Inside WOZO: Knoxville’s Nonprofit, Low-Powered, Community-Oriented, DJ-Supported Radio Station

In Cover Stories by Clay Dudaleave a COMMENT

Orion Carpenter hosts Chaos Time -- often an eclectic playlist of hip-hop and trap music -- every Friday evening at 8 p.m. on WOZO 103.9.Clay Duda

Orion Carpenter hosts Chaos Time — often an eclectic playlist of hip-hop and trap music — every Friday evening at 8 p.m. on WOZO 103.9.

It’s 7:58 p.m. Friday evening and 12-year-old Orion Carpenter has shuttered himself in an upstairs bedroom. But this is not a typical boy’s bedroom in suburbia. It is the broadcasting booth for a low-powered community radio station, WOZO FM, tucked in the Birdhouse Community Center at the corner of Fourth and Gill.

Carpenter twists knobs and checks the time, waiting for it to strike 8 p.m. He clicks off the air-conditioning unit sucking through the window frame, but nothing can drown out the rhythmic sounds of cicadas droning through the trees. Still, the show must go on.

Carpenter shimmies a well-worn office chair up to the desk, adjusting his Beats headphones and tweaking the flat bill of his black hat before leaning in toward the microphone. It’s covered with a knitted sock to soften his voice. His white Air Jordans shuffle underfoot as he starts in.

“It’s 8 now, which means it’s my time to shine! Starting in 3, 2, 1—” The radio goes live.

“You are listening to WOZO LP Knoxville, the one and only, the people’s radio,” Carpenter says, repeating the station’s tagline. “So what’s up, guys? This is Orion here. I’m here every Friday night 8 to 10 p.m. I always have a great show here—it’s all about you guys. I play a lot of electronic type of music, remixes, and fun stuff you guys will hopefully enjoy. This is Chaos Time. Keep it locked right here on WOZO 103.9 FM.”

Carpenter clicks off the receiver and electronic beats fill the airwaves. He can’t even remember the name of the first song, or the producer. It’s a remix of Donald Trump campaign speeches and interviews reworked to bash the presidential candidate (now president-elect). “I am a racist person,” Trump’s voice says as it cuts through the music. Tracks by Eminem and Wiz Khalifa follow, then another remix by a producer Carpenter can’t name—it’s hard when so many tracks are sampled and dubbed over. This one borrows from the Mario Bros. video game soundtrack.

“I just really like the upbeat of rap. A lot of songs I know of have a really true meaning,” says Carpenter, a seventh-grader at South-Doyle Middle School. “I just really hope people have a good time listening to the show and relaxing, even though it’s chaotic.”

His show may be defined as chaotic because of the breadth of music capture in this two-hour time slot, but his playlist has been refined over the previous week, mostly during school hours.  (Don’t tell his teachers.) Then his dad helps cull out curse words and make the tracks radio-ready, a necessary step to avoid running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission.

Posters and stickers crowd the walls of the small bedroom-turned-radio studio, reaching the ceiling and starting to fill the space overhead. The station’s phone number is taped next to the table where most of the 50 or so DJs scoot up to broadcast. Above that, there’s a reminder to say the station’s tagline at the top of the hour, every hour. But for DJs like Carpenter, the hour or two they’re on the air each week is virtual freedom to do whatever moves them. The door to this studio office doesn’t say “WOZO” but instead is marked with a “Question Authority” sticker. Another poster, a mock advertisement for headache medicine, says “Anarchism 2002, fast effective relief from authority.” Other anti-establishment slogans and a host of concert bills dangle from the sheetrock.

They call WOZO headquarters “The Nest” because of its location in an upstairs bedroom. Carpenter is the youngest radio host in Knoxville and quite possibly one of the youngest in the country, but here at the community radio station he’s afforded the same freedoms and respect as the other DJs. He’s earned them.

WOZO went on the air in June 2015, after earning a Low Power FM Radio license from the FCC, which divvied out a number of local radio licenses to projects it deemed worthwhile. The FCC launched this class specifically “to create opportunities for new voices to be heard on the radio.” And that’s certainly been the case at WOZO: The station is on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a mix of live broadcasts and syndicated shows. Since its inception it has steadily grown it roster of dues-paying DJs and stretched its sonic footprint further, broadcasting online and over the airwaves, covering much of Knoxville’s center city. Carpenter’s dad, Jason “Ratchet” Carpenter, has worked with the station since its inception, and Orion started attending meeting and earned a slot as a DJ a short time later.

Each show is different. There’s nothing else like it in Knoxville, and its unique financial structure allows it the freedom to play what it wants, when it wants. WOZO is DJ-supported, and through that makeup it’s hoping to become an asset to Knoxville’s inner city. Eighteen months in, the nonprofit station is financially stable and continues to hone its sound, one voice at a time.

Southern Cities performs live during a broadcast of Down 2 Brunch, a weekly radio show on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.2 Brunch, a weekly radio show on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.Clay Duda

Southern Cities performs live during a broadcast of Down 2 Brunch, a weekly radio show on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.2 Brunch, a weekly radio show on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.

FOUNDING RADIO

“We officially started broadcasting in June 2015, but for us the process started in 2013 when President Obama released the last low-powered FM [frequencies],” says Margo Miller, the executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund and host of Moods Music on Tuesdays, 7-9 p.m. “When they were released, nonprofits all over the U.S. were encouraged to apply for a license, and we put in our application in 2013.”

Several other Knoxville nonprofits applied as well, and the ACF eventually partnered with the Birdhouse and United Mountain Defense in order to submit a stronger application to the FCC. The union resulted in WOZO. The organizations see the radio station as a way to engage with the community, expand their reach, further their missions, and have a positive impact on the people and lives around them. The work paid off, and in March 2015 the nonprofits were issued a license.

“There definitely wasn’t really a community radio station here in Knoxville,” Miller says. “WUOT has some pretty diverse programming, but as far as a station that represents the whole community, it wasn’t really there. We’re unique in that regard, and we’re filling a huge gap.”

Much of the equipment needed to start the station was donated by DJs, many of whom were involved from the beginning—eager to get on the airwaves, some with backgrounds in radio or other technical experience. It only took a couple of thousand dollars to get things off the ground, Miller says. The main expense was a piece of hardware allowing the station to broadcast online.

From its formation, WOZO has proven sustainable, Miller says. DJs pay monthly dues of $20, sometimes contributing a little extra to help cover other members. In all, there are about 50 DJs active at the station, although not everyone has his or her own show. The dues and occasional fundraisers cover rent at the Birdhouse, licensing fees, and other bills that total just a few thousand dollars annually.

Anyone can go through the steps to apply to be a DJ, though picking up a slot is competitive—the other DJs have the final say on each applicant. They also run and operate the station, meeting the first Sunday of each month to discuss WOZO business. Miller serves as the station’s treasurer, but there is no central leadership structure. Instead, the DJs make decisions together. It’s a consensus-minus-one style of democracy: A single objection from a dues-paying member can stop any item up for consideration. Prospective DJs must attend at least two of these meetings and have three existing DJs willing vouch for them before they can apply for a spot.

“We only have 10 rules,” Miller says. “We have a bunch of anarchists in the group who don’t like rules or systems, which helps keep it simple. They can play whatever they want.”

The eclectic nature of the station’s on-air voices shows through in its variety of programming, which includes just about any and all kinds of music you might imagine—hip-hop, rock, dance, soul, classical, and blues, plus commentary, syndicated Democracy Now! programming, and more. It’s broadcast locally by an antenna situated in a tree in South Knoxville, and streaming at wozoradio.com. The signal strength is modest, covering Knoxville’s city center roughly from Zoo Knoxville to Sequoyah Hills, from Sharp’s Ridge down to through South Knoxville. 

Miller likes to let her mood decide what’s on her weekly playlist, hence the show’s title: Mood Music with Margo Miller. She walks into the studio four minutes before 7 p.m., taking over from Adam Hughes, who plays an hour of classical music on Tuesdays. Miller rolls the office chair up to the folding table-turned-desk, opens her notebook, where she’s scribbled her playlist for the week, and starts queuing up songs on Spotify. This week, it’s all about cover songs.

“This playlist took several hours. A lot of people will just play one song, and then another one, but I like to do little tricks like play Stevie Wonder before going into a song of someone covering Stevie Wonder,” Miller says. “It’s tough, though, when I have too much music. I like to put time in my playlist, and cutting music is the hardest.”

Miller makes her introductions on air and gets some feedback—few of the DJs are tech wizards. As the first track, Annie Lennox’s version of “I Put a Spell on You,” starts, Miller starts making phone calls to troubleshoot the problem with the microphone. After leaving a few voicemails, she decides to let the music do the talking.

Lauryn Hill follows, singing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Then comes the voice of Simone herself, covering Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” That’s followed by Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” 

Miller leans heavily toward soul and R&B, tonight incorporating a slew of cover songs into a smooth two-hour set that at times moves you to your feet and at others envelops the room in visions of twilight. Even with so many covers, the show is distinctly original, a mark of Miller’s taste and DJ prowess—it’s different from WOZO’s other shows, and that’s sort of the whole point. You can’t get this anywhere else in Knoxville.

DJs Holly Rainey and Yasameen Hoffman talk to listening land during their weekly radio show, Down 2 Brunch, on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.Clay Duda

DJs Holly Rainey and Yasameen Hoffman talk to listening land during their weekly radio show, Down 2 Brunch, on WOZO 103.9 in Knoxville.

SUNDAY PICK-ME-UPS

DJs “Holly WhaAaat” (Holly Rainey) and “TheyCallMeYaz” (Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin) make their show, Down 2 Brunch, all about energy. Each Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. they’re in the studio chatting away, playing “hype music”—which can mean just about anything upbeat—to get people up and moving on sluggish Sunday afternoons. They say they came up with the show’s name because they’re always down to brunch on the seventh day, usually moving slow after a fun-filled weekend.

“We used to go to brunch all the time, but now we actually miss brunch because of the show,” Rainey says with a laugh. This Sunday she’s wearing a vivid T-shirt covered in prints of hamburgers and condiments. Hoffman is wrapped in a glowing pink shirt and patterned yoga pants, her hair pulled back in braids.

Their show is usually marked by a handful of original features, such as a guest band or musicians, call-in karaoke, and a “Beyogance” workout live broadcast to Facebook.

“Take On Me” by a-ha fills the studio, only quieting down as Rainey and Hoffman talk with today’s guests, the members of Southern Cities, a Knoxville-based Americana band that incorporates undertones of hard rock and psychedelia.

“What’s your favorite hot sauce? We judge people by their sauce,” Hoffman says.

“Oh, Luke’s dad make this hot sauce with habanero and vinegar. That’s the best,” says drummer Andrew Tinsley. “I really like hot sauce or honey mustard.”

“Oooooh, I love honey mustard,” Hoffman replies.

“Anything habanero sauce for sure, but give me stone-ground mustard,” guitarist Matt Montgomery says.

The conversation turns to Polynesian sauce, and Hoffman chimes in again. “Speaking of Polynesian sauce, here’s ‘Aloha’ by Mome, featuring Merryn Jeann.”

A few minutes later and the boys of Southern Cities are back on the air. It’s time for a live karaoke cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Hoffman, who is a singer herself, joins in. “Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom/Well, who am I to keep you down?”

As the show winds down everyone files out the back of the Birdhouse and into the grassy yard. It’s time for Beyogance (Beyonce + Yoga = Beyogance), a weekly ritual live-streamed on Facebook to a Beyonce song.

They all stretch out, bending forward into down dog. Reaching for the sun. Warrior two. It’s a fine segue to Zen Sunday with DJ 49, starting at 3 p.m. on WOZO 103.9 FM.

Yasameen Hoffman leads members of the band Southern Cities in a lesson of Beyogancé (Beyoncé + yoga) following a set on Down 2 Brunch, a radio show on WOZO 103.9.Clay Duda

Yasameen Hoffman leads members of the band Southern Cities in a lesson of Beyogancé (Beyoncé + yoga) following a set on Down 2 Brunch, a radio show on WOZO 103.9.

Featured Photo: Margo Miller, the executive director of the Appalachian Community Fund and host of Moods Music on Tuesdays, 7-9 p.m. Photo by Clay Duda. 

Clay Duda

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

Share this Post