As a lifelong Memphian, I've grown up listening to our community radio station, WEVL (89.9FM).
As a musician, playing here most of my life, it's been a great resource for me, artistically and professionally, as well as a source of pride. (They played one of my first recordings, a lo-fi acoustic version of "Fight for Your Right to Party" when I was in 7th grade — a personal milestone). I've also performed and guest DJed at the station a number of times, and I will always be thankful for WEVL's support over the years.
Yet the rapid growth of streaming has made it easier to find the excellent community radio stations in other cities — WWOZ New Orleans, WFMU New York, and, recently, WXNA Nashville. These stations are fearless in their programming — trying new DJs, shows, and formats, all while promoting the heritage of these great music cities.
There's no greater music city than Memphis, but I can't say that WEVL is taking the same initiative, growing and reaching out to new listeners hungry for Memphis' sound. While I've been lucky to grow up on WEVL, lately WEVL has grown old on me.
It's always been a point of civic pride that Memphis had a community radio station, while Nashville didn't. But that changed in 2016 when some Vanderbilt-radio expats from the university's station created WXNA Nashville. In just two years, WXNA has:
• Recruited more than 90 programmers, with no repeated or syndicated shows;
• Launched a website that instantly archives every show for listening later;
• Fostered engagement with and involvement from the community;
• Promoted and broadcast local music;
• Hosted community events featuring WXNA DJs.
WXNA is an excellent community radio station — and I'm a regular listener. But I'm not here to promote them. I'm writing because WEVL is at a crossroads. And as listener attention is pulled in so many directions, WEVL needs to turn back to its community and re-engage to survive. I'm here to ask the following of WEVL and the listening community:
• Create a strategic plan — soon. Within the next nine months, form a plan that offers a vision of the future to the community WEVL serves.
• Increase the size of the WEVL board (there are currently six open seats that could be filled) and bring the Memphis community into conversation with WEVL's board of directors.
• Increase diversity in both programming and leadership. Memphis is more than 60 percent African American, but there is only one programmer and board member of color (the wonderful Joyce Cobb). Bring some younger members into the family (what's the average age?).
• Add programming! In 1993, there were 82 volunteer DJs. Twenty five years later that number has dropped to around 40 — with a lot of resulting repetition in the schedule due to encore and syndicated shows.
• Promote more local music and musicians. Share show listings, book more in-studio performances, broadcast live from local venues.
For the record, over the last six months, a small group of WEVL fans attempted to work directly with the board to make some of the changes mentioned above. That effort included me, Amanda Dent (WEVL programmer for more than 10 years), and Les Edwards (former WEVL board president with a love for the station). We joined with three current board members to form the Development Exploratory Committee. We put a number of interesting ideas on the table and were making good progress toward a plan to present to the board. But then the board abruptly dissolved our committee with no explanation. It was then that we realized the board was not as open to change as we were. I'm disappointed we didn't get the chance to make any lasting change with our committee. We had no intention of commercializing or making it slick. We simply want more of the good that's there — diverse programming that reflects the community and is fun to listen to.
Memphis deserves community radio that reflects its standing as one of the world's greatest music cities. I encourage WEVL programmers and listeners alike to reach out to WEVL and ask its leadership to move the station forward.
If you'd like to learn more, please visit friendsofWEVL.org.
Robby Grant is a musician and works on technology in Memphis.