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Even by the stringent standards of the downsizing era, Randy Allen has achieved an extraordinary feat of compression. He’s operating what could well be the world’s smallest radio station from an abandoned automated teller booth in Alexandria. Within his 5-foot-by-7-foot brick enclosure, Allen and a staff of neighborhood volunteers produce and engineer all-original music and talk programming, broadcast round the clock on the Internet.
A red-and-white neon crescent sign spelling out “Radio Del Ray” glows in the station’s single window. The former money machine was attached, as an afterthought, to the building that now houses Atticus Books, whose owner, Lucinda Ebersole, recently fled the high rents of D.C’s revitalized U Street for Del Ray’s Mount Vernon Avenue. Inside his broadcasting booth, Allen has crammed four microphones, two turntables, two CD players, a cassette player, amplifiers, speakers, a soundboard, and a computer system. This battery of equipment enables program hosts to record, edit, and burn their weekly shows onto compact discs, then disseminate them on www.radiodelray.com.
Unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who merely had to sip from a bottle to shrink, Allen had to grow large before he could become so small. Born in Falls Church 50 years ago, he studied political science and broadcast journalism at American University. His career has included stints as radio news editor for the Associated Press, news director of D.C.’s WAVA-FM before it switched from all-news to music programming, senior producer for NBC Radio News and for Mutual Broadcasting, and, most recently, as State Department and then White House correspondent for Standard News.
A mixture of disenchantment, domesticity, and idealism led Allen from the corridors of power to the sidewalks of Del Ray. His frustration with corporate America’s betrayal of radio’s social and artistic potential is articulated by the Hunter S. Thompson quote posted in half-inch type on his wall: “The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Compact and energetic, Allen leaps at the opportunity to discuss his favorite topic. “Radio,” he observes in his broadcaster’s resonant voice and crisp diction, “used to be the glue that held communities together. It connected people and gave them a vehicle for sharing their ideas and experiences. Today, it’s become a one-size-fits-all corporate outlet, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. There’s a need for an alternative, especially in a community like ours.”
Del Ray has a checkered history. Running parallel to Route 1 and extending the three-mile length of Mount Vernon Avenue from Four Mile Run to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, it was founded at the turn of the century as Potomac, largely populated by Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad workers. In 1930, the freewheeling community, site of the raucous Luna amusement park, ran out of money and was annexed by Alexandria. (The old Potomac town hall, bank, and firehouse still stand.) As late as the ’80s, Mount Vernon Avenue resembled an Edward Hopper street scene—empty storefronts interspersed with Beltway-bandit hutches and a few rudimentary food and service establishments. Foot traffic had all but disappeared, and the low-rent community ran rife with racial tension. Parents of athletes from nearby high schools insisted on chaperoning their kids to competitions in Del Ray.
Allen and his wife, Karen Allen, moved to Del Ray in the early ’90s. Five years later, Karen Allen drew on her experiences as a television producer, photojournalist, and marketing consultant to launch her own company, the Communications Office, specializing in media relations for museums, zoos, and conservation groups. With the arrival of their son, Ben, Randy Allen decided to forsake the excitement and exhaustion of reporting on the travails of President Clinton to work for his enterprising spouse. At the same time, because of the general economic boom of the ’90s, Del Ray was reawakening. Scott Mitchell opened St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, which quickly became a neighborhood gathering place. The live music and lively conversations convinced Allen that a radio station could help unify the new businesses and the ethnically and economically diverse residents of the area.
Radio Del Ray opened shop in 1997 across the street from its current location, in a storefront on the southeast corner of Mount Vernon and Del Ray Avenues. Initially, it offered a community Web page and on-demand programming: Anyone who logged on could listen to a selection of eight shows from beginning to end. But computer storage of on-demand programs proved to be too expensive, so Allen switched to streaming audio, which operates like conventional radio shows that listeners join in progress.
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Although the station logged 5,000 hits a day, listenership was limited to 60 audio ports—which meant that only that many listeners could tune in at any given time. (Allen continued to offer a handful of on-demand programs for Web surfers unable to access an open port.) Alexandria’s cable franchise had wired only the west side of Mount Vernon Avenue with high-speed fiber-optic lines, prohibiting Allen from expanding operations. (Because real estate values are lower east of the avenue, some residents have accused the cable supplier of redlining.) Allen fruitlessly searched for a new location where he could plug his operation into the enhanced cable lines.
When the ATM across the street shut down, Pat Miller, proprietor of Pat’s Place, an antique shop adjoining Atticus Books, suggested that Allen look into the tiny booth. At first, he laughed at the idea, but he soon figured out a way to make the space work by storing the station’s transmission equipment in a larger room on the building’s second floor. This week, with access to more capacious communication lines, Radio Del Ray expands to 600 audio ports, fulfilling the station’s motto: “Made Locally. Heard Globally.”
Radio Del Ray is entirely a neighborhood operation. A graphics firm several blocks down Mount Vernon Avenue designed its logo, an animated silhouette of Alexandria’s landmark Masonic Memorial. A high-tech computer database firm, located above the old Potomac post office, maintains “The Guide,” the Web site’s calendar of neighborhood activities and events. St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub broadcasts the station to its patrons and serves as Allen’s unofficial conference room. From 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, area businesses hold a street festival featuring magicians, storytellers, wine and food tastings, free legal advice, art exhibits, palm readings, face painting, and live musical performances. In addition to publicizing “1sThursday,” Allen places a live microphone on the street outside the studio, giving passers-by an opportunity to voice whatever happens to be on their minds.
The neighborhood also provides the on-air talent. Programs are prerecorded and change weekly, except for Allen’s own live morning broadcast of music, weather reports, and community news. Residents approach Allen with programming ideas. He then spends a month training them how to record and edit their own shows, after which he issues them a key to the booth and trusts them to create their own productions. Big Money Griff, an auto-insurance adjuster who studied radio at Virginia Tech, hosts Del Ray Lounge, a showcase for ’50s and ’60s Las Vegas-style music, and Trendo Blendo, featuring ’70s and ’80s punk and New Wave recordings. Ray Williams, owner of the Avenue’s Affordable Signs and Banners, MCs the erudite Gourmet Jazz, which offers a combination of recipes and hip sounds. Talk shows include realt estate agent Sue Goodheart’s Your New Home, computer software salesman Tony Fleres’ ecology-focused Natural Man, and investment counselor Michael Del Colliano’s children’s program, Bedtime Stories.
For the past month, Rob Gabriel, proprietor of a custom framing shop at the nearby intersection of Monroe Street and Commonwealth Avenue, has captained Blues Cruise. Gabriel, himself a string bassist, programs a mix of recordings by internationally known blues artists (B.B. King, Koko Taylor) and local bluesmen and women, including Tom Principato, Big Joe Maher, and Cherie Martin. “People don’t think of the Washington area as a source of blues,” Gabriel observes, “but there are musicians here who can hold their own against anybody, anywhere. Of course, like me, most of them have to support themselves with day gigs. If I could, I’d give up the framing business and go into broadcasting full time.”
Jean Peelan’s talk show, Women of a Certain Age, debuts this month. A retired civil rights lawyer and former Mount Pleasant resident, she read a local newspaper article about Radio Del Ray shortly after moving to Alexandria. “I sent a proposal to Randy for a program focusing on the empowerment of women over 50 to become heroes,” she explains. Peelan maintains two jobs—as a coach and counselor for executives and as a senior model for print and television advertising—but, like Gabriel, she is passionate about her new involvement in radio. “I think what Randy and Karen are creating,” she asserts, “is the future.”
Radio Del Ray’s on-air personalities are not paid. Although the station’s Web page contains banner ads subsidized by local merchants, the programs have yet to attract sponsorship, largely because of the 60-listener audience restriction. Now, in conjunction with the vastly expanded broadcast capacity, Allen has prepared a schedule of monthly ad rates: $250 buys a program sponsorship including an embedded ad, and $1,000 gets a 60-second spot running 12 times daily. At the moment, the shows are separated by what he calls “noncommercial commercials,” promoting community events and services. As advertisers sign on, Allen promises to split sponsor fees 50-50 with shows’ hosts.
Allen plans to expand to traditional radio transmission. He’s applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a 10-watt noncommercial low-power FM license, which would authorize him to broadcast the station’s signal within a 2-mile radius. The commercial broadcast industry and National Public Radio (NPR) have lobbied to deny granting of such licenses to community-based groups on the grounds that low-power stations would interfere with their own signals. But FCC Chair William E. Kennard views a bill currently before Congress to oppose these Lilliputian ventures as “protectionist legislation” and has expressed particular disappointment with NPR’s decision to side with the commercial networks.
“Why,” Kennard asked at last April’s annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, “amidst all this opportunity for broadcasters, have you chosen to muster your considerable resources to deny churches and schools and community-based organizations just a little piece of the pie?” Allen is hopeful that Congress will refuse to enact the pending bill, clearing the way for Radio Del Ray to reach residents who have no access to the Internet.
Not all of Allen’s projects are so serious or ambitious. He’s currently in the process of designing a new brainchild, the Human Juke Box. This Rube Goldbergesque contraption will enable passers-by to deposit a coin into the booth that once dispensed money and choose a favorite song from a posted list. He’ll donate the proceeds to charity. CP