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July 25, 2008

WDEV: The "Farmers' Market" of MediaLand?

Wdev_event_2On Wednesday, July 23, a crowd of mostly middle-aged folks from the Mad River Valley crowded into the auditorium of Harwood Union High in South Duxbury. They had braved a thunderstorm to see Tune in Tomorrow, a new documentary by Waitsfielder Ed Dooley about Waterbury-based WDEV, one of the last great small-scale — and politically dichotomous — commercial radio stations in the United States.

I thought the film, which includes both archival footage and recent interviews with Amy Goodman (of Democracy Now!), Vermont Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, media prof/activist/professor Rob Williams and writer/activist/enviro-Godhead Bill McKibben, was really well done. And damn funny, too. Dooley packed in loads of historical stuff — think Model Ts winding down country roads, scratchy old broadcast footage — but in a lively way that showcased the quirky personality of station owner Ken Squier and his WDEV compatriots. Proceeds from Wednesday's event went towards  fuel assistance for low-income Vermonters.

After the screening, Squier, Williams and McKibben joined filmmaker Dooley on stage for a short Q & A. After McKibben lauded WDEV as the "farmers' market" of our contemporary mediascape, Squier recalled when the writer came to interview him for a 2003 Harper's Magazine story about the station, "Small world: Why one town stays unplugged." Squier said he had initially feared McKibben was  "one of those bark-eating people who listens to public radio," but that the Ripton writer ended up producing an accurate piece for the New York City-based lefty zine — even after visiting the WDEV booth at Thunder Road SpeedBowl in Barre.

Young people are increasingly drawn to iPODs these days, but "the only thing that counts is being part of a community and being relevant," Squier said of his station's 75-plus-year staying power. No matter what happens to WDEV in the future, he added, small-scale commercial radio must be preserved.

"We need local heroes," he said.

"You're my local hero!" someone yelled.

"Oh, Jesus,"  said Squier.

Tune in Tomorrow airs August 2 at 5:30p.m. on Vermont Public Television. Tune into WDEV at 550 AM or 96.1 FM.


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