Jim Walsh in the WITT studio.

Jim Walsh in the WITT studio.

The tragicomic ballad of WITT-FM 

To do Jim Walsh's story justice, we should set it to music. Let's make it a ballad, performed by a singer with a low, plaintive voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. And we'll call it Reality Hits Home, the story of a man who finally realizes his lifelong goal and then wonders if maybe he should have wished for something else.

In the first verse, the singer will tell of a young boy growing up on the Eastside with dreams of conquering the media world. He was the kind of boy who, at 6, already had an acronym chosen for his media empire. WITT, he'd call it, for Walsh International Television and Telegraph.

The second verse would recount his visit, when he was a high school student, to WAIV, a radio station on the 10th floor of the old Dearborn Hotel. There, general manager Dave Scott, "this wonderful bear of a guy," would invite this young broadcasting wannabe to sit in with another up-and-coming personality, future auto-racing announcer Paul Page.

The song would devote its third verse to Walsh's history with Indianapolis radio and TV up through 1998, when he applied for a license to run his own radio station. But the drama will occur in the fourth and final verse, when the singer will quote Walsh: "Make sure you know what you're dreaming for, 'cause if you get it ..."

Walsh said this one evening from behind the controls of WITT-FM (91.9), which is housed temporarily in Broad Ripple while he tries to raise money for a permanent studio. (A recording studio located at 56th Street and Emerson Avenue is destined to become the permanent on-air studio, and WITT continues to look for a space in Zionsville to accommodate volunteers in Boone County.)

The makeshift studio is small but immaculate, with shelves of CDs and equipment and a few world maps lining the walls. The man behind the microphone is 63, with a gray beard, gray hair and a round middle. Quick to laugh, the semi-retired video court reporter has invested 11 years and most of his life savings — at least $60,000 — into getting his 6,000-watt community radio station on the air. And now he's dealing with a litany of headaches: roughly $2,500 a month in expenses; little income from local foundations or listener contributions; fewer volunteers than he needs; not enough hours in the day to put together the programming, fundraising, and audience development he needs to do.

Plus, the station really needs a new transmitter. But he estimates that would set him back $16,000 to $30,000.

On the day we spoke, Walsh had experienced a particularly unkind indignity: A musician who'd played a house concert in town the night before was scheduled to come to the station that morning for an interview. She never showed up, never called. A new microphone Walsh had bought for the interview sits across from him, unused.

He looks exhausted, though not beaten. "Was this worth it?" he asks rhetorically of his radio station. Then, hesitating, he exhales and says, "Oh, yeah. This a community asset."

Old-school freeform

What Walsh plays on the air is a joy for those who like surprises. He's not afraid to go from Joseph Haydn to Van Morrison. One memorably weird set segued from an instrumental version of James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" to the Beatles doing "Money (That's What I Want)," then "La Donne Mobile" from the opera Rigoletto and "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash.

Turn it on and you might hear Zionsville Town Council meetings. (The station is licensed in Zionsville to Walsh's Kids First Inc., Walsh's 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, whose eight-member board provides oversight for the station.) Or Radio Netherlands, the Dutch public broadcasting service. If someone calls to request Macedonian folk music—which Stephen Lewis, owner of All Dental Studios in Nora, did—Walsh will try to find some. Walsh describes his programming philosophy this way: "I want people to wonder what's coming next."

"He connects with musicians and artists who like something other than the same old stuff," said Lewis, who counts himself and his wife Lee-Ann as regular WITT listeners.

How many potential listeners are there like that in Indy? Walsh said that's hard to pin down. "A friend of mine tells me, 'Jim, sometimes I sit in the room and listen to your station for a whole hour. I've never done that with a radio station,'" he said. "But how do you gauge that? You have Arbitron—the radio ratings service—but it's hard to gauge the audience reaction in broadcasting. If you're an actor or a dancer or a standup comedian—even if you're an artist and you have an exhibit—people throw tomatoes or roses. In radio, you never really know."

Sitting at his Mac, in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and slippers, Walsh pulls songs that will broadcast sometime soon. Since WITT signed on June 20, 2009, the programming has featured music mixes that Walsh packed onto eight-hour, continuous-play discs as well as 500 hours from "Open Air," the overnight show he did from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. Saturdays on WICR-FM (88.7), the University of Indianapolis station, from 2004 to 2008. Using old shows dismays him because, as Walsh puts it, "I've gotta keep fresh programming on.

The long haul

Finding time for new shows is just one of Walsh's worries in what seems like a never-ending cycle of frustrations that began with the battle to win FCC approval for the license and continued after getting his construction permit on Dec. 10, 2007. After that date, by law, he had three years to get the station on the air or lose the license.

Almost immediately, he began finding out how much this venture would cost—starting with $35,000 for an antenna that still doesn't seem to transmit the signal perfectly. No one came forward with money, and not many people volunteered, except to offer to do a show. So when Matt Masters called in March 2008 to ask about a show, Walsh didn't give it much thought. But Masters is a radio frequency engineer for Clearwire Corp., which is owned by Sprint, and he was serious.

"Jim was faltering right out of the block," Masters said. "I had no idea what he needed, but I have some level of skill set in a little bit of everything."

You'll hear Masters on the air as host of the Rock N Rhythm Revue, but his role behind the scenes has been monumental. He helped Walsh negotiate a discount for the lease of the transmitter and located people who donated equipment or sold it at greatly reduced cost. What Masters couldn't get others to do, he did himself.

"Without Matt, this station—if it was even on the air—wouldn't sound as good as it does," Walsh said. "Matt has been the angel in this whole thing."

Masters, who's basically the station's chief engineer, puts it this way: "Jim met a lot of people who promised him the world but simply could not deliver. He was in a bad position to see his dreams go for nothing. And I certainly wasn't going to stand for that because I had had a similar dream—just not as long as he had had."

Volunteer power needed

Walsh still doesn't have enough help or money. Brian Kearney, one of the founders of the Bloomington community radio station WFHB, will tell you it took him 17 years to get off the ground. Organizers had more than 50 volunteers on board and a $225,000 gift in hand before they went on the air in 1993 with a not-for-profit station run by community volunteers and underwritten by listeners and local businesses.

What Walsh needs to do, Kearney said, is to quickly attract volunteers with skills in areas such as fundraising and development, network with other community stations and borrow their best ideas, and tone down the eclecticism. Although community stations typically fill niches commercial stations won't touch, "free-form is not the way" to build a loyal audience in the age of iPods and countless other entertainment options.

"Jim had enough tenacity and resources to put the station on the air—and he's a saint for doing that," said Kearney, now an Indiana University fundraiser. "But to sustain it and make it healthy, there need to be other people involved."

Walsh is trying. In its first year, listeners heard him expand WITT's programming by selling airtime to people who've dreamt of having their own radio show, which is one way to increase the station's meager income. He has about 10 regulars who buy airtime, which brings in roughly $1,400 a month.

"Paid programming is keeping the wolf away from the door," he said.

He said if he doesn't find enough financial backing, he has two options: lease the station to someone else or, after operating it for three years, sell out to a qualified group. He's been told by his friend Bruce Quinn, who sold WKLU-FM (101.9) for $6.2 million in 2005, that the sale price for WITT could top $2 million – and that's certainly feasible given how difficult it is to get a license and how valuable airtime is in a large city. In 2004, a group bought an AM station in Denver for $4.1 million with plans to turn it into a community station.

"That gives me the ease in knowing that if I make it to 70, I won't be totally broke," he said.

But it wouldn't necessarily make him a millionaire, either. "What he can do with that money remains in question," said Cary Tepper, the Maryland-based lawyer who saw Walsh through the licensing process. "I don't think he can personally pocket that money. He can pay himself a bonus, but there are so many state regulations for non-profit entities and what they can do with their proceeds."

Walsh sort of figured that. And as he points out, he didn't do this to get rich. He just wants his ballad to end on a high note.

On the air: a brief look at WITT's programming as it stands in July 2010, written by Josh Flynn

Standard Variety Hour
Wednesdays, 6 p.m.

Mark Latta and Kevin Phillips, owners of Indianapolis' Standard Recording Company, created The Standard Variety Hour on WITT as a means of promoting their label and experimenting with a new format.

"Since delving into iPhone apps and starting to work on videos, we've been thinking quite a bit about the need for recurrent and topical content," Latta says. "Albums are great in the sense that they capture a time period of an artist's work and preserve it, but they take a lot of time to produce. We wanted to experiment with a faster paced medium."

The show, which airs Wednesday evenings at 6 pm (and is available in podcast form from iTunes), has featured some of Standard's bands such as Amo Joy and Thunderhawk, as well as acts outside of the Standard stable such as Rodriguez and Black Angels. During the course of a show, Latta and Phillips conduct interviews, play original sound collages, and ruminate on things such as the meaning of the word "Hoosier." They also encourage audience participation by asking their listeners to get creative and contribute content to the show.

"Radio is still magical to me," Phillips says. "I have never owned a vehicle with a working CD or Cassette player, and though I'll sometimes connect an iPod to my car stereo, I like the 'live' connect of radio."

"Radio allows the listener to engage their imagination in a way that other mediums can't. Shows like This American Life and Radio Lab prove that each week," says Latta. "I know it's hard to believe now, but there used to be a time when a listener could discover new music through radio, and radio stations would reflect the personality of a community rather than just churn out randomly generated playlists from afar and bombard the listener with overly-compressed commercials."

Latta remembers a solo cross-country road trip when he anxiously skimmed for local radio stations as he entered each new town. It was an opportunity for him to learn something about each region he passed through.

"I love satellite radio and podcasts, but you know exactly what you are getting with those, and there's something uniquely human about the joy of discovering the unknown, of stumbling upon a story or song and connecting with it. If there's a role for radio in the future, it's that."

A Squared Industries on the Air
Saturdays, noon
Sundays, 10 p.m.

Andy and Annie Skinner are a husband and wife team who have been promoting local concerts, DJing, and managing bands together for six years as A Squared Industries. Now they've established an outpost for the A Squared brand on WITT. Taking their love of music to radio was a natural progression, Annie Skinner says. "Its important people hear music not getting played on regular radio. You can find great new music on blogs and people are talking about new music. But this helps reach a different audience."

A Squared Radio, which has been airing since April 2010, features music by alternative and indie acts including, on the national level, Dum Dum Girls and Mew, local band Jookabox, and classic acts like The Smiths and Pixies. It's a variety not heard on radio these days.

Andy feels listeners moved away from FM because it became so homogenized and repetitive. He jokes that the notion of hearing Nickelback 40 times a day isn't appealing to music fans. "If people say FM sucks they can't blame us because we are working alongside WITT to make it fun."

And the rest

The Mikie Show, an absurdist half hour airing Wednesday nights at 5:30, feels like a David Lynch-directed episode of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and includes entertaining interviews with people from all walks of life (including Linda the botanist, Marcia the district attorney, Ed the business ethicist and June the shoemaker).

The Back Road Radio Show (Fridays, 5:30 p.m.) plays non-mainstream country music and includes interviews with performers.

Stuck in the Psychedelic Era (Fridays, 10 p.m.) is a two-hour musical retrospective of the years 1964-69.

The Rock N Rhythm Revue (Fridays, 9:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 10:30 a.m.) covers genres as diverse as jazz, rockabilly, and garage rock ranging from 1945 to 1965.

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