The underground, volunteer-run radio station Utah Free Media announced to the world it was in trouble recently when the small station’s Twitter account was hacked by a surly volunteer who announced: “UTAHFM IS CLOSING ITS DOORS FOR GOOD. You can thank Daniel Swenson for that. Selfish Bastard. Cared only for his show!”
The upstart station had its humble beginnings in the spring of 2008, when a number of disc jockeys left KRCL, Salt Lake City’s first community radio station, after programming changes shifted the station away from unpaid DJs to several paid, regular day-time personalities. With that exodus, a number of DJs formed their own community radio station, with plans to do the live community broadcasting they felt KRCL had abandoned. While the station estimates it averages only several hundred listeners, volunteers have been determined to become a true community radio station.
Now it seems that by mid-October, the station will no longer have a studio to call home as the space they had been occupying rent-freesoon will be rented out to new tenants and the nonprofit station doesn’t have the funds to relocate. This forced departure comes after more than a year of setbacks that have caused concern and confusion among the scrappy station’s staff of radio lovers and caused at least one person associated with Utah FM to not only hijack the station’s Twitter account but also delete the station’s e-mails and Facebook page.
“The biggest issue we’ve had from day one is that this is a volunteer-based community radio station,” says station manager Daniel Swenson. “Every one has day jobs, and after the first year it’s been hard getting people to volunteer for events.” Swenson says that once Utah FM was up and running after the first year, some of the founders had left and moved on to other projects. Swenson stepped in to take over for the station but says that a culture shift seemed to occur. After the first year is “when the station as a whole quit marketing itself,” Swenson says. “Everyone was just marketing their own show.”
With 42 programs a week, Swenson says it became increasingly difficult to communicate with the large volunteer staff to get involved in promoting the station—setting up Utah FM for a series of flops and failures.
But for former DJ and program director “Mental” Mike Olsen, that communication problem—and most of the station’s other problems—are tied directly to Swenson.
Olsen describes working under Swenson’s management as “disheartening,” saying Swenson seemed more interested in his show Dungeon Crawlers than the station itself. “I just kind of resigned myself to being a cheerleader for the station and trying to help with the day-to-day stuff,” Olsen says.
Olsen says one DJ was let go by Swenson for having X96 Radio From Hell personality Kerry Jackson promote his Geek Show podcast on the DJ’s show. “[Swenson] talked to me about it and said, ‘How dare he promote my number-one competition?” Olsen says. Swenson agrees that DJ was let go for promoting the station’s competition, but says, however, that it was Olsen that let him go since he was in charge of hiring and firing.
Swenson says that he did fire Olsen for personnel differences and says he is confident that it was Olsen who hijacked the station’s social-media pages and trashed its e-mail accounts.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” Olsen says of the accusation.
But it wasn’t just Olsen who found issue with the leadership under Swenson. Portia Early, who airs her Unsigned, Uncensored show on Utah FM, was disappointed with how the station handled its second annual “Radio Not Included” fundraiser bash. In 2010, the fundraiser Early put together managed to raise $1,111, but this year she says a lack of support from the station resulted in a dismal take of $220.
“[Swenson] told me that the printing fell through,” Early says of the fliers advertising the fundraiser. “He made it sound like it was the printer's fault and so he printed out a bunch of black-and-white [3 inches by 4 inches] tiny fliers that were four-per-page. I was discouraged. I was putting a lot of effort into the show once again, and no one else was following through.”
Swenson points out that the event had other problems, too, that hampered its success, pointing out with dismay that the sound-tech guy for the fundraiser concert showed up intoxicated and was pulled from the fundraiser by police during the event.
Early also agrees that a culture shift at the station happened when a new wave of DJs joined the station, who were enthusiastic about their own shows but didn’t take much interest in volunteering to promote station events. “We definitely had more of a team last year,” Early says.
Angela Brown, editor of SLUG magazine, was once a member of Utah FM’s nonprofit board, and recalls there being only two to three board meetings held during the two years she was a board member. “It just seems like there wasn’t enough of a leader,” with Utah FM, Brown says. She recalls that Utah FM had filed paperwork to host a table at SLUG’s Craft Lake City event in 2010. The festival showcases the eccentric crafts and wares of local artists, and while Utah FM was to host a table to promote the station, Brown says it was a no-show at the first event and lost its table as result.
Brown says that Utah FM was accidentally included in an e-mail to table-holding sponsors for Craft Lake City 2011 even though it hadn’t filled out its paperwork for this year’s event. Utah FM showed up this time, only to find it didn’t have a table.
Such setbacks snowballed to the point Swenson says that the station’s inability to market itself was making it to financially risky to invest in a new studio and music-licensing fees. Going forward, he says Utah FM will live on but with DJs pre-recording their shows and streaming them online.
Meanwhile, Olsen says a plan is in the works for a new underground community radio station to be called Utah Free Radio, though he expects he and other DJs will wait until they have a strong business model in place before launching.
Swenson says that even with the new model, he believes Utah FM will have the opportunity to be reborn as the true community radio station it started as.
“A lot of us have felt kicked to the curb,” Swenson says. “But a lot of people stood up, and we’re really trying to get this back to where we were and get back to our roots and core values.”