As a student at Vanderbilt University in the late ‘90s, Sharon Scott spent much of her time writing a senior thesis about performance art while acting as general manager of WRVU, the university’s student radio station. The two pursuits merged when Scott began thinking about ways that she could use radio as a medium for performance art. To test her idea, she developed an instructional sheet that she got friends to hand out to people. The paper contained directions on how they were to react when certain sounds were played on the radio station.
“(The participants) would drive around in a car,” Scott explains. “If they heard this sound they would flash their lights or, for another sound, they would honk their horn. It was going on all over the city of Nashville at the same time and it was really cool. What was fun was the power to be able to communicate with so many people. Radio is really a medium that has been completely unexplored aesthetically.”
That college experiment was a seed that has flowered into an art-centric radio station, ART+FM. The station made its debut during the 2012 IdeaFestival, Sept. 19-22. From a makeshift studio set up in the lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, ART+FM volunteers interviewed presenters, spun records and did aural experiments. The station basically consisted of two microphones, a sound board and a couple of computers that were streaming to the Internet. Douglas Lucas, founder of the Louisville Experimental Festival, stopped by with a few gadgets that, when hooked up to the sound board, allowed him to play around with different noises. Once ART+FM has a permanent home, Lucas hopes to have a show on ART+FM that will focus on experimental artists.
ART+FM is only available online at www.artxfm.com, but Scott, who serves as the station’s general manager and president of the nonprofit that operates it, hopes to get a low-power FM license in the next year so people can enjoy the station in their cars. For the time being, ART+FM’s schedule will consist of live broadcasts from area art events. The station already has agreements to be at the St. James Art Fair (Oct. 5-7) and the Good Folk Fest (Nov. 2-4). Eventually Scott would like to produce a lineup of interview shows, music programs, and sound art that can be syndicated to other stations around the country.
“People are not always going to like everything on ART+FM,” she admits. “There will probably be a few shows they like and a few shows that they really don’t like. That’s okay. That’s the nature of this project and experimental programming.”
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Scott moved to Louisville from New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Needing a change of scenery after the attacks, Scott says she put the names of cities she liked in a hat and picked a destination. “I thought Louisville was only going to be a stopping point, but I’ve just loved it,” she says. “I love the people, I love the art scene. It’s just incredibly supportive.”
ART+FM started two years ago, when Scott began brainstorming with Leslie Millar, a friend from her Vanderbilt days, and a few other people about the concept. (Millar, an English lecturer at the University of Louisville, co-founded the art press The Quonset Hut with her husband, James). This provided the project with a wide array of connections in the city’s art community.
“We met with a lot of nonprofits in the area like the Speed Museum, the Louisville Visual Art Association, and the Louisville Film Society,” Scott recounts. “People really got excited. They were immediately thinking of ideas and guests they wanted to interview. We couldn’t turn back after that, after we saw the enthusiasm.”
In November 2011, ART+FM formed as a nonprofit organization. Millar sits on the group’s board of directors. Other members include: former LVAA director John Begley, who is the gallery director for the University of Louisville’s Hite Institute; Kyle Citrynell, an attorney with Seiller Waterman LLC who specializes in the arts, entertainment, media, publishing, technology and intellectual property law; and Anna Tatman, CEO, of Rosa Mosaic & Tile Company.
ART+FM comes along at a time when radio is experiencing a renaissance. Thanks to the explosions of Wi-Fi enabled devices and cheap broadcasting technology, Americans can listen to stations from around the world. According to Shoutcast, an Internet radio directory, there are more than 43,000 free Internet radio stations. This includes Crescent Hill Radio (www.crescenthillradio.com), which The Highlander featured in 2010.
But things are also looking up for terrestrial radio, which is still important. Each week more than 30 million people listen to National Public Radio alone. Community radio stations are even more important in rural areas that lack access to broadband services or have a high number of residents who lack computer skills.
ART+FM hopes to take advantage of the Local Community Radio Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in 2011. The law allows the Federal Communication Commission to grant low-power FM broadcast licenses to nonprofit organizations. Low-power FM stations can operate at a maximum power of 100 watts and a height of 30 meters, which generally provides solid coverage between a three- and 10-mile radius. The FCC only accepts applications for new low-power FM stations during a specified licensing window, which Scott believes will open up next summer.
ART+FM might still have been a plan on the drawing board were it not for IdeaFestival founder Kris Kimel, who gave the station’s founders something they needed – a deadline. He and Scott met first and talked about her idea for the station just three months ago and he urged her to debut it at his festival. Kimel says ART+FM embodies the kind of innovation the IdeaFestival was meant to celebrate. “Kentucky and Louisville are becoming really vibrant places,” he says. “A lot of interesting things are going on, a lot of progressive thinking. It’s a good place to experiment.”
Scott reports that the first ART+FM event was tiring and had a few glitches, but it was successful overall. Most of the volunteers who worked at the IdeaFestival were her friends or students from the duPont Manual High School Communications/Media Arts magnet program. Millar especially enjoyed the chance to relive her glory days, when she had a show and did news and weather spots for the Vanderbilt college station. At the IdeaFestival, she had a friend, former Freakwater singer Catherine Ann Irwin, play a few songs from her new album, “Little Heater.”
“ART+FM is really free form,” says Millar. “There is something universal about radio. It’s free, it’s accessible and ripe for the picking. I’m excited about all the energy that is around the station right now.”
Manual students Julian Wright and Alexus Richardson served as both on-air talent and technical support during the IdeaFestival. Both say they appreciated being given so much responsibility at their age. Wright, who plans to have a career in broadcasting, wants to continue working with ART+FM because of the learning experience.
“I’ve done a lot of work on TV,” Wright says. “The skills I learned during that – timing and pacing – they apply to radio also. But people can’t see me, so I can lay back and do what I do.”
ART+FM is slowly building up its fan base. Millar says about 200 people listened for up to two hours on the first day of streaming alone. Many attendees at the IdeaFestival stopped by the station’s studio to see what the fuss was about. One of them was Metro Mayor Greg Fischer, who moved his office to the Kentucky Center for the event. Fischer likes the idea of a grassroots station taking root in the River City, even if it promises to add a little weirdness to the radio dial.
“I think that’ll be fun,” he says. “We are constantly seeking innovation and breakthrough ideas. The best way to do that is get out of your day-to-day world and get a whack on the side of the head.”