Indie Radio Station KWSS Celebrates a Milestone During Its Fall Pledge Drive

Some of the KWSS crew. From left are Jay Cairo, Dani Cutler, Dubs, Frank Magarelli, and Brian DeFox. Magarelli is the station's founder and owner; the others are volunteer radio hosts.
Some of the KWSS crew. From left are Jay Cairo, Dani Cutler, Dubs, Frank Magarelli, and Brian DeFox. Magarelli is the station's founder and owner; the others are volunteer radio hosts. KWSS

In the age of Sirius XM and Spotify, keeping any radio station going for 15 years is an accomplishment.

If the station in question is a nonprofit organization that plays little in the way of today’s popular music and utilizes volunteer DJs, it’s practically a miracle.

“I believe in what we’re doing,” says KWSS DJ Jay Cairo. “If we didn’t do it, who else would do it?”

KWSS, which broadcasts on 93.9 FM, hit the metro Phoenix airwaves in January 2005. Frank Magarelli, a longtime radio guy and audio engineer, founded and owns the station, which has retained its same format since its inception. He used the call letters of a defunct station he used to listen to when he lived in the Bay Area in northern California.

Fundamentally, KWSS plays alternative rock, but it has a local focus unmatched in the metro Phoenix market

“Commercial stations don’t care about the local community and the local bands. If they do, it’s to a very small extent, because their corporate environment doesn’t cater to that,” says Cairo, who hosts the afternoon drive show and has been with the station since 2017. “We’re different from other radio stations in the Valley in that we play the local bands, we play the national bands, we play the international bands — we play it all. You never know what we’re going to play next.”

click to enlarge The KWSS booth attracts visitors at a community event. - KWSS
The KWSS booth attracts visitors at a community event.
Like any small business or nonprofit organization, KWSS has had a challenging year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Which makes this year’s iteration of the annual pledge drive crucial to the station’s financial health.

In one way, Dani Cutler says, the pandemic made the station’s mission more vital than ever, and listening to the radio is one pastime that didn’t disappear in the wake of the virus

“We’re still able to support [local artists] by playing their music, and the listeners love the local scene. They want to hear from these local bands,” says Cutler, who has been with the station for 13 of its 15 years; she hosts its morning and noontime shows. “So that part actually kicked up a notch, because we were in a really unique position to be able to continue to focus on these bands and not let our listeners forget about them. And we feel so lucky that we’re able to do that.”

But the station has felt the financial crunch this year, same as, well, pretty much everyone.

“There’s a lot of sponsorships that went away, and being able to promote local shows in the Valley went away, so a lot of our funding since March has dropped considerably. I’m sure everyone who will read this who is an independent artist or a small business will be nodding their head. We’ve all felt it,” Cutler says. “We have lost some revenue from it, so that’s why this fall pledge drive is probably more important than any other one, because we want to still be able to support this community.”

The pledge drive started on November 16 and runs through November 22. Along the way, there will be special segments on the radio, giveaways, and other bonuses, culminating in a concert of local acts that will be livestreamed from Last Exit Live in central Phoenix on Friday, November 20.

“What we typically do is toward the end of pledge drive week is have a huge show at a local venue and pack the place and have local bands play, and obviously — thank you, pandemic — we can’t do that this year,” Cutler says.

The fix was to have a closed show with social distancing protocols in place.

“I’m being super-hyper-safe about everything. Even though no one’s going to be there, I’m still like, ‘OK, everyone has to bring their own equipment, everyone has to wear a mask when they’re not on stage.’ I just want to be as mindful as possible of everybody, because everybody’s got different levels of what they want to be around.”

The lineup is: 6:30 to 7 p.m., The Frequency Principle; 8 to 8:30, Sophie Dorsten, 9:30 to 10, Love Like Fiction; and 11:00 to 11:30, Jane N’ The Jungle. Viewers can make donations on behalf of the acts, and the one who brings in the most donations will have their music played once a day on KWSS for the entire month of December.

In addition to the live music lineup, KWSS DJs will broadcast live from the venue’s green room.

“And we’re going to have some fun with it — do some giveaways throughout the night,” Cutler says. “And then of course, beg everyone for money so we can stay on the air.”
click to enlarge Clockwise from front, Cutler, DJ Rob Porter, Magarelli, and Cairo take moment's pause from broadcasting. - JAY CAIRO
Clockwise from front, Cutler, DJ Rob Porter, Magarelli, and Cairo take moment's pause from broadcasting.
Jay Cairo

Cairo sees a lot of benefit to listeners and local businesses supporting the station.

“It offers them a chance to be part of something that’s bigger than all of us. We are independently owned and operated, so we give a voice to a lot of the local bands that can’t get airplay anywhere else. … Back in the day, Beef Vegan was the morning show guy, and his crusade for the local artists led to bigger things for a band like KONGOS.

“The longer we’re able to do what we do, the more success that bands from this area could find nationally,” he continues. “So if we can keep that going and have that bridge for local artists to have that success, that’s a big push for us and a big thing that kind of helps us keep going.”

The goal for this year’s pledge drive is $3,000, down from $5,000 or $6,000 in a non-pandemic year.

“But we’ll take $5,000 or $6,000 — no issues there,” Cutler says.

Listeners can become a Patreon subscriber (like Cairo is), or they can make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on the station’s website. There are sponsorship levels available for small businesses as well, and for listeners and businesses, everything is tax-deductible.

Cutler hopes that listeners see the value in donating to the station.

“I feel like we’re still super-important. We keep people in the know of what’s going on. Artists are still creating, so we’re making sure that we let people know that there’s not a lack of new music coming from these artists. They’re still there. When everything does get into something that’s more normal where we can be together again, I want it to feel like we haven’t lost that much,” she says.

Cairo says, “We’re honored that people like to listen to us, and I know that I am every day when I stop and think that there actually are people who enjoy what we do and laugh at what we say. Anything we can do to try to keep things going is important.”
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Jennifer Goldberg is the culture editor and Best of Phoenix editor for Phoenix New Times.