The new ARTxFM: 
outsider radio vs. insider rules

At exactly 3:33 p.m. on Feb. 14, ARTxFM began transmitting on the FM dial as 97.1, WXOX, in Louisville. It was a moment that was several years, applications and meetings in the making: ARTxFM was finally the legitimate owner of the last two letters in its name. With a 24/7-program schedule and over 130 volunteer disc jockeys and their original shows, the station had steadily grown from its Internet-radio origins to become a full-fledged Louisville institution.

One day after the launch, DJ Paul Curry welcomed area iconoclast and punk rock pioneer Sean Garrison to his “Arbitrary Obsession” show, a mix of interviews about music from the artists’ formative years, giving listeners a glimpse into their influences. And Garrison did just that, treating Curry’s audience to his raconteur style and playing an esoteric selection of 1950’s rock and roll. Talking about early rock music’s irreverence and abandon, Garrison said on the air:

“I don’t consider any early rock to be anti-social, you know? It’s really not. It’s just … it’s just, uh … it’s like taking a stick out of your behind. That’s all it was.”

But before Garrison could continue his thought, ARTxFM station manager Sharon Scott was at the door signaling to cut the mics.

Curry recalled Scott saying, “You simply can’t say that. It’s obscene. It’s indecent.”

When asked in an interview with LEO whether she cut short the interview because she felt the remark was obscene, Scott said: “Well, yes. I mean, a mother is going to be very protective of her newborn baby.”

As a radio station, ARTxFM must adhere to Federal Communication Commission standards for obscenity.

Scott doesn’t dispute the sequence of events, but she declined to address them specifically beyond saying via email: “Our response to that isolated situation would have been the same two years ago. It would be the same two years from now and many years into the future.”

Curry finished out the hour with his own selections and left the station’s newly-completed building, unaware that it would most likely be his last time on the air there.

Like many underground, pirate and Internet radio stations, ARTxFM was created to showcase an alternative to the pablum peddled on broadcast radio. Now inside the very confines that once set it apart, can ARTxFM’s underground spirit and culture survive?

A disclosure: Remember, Louisville’s small. You could call that tight-knit or suffocating, but I prefer to call it small. I must disclose that I write this as both a supporter of ARTxFM and the parties involved, and I do know some of them personally.

From the Internet to the FM dial

Although ARTxFM had been broadcasting for about 24 hours at the time of Garrison’s now-infamous interview, the station’s place on the dial had been part of Scott, Leslie Millar and Sean Selby’s plans since the beginning. A 1996 graduate of Vanderbilt University and their student-run station WRVU, Scott, now 41, and Millar both made their broadcast bones with a true college radio great, having played host to artists from Joe Strummer to R.E.M. After relocating to Louisville to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts, Scott became aware that Louisville lacked a similar artistic outlet on the airwaves. She wanted to create something as unique as it was varied — a station focused on bringing awareness to all strains of music, arts and culture for the area.

“I wanted to do something that’s never been done before and actually be focused on radio as an art form,” Scott said. “We have an incredible freedom in America. In Cuba, people watch the weather patterns, hoping for a clear night so they can tune into American radio coming across from southern Florida stations.”

And though ARTxFM started as an Internet-only broadcast (and can still be heard at artxfm.com), the plan had always been to become the FM in its name. Attending numerous workshops and seminars on how to apply for a broadcasting license and call letters as a nonprofit, Scott had to persevere through the bureaucracy and paperwork to make it a reality. “The application was literally 125 pages,” Scott said.

By the time their efforts were coming to fruition, ARTxFM’s roster had grown to over 100 shows, DJs and on-air personalities, broadcasting a steady stream of unique and proprietary programming. And while everyone including Scott are volunteers, the job of balancing all of the schedules, sponsors, artists, personalities and egos falls squarely on Scott, who manages the station full time.

“No, I had no idea how much work it was, managing schedules and maintaining a relationship with hundreds of DJs,” she said with a laugh. “No one receives a paycheck. One hundred percent we do it for the love … And because we want to make something great happen for the city of Louisville. We give this project everything we have and only want to be appreciated by the community we serve.”

All the hard work began to pay back when Scott and Millar started hear people talking about the station. Said Millar, “I’d be at a gallery and someone would walk up and say, ‘Did I hear you on ARTxFM?’”

From the start, Scott worked to maintain the station’s standards and practices. Though Internet radio doesn’t fall under the FCC’s purview, she wanted to ensure a level of decency while letting listeners focus on ARTxFM’s coverage of music and art, not reacting to on-air obscenity.

“We’ve always operated under an honor system with the ARTxFM staff,” Scott said. “We don’t operate with a seven-second time delay. We have to trust the DJs.”

Scott added Kim Sorise, whose background includes numerous station producer roles, to function as a training manager for DJs. “One day, two hours, and we turn them loose.”

With a broadcasting license and a transmitter, ARTxFM relocated from Market Street in NuLu to 515 W Breckenridge St. Boasting more room and an event space to host live broadcasts from area and touring musicians, ARTxFM is a loud voice in the wilderness for independent radio.

Rethinking radio-land

With the switch to a different medium, the station’s culture itself had to shift. A single obscenity could result in fines that could force the station the station off the air — ending over five years of hard work. Scott and Millar’s position on maintaining these standards is understandable, if not a little defensive: “I’m an authoritarian figure and an anti-authoritarian figure,” Scott said.

“I don’t want to be the boss” Millar said. “When you’re working with volunteers, there are a million things that can go wrong. You don’t always know where people are coming from.” Referring to their pre-FM radio days, she added, “I’m not saying there haven’t been incidents in the past: DJs have gone off the reservation.”

Asked about the incident that got him and Curry thrown off the air, Garrison said, “I have a Ph.D. in the use of colorful language, and if I were there to sabotage her station or Paul’s show, my first sentence would have been the verbal equivalent of a thermonuclear bomb. I was making a very concerted effort to be listenable while avoiding every one of the banned words originally given to me the first time I was a guest at the station’s original location. Her insistence that the phrase ‘pull the stick out of your behind’ would traumatize any potential children who may be listening was so absurd that I just decided I was through with her bullshit, and I bailed.”

Paul’s boutique

Garrison and Curry say that they knew things were going to be bad from the second Garrison arrived. “She had already come in three separate times. ‘Less talking.’ ‘More music.’ ‘Limit the conversation to three minutes.’ It’s as if she created a self-fulfilling prophecy that this would end badly.”

Curry had never cleared his show’s guests with management ahead of time, though this was one day he possibly wishes he had done so after Scott killed the interview.

“Just like that — mid-sentence. Thank God I had a song cued up,” Curry recalled. “I followed her out into the hall with literally no idea what the issue was.”

According to the FCC, establishing what is indecency on air could be considered subjective, as it says: “… our assessment of whether material is patently offensive, context is critical. The FCC looks at three primary factors when analyzing broadcast material: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor is determinative. The FCC weighs and balances these factors because each case presents its own mix of these, and possibly other, factors.”

So in Garrison’s case, was he being explicit in his description of removing a piece of fallen tree from a human rectum … or using it as a metaphor for the stereotypically erect posture of an uptight person?

Coupled with Scott’s displeasure that Curry had brought Garrison back on the air after the sudden end to their interview (Scott maintains she gave a direct order to cut the segment and the guest immediately; Curry insists this is not the case), Curry was placed on an indefinite suspension with no terms given regarding his reinstatement.

When asked how many casualties of ARTxFM’s own standards and practices they’ve had over their five years, Scott looked to the ceiling and began tallying in her head. “I can count on one hand the number of DJs we’ve had to let go.” But what about similar fireable remarks that are arguably as bad or worse than Garrison’s?

“I can only think of two,” Millar said.

In an email, Scott said: “Dedicated to Free Speech and Creative Thinking, we are the same amazing creative organization we have always been. The only difference since the launch of our FM broadcast is that now we are more physically — though not always conceptually — accessible to the listener. We are committed to providing artists and community members access to the airwaves for free and creative use. While abiding by all state, federal, and civil laws, ARTxFM will uphold this fundamental mission of our organization for the duration of our existence.”

DJ Derrick Beasley, who had hosted a show as “Eartha Major” for two years, resigned a few weeks after the Garrison incident. And while no formal reason was given for his resignation, he told LEO Weekly, “Creatively, it’s a perfect example of what independent radio can and should be, and Louisville is lucky to have it on the dial. However, all of that hard work won’t matter if it doesn’t adapt a more common-sense position toward indecency and the FCC, as well as fair and open procedures to address concerns of the all-volunteer staff.”

“Rock Sexy” host Blythe Shadburne said: “Of course now I am a little more nervous because I know more people are listening, but I also feel more challenged to put on a good show every week, and that’s the fun of it for me.”

DJ Tia Coatley is excited about what being on the FM dial represents: “It’s like we’ve been validated as a true radio station since our arrival. I feel closer to my fellow Louisvillians and feel a stronger responsibility to provide great content for our city.”

Walking on the mines we laid

The very genesis of Internet and pirate radio is a rebellion from the increasingly-oppressive politics and repetitive, bland programming that have become an FM staple. As broadcasting monoliths like Chancellor Media and Clear Channel continue to absorb stations, there’s little-to-no room left for originality. Beyond low-wattage college stations and the occasional short-lived radar blip of pirate radio, independent music and arts-focused radio are all but a relic from a bygone era.

And while Internet radio will always be a phenomenon, the vast majority of stations tend to be extremely narrow in their focus, dedicating 24 hours a day to a very specific style of programming.

Curry remains remorseful over the end of his three years hosting “Arbitrary Obsession” and not because of how the show was suspended. “For me, it was just talking to guests about their obsession. How songs affected their choice to commit their lives to music as a hobby, or creative endeavor or business. I felt like I was doing interesting work. People were sharing music with me I had never heard before. It was one of the most brilliant things I had ever done.”

Asked if he thinks ARTxFM can continue to find a legitimate place on the FM airwaves, Garrison said he is glad the station exists. “They will adapt fine as long as they keep horrific, monstrous people like me far, far away from the microphones, because apparently everything that comes out of my mouth is potentially libelous and/or may cause immediate paralysis in children under 10.”

Throughout its five years, ARTxFM has remained dedicated to its role as a curator of Louisville’s arts, music and culture — presenting a wide arc of programming ranging from roots to cutting edge, from accessibly current to chin-scratchingly esoteric. And to Scott and her staff, they’ll continue to remain focused on creating a space on the air for what she calls “radio as an art form”.

But if the unceremonious end of “Arbitrary Obsession” is anything to go on, the question remains if there will be room on the air for the personalities that come with the music. DJ Shawn Hennessy, who hosts two shows (“Cutting Edges” and “Art Is For Everyone”), thinks so: “Not a lot has changed for me or my fellow DJs. We all decided to be a little more intentional about our music choices.”

Scott remains confident. “We’re unlike any station in the world. It’s the creative freedom we give our DJ’s, plus our focus on Louisville and the arts. There’s simply nothing else out there like it.” •

A sampling of ARTxFM programs:

ACENTOS
“Luis de Leon Acentos is a radio program that explores the arts through the eyes and perspectives of Spanish speakers. Hosted by Luis de Leon of Appalatin. Acentos es un programa de radio que explora las artes a través de los ojos y las perspectivas de los hispanohablantes. Organizado por Luis de León de Appalatin. En español.”

ART IS FOR EVERYONE
Squallis Puppeteers
“Bits, shticks, music and stories for everybody, presented by actual Squallis puppets. Suspend your disbelief and unleash the creative mind every Sunday morning.”

FILM FATALE
Mike Elsherif and JohnBen Lacy
“Film Fatale examines film as an art form both locally and nationally. The show features interviews with filmmakers, discussions of film aesthetics, and music from scores and soundtracks.”

LA LA LAND
Lauren Argo
“Join host Lauren Argo in Lala land, a variety black hole featuring everything weird in Louisville and beyond. Trivia, radio plays, food, arts and culture are all topics of exploration with weekly segments, live weird guests and eclectic music to transport you from rush hour to lala land.”

SAFARI
Johnny Anku
“Depart on a SAFARI as Johnny Anku takes you on a journey through the best music — old and new — from Africa through the diaspora. The weekly program is interspersed with politics, sports, culture and also provides behind the music information on Afrorock, Afrobeat, Afrojazz, High-life, Hip-life, Soukous, Zouk, Reggea, Calypso, etc.”

THE WIZARD’S LOUNGE
Docktor Dave
“Deep beneath the studios of ARTxFM we have specialized, ultra hi-fidelity, stereophonic, and frankly, esoteric equipment that allows us to monitor dreams, nightmares and reveries to create the perfect midnight soundtrack. Fall deep down the rabbit-hole with Docktor Dave.”