More than once in the past month, Chase Spross has had to rush into XRAY.fm's Northeast Portland studio—suited up with mask, gloves and headlamp—to make emergency repairs.
Since Oregon's shelter in place order, Portland's community radio DJs have been broadcasting from home studios. But each remotely recorded mix is still transmitted through the same central signal. So when something goes wrong, Spross, XRAY's operations manager, has to go into the station's now-vacant subterranean studio in the Falcon Art Community building on North Albina Avenue to fix it.
"I've been spotted in there a few times over the last couple of weeks, not only just wiping down the studio but recabling some stuff," he says. "We're really reliant on computers, and we've got a really nice network, but there are times when it doesn't work and you've got to go in there and restart things or turn things back on."
When COVID-19 shut down Portland, community radio DJs across the city stopped broadcasting from central studios and took to the airwaves from DIY setups in their kitchens, bedrooms and home offices. Now that concerts are canceled, clubs are closed and record stores have shuttered, stations like XRAY are some of the only remaining local music hubs. And for many hosts, that's sparked a renewed sense of purpose.
"We're moving with superhero purpose at this point," says DJ Ambush of the Numberz, Portland's only all-black radio station and an offshoot of XRAY. "If there's an issue, if streams are down or something's going wrong with the broadcast, it's like, 'Who's close enough? Who can get to the station real quick? Run in there with your mask and gloves, hit a couple switches and then get on out.'"
While they've seen a spike in engagement, Portland's community radio stations are also struggling with loss of sponsors and facing unique technological puzzles. For a listener, though, the transition sounds fairly seamless.
Cristina Trecha is a board member and DJ for Freeform, Portland's only all-volunteer radio station. Normally, she hosts a show called Guitar and Other Machines, in which she highlights experimental music played on traditional instruments. But during the pandemic, Trecha has decided to take a break from her regular show. Instead, she's been turning to what refers to as her musical "comfort food," which recently included a Captain Beefheart tribute show.
"I'm picking things that are easier to listen to," says Trecha. "I'm like, 'OK, I'll do a half an hour set of actual songs with words."
Just about every station has shifted its programming to some degree. Freeform has abandoned its regular schedule for a constantly changing rotation of DJs. XRAY has started producing a daily news podcast called The Local and broadcasting digital debates between local political candidates. The Numberz is still spinning an eclectic mix that ranges from trap to classic funk, but has shortened its shows to make room for more PSAs. In an effort to keep listener interaction alive in the absence of livestreaming, just about every organization has added community-submitted playlists to their rotation.
Behind the scenes, however, DJs are scrambling to adapt to a media landscape that's changing by the day. Many Portland radio stations already possessed the technology for remote broadcasting, but it was used by only a handful of DJs who couldn't make it into the studio or the occasional remote broadcast from a bar.
"The tech is there," says Freeform DJ Ian Zentner. "We just haven't had to think about it in terms of, like, our entire community needing to use it."
Coordinating dozens of remote studios is less of a technological hurdle and more of a people problem. Prior to the shutdown, most Portland radio DJs had never broadcast remotely. Once they could no longer go into the studio, stations suddenly had to train dozens of show hosts how to set up and broadcast from home studios and make the abrupt technological transition undetectable to the listener—without every setting foot in a studio.
Prior to the pandemic, "I was managing one studio and I was able to be there all the time and able to walk down there and help people out," Spross says. "Not being able to see each other and not knowing what setup they have has been the challenging thing."
Now, most stations are broadcasting pre-recorded shows, which are then centrally edited and added to the mix. Though remote training and troubleshooting have been a feat, the process of recording mixes itself isn't that complicated.
"Essentially," says Eric Kilkenny, a DJ for both Freeform and WFMU in New York, "if you can make a mixtape at home, most people could broadcast."
But that's a drawback, too. Radio's live format allows real-time human interaction, which is largely what distinguishes it from a Spotify playlist.
"Pre-recorded shows are great, but there's something about the live thing," says Kilkenny. "It's like jazz or something, that improvisational aspect of live radio where you can really interact with people."
Currently, there's no model for remote livestreaming on such a mass scale. Livestreaming from dozens of studios is exponentially more complicated than broadcasting pre-recorded mixes. Few radio stations have figured out how to build their own live network, so it's become something of a holy grail for community radio during the pandemic.
"For the live broadcast, it means switching studios and studio setups," says Jefferson Smith, XRAY's general manager. "The nice thing about having one studio is, it's just setup and someone goes in and uses it. When we're now operating lots of studios, that means switches in between those have to be ready, and all of the connections between those studios have to be routed to the proper place."
That difficulty is compounded by the fact that all the DJs have their own setup, with different gear and its own unique quirks. Still, XRAY is one of only a few stations nationwide that has managed to pioneer a remote livestreaming setup.
Spross essentially built the system from the ground up, by overhauling XRAY's automation system, cobbling together different software systems and helping DJs find the correct gear to buy for their home setups. Now, XRAY has slowly begun rolling out livestreaming show by show. Currently, eight of XRAY's shows are live, with plans to add another next week.
"It's cliché to say, but necessity is the mother of invention," Spross says. "We were really forced to look at what we have and see how we can make it work."
The need for innovation, however, comes hand in hand with financial constraints. Run entirely by volunteers, Freeform is used to operating on a low budget and, luckily, made several repairs just before the pandemic hit. According to DJ Ambush, none of the Numberz's sponsors has backed out yet. XRAY.fm, however, has lost several. To make things worse, the station had scheduled its annual fundraising gala for March 21. But when Gov. Kate Brown issued a ban on large gatherings just 10 days before the event, XRAY was forced to cancel one of its largest annual moneymakers.
"That was like writing a $30,000, $50,000 check to the credit buyers," Smith says. "[Losing] that, of course, had a real impact."
So far, that's meant only a few layoffs. Mostly, tight finances have meant the station has had to delay maintenance updates and other technological investments.
On April 20, XRAY will kick off its listener drive. Since the station doesn't track its listenership by Nielsen ratings, the drive is when the station can really quantify its presumed spike in community engagement.
The uncertainty isn't going to abate anytime soon. Regardless, Portland's community radio stations mostly seem galvanized. After all, connecting people through disasters is exactly what radio was designed to do.
"This is what we're born for," says Smith. "Radio is supposed to keep going during earthquakes. Radio sure as heck has got to keep going in a pandemic."