On June 16, I sat in a coworker’s car in my office’s sweltering parking lot—because the radio in my car hasn’t worked in a decade—when a woman’s voice came out of the static: “This is K96.9 Madrid, New Mexico.” I was trying to catch the inaugural broadcast of Madrid’s new community radio station. Surprisingly, it came through crystal clear all the way up in Santa Fe. It was only supposed to reach 20 miles. But here was Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9.”
Now if 6 turned out to be 9,
I don’t mind, I don’t mind,
Alright, if all the hippies cut off all their hair,
I don’t care, I don’t care.
Dig, ’cos I got my own world to live through
And I ain’t gonna copy you
White collared conservative flashing down the street,
Pointing their plastic finger at me.
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die,
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high.
The host, Stella Linder Byrne, 25, who is also one of the station’s dogged founders, said that the song was symbolic of the station’s frequency—96.9, a palindromic number. But I think she was setting a tone with a famous individualist anthem of the 1960s, an announcement of Madrid’s autonomy—that 25 miles south of Santa Fe, they were flying their freak flag.
To understand why a licensed radio station is important for Madrid, you have to understand a few things about the mining town turned ghost town turned artist enclave and tourist destination. “Part frontier ideology, part drug-culture imperative, and part New Age philosophy, individualism is the dominant leitmotif of Madrid,” Kathryn Hovey wrote in her book on the town, Anarchy and Community in the New American West, 1970-2000.
The town’s ethos is what makes it appealing to both eccentrics and tourists: “The temporary reprieve that the counterculture generation found in places like Madrid is in danger of itself being commodified. But in this temporary space, Madrid’s villagers have found a way to partly defy the dominant culture’s materialist hegemony and the state apparatus of control that comes with it: they have done this without living a life of constant mass protests or by acquiescing to it, but by simply living.”
Despite the fact that it’s in Santa Fe County, Madrid is unincorporated and doesn’t have its own municipal jurisdiction. Instead, the Madrid Landowners Association manages the town of 250 or so residents by covenant. Once you own property, you can vote on issues. The town disdains higher authority; there are no elected officials. A county sheriff’s cruiser passes through the neighborhood every day, but the people of Madrid take care of their own matters. For the most part, they’re artisans, artists and shop owners who rely on the town’s funky and outlaw appeal to attract droves of tourists. But the radio station represents something other than commerciality—an ongoing counterculture, a community with a rich history of individualism and pirate radio coming together to express itself through a licensed medium for the first time.
“Madrid was the stoned hippies that nobody took seriously,” says Joanna Lovetti, a community member who works in galleries and has lived in Madrid since the 1980s. “We were like Santa Fe’s illegitimate child. The radio station gives us pride that that’s not what we are. We’re our own thing, and people are finding us. In 2015, Madrid has become a creative force, like the Algonquin Round Table or like Paris in the ’20s.” Lovetti believes Madrid is in the middle of a “creative surge” similar to the one that led to the galleries on Canyon Road in the 1940s.
This new creative surge on the airwaves is an experiment. “It will be really interesting to see what comes of it,” Lovetti says. “We’re all figuring out how to put antennas on our houses. It’s created this common dialogue. It’s about the significance of our community.”
The radio station wouldn’t have come to fruition without the tireless work of Stella Linder Byrne. She was turned on to radio as a student at Oberlin College and moved to Madrid three years ago. Aware of pirate radio’s role as the voice of the community over the decades, she had kept an eye on the 2011 Local Community Radio Act, a national law giving local low-power FM (LPFM) stations a chance to compete with full-power radio stations, typically owned by major corporations or nonprofits. In the past, many small communities have resorted to pirate radio to get on the airwaves, which is technically illegal, contributing to the marginalization of these places. The act cites the importance of LPFMs, or “participatory radio,” in small communities and legalizes them. The new licensing period allowed in the 2011 law will permit LPFMs in more urban areas.
DJ Jerry Faires poses with his guitar during a song break.
But the window to apply for a license is short. During the fall of 2013, the Federal Communications Commission opened the process, and Linder Byrne jumped on it. She had been working with Madrid Cultural Projects, a nonprofit seeking to preserve Madrid’s history and foster community cultural projects. The feds granted the station a license in November 2013, with the nonprofit as the licensee. The community hosted fundraisers at the Mine Shaft Tavern and on Indiegogo to pay for the cost of constructing a radio tower and developing the station, which was around $10,000. Ongoing donations are tax-deductible and made through the nonprofit. The labor was free—community members with various expertise donated their services.
In March, the station, which sits below an art gallery called Studio 14 on Madrid’s main drag, was issued a construction permit. That entailed picking an elevated site on which the station had permission to build and choosing an available frequency. Work on the tower wrapped up last October, with the help of Will Floyd, a technician from the Prometheus Radio Project, an organization that helps community radio stations get up and running. It took a few days for Floyd and community volunteers to construct the tower on a hill just south of Madrid. A local blacksmith built a 26-foot steel mast to hold up the antenna. Carpenters formed the concrete base, and electricians and solar experts installed the solar system that powers the transmission equipment. There was little competition for 96.9, the frequency chosen for the station. Matt Zwager, a recent English transplant and synthesizer engineer, built the motherboard almost entirely from scratch over this spring.
On the mostly corporate airwaves, community radio is important to small, unincorporated places across the country. Matthew Lasar, cofounder of the Radio Survivor blog, says that LPFMs are particularly popular in towns like Madrid that were once ghost towns and got rediscovered as hippie havens and tourist destinations. “A lot of these places are glomming to these LPFMs as a way to solidify their communities and bring together the disparate people living there, these rugged individualists,” Lasar says. “This is part of a wave of these 100W radio stations popping up all over the United States. They have become community media centers for these places reinventing themselves across the Southwest.”
Engineer Matt Zwager cues up an LP.
Five zealous radio-lovers make up the Coordinating Committee, which manages the station: Ashley Eastwood, Katie Reed, Peter Singdahlsen, Zwager, and Linder Byrne. They’ve enlisted about 40 artists from the community to do everything from playing music to hosting talk shows and cooking programs to providing public service, like informing the community of the status of its water main.
According to the station’s website, “KMRD will grant the tools of media to the members of our diverse community, comprised of artists, youth, veterans, storytellers, historians, old-timers, music fans, and everyone in between. The radio station will serve Madrid, Cerrillos, and the surrounding areas, and will contribute to democratizing media across Santa Fe County and beyond.” For a town with a healthy off-the-grid populace, the station is more than cultural glue; it conveys valuable information.
“We’re part of a lineage of people wanting to make radio in this town, and we wouldn’t exist without it,” Linder Byrne says.
For Madroids, community radio allows local hosts to communicate in a collective setting while still presenting their own perspectives. “Through this paradigm of community, people develop their definitions of self and their surrounding reality through their social interactions with others,” Hovey writes. “[Madrid] is a place that supports, encourages, and reinforces personal idiosyncrasies to the point of pathology.”
A 2009 study by Bart Cammaerts at the London School of Economics applies radio to Hovey’s concept of community through singularity: “Community radio contributes both to external pluralism—by being a different voice among public and commercial broadcasters,” the study reports, “and to internal pluralism—by being basic-democratic and providing a platform for a diversity of voices and styles often lacking in mainstream media.”
The basis of 96.9 is community empowerment through a number of different voices, all reinforcing this notion of individualism, for Madrid and by Madrid. “[The radio station] is a sign that the town is maturing past its ‘my way or the highway’ mindset,” Hovey says when reached by phone. “Very few things could bring this town together.”
It may be up and running, but the station is hard work, requiring constant troubleshooting. “I’ll sleep next week,” says Katie Reed, the station’s operations manager, sitting with Linder Byrne and Eastwood on the boardwalk in front of Studio 14.
"We were like Santa Fe’s illegitimate child. The radio station gives us pride that that’s not what we are. We’re our own thing."
“We gave ourselves titles,” Linder Byrne says with a smile. “Mine is the station manager. It’s better than my other title, which is awesome waitress at the Mine Shaft Tavern. Everyone has other jobs.” Linder Byrne hopes that the station will increase to 80 different hosts and add web streaming by the end of the year. “That’s something a lot of LPFMs don’t have,” she adds. “All this enthusiasm.” Complete community involvement is crucial, she says.
Opening the station’s doors to first-time radio hosts is no easy task. They have to learn to run the equipment and follow the strict federal rules on decency, obscenity and copyright. Eastwood has instituted a two-hour training regimen for prospective programmers. “It’s not a free-for-all,” Eastwood says. “We have the confines of the FCC. It’s complicated. What does decency mean? What does obscenity mean? No calls for action. Nobody can be under the influence of drugs or alcohol on air. It’s a laundry list. It’s been baby steps.”
Despite the growing pains, the station has completed several days of successful broadcasts. “There’s no blueprint for how to build a LPFM station,” Linder Byrne says. But they’re growing, adding hosts and acts, like Jerry Faires of the Family Lotus and Joe West of the Santa Fe Revue, and following regulations to protect the license they worked so hard to get.
The team hopes the station will become popular in Santa Fe and nearby towns, though it has limited range. “I think our programming is so interesting and creative and cool. We want our radio station to reach outside Madrid. It’s for our community here, but it’s so cool it would be wrong to deprive the world of it,” Eastwood says, tongue-in-cheek.
The station is already a point of community pride. Linder Byrne says it’s trippy how you can walk from business to business and hear the shows playing uninterrupted.
“It’s like a beautiful loop,” Reed says. “People are always referencing each other’s shows.”
“It’s our own little space in the universe,” Eastwood adds.
The station is down a staircase in the back of Studio 14. It’s a clean white basement with shelves teeming with CDs and vinyls donated by the community. In a corner is a DJ booth on a homebuilt desk, and Linder Byrne is on the air. She puts on a soulful tune by the Carolinas. Playing music is fun for her, but she’s more excited to hear what all the other people do. It’s all so new for her. Next up is Zwager with his synthesizer jam, then a political talk show and then some “old timey music.” I ask if the talk show will have guests; she doesn’t know. It’s the host’s first show, and she hasn’t even heard him yet.
She puts on “Pretty Good” by John Prine, and Eastwood scoffs playfully. “I can’t believe you’re playing John Prine. I cut him out of my playlist.” They talk about what Eastwood will play when it’s her turn and playfully judge each other’s tastes. She calls dibs on another song of his, “Illegal Smile.”
Reed moves magnets representing the different shows around on a scheduling board. Next to her hangs a sign that reads: “And the supreme court affirmeth the F.C.C. thus saying to the BROADCASTERS – thou shalt not saith these seven sinful words: shit, fuck, piss, motherfucker, tits, cocksucker or cunt.” After assuring me that there are plenty more words the FCC doesn’t approve of, Linder Byrne puts her headphones back on and talks into the microphone: “This is 96.9 FM KMRD-LP Madrid, New Mexico.” She glances at a sign with that phrase written out, reminding the hosts of what to say. She puts on Richie Havens.
I walk upstairs. Havens’ hearty voice and frenetic guitar follow me up into the gallery; the station is playing up there. On the walk back to my car, I hear his voice emanating from at least three different businesses on Madrid’s main street. It seems the only place it isn’t playing is my radio-less car. I think it’s about time I got that fixed.