On Friday evenings at 6 p.m., Leah Smith is ready to spin vinyl.
Her hour-long radio show, “Off the Record with Leah Smith,” plays quirky, B-side tunes from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s an upbeat retro romp Smith broadcasts from WHYR Community Radio’s modest studio on Main Street in downtown east.
“My show can be a little hard to explain,” Smith says. “It’s a lot of rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly, and sometimes I go back to blues from the ’20s and ’30s, or play new bands who send me music.”
Smith is one of dozens of volunteer hosts who fill WHYR’s airwaves with their personal passions and creative interests. The commercial-free radio station, 96.6 FM on the dial, is likely Baton Rouge’s most eclectic—a hodgepodge of local deejay-created shows that represent scores of musical genres.
That sort of diversity was exactly what WHYR’s founders intended when they first conceived of such a station in 2000. It took several years for the idea to become reality. But indeed it did. The station celebrates 10 years on the air this month.
Founding board member and program committee chair Brian Marks says the project grew out of the awareness that, in the United States, broadcast airwaves are publicly owned.
“Just like national parks and the interstate highway system, they’re there for all of us,” Marks says.
In 2000, he and a group of fellow LSU students and community activists from the Baton Rouge Progressive Network (BRPN) filed a highly competitive FCC application to open a community-run radio station in the Capital City. The station, they imagined, would be an alternative to dominant conservative talk radio and would feature local hosts playing a rich variety of music. The mission fit squarely with the group’s progressive agenda, which also included anti-war protests and starting LSU’s recycling program. Their moonshot idea to form a community radio station stemmed from what they saw as a need for a forum that would welcome alternative viewpoints, Marks says.
The group’s chances of securing a highly competitive FCC license were minimal. But four years later, the FCC granted approval. WHYR-Baton Rouge Community Radio was officially born—at least, as far as the legal requirements were concerned.
With an all-volunteer team, opening the station would take several more years. It didn’t help when another group attempted to steal WHYR’s operating license, forcing the BRPN to hire a media law attorney and fight the issue in court. A formal investigation by the FCC sided with BRPN in 2010, and the next year, the station finally went on air.
Community members were invited to submit proposals for shows. The station continues to receive scores of show proposals today.
Marks says the beauty of Baton Rouge Community Radio is that there’s something for every listener’s taste. Current shows focus on Cajun music, swamp pop, modern country, rock ’n’ roll, new age, local hip-hop, rap and “gutbucket,” or traditional country, blues, gospel and folk.
There are locally produced talk shows, as well, including one that takes a deep dive into high school and college sports and includes live coverage of high school games. And there are shows dedicated to breaking down the world of science, and to discussing Baton Rouge’s arts scene. Each host curates and produces their own show.
“We are an open window for people who want to be on the air, and who are passionate about something, whether it’s local hip-hop, sports or roots music,” Marks says. “Dozens of people in and around Baton Rouge are on the air every week playing music they love or talking about issues they’re excited about.”
“Off the Record” host Smith recalls how she felt when she first discovered the radio station at a neighborhood meet-and-greet.
“I walked in and felt so comfortable with these people I’d never met before,” Smith says. “They were interested in learning, and in music and in communicating about music. I loved that it’s a community station run by a diverse group of volunteers.”
The station is enjoyed not just by locals, but national listeners, too. Anyone can stream it from the station’s website.
WHYR also airs nationally syndicated shows like “Democracy Now!,” “Le Show” with comic Harry Shearer, the “Ralph Nader Radio Hour” and others.
What’s most remarkable, Marks says, is that their dreams for the station didn’t falter over more than two decades, even as the volunteers’ lives changed. Members of the founding group got jobs, got married and had kids. Their lives got busier and their priorities shifted, but their commitment to the station continued.
“Somehow we got it done, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Marks says. “We have become rather representative of the culture and democracy of the city, and of who the city is. That’s been a beautiful thing to observe over the years.”
To celebrate the June anniversary, WHYR is hosting an on-air pledge drive beginning June 24. Find out more at whyr.org.
This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of 225 magazine.