This scrappy community station is rewriting the rules of Detroit radio

Detroit-based disc jockey Morris Porter (or Mo Master as he's also known) has been finding a lot of success lately with his weekly radio show "Memories of Motown." The program, which revisits the Detroit and L.A. eras of the Motown music label, is now syndicated and airing on a number of stations across the country, including WXIR in Rochester, New York and WPVM in Asheville, North Carolina.

"Memories of Motown" has a unique format that incorporates interviews from Porter's archives.

"When I go into an interview, I'm actually speaking as if the artist is still living," he says. "Then the interview comes in and we talk about different aspects of how the concept came up for the song, then the song plays. It's geared towards a person who wasn't really around during the Motown days, so they can get a feel for what it was like back in that time."

Morris Porter selects a record at WNUC
Porter has decades of experience in the radio and recording industries, having worked at local stations like WJLB and collaborated with rap artists like Proof and J Dilla. With a resume like that, he could be doing any number of potential radio gigs, but he's chosen to broadcast "Memories of Motown" for the nascent community station WNUC.

Located in Detroit's North End neighborhood in an office it shares with the Detroit People's Platform, WNUC been on the air at 96.7 FM for little over a year now.

Like nearby WFCB in Ferndale, it's a Low Power FM station, meaning it broadcasts to a limited geographic area; the noncommercial station has a reach of between five and seven miles, connecting with the Detroit neighborhoods of downtown, Midtown, North End, New Center, and a bit of southwest Detroit, as well as Hamtramck and Highland Park. Broadcast at less than 100 watts, WNUC's signal has a potential audience of about 30,000 people. Listeners also have the option of streaming its shows online. 

The station broadcasts a mix of music, news, and talk, with the latter two leaning towards the progressive side of the political spectrum. It's also an affiliate of the Pacifica Radio and features syndicated shows like "Democracy Now!" and "The Hartmann Report," in addition to local programming, which occupies about 40 percent of its schedule. Beyond its broadcasting duties, the station also co-sponsors The Equitable Internet Initiative, a program that provides internet access and computer skills training to residents of the North End and two other underserved Detroit neighborhoods. 

Porter has been with WNUC since it went on the air last May. 

"There weren't any rules; just normal FCC regulations," he says. "You don't get those type of opportunities in radio. You pretty much have to play what they want to you to play when they want to to play it."

In addition to Porter's show, "My Block, My Hood, My City," hosted by Rev. Joan Ross, is a staple of the station's programming. Ross initiated the process to get WNUC licensed and works diligently with a small team of volunteers to keep it on the air.

Ross has been an active force for positive transformation in Detroit's North End neighborhood for well over a decade, helping to jumpstart groups like the Greater Woodward CDC, the Storehouse of Hope food pantry, and the North End Woodward Community Coalition. With a background like that, it's probably not surprising her show looks at Detroit from the perspective of community residents.

"We talk about everything that impacts us as Detroiters, from the block club level," she says. "Whether it's issues downtown, the political scene, tulips in a garden or blight on the block, we want to talk about it."

Rev. Joan Ross live on air at WNUC
The station produces many other shows including "Bedtime Stories," a program featuring children's stories in English, Spanish, and Arabic; "Radio to the Future," a youth-produced show focused on life in Detroit; "EJ for Detroit," an environmental justice program put together by Great Lakes Bioneers Detroit; and "La Madrugada," a Spanish language show covering local news and events. 

There's also a unique medical show called "House Call with Dr. Debbie," hosted by Dr. Debbie Charfoos, a practicing gynecologist. Charfoos brings in a guest healthcare practitioner to talk about various health-related topics pertinent to the community, and invites the audience to call in and ask questions. 

So far, her show has covered issues like diabetes, hypertension, physical and psychological wellness, men's health, gynecology, and drug addiction.

Charfoos is optimistic about the station's mission and prospects. "It's a great station. It's still in its infancy, but it's a great idea," she says. "I'm just hoping we can get it out more to the community, so people know can tune in and get the information." 

Off the ground, on the air

Getting WNUC on the air wasn't an easy process. It started in 2013 when Ross first heard that the FCC had opened a window for community groups to get Low Power FM licenses.  

Intrigued by the idea, she reached out to a California group called Color of Change, who connected her with a coach that helped her craft an application that would be attractive to the FCC. Together they also tracked down an engineer based in Oregon, who helped locate a viable signal. Since it was coming out of Ontario, Ross had to get permission from Canada. 

Even after jumping through all those hoops, Ross wasn't optimistic about her chances for approval.

"For a long time we didn't hear anything. Oh well, we didn't get it," she says. "Then in May 2015 at about 6 o'clock, an email pops up: 'You've been granted a license through the FCC.' Suddenly we're thinking: 'Now where do we get the money?'"

Among other things, the fledgling radio station had to purchase an antenna and equipment, hire engineers, set up a website to stream content, and pay rent for a studio space. While Ross had heard from some radio professionals that the WNUC could be set up for around $9,000, they had to come up with $47,000 for the gear alone.

Ayana Rubio, an activist from southwest Detroit, joined the WNUC team and jumped headfirst into a fundraising campaign, organizing a spaghetti dinner and silent auction fundraiser. The stations's efforts were also bolstered by a GoFundMe campaign and donors like Dr. Richard Keidan, who works with the Detroit2Nepal Foundation and helped bring Dr. Charfoos on as a host. 

Building that houses WNUC studio in the North End
By winter 2015, everyone at the station was revved up and ready to start broadcasting. Unfortunately, that's when they were confronted with a series of costly and time-consuming city zoning and safety requirements, like needing to produce blueprints for the building where they were renting and securing a boom truck to hoist up a tiny antenna. 

Luckily the staff got some help in the form of two volunteer engineers from Wisconsin, Todd Fisher Wallin and David Klaan. Neither of them were Detroit natives, but both were passionate believers in community radio. They helped order equipment, did technical drawings, and even volunteered to go to city hall to fetch the old building blueprints. 

"Their commitment really got this station up because at points I was so frustrated, I would have given up," Ross says. "They didn't have any vested interest, they just believed what I believed — that people had a right to a voice."

Radio to the future

Now more than a year in, WNUC has found its footing and is focused on the future. 

One of the biggest steps it's taking involves outreach; WNUC just hired a marketing firm to spread the word about the station and attract local sponsors.

WNUC's staff is also determined to bring more content producers into the fold. In fact, Rubio has been in talks with the Detroit chapter of Black Lives Matter about producing their own show of news and analysis. 

"I'm really excited to be at a point where we can bring together groups of people and do this really necessary work of expanding our political analysis and our radical imagination," she says.

Beyond that, Porter, who recently became a programmer at WNUC, plans on teaching a class on podcasting — a service the station plans on adding soon — that promises to make the broadcast platform even more accessible to prospective content providers. 

In reflecting on the future, however, Ross thinks that WNUCs biggest legacy will be the space the station has created for community residents on the local airwaves.

"We are just proud and honored that we are the holders of the license … so it can be an asset for community many years down the road," Ross says. "The community will own this station as long as we protect this signal."

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.