Imagine a local radio station that covered community barbecues, aired oral histories from neighbors, and played music by local bands or dance music from El Salvador and Ethiopia.
This is what Marika Partridge and Diana Kohn envision for Takoma Radio, a future nonprofit station in Takoma Park. Basically, anything you don’t usually hear on the radio is what they want to include. The hyper-local, low-power FM station would only be heard within two to five miles of the transmitter.
“We don’t have real local media. It’s been dying,” Partridge said. Most radio in the region either plays popular music or national and worldwide news. Local coverage is hard to come by.
“We’re trying to bring that subversive local radio back,” she said.
Partridge spearheaded the Takoma Radio project about two-and-a-half years ago after learning about the opportunity from someone affiliated with Prometheus Radio, an organization that advocates for and supports community radio.
In the 1970s, Partridge started a radio station in Sitka, Alaska, then moved to Takoma Park to work for NPR; she now does freelance radio production.
More recently, she teamed up with Kohn and Historic Takoma, the local historic society over which Kohn presides.
The easy access to radios makes it a particularly appealing medium. Most people already have them in their car or alarm clock.
“It’s the medium that reaches the older generation and the younger generation,” Kohn said.
Prometheus pushed to get low-power FM stations back in urban areas through the Local Community Radio Act of 2010. Policy Director Sanjay Jolly said community stations were forced out of urban areas by commercial ones, especially during the heavy media consolidation of the 1990s.
“This is the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history,” he said. About 5,000 groups in all 50 states and Puerto Rico applied for licenses with the Federal Communications Commission, according to Jolly.
He added that community radio is much more widely used in Asia, Latin America and Africa. For that reason, many applications are for stations geared toward immigrant communities. Many are in languages other than English.
“It indicates the lack of critical non-English media in immigrant communities in particular,” Jolly said.
Takoma Park has a large and diverse immigrant population that Partridge plans to bring onto the radio.
“Stories are the way we melt away differences,” Partridge said.
At first glance, Takoma Radio and Historic Takoma might seem an unlikely pairing. But at their core, both want to tell the stories of Takoma Park. Partridge has the medium and Kohn the context, and some content, too.
“We have some visionary women in charge of Historic Takoma, and they see that history is happening every day,” Partridge said.
Radio allows Historic Takoma to record history as it’s happening and provide historical context. The oral histories the organization collects won’t just sit in boxes in its Carroll Avenue headquarters.
“The past helps you understand why we are like we are,” Kohn said. “You create a sense of place if everybody in the community knows the same stories.”
Partridge wants to bring in community members and host discussions and music hours with several DJs. They might explore a music genre through their different backgrounds, she suggested.
Partridge and Kohn remember when radio wasn’t limited to pop music; there were shows and radio theater.
“Takoma Park is not unique in having authors and poets and playwrights, but we have a lot of them,” Kohn said.
They want to use that well of creativity and bring imagination back to radio. Partridge said she would like to have several recording kits that residents could check out to create their own stories for broadcast.
The station, in accordance with the act, would be noncommercial, meaning it won’t play ads. Like public radio, it will have underwriters that support it financially. It also could get money from grants. For initial fundraising, the organization has held events and sold T-shirts.
Partridge is waiting for the go-ahead from the FCC before doing extensive fundraising or making long-term plans, like deciding on a location. Takoma Radio will only require a small office space, hopefully close to the Metro, she said. It will probably take two years before the station makes its first broadcast, if selected. Several other local groups also applied for the frequency, and the FCC could award it to both Takoma Radio and another group. In that case, the two groups could split time, or even join forces.
Takoma Radio is competing against the Washington Peace Center, the HR-57 Foundation, the Bridge Foundation, SEDC Communication Corporation and the Maryland Department of Transportation, according to Jolly.
Partridge guesses she’ll hear back from the FCC in June. Until then, she and Kohn are brainstorming, thinking about how to capture Takoma Park in sound.