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Community Radio Thrives in Washington

Public access cable radio station aims to satisfy local audiences.

Philip Jackson was intrigued. The Herndon resident saw announcements about the cable radio station while flipping through channels at home and decided to try it out. He had some previous radio experience from volunteering at a university radio station.

"I thought, fine, OK, we'll have a go at this," Jackson said of making a two-hour show featuring British pop music.

Jackson's show, "UK Gold," plays famous and not-so-famous hits from the British Singles Chart from the last 30 years. As the show's producer, not only does Jackson own the music he plays, he's responsible for making the playlist and scripting the show. His show is one of more than 60 shows on the cable radio station WEBR Radio.

"I think it's an excellent place to develop the skills," Jackson said. "You have to learn to be your No. 1 critic."

WEBR Radio is an arm of Fairfax Public Access, a Merrifield-based organization that also supports Public Access Channels 10, 30 and 37 on Cox Cable. The radio station, which can only be heard through Cox Cable and Channel 27 of Comcast Cable, features dozens of independently produced shows with topics ranging from Motown to progressive rock to homeowners associations. The cable stations are responsible for funding the radio station and the public access channels.

But what producers and listeners alike pride themselves on is the station's independent spirit from corporate entities, like Clear Channel Communications, a national company that owns and controls many local radio stations.

"We're here for the local listener and the local artist, to give them a local venue," said James Atkins, aka Jimmy Preston of the talk show "100 Proof Radio."

Fairfax Public Access started offering the radio station as part of its programming in 1991, as a result of customer demand. When it first started, the station had to determine what kinds of programming could be allowed, as well as what could be said on the air, according to Public Access board member Mike Shoupe of Burke.

"Underground radio meant [confronting] freedom of speech head on," Shoupe said.

As the radio station moved from its original home at Northern Virginia Community College to its present location in Merrifield, so did the numbers increase of locals interested in alternative programming. About 61 producers have one- or two-hour shows on WEBR, and five producers have shows on the sister station, WRLD, according to radio program director Rachel Kennedy. One example of a WRLD show is an Iranian show in Farsi that airs on Saturday afternoons.

Would-be producers attend six training sessions covering topics such as equipment configuration and on-air techniques. Live programming airs from 8 a.m.-midnight, and the radio producers themselves range in age from 19- 77.

"It's just a class act of people to work with," Shoupe said.

Producers often find their way to the radio station by flipping through channels, like Jackson, or by attending orientation sessions for Fairfax Public Access Channel 10.

Shu Bartholomew of Burke was one of those producers who found out about WEBR while trying to learn about Channel 10. A former Realtor, Bartholomew had been involved in the homeowners association industry for 15 years. She thought a show about homeowners associations would benefit many area locals.

"There's a tremendous opportunity out there," Bartholomew said.

After initially helping a friend with her show, Bartholomew started producing her own talk show, "On the Commons," four years ago. Since then, she's had guests ranging from state and national legislative leaders, attorneys, academics, architects and planners, to talk about issues such as foreclosure, land-use policy, and homeowners rights. Through the wonders of Webcasting, her show is heard by both local and out-of-state listeners.

"This provided me with a forum, and it's worked out really, really well. It's the ultimate celebration of the First Amendment," Bartholomew said.

FELLOW RADIO producer James Atkins of Fairfax also appreciates the station's independence from for-profit media entities. With the help of his friends Catfish John, Brew Dog and Microphone, Atkins, aka Jimmy Preston, produces "100 Proof Radio," a talk show dedicated to social commentary. Former guests have included a do-nothing Hollywood producer and a bounty hunter who had caught a serial rapist in Mexico.

"It gives us a great avenue to discuss our troubles, our disagreements with policy," Atkins said.

Like Bartholomew, "100 Proof Radio" also has a Webcast independent of WEBR Radio. The show has had listeners from Austin, Texas; North Carolina; Philadelphia; New York City; and even Poland, in addition to the show's local listeners.

Atkins, who discovered WEBR Radio through an Internet browser search, hoped others would become producers and make their own shows.

"There's just a lot of people who have a lot of creative talent and some interesting views," Atkins said.

In producing shows based on their interests, radio producers have found community in the listeners who tune in every week. While radio producers find the connection and feedback from listeners valuable, other producers get to know the listeners they serve as the listening circle widens.

One producer even found her husband through her show on WEBR Radio. Since 1991, Debbie Sears has been producing "Prog-Rock Diner," a show featuring progressive music and bands such as Gentle Giant, Sleepy Time Gorilla Museum, and the early Genesis and the early Yes.

"A lot of the music I like isn't played on commercial radio stations," Sears said.

Through the show, she became involved with a progressive music festival in North Carolina. Her future husband's band, The Muffins, was an act, but Sears didn't meet him until after the festival. She replied to an Internet post he'd made about the festival, and when her future husband, who was living in the Washington area, saw her e-mail signature saying that she was a producer for a local progressive music show, he had to make contact. He met her when she set up an interview about the band.

"We just hit it off, and the rest is history," said Sears.

Although Sears recently moved to Baltimore from Alexandria, she wants to continue hosting her show. The hour-long, once-a-week trek is worth it, Sears said.

"There really isn't anything else like it around," said Sears of the station. "I just love doing it."