By Matt Starlight
In an inconspicuous building on Main Street, nearly hidden on a block seemingly void of front doors lies the results of some of Baton Rouge’s most dedicated volunteers.
The DJs of Baton Rouge’s low power, nonprofit radio station 96.9 WHYR operate without monetary compensation, seeking only the satisfaction of community service as their reward.
The station began as the idea of a handful of soon-to-be co-founders and soldiers in a legal battle that would span nearly a decade. WHYR was conceived “to essentially hand the mic to people that hadn’t had access to the microphone before. To give people the chance to talk about their experiences and their passions in the community and things they were working on that may not be covered, or is missed, by the mainstream media,” said David Brown, a co-founder, host of the Third Place show, and station attorney.
According to Brown, under the parent company Baton Rouge Progressive Network, WHYR started coming together in mid-2000, but over the course of the next 10 years, Hurricane Katrina struck, the station was stolen by a right-wing religious network, and the fight for its ownership slowed to a crawl as the FCC failed to take timely action.
Despite the potholes the size of craters in the road for WHYR, it began broadcasting in 2011 thanks to the collective dedication of the community. Now, the station operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The key draw of any community radio station is the lack of advertising and the diversity of the content. Because the majority of its funding comes from donations, the station is allowed a level of freedom that for-profit stations can’t compete with.
“We don’t have anybody telling us, ‘Oh, don’t forget, we have Exxon advertising on this particular program, we don’t want to offend them,’” said Brown. “We didn’t want to restrict what our DJs were able to play or what the public was able to hear. We don’t allow for those sort of arrangements where there are strings attached.”
What’s also interesting about the station is where the music comes from. The tunes aren’t streaming out of a computer or a Spotify playlist, but often a physical vinyl record. WHYR has a walk-in closet full of old records that DJs have full access to for their shows. DJ Noel Jackson says those vinyls make him the DJ that he is today.
“Other people don’t have turntables at a radio station. I’m a guy that probably has about 5,000 albums. I got about 3 or 4,000 45s, so if it wasn’t for that station, I would be a lame duck,” said Jackson.
With thousands of records at their disposal and the freedom to play the music they want, the DJs at the station can let their distinct personalities come through in their choices.
“It’s the freedom they give me to play what I want to play. It’s the freedom I like more than anything,” said Jackson. “I always tell people on the radio I think—and I love the people that give me that opportunity on 96.9 WHYR for letting me be me.”
And with shows on the schedule that play everything from blues and jazz to hip-hop and new wave, they’ve ensured that genre fatigue is not a factor.
“You hear a real mix, you know,” said Brown. “What we found is, some people, like ourselves in the station, just like to hear quality music.”
The station has had it’s fair share of storms to weather, but with the backing of dedicated volunteers and a loyal fanbase, WHYR’s got the crew to get them through any rocky waters.
“It’s going well. It’s been absolutely challenging; it’s on a shoestring, and that’s the way it works,” said Brown. “There’s not a single paid member for a radio station that’s going on 24/7, we do it for the love of the craft.”