There was a time, even in Boise, when people tuned into the radio to hear hard-to-find R&B tracks, complaints about prison food and authentic country and rock music.
Until the mid-1980s, Boise State Radio was filled with eclectic student programming, locally produced music mixes and public affairs shows. Local disc jockeys and some Idaho music could be heard up and down the FM dial. But in recent decades, as radio stations have been gobbled up by large media conglomerates, radio listening for music lovers and thinkers has become an exercise in strategic channel surfing.
"Radio in this town is all the same. You go to a rock station, you won't know the difference. You go to a country station, you won't know the difference," says former Boise City Councilman Jerome Mapp, who used to start one of his old radio shows to the sound of a dynamite blast. "BSU had a really good following back in the day, back in the '80s before the university took it over completely."
Radio potpourri may soon be back. Boise Community Radio scored a Federal Communications Commission license to build in April, after six years of meetings, dreaming and sporadic melodrama. Backers hope to be on the air by spring 2009.
Mapp sits on the Community Radio board and is eager to introduce Boise to good music again.
"The thing is, people don't know any different. It's the same thing over and over and over again," he repeats in his trademark gravelly voice.
Boise Community Radio will air on 89.9 FM, originating from a tower at the Owyhee Dam in eastern Oregon. The signal is expected to carry across the valley and be repeated on 93.5 FM, which, in the meantime, transmits Spanish radio for KWEI from the roof of Jeff Abrams house in Boise.
"We want to give a voice to underrepresented voices in this community," said Abrams, volunteer executive director of Boise Community Radio. "We won't be all things to all people."
Many of the folks who have worked to bring noncommercial community radio to Boise have spent time listening to their radios in bigger cities.
Scot Oliver, another Boise Community Radio board member who works for Boise's redevelopment agency, helped start a community radio station in eastern Kentucky that became the voice of Appalachia.
"A lot of the community had no idea what this was," Oliver recalls of WMMT FM's early days. "You never knew, really, what you were going to hear."
Once it got off the ground, young people were coming to the station to play new music and old folks were dropping by to tell stories and the community started listening just to hear what would come on next, Oliver said.
Abrams' model for community radio comes out of Salt Lake City, where KRCL FM has offered that city a different point of view for nearly 30 years.
"It's quite refreshing that you have someplace to go that is not beholden to what the corporations want you to hear," Abrams said.
Boise and Salt Lake have some similar demographics, but Boise is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a community radio station, Abrams says. So what will Boise's community radio station sound like when it hits the airwaves next year?
For three years straight, a fanatical group of community radio fans have kept the station's Internet feed going 24 hours a day. They do it for the cause, because hardly anyone listens.
"That music is not going to get any better," Abrams said. "I don't care what kind of music it is."
Chris Hess has had his show, Range Life, on from the beginning—three years as of July. He describes the music as "indie rock and all its tangents," including some electronic and indie folk music.
Hess started the show because he was tired of sitting through meetings about Boise Community Radio and wanted to actually do something. But now it's getting serious.
"Now I'm practicing being on the radio, talking on the microphone, transitions, all that stuff," Hess said.
And he's laying claim to a decent time slot; you can hear Range Life live on Wednesday nights at radioboise.org.
The Webcast boasts its own variety show, the Sagebrush Variety Show, and some experimental music. It also airs Democracy Now, a syndicated news program that focuses on U.S. and global politics from a leftist perspective.
But Boise Community Radio is not intended to be an exclusively liberal or progressive project. For Abrams, its credo is "media democracy"—providing music and views that cannot be heard on corporate radio and opening it up to community participation. The station will air programs that cannot be heard anywhere else in the valley.
In a town like Boise, where there is plenty of godcasting and conservative talk radio already, the community radio station will naturally gravitate to the left.
"There is plenty of conservative issues and conservative voices out there," Abrams said. "We aren't a political organization but there's an absence of progressively oriented perspectives."
With the rise of Internet news and blogs, media democracy has become its own political force. But its not the only driving factor for Boise Community Radio people.
Dave Krick is a Boise restaurateur who has taken on localism as his credo. Local radio fits perfectly with his penchant for local food, local business ... local everything.
"When we look at the issues we face with our economy, a lot of it is because we are so tied to the global economy," Krick said.
Krick is also on the Boise Community Radio Board and he wants to hear programming about energy solutions and innovative things that Boise residents and business people are doing.
Boise Community Radio is in fund-raising mode right now. The board wants to raise $250,000 locally, and has applied for a federal grant to help buy state-of-the-art antennas and other broadcast equipment. Right now, the translator frequency the station will use is too close to KIVI Channel 6, but when television goes digital in February, that part of the spectrum will be cleared for community radio.
So spring 2009 is the earliest anticipated launch for the station.
Dave Foster, another Boise Radio Webcaster, named his show Filo Vision after Philo T. Farnsworth, the Rigby inventor who built the world's first working television. Foster thinks local radio could help transform Boise's music and culture scene, and maintain serious Idaho roots as well.
"You wouldn't think that a transformative medium like television would come from a potato field," he said.