It's all a lot of fun, which is good, because no one here is getting paid by this nonprofit station. While the music's blaring from the studio, the crew smokes on the front patio — sometimes cigarettes, sometimes joints, even though the sun is barely up. On one such occasion, the door hangs open and a stray dog wanders out; no one had even noticed that he'd wandered in.


At KWSS, Beef Vegan is one of the more ambitious hosts, making no secret of his desire to "make it" to a larger station or to help KWSS become a bigger operation.

Beef Vegan (right) and Big Buddha are the veterans of the TMI crew, having worked
together for two years.
Beef Vegan (right) and Big Buddha are the veterans of the TMI crew, having worked together for two years.
KWSS puts out only 100 watts of power under the station's low-power FM license, but you can pick it up through much of the Valley.
KWSS puts out only 100 watts of power under the station's low-power FM license, but you can pick it up through much of the Valley.

Right now, KWSS is more like college radio than a commercial station.

Much of it has to do with its operating under a low-power FM license. It broadcasts on an otherwise-unused frequency using the strongest signal the Federal Communications Commission allows for low-power FM — 100 watts. Some commercial stations can pump out 50,000 watts.

Still, you can pick up KWSS in much of the Valley. The signal is clearest on the west side but can be heard pretty much anywhere inside Loop 101. The transmission dissolves into fuzz south or east of Tempe and approaching the White Tank Mountains west of Glendale.

The Phoenix metro area's geography — a flat valley with a few low mountain ranges scattered around — actually helps; radio signals travel best over flat terrain so long as they start a few hundred feet above ground. Like any LPFM station, the FCC will make KWSS change frequencies if a commercial station wants to take over its slice of bandwidth. KWSS probably will switch to 95.9 FM sometime in April, ceding its space to a new Spanish-language station.

Although KWSS, which has been on the air since 2005, does have an official studio at Shea and Frank Lloyd Wright boulevards in North Scottsdale, most shows are produced remotely from the unpaid hosts' homes and patched through to the station via the Internet. Tune in and you'll also hear guys like Kevin Gassman, a burnout who, as Beef tells it, moved from mornings to afternoons after sleeping through a show or two; local hipster DJ William "Fucking" Reed; and straight-laced former Edge DJ Shon White.

Appreciation for offbeat rock music and current indie trends is the closest thing KWSS has to a golden thread. Its only programming directive from station owner Frank Magarelli is to spin one '80s song, one '90s song, one '00s song, and one track from an independent artist each hour. The mandated '80s track is easily likely to be Madonna, k.d. lang, or the Dead Milkmen, however, which is why KWSS has to be one of the few stations on Earth where you can hear Canadian indie-pop sister duo Tegan and Sara's "Walking with a Ghost" back-to-back with country singer Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About."

All that freedom breeds enthusiastic DJs, but it also makes for maddening inconsistency. It's hard to keep a loyal audience when the format fluctuates so wildly.

Transitions between different shows are even rougher: An outgoing DJ will play whatever he or she wants until the computer at the station's office automatically flips to the feed for the next show, often in the middle of a song.

It's nearly impossible for KWSS to tell what listeners love and hate since it doesn't pay for Arbitron ratings. The station's only "ratings" are based on how many people listen via its website at particular times, along with anecdotal evidence from any calls and e-mails hosts receive.

Not that the station is held accountable by "advertisers."

Like public radio's NPR and other nonprofits, KWSS gets sponsors to underwrite the costs of producing shows and paying three managers. Donors lean heavily toward nightclubs and head shops (rather than the well-heeled, aging liberals who support NPR and its affiliates), and most listeners probably can't tell the difference between one of KWSS' sponsorship announcements and what would be a regular ad on a commercial station.

Hosts also can line up their own sponsors to offset the costs of producing their shows, but most spend their own time and money with only a prayer of making their hobby a career in some far-away future. Yet station owner Magarelli, a 40-year-old radio veteran compared to Disco Stu of Simpsons fame by his underlings, doesn't have trouble finding people to fill airtime.

"There's something about having that access to the masses and that creative outlet that just breeds passion," Magarelli says. "They volunteer their time, and in exchange, they get their fix."

The future of low-power FM stations such as KWSS seems bright. There are 835 LPFMs in the country, most in small communities and rural areas. President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 this January, freeing up more bandwidth by allowing low-power FM stations to creep within two clicks of existing commercial stations.

Indie music types are excited by the medium. Pitchfork.com, a website that wields as much influence with contemporary hipsters as Rolling Stone did with hippies in 1969, published a 6,000-word piece on the legislation that touched on every aspect of the LPFM phenomenon but kept coming back to the music. Many acts interviewed could hardly contain their giddiness at LPFM's potential as a backdoor to getting their music on local radio.

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30 comments
Guest
Guest

No mention of KUKQ at all?

S!ick
S!ick

This sounds like a station I should be working, and want to be, on...do they have any openings?

Edmonds and FosterTechtalkRadioThe Tech Buzz

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guest
guest

Most people in radio do it because they don't know what else to do? Try running your own business behind it, getting and keeping long term sponsors, writing and fulfilling contracts. I don't sit in my skivvies and do my show on the fly. And YES I'm on 106.7, too. Oh, Gassman's not a burnout - but I do think that Beef needs mo meat in his dog!

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Tanktruthaboutlies
Tanktruthaboutlies

Thats awesome!!! Did an interview as Truth About Lies a few years ago when they were way out east!! Basically a few miles away from Florence. Good to see the word is getting out.. Get em Beef!!!

Tank

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TheFabulousOne
TheFabulousOne

As a former DJ of KWSS, I am very happy to see the exposure. Also, the author of this article is in NO way a part of the station, just a fan. :}

Brad Bielesch
Brad Bielesch

Beef, Shorty, Big Buddha, and Tom are fucking solid. They're uplifting a music scene that is stricken with disequilibrium, it's so goddamn unbalanced. They deserve nothing but praise. Thanks, dudes.

John McNary
John McNary

I kept reading this waaste of electrons waiting for the payoff. There it is at the bottom. The writer is part of the KWSS team.

This remonds me of the old old joke: why does a fog lick it's balls? Because it can. Same thing.

Phoenix New Times
Phoenix New Times

I'm not part of any KWSS "team," John... I just call in and give them a couple new tracks to play on Thursdays.

What's a fog?

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Anamieke
Anamieke

I agree there are some negative-flavored tones in this feature, but nonetheless this kind of exposure will hopefully reach the rest of the people in Phoenix who actually care about innovative yet listenable music. Wherever you are, we need you to band together and help get this scene off the ground!!! There are too many tourists who want cheesy covers and too many counterculture-extremists who want experimental noise and no one in between. What about those of us who create and promote intellectually stimulating yet pleasantly catchy material that isn't a rehash of the 90's (Gadger)? Where is our audience? Thank you KWSS for being a visionary and beacon of truth in a shit-storm of hypocrisy and materialism. Please don't give up.

azmomma e
azmomma e

i am a regular listener to KWSS in the morning. i live upstate so have to listen on my computer. so by 6:35 every morning the first thing i do after i get up is turn on TMI. they are funny, super clever and real. the music is pretty darn good too, and it's a great start to my day. wowser! that was so corn-bread pc...how 'bout this then: TMI is dope. they really rock it. right on guys (and gal)!

corky
corky

1994 called, they want Tom Green back.

AlphaK
AlphaK

2003 called, it wants it's joke back.

stpatrick
stpatrick

KWSS is awesome. Glad they're doing what they're doing, and I hope they gain more traction. Rock local!

Michelle
Michelle

The article could have mentioned that Frank spends 10 hours a day 7 days a week keeping the station going, instead it paints him in a negative light when he first played local and indi music 6 years ago.

azmomma e
azmomma e

i didn't get that vibe about frank from the article at all. hmmmm...

dr dread
dr dread

TMI rules! and Cizmar is sexy

TheFriend
TheFriend

Hey his "friend" did radio with KWSS for a few years not months and went to X103.9, not lost interest, droppped the show on his lap and walked away. He also helped him build the studio, get ready to take over, and regularly provides input and help when needed.

James
James

kwss rocks. beef for president.

 
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