Melissa Merli's Art Beat: New tower extends radio station's reach

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: New tower extends radio station's reach

A scrappy low-power radio station in Urbana has extended its reach, thanks to a new 100-foot transmission tower.

With a tower 40 feet higher than the original one, WRFU-LP FM can now be heard through all of Savoy, parts of Thomasboro, almost but not quite to St. Joseph and Philo, and to Staley Road on the west side of Champaign.

The reach formerly was to Champaign, Urbana and Campustown but was spotty at best, according to Danielle Chynoweth, an Independent Media Center board member who coordinated the tower construction.

Twenty-five volunteers, among them longtime radio activist Bill Taylor, who co-founded WEFT and helps build radio stations in Honduras, erected the tower in October and November. Pete Tridish, a certified broadcast engineer and a founder of the Prometheus Radio Project, was the construction engineer.

My dog, Skye, and I walked by the tower Thursday night — I was amazed that a crew of mainly volunteers erected such a structure in the tight space between the IMC building and Lincoln Square Village. A fence, with a locked gate, surrounds the new transmission tower. A sign warns people to stay away from the tower, saying climbing it can lead to serious injury or death.

The original transmission tower was on the IMC building roof, which could not handle the larger tower, Chynoweth said. The IMC had to hire a concrete digger to help create a hole for the base of the tower, but volunteers did a lot of the digging themselves.

Chynoweth compared the project to a giant Lego construction; however, it was one that also required the hiring of a crane operator.

Volunteers raised $17,000 for the new transmission tower. The total cost is $20,000.

"We had several hundred donors give through events and direct donations so their dream has become a reality," said Chynoweth, a co-founder of the Independent Media Center and former Urbana City Council member.

The city council unanimously approved a special-use permit for the new tower and was supportive throughout the process, she said.

Alas, the new transmission tower does not mean downtown Urbana will be blanketed with free Wi-Fi. Chynoweth said Wi-Fi is available inside the IMC building, which has a free computer access center.

The IMC will be hooked up to the new UC2B broadband service by the end of this month.

"That's a huge boon for us," Chynoweth said. "We had maxed out on bandwidth for our projects in 2008."

Commonly known as UC2B, the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband is a fiber-optic infrastructure touted as the fastest, most up-to-date network communication technology available.

The IMC hopes that once it is connected to UC2B that it and other UC2B anchor institutions such as churches and schools can use their Wi-Fi community wireless to expand broadband to their neighborhoods.

And with the UC2B connection, WRFU — its studio is inside the IMC building — will return to streaming online, including live events. Chynoweth said the UC2B connection also is "superexciting" because the IMC hosts hundreds of websites and listservs for area organizations, among them the Red Cross.

WRFU-LP — Radio Free Urbana — first went on the air in November 2005 as part of a wave of 800 new low-power FM radio stations licensed by the FCC for rural and suburban areas. Those were the first opportunities in 20 years for people to create community radio stations.

"Low-power FM stations broadcast at 100 watts or less and are run by nonprofit organizations, unions, schools, churches and other local, noncommercial organizations," according to the Prometheus Radio Project website.

The FCC will open another window in October for groups who want to apply for licenses to start low-power stations, including in large cities, said Chynoweth, who while working for Prometheus Radio Project lobbied for the bill that enabled the new FCC licenses.

"We expect thousands of new stations to go online in all areas including urban areas for the first time in decades," she said. "It will be the biggest one-time expansion of community radio in history."

Among the many groups interested in starting low-power FM stations are immigrant groups, organizations that want to broadcast into prisons because inmates are not allowed Internet access but can listen to radio, a civil rights organization and a veterans rights group that wants to broadcast to Ford Hood in Texas, Chynoweth said.

"The exciting thing about radio is it can go through prison walls, across borders and into army bases, and the Internet can't always do that," she said.

She and other media activists attribute the intense interest in low-power FM stations to the growing interest in localism and place-based democracy.

"Lots of people are interested in local culture and arts, and you won't find that on Pandora," she said of the Internet radio service that lets users design their programs. "You will find (local content) on community radio stations."

Many of the groups looking to start a low-power FM station will look at WRFU-LP as a model, Chynoweth said, noting that Radio Free Urbana has become a micropower flagship station.

It broadcasts a variety of programs 24-7; live hosts are there generally in the evenings and weekends only. When no one is in the studio, WRFU uses downloaded services, among them a Spanish news service, and Rustbelt Radio, a weekly program produced by a volunteer collective working primarily in the Pittsburgh area.

With its taller tower, WRFU has received a number of proposals for new programs, among them one from the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois. It provides credit-based courses to inmates at the Danville Correctional Center. That program is set to go on the air in February.

Folks interested in hosting a program on WRFU are invited to a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the IMC.

Chynoweth's last day with the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project — its motto is "freeing the airwaves from corporate control" — was Nov. 30. She first worked with the Philadelphia-based organization as campaign manager and then director of external relations.

Chynoweth now plans to focus her energy on her family and Urbana. Look for more things from her; she really makes things happen.

Indi Go forever

James Barham, who started the Indi Go Artist Co-op a few years ago in a bilevel space he rented at 9 E. University Ave., C, recently purchased the building.

Judging from his Facebook posts, Barham plans to keep Indi Go a permanent venue for art exhibitions, performances and educational programming. This is good news, and Barham deserves a lot of thanks for doing this.

eDream Institute

I received an email message from Chungliang Al Huang last week, telling me that the eDream Institute at the UI officially invited him to be a research fellow in the coming year to create projects together.

The tai chi master worked with eDream to produce the multimedia "Tao of Bach," presented this past fall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Huang also recently helped the famed Esalen Institute in California celebrate its 50th anniversary. There he gave a talk with guests Joan Baez and dancer Anna Halprin, who is 92. To see video of that, visit

Soon the indomitable Huang will travel to Honolulu to help celebrate Jean Erdman's 97th birthday. She is the widow of Joseph Campbell, best known for the quote, "Follow your bliss."

After that, Huang will give a lecture at the Confucius Institute of the University of West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.

Huang's email reminded me of a news release I received in October from the eDream Institute. It said eDream had named composer-performer Mikel Rouse its first visiting research artist.

The somewhat unusual "research artist" title was chosen to reflect eDream's interest in discovering new ways to harness digital technologies to push the boundaries of creative practice and performance.

"Mikel experiments with technology that is highly relevant to the University of Illinois," eDream director Donna Cox said in the release. "We know he will synergize and really innovate with this opportunity."

During this academic year, Rouse, eDream (Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media) and Krannert) will work together on "The Demo," a work inspired by a 90-minute demonstration of computing technology performed by Stanford researcher Douglas C. Engelbart on Dec. 9, 1968.

The demo was the first public appearance of the computer mouse, as well as hypertext, dynamic file linking and shared-screen collaboration.

"These demos are the precursors to things that change the world," Cox said in the release. She recalled a 1989 demo in which she and colleagues at the UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications demonstrated high-speed communication networks that connected scientists with one another and with geographically distant resources like supercomputers.

eDream first worked with Rouse on his opera, "The End of Cinematics," which debuted at Krannert in 2005, and then on his song cycle "Gravity Radio," performed there in 2010.

Natalie Ellis

Former Champaign resident Natalie Ellis, who founded Class Act and SoDo Theatre in downtown Champaign, married and moved to Chicago, where she recently landed a job as director of events for the Bubbles Academy, which offers enrichment classes for preschoolers.

Class Act and SoDo continue to offer educational programming and events.

UI alum in NYT

Check out UI acting alumnus Brandon Dirden, who portrays Boy Willie in the August Wilson play "Piano Lesson" on Broadway, in a New York Times "In Performance" video posted Dec. 26 at There's also a print story in the Times about Dirden at

Artist reminders

Deadlines are approaching for several projects:

— The I.D.E.A. Store in Champaign is accepting submissions through Friday for Hatch, A Creative-Reuse Art Festival, taking place March 1-3 in Champaign. Artists may apply for the art fair and/or exhibition. Check out

— The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and 40 North 88 West have a call for entries for art to be displayed on MTD buses. Submissions are due Jan. 14 (

— Proposals for Urbana arts grants are due by 5 p.m. Jan. 16 (

— In celebration of Route 66, Atlanta, Ill., midway on the "Mother Road" between Chicago and St. Louis, is hosting the Route 66 Reinterpreted Art Project, which lets artists create their own take on the U.S. Route 66 highway shield (

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

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TomG wrote on January 06, 2013 at 8:01 am

Interesting that WRFU still is only licensed to broadcast from 60 feet no 100....