David Armstrong, station manager at WDBX in Carbondale, IL, got his start in radio with after a friend started a radio show at WIDB. WIDB is the college radio station in Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL, where Dave was going to school at the time. Their show was focused on experimental music, a genre that he still enjoys today.
“It was a very different sort of show because we were creating a whole show from scratch. We weren’t really playing any records or CDs or anything. We were coming up and performing as musicians and radio hosts.”
Armstrong discovered the Carbondale’s community radio station, WDBX, in 2001. He was driving along and listening when he heard the DJ’s cry for help.
“The next DJ was running late and [the current DJ] was sick of being there, stuck on air. I just spun my car around showed up. They said, ‘who are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m the next DJ.’ And I just kind of faked like I was supposed to be there. They looked at me a little bit, but it kind of looked like I knew what I was doing, so they let me stay. That’s how I got my start, I just snuck in.”
The station manager at the time eventually came in and knew that Dave wasn’t supposed to be there. He was then offered a music slot, which he has kept going at various times for over 17 years.
From Volunteer to Station Manager
Dave became the station manager of WDBX in 2012. It was at a time when the station was going through a period of disorganization and financial trouble. The downward trend has since reversed, and the station now has updated studios and solar panels; all thanks to individual donations.
“Our community has been absolutely phenomenal. When our state was going through a budget crisis we actually still managed to not only sustain this station, but pull off a major fundraiser for solar panels for the station.”
For Dave, he loves the challenges and freedom of managing WDBX. “I think that’s tremendous to be able to have a career where I get to go and say ‘yes’ to people, and I get to do something that I feel is genuinely good.”
Dave values the neutral voice that a station manager of community radio must keep. He is the only paid staff person at WDBX and works very hard to not be the deciding voice of the station. He has found that in some stations the manager is the figurehead, and therefore voice, of the station and the community.
“I think that’s a dangerous thing. I work really hard to remind people that it is the voice and flavor of the station originates from the volunteers, of which I am one small part.”
Big Music and Community Radio
WDBX is a unique community radio station in that the voice of the community is the local music scene. While the college station is still very much active, they mostly stream online. In this way, Dave finds that WDBX almost fulfills the role of a college station. “We do have news, we do have features, we do interviews and things like this, but I think our strength is much more in the music. We are very much a little music city.”
Carbondale is located near the southern tip of Illinois, south of Mount Vernon. The “little music city” is merely three hours from Nashville and Memphis, and two hours from St. Louis. Dave seems to enjoy when people discover the town’s diverse music scene. One touring musician even compared Carbondale to Berlin in the 80s.
“Local music is just something that the community just loves here in Carbondale. All varieties of music, and such a rich scene historically. Folks can speak of local music going back decades and decades here and there’s just so much love for it. That’s where our heart is as a station.”
Carbondale’s rich diversity is also a result of the university, Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU). Like most college towns, SIU is the driver of economic activity in the region, which often creates a roller coaster of cooperation between the town and the university. Dave sees the college-town relationship as an enlightening factor to the community.
“When you step away from Carbondale, you can feel the lessening of the effect of having that university. The diversity that Carbondale has is really quite spectacular, and I think that the focus on arts and music is quite spectacular in this region. It’s like coming up on some weird oasis, and as such, we can have something like WDBX here.
“Every community needs something like WDBX, but you have to have the community primed to support it.”
The Future of Community Radio
Dave sees radio as just one way of accomplishing this mission. He believes that, if you transported someone from the height of the community radio era to the present day, they wouldn’t create a radio station at all. He believes they would create something like a community internet service provider (ISP).
“I think that a community ISP or a community internet could be a very interesting avenue for community radio stations to explore. I think that a lot of the same forces that drove the people to create community radio stations – the corporatization of things, the lack of opportunities for people to have an authentic voice – I think those same negative forces are now shaping the internet.”
Dave wants public spaces to become community oriented without being taken over by corporate entities. People went to the town square for news and solidarity, but that was replaced with malls and private clubs. We have enjoyed public spaces online, but now we see large businesses and corporations managing what we can and cannot see. Community radio was there to help keep the democracy in media. “So it might be time for a community internet as well.”
“If we are to continue being relevant in the 21st century, we are going to have to explore some of these ways of working with our community as well.”
Being a Pacifica Affiliate
Even though WDBX focuses on local music and DJs, Dave still finds value in being a Pacifica affiliate. Likewise, Pacifica finds value in the culture of Carbondale.
“I think the initial draw was seeing how archiving programming and getting a better internet stream really invigorated some stations. It’s also been interesting to see how other stations approach their communities and how they find their place in those communities.”
Dave is also fascinated with the variety of programming from other affiliates. He hopes that WBDX can provide programming for Pacifica in the future. He looks forward to bringing the unique southern Illinois perspective to the rest of the network.
“We’re much more southern here than the remainder of Illinois, and our culture is much more southern. I know there’s a lot of folks that believe we’re just an overlooked part of the country. People say “Illinois” and they think Chicago, but Chicago is five hours from us.”
“Keep on keepin’ on. Community radio is great. We truly believe in it here in southern IL, and so best of luck to everybody that’s fightin’ to good fight out there.”