Radio Free Paonia

The beginnings of WCCR/88.3 FM ("grassroots radio at the bottom of your FM dial") probably can be traced back to Angel Babudro's childhood fascination with radio. But being forcibly banned from KVNF, the public-radio station in the western Colorado town of Paonia, was a crucial factor, too.

Still, that's being negative, which the 34-year-old computer consultant absolutely is not. Chances are very good that he would have gotten around to starting his own station someday; the KVNF conflict just sped things up a little.

"My motivation to do this is my obsession with doing radio," he explains. "I love it, I love it, I love it." Besides, he's not bitter: "I don't use my station to attack KVNF. That doesn't seem tasteful to me."

WCCR's programming is definitely tasteful, even if it does reflect just one man's taste. And it's strictly Babudro's business. Western Colorado Community Radio is one of hundreds of unlicensed stations that are springing up across the country without the government's knowledge or interference. Typically, radio content is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission; indeed, the agency's permission must be gained before a new station can even go on the air. At one-quarter of a watt, however, Babudro's station falls well short of the transmittal power necessary for the FCC to take an interest. (Denver's KOA, by comparison, packs 50,000 watts.) But WCCR is still radio, and Babudro's programming is as idiosyncratic as Babudro himself.

Ever since his homemade station began beaming its weak signal in June, the airwaves in Paonia have been filled with commercial-free cool jazz--Babudro's favorite--during the morning. That changes after lunch. "Around one or two I usually feel like something more upbeat, so I go to light rock," he says. "Or sometimes I'll put in a motivational tape."

At about six in the evening, one of Babudro's unpredictable friends may pop by the converted service station that houses both his office and the one-room WCCR studio to host a show. Even if a guest DJ does happen to show up, listeners never know quite what they'll hear.

"One guy is strictly jazz," Babudro says. "He likes to bring his old saxophone with him. Maybe we'll put a mike out in the middle of the floor, and he'll just walk around with his sax and play. Sometimes he'll bring other people, and they'll play along, too." If no one shows up, Babudro--who has been known to play the flute--pops in another long-running music tape.

Occasionally, in the late afternoon, Babudro will be sitting around the office when a friend will drop by with an article from the newspaper that caught his attention, and they'll discuss it. If things start to get interesting, Babudro will switch on the mike and transmit the conversation to whoever is tuned in. Recent on-air dialogues have focused on celebrity conspiracies--the "apparent murders" of John Denver and Princess Di, for instance.

Around nine or ten in the evening, after he has put his five-year-old son and one-year-old daughter to bed, Babudro himself generally returns to the studio and takes over the mike. He'll spin some jazz or maybe pop in another motivational tape from one of his favorite philosophers, such as Ram Dass or Alan Watts. Sometimes he'll just read a chapter or two from a book or article that he likes.

Babudro's readings tend toward the left, in much the same manner that Rush Limbaugh has been known to lean toward the right. In fact, he has passed several evenings on the air reading entire chapters from the anti-Limbaugh text The Way Things Aren't. Other late-night monologues have included passages from such corporate-conspiracy works as Toxic Sludge Is Good for You and Angels Don't Play This H.A.A.R.P.

So far, it's strictly one-way talk radio. The station simply has not yet been able to afford a telephone, so no on-air banter with listeners is possible.

Babudro signs off when he feels like going to bed, which can run as late as two or three in the morning. Before leaving for home, he slides another VHS tape into the deck--jazz, or another of his philosophical or motivational favorites. It plays until the next morning, when WCCR begins another day.

The number of days that WCCR remains on the air could, in theory, stretch on a very long time. Because Babudro runs the operation by himself and owns the building he beams from, the radio station requires virtually nothing to stay on the air for as long as Babudro wants it there. It is a sort of perpetual motion machine, independent of market forces, government interference or even its listeners.

"We have it on all the time in our computer room," says Nancy Carter, who has lived in Paonia since 1984. "I'm especially interested in the inspirational tapes--things you can't hear on other radio stations, because they take too long." She says she would play it at her chiropractic office, four miles outside of town, but the signal doesn't reach that far.

It is difficult to know for sure how many of Paonia's 1,500 or so residents qualify as listeners. The town, which makes a triangle with Grand Junction to the northwest and Glenwood Springs to the northeast, is still a relatively conservative agricultural center. At one time people moved there for mining or ranching, although these days a family is just as likely to relocate to Paonia for the scenery and quality of life. Babudro moved there for the radio station.

His trip began in July 1993, when he was living in his wife's hometown, in upstate New York. "We decided to look at about a half-dozen places we'd like to live," he recalls. "First we drove to a place in Pennsylvania, and then to a place called The Farm, in Tennessee. Next we checked out a place in Oklahoma we'd heard about that was supposed to be a community, but it turned out to be just a piece of vacant land. Flagstaff had the wrong energy, but someone there told us to check out Colorado. We tried Telluride first, but that turned us off almost immediately. Then someone told us to go to Paonia."

It sounded promising--a small, scenic town whose people were friendly and open. There were also lots of organic farms. "We're vegetarians and like clean food," Babudro says. But what ultimately tipped the scales was the radio.

"We heard the public station was good and that they actually needed DJs," Babudro recalls. "I just couldn't imagine that. I'd lived in Los Angeles for three years, and something like that was just a dream to me. I had sent audition tapes to the L.A. stations, but I had learned everything making audio tapes in my living room."

True, the DJing opportunities in Paonia were all volunteer. But that was fine with Babudro. When he arrived in Paonia in mid-September 1993, the first thing he did was purchase a $50 membership to KVNF. Within two days he was on the air, hosting his first show. He was still living in his van.

He soon became KVNF's most active on-air volunteer, helping produce some shows and hosting others. They included "Monday Munch After Lunch," a music show; and "Midnight Mind Flight," an eclectic educational program. Eventually, through sheer loitering, he became the Friday night DJ. Later he hosted a comedy program.

The public station typically went off the air at midnight, but on evenings when he felt restless, Babudro would walk to KVNF, settle into the booth and begin another show. Once he brought his own audio equipment into the studio to use. By last year, he was spending up to thirty hours a week at the station. "I got in a lot of people's way because I was so enthusiastic," he admits.

Actually, says KVNF station manager Kristy McFarland, "Angel historically has had trouble with all staff members here. He's a typical barefoot anarchist; he doesn't like rules or boundaries. I have respect for that--there is a need for that type of people in society. So in one sense, I wanted to say, 'Go for it.' But I also realized that we needed some rules here."

Babudro continued getting in squabbles with the station's staff. In the summer of 1996 he was told that maybe he needed a break from the station. But he couldn't stay away for long, and that October he began wandering into KVNF's studio late at night to host a couple of shows. On one, he explained exactly what he felt was wrong with the station. He even suggested that McFarland be fired. Instead, the station changed its locks, and Babudro was out again.

He was allowed to return for about two months last spring, but no one was surprised when it didn't work out. In April he left KVNF for good.

Soon after that, Babudro began hearing about the hundreds of unlicensed, or "pirate," radio stations springing up across the country. He began an e-mail correspondence with Stephen Dunifer, founder of Radio Free Berkeley, an unlicensed station challenging the FCC's right--and ability--to regulate the airwaves. He was surprised at how inexpensive it could be to operate your own station.

He also began spreading the word around Paonia that he was thinking of firing up an alternative station. Several KVNF subscribers wrote their pledge checks out to Babudro instead. That support netted him a seed account of $136. A local engineer donated $50 more to get WCCR off the ground.

Babudro sent $135 off to a New York state company that sold "micro-watt" start-up kits, which included a small circuit board to be assembled inside a cardboard box. Someone donated a mixing board. A Montrose radio engineer helped him design a broadcast antenna; Babudro bought the necessary copper pipe, dowels and cable wire at the local farm-implement store for $22. He hacksawed off the top of his building's existing antenna, installed his new one on top of it and began broadcasting.

The FCC estimates that an unregulated quarter-watt station should be heard for about 100 feet. But because of the height of WCCR's antenna--about 35 feet--Babudro's station can be heard for about six miles, assuming good conditions and no interference. "I'm like a broadly available cordless phone," Babudro says.

So far, at least two dozen people have told him they tune in regularly. And other donations have trickled in; the station's bank account stands at $186. Occasionally Babudro will be standing outside his computer shop when a passerby will let him know that he's heard a particular broadcast. "I think Angel's station complements KVNF," says competitor McFarland. "I think what he's doing is great."

"As far as I'm aware, we haven't bothered anyone," Babudro says. But he is after more than that.

"I don't want to feel like I did in L.A.--like a little fly moving around in this big machine," he says. "I want to be part of the mechanism."

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