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As we welcome Spring we also welcome another community radio profile. This month we sit down with Marika Partridge of WOWD in Takoma Park, MD. When NFCB took a staff retreat in Washington DC, we had the pleasure of meeting up with Marika and touring the small and lively WOWD studios nestled in a cozy storefront location.

An excerpt of this interview was featured in our April 2024 Newsletter. Not subscribed? Click here for monthly doses of community radio inspiration.

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Serah Mead: Please share with us who you are and how you came into radio.

Marika Partridge: My name is Marika Partridge, and I stumbled into radio. 

I’m a military brat and so wherever I went, the radio was a bit of a constant for me.  Because we were a Navy family, and my parents were both from the South, we did tape trading, like we were recording into a reel-to-reel as when I was little, you know, to stay in touch, as we couldn’t make calls. So anyway, we traded tapes. I learned how to use a tape recorder early and I learned that when the mic is on, you have to be saying something somewhat entertaining, telling a story or singing a song. So I think I learned the importance of when the mic is on at an early age.

Later, my dad got a good job in Alaska, and I left at college graduation time to go to Alaska. That’s where I really stumbled into radio, because I do love listening to the radio; and I always did. I turned on the radio in Juneau, Alaska when I arrived in 1976, and there was only one thing on the FM dial: there was KTOO. I was finding my first employment there in Juneau, and I hadn’t even got my own place, but then I listened to the radio, and the guy goes, “…and if you want to volunteer in the station, you can give us a call…” My parents had just gotten their phone put in, and the first call that went out on that phone was me calling KTOO saying, “I just heard your ad for helping at the station, and I’d like to!” The announcer went, “that was not an ad!” Hahah. He said “We are public radio! We’re community radio, we don’t do ads!” I’m like, “Oh, whatever. However, you mentioned it, I want to do that.” I went on over to KTOO and got the job as Music Director. So that’s how I got into radio. 

It was a long time ago and I didn’t have worries in my early 20’s about sticking with the job and creating a resume. So, I packed up and went with my boyfriend at the time on a sailboat, and we landed in Sitka. I had met Todd Davis, who was starting the Sitka station, but he ended up being killed in a climbing accident on Mount Rainier. So when I got to Sitka I just put an ad in the local paper saying, “What happened?—” I mean literally, like a little classified—“where did the people go who were starting KCAW? Meet me at Staton Steakhouse for coffee at 6pm, Thursday.” And they came! They brought a shoebox full of the bylaws and articles of incorporation; that’s as far as they had gotten. Todd was their fearless leader, and not one of them was going to run with it without him, so I did. 

Todd should get some credit for starting KCAW, but I sort of ended up with the credit because I pushed it forward. Back in those days there was a lot of federal money and money with the state of Alaska and we were able to get lots of support. It wasn’t, like, so heroic. It was more like, “Knock, knock, we’re here in Sitka, we’re ready to do this!” 

One of the best things that happened during that period was when I went to the NFCB conference. I’d have to look back, but I think the first one I went to was in Worcester, Mass. I also did Telluride. And it was at one of these conferences where Rich McClear cornered me and said “I want to be station manager in Sitka. I love Sitka!” And Rich has been really my, you know, he is my number one mentor. He’s really incredible, and he’s a great storyteller. He really taught me everything about training, and about storytelling, and about opening up to the community. So I got into serious community radio there in Sitka, and I was there for eight years.

 

SM: As a music-forward LPFM station just a stone’s throw away from the Nation’s capital, what role does Takoma Radio play for listeners?

MP: Well, you know, I worked for 16 years at NPR. DC is a news-heavy city; it’s news, news, news. And even I’ve seen the transformation at NPR: So much of the culture, and features, and the things that I actually enjoyed working on have sort of been edged out. Even the little snippets of music that we called “buttons,” were pushed out while I was there. 

So at first with Takoma Radio, I felt strongly that we should just be broadcast [no streaming]. That turned out to be a bad idea, because we just don’t have enough local people, there are big buildings and we can reach five to eight miles with our pretty good signal. But it’s not enough. Now, with streaming, we’ve got people listening all over the world.

And what we have here in DC is an outrageously good talent pool. People have come here to be experts in something or, maybe to work at the federal government. We have high level people, some with a background in college radio, or even community radio. In a place like DC, WOWD is a relief to me. It’s a relief to find real curated radio. We have a one-on-one connection with each listener. I train our volunteers the way Rich McClear trained us back in Sitka: host as if you’re talking to one person. If you can’t visualize them, put a photo up or a drawing, just imagine it’s one. It’s not “hey, you guys,” it’s, “Hey, it’s you and me listener, hold my hand, you individual, and we will go for a romp on the radio together.”

So, I think we pull in listeners because we’re singular. It is just a culture station with very little public affairs and we can’t afford it anyway. Why would we pay a news team, when there’s like a news team within a minute of here for every purpose? 

We went on the air like three months before the 2016 elections. We hadn’t really done any training for how to host a post-election set and our volunteers were calling us asking for support, and I said, “Play your show. Everybody needs a little relief right now. Go for it. Go bring some joy, bring your music forward. And, you know, together we’ll get through this, you know?”

 

SM: I really like what you said about WOWD being a culture station. There’s a lot to unpack there. Would you say it’s a culture creator? A culture mirror? How does that show up for you?

MP: Not so much of a culture creator—I think it’s a culture mirror or culture cup… a cultural holder. One example is our Ethiopian programming: during COVID, we were able to bring in an Ethiopian Amharic show. I really felt we needed Amharic on the air because I think DC has one of the largest collections of Ethiopian people outside of Addis, and for us not to have information in Amharic about COVID?? There’s no other Amharic station! So, it’s a big deal that we have our Amharic programming. We also have former major journalist Erik Bond hosting Talk of Takoma, we have interviews, and gardening shows, and people who left Takoma and went to Ukraine—they’ll do a show for us. But that’s not news, again, it’s more culture. Who are we here? What’s important to us? And we’re not trying to convert anybody or anything. 

 

SM: For a manager like yourself, who are the heroes of the industry? What have you learned from them?

MP: Well, I mean, Rich McClear led me to all kinds of good stuff. Stan Freeburg, Larry Josephson, Joe Frank, Ira Glass, you know, that whole lineage of like incredible radio people I worked with. And I loved Joe Frank on the radio, you know, there was a lot of good stuff on the radio in the 70’s and 80’s.

And before that, the NFCB creators for sure: Tom Thomas, Terry Clifford, and my first station manager, Bruce Theriault. I stay in touch with certain people like Ira, Joe Richmond, Teenage Diaries, and The Kitchen Sisters are good friends.

 

SM: Takoma Park Radio is not alone in its uniqueness—its inventiveness and resourcefulness. These tend to be inherent qualities in small community radio stations. But I wonder: in your work, do you have any guiding principles that help you navigate all the challenges that arise?

MP: Well, I mean, you saw the station. It’s a 10 by 10 by 10 foot cube, we don’t have a production facility unless someone is not live on the air, and we can switch to Program 2, which puts our automation on the air. That’s it for a high quality!

I’m called the Station Founder, Senior Advisor. So when it comes to navigating challenges, I wait for compelling arguments from our staff of two, to say, “We really should do this; Here’s how we would do it; Here’s how we could afford it; Here’s why we would want it.” I say it’s a very fragile entity, actually, the radio station, we don’t want to rock the boat, take a big step that we can’t afford, or even change the successful model of the music-forward “culture cup.” It was a hard eight years. So just don’t rock the boat, baby.

 

SM: What are your hopes for the future of community radio?

MP: Well, I hope we stay on course, continue to be the pulse of the community, continue to bring in new volunteers and not get ossified. Nobody owns their shift. We want to be the pulse of the community and it’s a shared commodity. For me, it tends to be authenticity that I notice, you know, freshness, sustaining interest, learning, growing, and changing. I don’t know for sure how we achieve it… but maybe we achieve it by not getting distracted. By referring back to the mission, building bridges within the community, creating more understanding, bringing different kinds of people together. How do we change the world? By listening to one another and learning about the other. And it no longer is “the other.”