When the switch to WORT-FM’s transmitter was first turned on in 1975, radio station staffers embarked on a mission that was remarkably simple on one hand, yet profoundly complex on the other. Since its inception, the listener-supported station has aspired to have a little of something for everyone.
In an era where corporately owned commercial radio stations are programmed through algorithms, consultants’ recommendations, and tightly controlled playlists, WORT’s smorgasbord of offerings on 89.9 FM are in stark contrast. Doug Holtz, business and development director for WORT, says about 70 percent of the station’s lineup consists of every genre of music imaginable, while the balance is devoted to talk shows and other programming.
The station, which streams online at wortfm.org, has a weekday music schedule with a full gamut of music selections, including blues, bluegrass, classical, folk, jazz, metal, rock, techno, and world. The weekend lineup offers up even more diversity—from gospel to salsa to pan-African.
Nonmusic programming, likewise, is diverse, including offerings such as the nationally syndicated Democracy Now; local fare such as WORT Local News, which is an alternative new source on local and state issues; and Queery, which offers local and national news of interest to Madison’s LGBTQ community.
“I really believe [WORT] is the most diverse offering in Madison,” Doug says. “We strive to serve underserved areas of the community. We want people to have a very unique experience when they tune in to us. We seek the broadest diversity of music possible.”
WORT’s inclusiveness mantra extends to people passing through Madison as well. As a member of a community with a number of universities and colleges, Doug says he and others at the station are keenly aware of the young adults in the community transplanted from elsewhere and finding their way around. “With Madison being a transient community, we want people to know we’re out there and available to them.”
While Back Porch Radio Broadcasting Inc., the nonprofit running WORT, is most often associated with radio, Doug says the mission of inclusiveness extends well beyond the confines of 89.9 FM station. For decades, the station has been a visible part of Madison through different events. This is especially true, in the warm-weathered months, when the station takes part in outdoor festivities.
The WORT Block Party, in its 22nd year, is the station’s marquee outdoor extravaganza and is slated to take place this year on Sunday, May 19, from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., on the 200 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It also serves as the official launch to the outdoor music that will grace different areas of the city throughout late spring, summer, and early fall months.
Speaking to the block party and what led to its inception more than two decades ago, Doug says, “It’s really to promote community radio and have people come together. It’s our largest fundraiser, outside the pledge drives.” Access into the WORT Block Party is free, although there is always an opportunity to provide donations. All proceeds benefit the station.
Throughout its eight hours, this year’s WORT Block Party will feature a full lineup of diverse local acts. Mirroring the actual station lineup, the outdoor event’s eclectic music varieties include hip-hop, jazz, and reggae.
Beyond music, the WORT Block Party has been noted for other festivities, including a beer garden offered in conjunction with the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, children’s activities, food from around the world, arts and crafts vendors, information tables, and raffles and prizes offered up by local businesses.
In more recent years, the WORT Block Party has been held in a more central area of the city, away from the station’s studio. Doug says the decision was yet another outgrowth of the station’s mission of accessibility to the entire community. By hosting festivities along the higher profile Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, attendees will have more parking options. Additionally, mass transit riders have ready access to the event since the site is close to the bus lines. “We want to make sure we’re here for everyone.”
WORT staffers also use the station’s resources to promote some of the city’s other outdoor music festivals, all shining a spotlight in their own right on the broad spectrum of music available in the community. “We really feel that the summer music festivals are a part of what makes Madison special,” Doug says.
As a truly community-based radio station, WORT has a unique position in Madison’s broadcast landscape. Although it has a similar nonprofit structure, Doug says WORT differs from a public radio station, which traditionally answers to a larger organization in the decision-making process of what to program on a station’s airwaves and stream online. In WORT’s case, as a community radio station, there is autonomy over program selections, which results in unique circumstances and an opportunity to draw sharp lines around the station’s mission statement.
Donations from individuals, organizations, and local businesses have long been WORT’s lifeblood. Doug says, “When it comes to on-air underwriting, we don’t accept support from large corporations. It’s limiting, in a way, but it also frees us up with what we can do. Really, it’s the community that has made WORT such a resource.”
Whatever limitations might arise, WORT’s hard-lined stance on its donor model has reaped benefits for the station—and Madison’s broader ecosystem. Doug says, “WORT is very committed to the small-business community in Madison.”
The station’s on-air staff is all volunteer, which provides a truly unique experience when a listener is tuning in to the station over the radio or online. Doug says, “All of our music is hand picked. It’s a musical exploration with every show. There’s a certain authenticity that comes with it that you really cannot fake.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.
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