Friday night at 6 p.m. Leah Smith is ready to spin the vinyl.
His hour-long radio show, “Off the Record with Leah Smith,” plays original B-side tunes from the 50s and 60s. It’s an upbeat retro outburst that Smith broadcasts from the humble community radio studio. WHYR on Main Street in the east end of downtown.
“My show can be a bit difficult to explain,” says Smith. “It’s a lot of rock and roll and rockabilly, and sometimes I go back to the blues of the 20s and 30s, or I play new bands that send me music.”
Smith is one of dozens of volunteer hosts who fill WHYR airwaves with their personal passions and creative interests. The commercial-free radio station, 96.6 FM on the dial, is arguably Baton Rouge’s most eclectic – a mishmash of shows created by local DJs that represent dozens of musical genres.
This kind of diversity was exactly what the founders of WHYR wanted when they designed such a station in 2000. It took several years for the idea to become a reality. But indeed, he did. The station celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.
Brian Marks, founding board member and chair of the programming committee, said the project was born out of the realization that in the United States, broadcast airwaves belong to the state.
“Just like national parks and the interstate highway system, they’re there for all of us,” Marks says.
In 2000, he and a group of LSU students and community activists from the Baton Rouge Progressive Network (BRPN) filed a very competitive FCC application to open a community radio station in the capital. The station, they imagined, would be an alternative to the mainstream conservative talk radio and feature local hosts playing a rich variety of music. The mission fit perfectly with the group’s progressive agenda, which also included anti-war protests and the launch of LSU’s recycling program. Their idea for Moonshot to form a community radio station came from what they saw as the need for a forum that would welcome alternative viewpoints, Marks says.
The group’s chances of obtaining a highly competitive FCC license were minimal. But four years later, the FCC granted its approval. WHYR-Baton Rouge community radio was officially born, at least as far as legal requirements are concerned.
With an entirely volunteer team, opening the station would take several more years. It didn’t help when another group attempted to steal WHYR’s operating license, forcing the BRPN to hire a media law attorney and fight the issue in court. An official FCC investigation sided with BRPN in 2010, and the following year the station was finally broadcast.
Members of the community were invited to submit show proposals. The station continues to receive dozens of program submissions today.
Marks says the beauty of Baton Rouge community radio is that there is something for everyone’s listeners. Current shows focus on Cajun music, swamp pop, modern country, rock’n’roll, new age, local hip-hop, rap and gutbucket, or traditional country, the blues, gospel and folk.
There are also locally produced talk shows, including one that delves deep into high school and college sports and includes live coverage of high school games. And there are shows dedicated to breaking the world of science and discussing the Baton Rouge art scene. Each host organizes and produces their own show.
“We’re an open window for people who want to be on air and who are passionate about something, be it local hip-hop, sports or roots music,” Marks says. “Dozens of people in and around Baton Rouge are on the air every week playing music they love or talking about issues they are passionate about.”
“Off the Record” host Smith remembers how she felt when she first discovered the radio station at a neighborhood meeting.
“I walked in and felt so comfortable with these people I had never met before,” says Smith. “They were interested in learning, music and communicating about music. I loved that it was a community station run by a diverse group of volunteers.
The station is appreciated not only by locals, but also by national listeners. Anyone can stream it from the station’s website.
WHYR also airs nationally aired shows like “Democracy Now!” “,” The Show “with the Harry Shearer comic,” Ralph Nader Radio Hour “and others.
What is most remarkable, says Marks, is that their dreams for the station have not faltered for more than two decades, even as the lives of volunteers have changed. Members of the founding group found jobs, got married and had children. Their lives became busier and their priorities changed, but their commitment to the station continued.
“Somehow we got there and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” says Marks. “We have become quite representative of the city’s culture and democracy, and of who the city is. It has been a beautiful thing to watch over the years.
To celebrate the June anniversary, WHYR is running a live pledge campaign starting June 24. To find out more, visit pourquoir.org.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of 225 magazine.