Indie station boosts local music scene
When 93.9 KWSS-FM hit the airwaves in 2005, it entered uncharted territory—an indie radio station in a sea of corporate-backed stations and a mission to play alternative tunes.
But musician and radio industry veteran Frank Magarelli trusted his instincts.
“I wanted to bring some really good programming,” Magarelli says. “I wasn’t an expert in music, but felt I had good taste in music and that there was something lacking.”
He was right. What began as sporadic traffic on the station’s website has turned into a legion of roughly 100,000 listeners.
Today, KWSS is the Valley’s go-to for alternative music, playing everything from vintage Depeche Mode, to alt-rock stars Panic! at the Disco, to new-to-you music from bands across the country. As important, the station is a welcome launch pad for Valley bands hoping to get precious airtime to grow their fan base. Listeners also tune in for independent news programming, including the nationally broadcast Democracy Now!
“The mission is to enrich people’s lives with music they may not have normally stumbled across in mainstream media,” Magarelli says. “So they may come across something and think, ‘Wow, that was from 1984 and I’ve never heard that before.’ Well, there it is, a David Bowie track, a deep track. Our mission is to kind of ‘wow’ people.”
KWSS is a non-commercial station, largely supported by local businesses and listeners. It holds regular pledge drives to rally support, and is planning a November drive with a live broadcast at a local venue showcasing local bands.
The station runs with an all-volunteer staff, including Magarelli, whose official title is program director. A handful of on-air personalities, along with the Valley’s veteran concert promoter Danny Zelisko, offer an eclectic range of music throughout the day and night.
Beyond bringing alternative music to Valley listeners, the station works to support local business and local bands with special events, says on-air personality and marketing specialist Dani Cutler.
To help celebrate the recent Record Store Day, KWSS broadcast a live music event at Zia Record Exchange in Phoenix. The station also partners with Stir It Up Records & Productions for Music on Moreland, an expansion of Roosevelt Row’s popular First Fridays in Phoenix. And during Phoenix’s Comicon event each year, KWSS broadcasts live all weekend long, interviewing artists, musicians and authors to promote the event.
The station’s online calendar, meanwhile, helps boost live music events, whether the popular Circus Mexicus in Puerto Peñasco organized by Arizona-based Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers or a local band’s first album release at a Tempe venue.
Cutler, who joined the station in 2007, is a familiar voice and face in the Valley’s music scene. She knows airplay is vital for local bands, and they likely won’t find it at traditional radio stations focused on Top 40 hits.
“We’re able to provide a different kind of exposure for them,” Cutler says. “[About] 100,000 listeners for a low-power FM station isn’t a small amount. We make a significant impact in the Phoenix community, and they [bands] know that when they send music to us and we’re able to play it…they know they’re going to get that exposure and people are going to get to know them.”
Phoenix-based band Southwest by Midnight, which focuses on creating original music that draws on life in the Southwest and the Sonoran Desert, scored airtime on KWSS with its signature song “(602),” an irreverent take on life in the Valley’s prominent area code.
The band was thrilled, says Greg White, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon by day and bassist and vocalist with the band by night.
“KWSS has been a great advocate for Arizona local musicians, and it’s been the pillar of helping grow our music community, which is substantial but often not truly recognized or appreciated,” he says. “With their dedication to promoting and supporting local artists on terrestrial radio, it gives us all a chance to share our music with the local community and help build the number of local music appreciators in the Valley.
“The day that I heard our song on Dani Cutler’s show was surreal, and I will always be appreciative and supportive of their dedication and mission.”
Story by Susie Steckner
Photography by Mark Lipczynski