In December, the outgoing Democratically-controlled Senate passed the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, freeing up more FM real estate for new, locally focused stations. As early as last week, Republican congressmen were calling for the defunding of NPR. Terrestrial radio is in an awkward, tenuous position.
Internet radio, on the other hand, is poised to become more relevant and popular than ever before. This optimistic outlook helped spur Tacoma's Darrell Fortune to expand his Northwest Convergent Zone podcast into a fully operational online radio station - one with a sole focus of sharing and celebrating homegrown sounds.
NWCZ Radio streams live 24/7 at nwczradio.com, but since the station is brand new, much of the programming is automated, with live DJs in the studio from 5-7 p.m. or 5-8 p.m. every weeknight.
"Our goal is to have, Monday through Friday, a good four to five hours of programming in the afternoons and evenings, and I think we're pretty well on our way to that," Fortune says.
While Fortune modestly downplays his efforts, he apparently fulfills the roles of station manager and director of programming at NWCZ, no doubt utilizing the skills he honed years ago at radio stations in Texas, Oregon and California. Dissatisfied with their "corporate angle," Fortune left the business years ago, but the liberties of Internet radio lured him back to the world of broadcasting.
"There's a lot of advantages to Internet radio. We're not bound by any FCC regulations. ... We're also not bound by any corporate bottom line. We're not in a contract with any record label, or anyone that would tell us we have to play this, that or the other thing," says Fortune. "We have free reign over what we want to play."
Raymond Hayden, who hosts The Aquarium with Kingfish and Big Mike every Tuesday from 7-8 p.m., seconds this sentiment: "(NWCZ) provides a platform for up-and-coming artists to be heard by their peers and fans alike," he says. "No politics, no games, no pay-to-play ... just simple grassroots support of the local music scene."
NWCZ Radio has seven on-air hosts, all of them volunteers and in it for the mission, not the money (siblings father and son David and Alex Davenport helped with the construction and development of the station, but aren't DJs themselves). All seven were hand-picked by Fortune, and have their own specific areas of expertise. NWCZ has a blues show, a hip-hop show, a jam band show and more - all of the shows featuring independent artists from Washington, Oregon, Southern Canada and the surrounding territories.
Fortune values the special niche NWCZ Radio fills.
"We're asking people what they want to hear, what local bands they like, and then we're playing it for them ... (listeners) can go out on a weekend and go see these bands that they're hearing on our station," says Fortune.
And while the station's focus is geographically narrow, their reach is limitless, with listeners able to "tune in" on their laptops or smartphones from anywhere in the world.
"We get hits from all over the world, all across the U.S.," says Fortune. "We've been getting e-mails from the East Coast and the South from people who wish they had stations that were focusing on their local music."
While certain sections of the radio spectrum continue to be the subject of partisan debate, NWCZ is making itself heard, growing its audience and doing right by the Northwest's thriving local music community. They may be off the dial, but they won't stay under the radar for long.