All Pagan, All the Time

Praise Goddess! The Wicca Pagan Broadcast Network is ready for another Netcasting day.

The Garland Center strip mall in Northglenn doesn't seem scary from the outside. In truth, it appears to be quite wholesome, thanks to a marquee so horribly out of style that it looks intentionally retro (like a Nick-at-Nite billboard), a Tug's restaurant that promotes steaks, cocktails and a "$5 off on your birthday" special, and an on-site Christian fellowship. But if you listen carefully, you may hear something unexpected emanating from this single-level suburban shell--something that's a little bit Nick-at-Nite but not very Christian at all. It's the sound of witchcraft.

Hunkered down within the claustrophobic cubicle maze that zigzags the tiny office of a computer firm called CMC, Da'Nelle Martin, a self-proclaimed witch who also uses the name Talisman Winterhawk (Hawk, for short), is putting together the programming for WPBN: the Wicca Pagan Broadcast Network. An Internet-only service that can be accessed at www.enigmacomputers.com\wpbn, the station is Martin's way of demonstrating that the image of pagans worshiping the Devil and drinking the blood of babies in backwoods forest rituals is far removed from reality. "I got sick of all the propaganda Christian radio is putting out there," she says. "Witches are not just for Halloween. We are a real religion."

Martin, a big, strapping transsexual with the deep, well-worn rasp of a longtime smoker (a perfect voice for a DJ diva), was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and discovered wicca thirty years ago, at age fifteen. During the same period, she fell in love with both radio and rock-and-roll and realized that by becoming a DJ, she could combine these passions. One of her gigs was at a station in Corpus Christie, Texas, but in 1989, after five years on the job, conflict over her decision to change her gender convinced her to move on. After earning a computer-science degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, she relocated to Colorado, where she became a member of several bands, most of which utilized MIDI instruments. (Using the moniker Wychcraft, she self-released a CD in 1994 that ran the gamut from new age to techno to metal.) Along the way, she also picked up some programming and HTML skills that helped her understand the Net's potential as a medium. She hooked up with CMC two years ago, learning about Internet radio on a technology-related Web site shortly thereafter. By last September, WPBN was kicking out the wiccan jams.

Poring over her seething electronic cauldron (a tape player, a six-disc CD player and a twelve-channel stereo mixing board jacked into a PC), Martin concocts an aural potion that bubbles with an eclectic mix of Eighties guitar rock, new age, folk and alternative grumbling shot out through the ether. Her brand of American neo-paganism (or, as she refers to it, "neo-neo-paganism") dates back to the 1920s, and whether or not you agree with its message of nature, harmony, spirituality and yadda yadda yadda, there's no question that WPBN is an example of Internet radio at its best.

Like Martin's creation, radio on the Net represents an ethic that says "fuck you" to mega-broadcasters, the federal government and mainstream family values. It's a throwback to the days when radio hobbyists (the computer nerds of yore) broadcast peculiar ideas--like the notion of allowing women to vote--on handmade equipment kept in basements and garages. As soon as the Federal Communications Commission regulated the airwaves and handed them over to monopolistic corporations, the number of low-power radio stations dwindled. But now the Net gives free-speech enthusiasts like Martin a place to voice their ideas.

Netcasting is sometimes referred to as narrowcasting because operators tend to reach small audience segments interested in specific topics--like paganism, for instance. Employing low-cost software and minimal hardware, WPBN sends a digital stream of reasonably good-quality audio to its listeners, who can obtain the proper software needed to receive it for free on the Net. Major broadcasters such as CNN use similar streaming technology to offer audio or video clips of recorded television broadcasts, but what sets Internet radio apart from its over-the-air cousin is the fact that it can be heard live: If Martin bumps a spinning turntable, listeners will hear the record skip in real time. Though major radio programmers have begun dabbling in Netcasting, the modest size of the market has kept such experimentation on the back burner. For that reason, offbeat offerings are receiving a share of the spotlight; the New York Times Web page featured WPBN in a recent article on the subject.

WPBN's format is simple, if a bit repetitive. The station delivers a 24-hour signal consisting of a 20-hour rotation of pagan music randomly shuffled from the CD player and four hours of live DJs. The site also includes a jukebox that provides visitors the ability to listen to the selections of their choice. But what exactly is pagan music? Martin's definition is broad: She says it can include anything from sleepy new-age meandering to "in-your-face metal." Topically, the songs often deal with "gods and goddesses of old and songs about the environment," she elaborates.

Among the artists represented in WPBN's album library are Sinead O'Connor (the liner notes to her Universal Mother disc begin with an ode to the "goddess") and Legend, a British group that Martin describes as a "cross between Kansas, Yes and Styx." (Yikes--talk about a witches' brew!) But the artist Martin is most excited about these days is Loreena McKennitt, whose mystical imagery and Celtic influences have made her popular within the wiccan/pagan community. "She's sort of a hero, because she's made it into the mainstream," Martin points out. Because of the wiccan faith's animistic philosophies, even John Denver, with his earth-loving, tree-hugging (if not downright sappy) lyrical musings, might be considered within the realm of pagan music. Martin reveals that "for years there was a rumor that John Denver was pagan because he was so connected to nature."

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