You never know what is going to happen."
Freed knows the work has just begun. "We're proud of what we've accomplished, but we're not resting on our laurels. We understand our audience, music, and relationships. We're serious about keeping it fresh. That's our challenge."
If you care to support Alan Freed's court fight with the FCC, you can send a check to the Beat Radio Defense Fund, PO Box 3333, Minneapolis, MN 55403. You can also order a limited-edition Beat Radio t-shirt for $15 plus $3 postage and handling. Also, Beat Radio is offering attractive advertising rates. Call the station at (612) 391-BEAT for more information.
[ DMA 2 | Beat Press main ]