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Meet The Tiny Community Radio Station Making Waves In Denton

Courtesy of Peter Salisbury
KUZU 92.9FM is broadcast out of a little cinder-block building in the parking lot of the Denton Housing Authority in Denton, Texas.

"You’re listening to the best in town," my car radio tells me, "the best around: 'The Local Mix'..."

Actually, you probably haven’t been listening to “The Local Mix” — or to “Candy's Sour Hour,” or “Electricity Comes from Other Planets,” or even to legendary Denton artist Martin Iles’ “WOODS,” a twice-monthly collage of unusual tunes, ravings, deadpan comedy, musical drones and cricket chirps.

These are radio shows hosted on KUZU, 92.9 FM, which turns a year old next month. And the reason you probably haven’t heard them is the station pumps out its music at all of 67 watts. You own lightbulbs at home with more wattage than that.

So unless you’ve been streaming it online, KUZU is something of a Denton specialty, known only to a wise and select few. And that’s deliberate: KUZU is legally designated a Low-Power FM station, or LPFM.

“LPFMs are capped at 100 watts,” says Peter Salisbury, a photographer and the station’s founder and manager. “So KNON Dallas [89.3 FM], another nonprofit local community radio, they run at about 55,000 watts — so quite a big difference. But, you know, 100 watts can give you about a three-to-five-mile radius, which is pretty great for a small community.”

And that is the mandated purpose of a low-power station. They serve small areas, churches, campuses, backwoods towns. In part, stations like KUZU are the latest pushback against commercial radio conglomerates, which began consolidating control over the airwaves once the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the industry and lifted the cap on ownership. The radio companies began distributing the same music, sports, news and political talk formats all across the country. Move to a new town? You get the same sounds.

Low-power stations hearken back to the more unconventional, grassroots days of free-form FM in the '60s, or college radio in the '80s, or even just that strange, crackly, lonesome station you came across driving late one night. Low-power radio is Radio America with all its individual tastes, quirky genius and outright oddities.

Credit Jerome Weeks / KERA News
The exterior of KUZU FM in Denton, Texas.

Radio without an algorithm

Part of KUZU’s mission is to educate, Salisbury says, and playing local bands or mixing music formats people might never hear otherwise, that’s musical education. Even your average playlist app on your smartphone sticks to the same popular formats, or it learns your range of tastes and keeps feeding you those. Your ears live inside that bubble.

We bring you interesting cuts from modern composers, beat makers and indie darlings,” declares host Christopher Walker over the airwaves.

His Sunday afternoon program on KUZU is “Boulez Campbell Soup Listening Hour.”

“It’s a show full of pop hooks and hard left turns,” he continues.

And that element of discovery is one of the things listener David Simpson appreciates about the station. Simpson, a 42-year-old photographer, says he heard about KUZU through friends or on social media.

“Outside of local music, I love that psychedelic stuff from East Asia and then from Africa,” he says. “Where else are you going to hear that? But then also, there’s still stuff I haven’t heard.”

On KUZU, you’re likely to hear German electronic masters Tangerine Dream right alongside groundbreaking “gypsy jazz” guitarist Django Reinhardt. Then, the station will switch into country-folk, or heavy metal and hip-hop, or vintage 78 RPM recordings. And even —

“Lots of animal sounds! I love field recordings,” says Sashenka Lopez, vice chair of KUZU. “Whales or sounds from space, rushing wind, waterfalls or cats — you know, all of those things that make me feel happy.”

Lopez is a teacher and audio collage artist with her own KUZU show called “Baka,” which is Ethiopian for “enough.” Lopez and Salisbury are friends. Years ago, they broadcast shows from Salisbury’s Denton apartment using a little AM transmitter. They called it 1670AM, and it probably didn’t reach much beyond Denton’s Courthouse Square.

Lopez explains the appeal of transmitting musical experiments, mixtape formats and interviews with local musicians to an audience probably made up of only your friends and other people you talked to about it:

“It’s almost like you’re shooting things out into the air and you never know whether or not anyone’s ever going to listen,” she said. “The radio’s so, so small, but it was a blast.”

Credit Jerome Weeks / KERA News
Peter Salisbury is a photographer and the founder and manager of KUZU FM in Denton, Texas.

The origin story

In 2013, Salisbury was contacted by a community nonprofit called Common Frequency.

Low-power licenses had been held up for years by the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB feared that even tiny competitors could interfere with audience domination. But in 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which was first proposed in 2005 by Senators John McCain, Maria Cantwell and Patrick Leahy.

With low-power licenses available, Salisbury spent the next four years filing the paperwork, finding a nonprofit sponsor (Denton Holiday Festival Association), raising money, gathering volunteers and finding a space to rent from the Denton Housing Authority.

Salisbury insists that KUZU’s call letters do not refer to the unstoppable weed, kudzu, or to the squawky toy instrument, the kazoo. Given his choice from a long list of variations, Salisbury simply thought KUZU (pronounced “koo-zoo”) looked and sounded memorable.

It turns out Salisbury’s interest in creating a hip little station in Denton actually goes back farther than 2013 and the LPFM license, even back before his creation of 1670AM in his apartment. It started when he was handling the synthesizers in a local band called Mandarin.

“Once you start producing your work, you start to see certain infrastructure that’s maybe missing in your community,” he says.

So he and his bandmates were kicking around ideas for what the Denton scene could really use or at least what they could certainly use.

“One of those things that was talked about was, like, ‘Wow, wish we could have a really cool radio station in town,'” Salisbury says.

Of course, Denton already has an independent station,KNTU 88.1 FM, the campus radio at the University of North Texas. The two stations aren’t in any real competition. KNTU has 100,000 watts to KUZU’s 67. Besides, KNTU sold KUZU its old audio consoles at a discount — not much sense of cutthroat rivalry there.

And for its part, KUZU is definitely off-campus. It’s housed in a tiny, funky building in a parking lot near the Square, a building painted with a 360-degree mural. It’s been a candle shop, a secondhand pet supply store and a knife-sharpening store, Salisbury says.

“Once we had a guy come in, yelling, ‘Where are my knives?’”

Salisbury’s not even sure how old the building is, and with its glass-brick windows and cinder-block walls and all the hard echoes those produce, it doesn’t exactly provide an optimum audio environment.

“It’s definitely not the greatest spot for a radio station,” Salisbury says. “You can hear the cars going by while you’re on the mic, and when you leave the windows open, you can even hear birds sometimes.

“But we love it. It makes it sound like community radio to me,” he says.

It is community radio. One of KUZU’s goals, Salisbury says, is to foster artistic collaborations on the air, and a local music scene off the air.

Currently, 45 “Denton citizen volunteers,” as Salisbury calls them, host KUZU’s programs. On file, he’s already got a hundred more applying for the chance.

Jerome Weeks is the Art&Seek producer-reporter for KERA. A professional critic for more than two decades, he was the book columnist for The Dallas Morning News for ten years and the paper’s theater critic for ten years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines.