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Radio Manchester

photo:Leif Zurmuhlen

By Erik Hage

At 20, WEQX—Vermont’s little alternative station that could—remains as fiercely independent as ever

Talk to the employees of alternative radio station WEQX (102.7 FM) long enough, and you can’t help but think that the longtime local station would provide a good template for a television series—perhaps a sort of WKRP in Cincinnati-meets-Northern Exposure-meets-Newhart kind of vehicle, propelled by a timeless underdog theme.

It certainly would make a good pitch. Consider: A tight, familial band of dedicated radio employees widely broadcast cutting-edge music from a 150-year-old Victorian house deep in the Vermont mountains, the owner maintaining a fiercely independent stance in an age when independent radio is heading toward extinction via consolidation and corporate buyouts.

Besides the iconoclastic owner, you’ve got a whole cast of characters, including an idealistic, kayaking, bald-python-owning programming director and a charismatic morning DJ with a yen for snowboarding.

But anybody who’s been following alternative music in the Capital Region for the past couple of decades wouldn’t be impressed with such a pitch, because for us it’s reality. WEQX, from its vantage point in Manchester, Vt., has been a local staple since 1984, and this year, the station is celebrating its 20th anniversary as an alternative—and more profoundly, independent—radio station. (Nov. 14 was the station’s 20th birth date.)

As EQX morning host Doug Daniels points out, “There are literally a handful of radio stations that are still independently owned and operated—let alone by the same person [that founded it] and in the same 150-year-old Victorian house that it’s always been in. It’s just amazing.”

It’s a rare feat for sure, and it stems from a variety of elements, but one factor above all: founder and owner Brooks Brown, who saw a hole in the market more than two decades ago and set out on the arduous task of establishing an alternative station in Vermont, a process that, according to a recent article on EQX in Stratton magazine, took him years of research and an extensive application process (for a frequency, an FCC license, etc).

And Brown has stuck by his creation, piloting the station through the deregulated, shark-infested waters of contemporary commercial radio with unrelenting vision. “Anybody who’s willing to put it on the line for 20 straight years, that’s really remarkable when you think about what kind of consolidation has happened in this industry,” says Tim Bronson, EQX programming director (and afternoon jock). “[The consolidation] reached a fever pitch after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 passed. . . . Even though you had the selling prices for properties going up-up-up, Brooks chose to hang on to it in order to do it the kind of way he wanted to do it and to create the kind of radio station he wanted to hear.”

Daniels concurs: “[Brown] is a fiercely independent person, and that spirit is what has kept this place independent all these years. . . . He probably could have sold out a long time ago.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 drastically raised the number of stations that one corporate leviathan such as Clear Channel could own in a given market. In eliminating ownership limits, Congress threw open the gates on a corporate fish-swallowing exercise (independent stations being the little fish). Or, as Brent Staples put it in a New York Times editorial (in February 2003), “Under the old rules, the top two owners had 115 stations between them. Today, the top two own more than 1,400 stations. In many major markets, a few corporations control 80 percent of the listenership or more.”

But with EQX maintaining its independence, one major by-product is what Bronson terms “100-percent latitude” with the playlist. And he says while the station may make some concessions to the alternative radio hot list, “We can pick and choose from those chart hits and play the ones that are right for EQX . . . or we can choose songs that aren’t in the top 10 or 20 or even on the chart at all.” Daniels adds that in being free from giant corporate interests, “We’re responsible to our listeners and ourselves. We’re not responsible to some regional person who is looking at numbers on papers from focus groups. We don’t have to worry about someone a thousand miles away making decisions for us.”

This allows EQX to take risks that consolidated radio stations can’t—and taking risks, claims Bronson, keeps the little Vermont station on the cutting edge in terms of breaking new artists. “If you watch our playlist and watch the national charts, you’ll see us leading the national scenes. They’ll catch up to us eventually,” Bronson dryly notes, “but it’s going to take them a while.”

Daniels points out that the station’s mix of tunes (which includes classic alternative songs from the past) separates it “from the competition that’s still churning out the aggressive, hard, generic rock [which] was masquerading as the alternative format there in the early 2000s.”

And EQX makes a big footprint in the Northeast, bringing that music to a mighty wide swath of listeners. “To drive from one extreme end of our coverage area to another would take you half a day,” Bronson says. “Really unusual for a Class B FM. It goes back to Brooks’ idea in creating the station in the first place. He put the transmitter on top of the tallest mountain he could find between Manchester and Albany. [We broadcast] well into New Hampshire and well into Western Mass.”

Despite this sizable market, Bronson notes, the operation itself has stayed relatively small, and hasn’t evolved into the “cubicle-farm” atmosphere one sees with many nonindependent stations. And that points to the appealing paradox of EQX: “I get to program a world-class alternative radio station in the 49th most populous state in the country. It’s not a small-market station, but it’s a small-market lifestyle, and I like that.”

The term “lifestyle” pops up again and again in my conversations with EQX employees. That lifestyle emerges not only from the circumstances of the station, but the Vermont locale as well. Daniels—who was with EQX in the early ’90s, then left to pursue radio in other markets and recently returned—claims, “This is an area that attracts people not just for the job but for the lifestyle. One of the neat things about EQX is that it facilitates that to a degree.” Daniels, an avid snowboarder, points to the numerous nearby ski slopes and other outdoor attractions.

But, according to Daniels, the lifestyle is not just about the joys of the outdoors; it’s also about the unique kind of radio professionals that are drawn to the station: “EQX has always attracted a different sort of person in this industry.”

Bronson, who fell in love with EQX at first sight and immediately moved from his native Grand Rapids, Mich. (“in a 24-foot-long U-Haul, hauling a pickup truck, with a bald python in the U-Haul cab”), claims that the close-knit, down-to-earth spirit that comes across on the air is more than just broadcast persona. “It was the first radio station I ever walked into that looked and felt like it sounded. Most of them try to sound cool—this one actually is.”

The programming director also suggests that his staff, “to a man and woman, work at EQX because they wanted to work for EQX specifically. Not just because they wanted to work in commercial radio.”

And while it may often seem like EQX is a band of fiercely independent radio rebels doing their alternative thing way up in the wilds of Vermont, the station has always had a tight relationship with the Capital Region. Beyond a strong local presence (hosting concerts and such), one example of that relationship is EQX-Posure (Sunday, 10-11 PM), a show dedicated to local artists. Numerous bands from our area have heard their music spun by the show’s host (and Glens Falls native) Jason Irwin; in fact, according to Irwin, nearly half of the submissions come from Albany alone.

There’s a good chance that, if bands submit something, it will end up on the air. “I don’t really feel right about not playing something unless there’s really something wrong with it,” Irwin says. “Like, for example, if it’s a really bad recording.”

And the music doesn’t necessarily have to fall into the “alternative” genre either. “I like it when I have a diverse bunch of music on the show,” Irwin points out, noting his excitement about debuting a hiphop act from Glens Falls that very night. The station also has just added “Local at 11,” in which a song by a local act is played at 11 PM every weeknight except Wednesday.

Irwin, who also does the day shift on Sunday, has some thoughts on why EQX is successful—and he thinks part of it emerges from the bond with listeners that you don’t always get with nonindependent stations. “Somebody can call me during my shift and want to hear something. . . . They can talk to me, and I’m on the air.”

Doug Daniels says that the station’s relationship with listeners has never been more apparent than recently, as people have been coming out of the woodwork to join in the 20th-anniversary celebration. “There’s always been a really tight relationship at EQX between the staff and the listeners,” Daniels says. “The listeners are probably more a part of this station than anywhere I’ve seen. The interaction and the reminiscing . . . and the people that remember me from my first stint here—it’s just amazing the comments that have come in. And they bring by cakes. They want to be a part of it, and they’ve always been a part of it.”

Daniels also says that he’s heard numerous reminiscences from listeners about transformative experiences they’ve had hearing new music on EQX over the years. He also thinks that “alternative” genre—which has certainly ebbed in quality at times and which, in many cases, has become more mainstream than “alternative”—is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Both he and Bronson believe that many of the current, quality acts (Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, etc.) bode well for the genre.

In terms of sheer popularity, Daniels thinks that alternative music might never again experience the golden age of the early to mid-’90s (heralded by Nirvana and Pearl Jam), but “We’re really fortunate because it seems like the alternative format in general is making a comeback.” Tim Bronson, who (along with music director Nikki Alexander) comes up with the playlist, agrees. “It’s been a few years since we’ve had a crop like this—it’s very exciting.”

Exciting indeed, but since EQX has been around since long before “alternative” became a household word, one gets the sense that, genre comeback or not, the station will keep doing the same thing its been doing for 20 years: broadcasting left-of-the-dial music to local listeners from that Victorian house in the Vermont mountains.

Then again, there’s always the idea for that TV series . . .

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