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Keeping the Dream Burning

By Joe Wessels · July 30th, 2008 · Wessels
WAIF (88.3 FM) is a bit more than a radio station. It's like a dysfunctional family that never really gets the help it needs.

The all-volunteer run community radio station is a unique place in the landscape of Americana. It was founded 32 years ago by a group of hippies perplexed by the mainstream media's failure to address their concerns during the Vietnam War (sound familiar?) who found a book called Sex and Broadcasting, now out of print. The book outlined how to go about starting up a community radio station, something that was being done in lots of places at the time.

What makes WAIF so unique is that it still exists, unlike the thousands of others that stopped transmitting. But it's barely alive.

WAIF's recent history has been full of turmoil, a commotion that brings into question the future of the East Walnut Hills-based station. What's certain is that things have dramatically changed there, and they keep getting worse.

I quite literally fell in love with the place in 2005, when a friend asked me if I wanted to apply for a summer program. The Brian and Joe Radio Show, full of local talk and news, aired for 10 glorious weeks. It won an award for best summer show and confirmed a dream I'd had since childhood to host my own radio show. It was a blast.

Summer programs, which anyone can apply for once you pay your $25 station membership fee, start up in June when WJVS, operated by the Scarlet Oaks joint vocational school in Sharonville, breaks for the summer. WJVS and WAIF share the 88.3 frequency, and during the school year WJVS operates in the daytime.

WAIF's ancient transmitter (tubes and all) gets flipped on in the early evenings, and the 5,000-watt signal, broadcast from the roof of the old Alms Hotel, can be heard throughout most of Greater Cincinnati, particularly inside the I-275 beltway. WAIF goes 24/7 in the summer months.

Things got weird -- and very personal -- in the fall of 2005. I was asked to join the station's board, ran for a seat in September and was elected by the membership. By January, I had some serious questions about the station's finances. Minus answers, I resigned but vowed to stay involved and help.

Turns out the station leaders didn't want help and eventually got rid of most of the people who, in their own way, were trying to fix the problems they saw. Democracy at its purest.

I initiated a membership drive in the hopes of voting out the existing leadership. In the interim, Board Chairman Donald Shabazz informed me via letter that I'd been banned from WAIF for life.

At the yearly membership meeting where I and others had intended to express our discontent, three off-duty Cincinnati Police officers -- who apparently had no knowledge of the ongoing conflict -- met us at the door and threatened to arrest us for trespassing.

As I waited in the parking lot outside the annual meeting with the others, I felt the sting of trying to do good but failing horribly. Later, WAIF members leaving the meeting made racist remarks to me, a painful lesson for me and others who had hoped to restore diversity and equality to the station.

I rarely listen to the station nowadays. Many of my favorite shows, including the repeat award-winner Chris and Rob Show, are off the air. The Bluegrass show hosted by a preeminent expert on the genre is gone, and so are many others. Lots of Christian, Gospel and Jazz music fills the air now, where those were once just part of the mix.

Members there fill me in and say that little has improved lately. A membership drive happens without pledge forms, which makes it hard to prove membership when that annual board election happens. It's one thing to deal with a disorganized mess; it's another when the leaders are aggressively disorganized.

In a time when the mainstream media -- their fault or not -- can't provide the depth and diversity they once did, outlets like WAIF are invaluable and represent ideals that should be held dear. We're lucky we still have WAIF, whatever is going on there.

Just like those who fought to get a voice in the wake of the Vietnam War, WAIF still represents a voice in the wilderness. It'll be sad to see it end, which in time seems inevitable.

I just hope someone will have the burning desire and the dream to start anew and flip the transmitter back on after all the fighting is done.

Contact Joe Wessels: joe@joewessels.net



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