PRX Managing Director John Barth visited Marfa Public Radio in Texas this week. Here is his story of the trip.
Marfa Public Radio is worth the trip. Go there.
But first, get a good rental car because you are in for at least a three-and-a-half hour drive from Midland, Texas (say hi to George and Laura Bush) to points south through dry scrub, tiny towns, oil fields, and a barren, dramatic landscape. I came away with new respect for cowboys, settlers and ranchers. It takes a hearty breed, even now.
Marfa has become an edgy arts and creative mecca on the edge of this rough land. Sculptors, minimalist German artists, designers, clothing makers, graphics people, architects, and craftsman have turned a dusty town into a place that Richard Florida would love. The movie Giant was filmed here. You might see a movie star at a local bar. It is that kind of wide open center of energy, with a mix of tumbleweed and pick up trucks.
At the center is Marfa Public Radio, literally right on the main street. The building is really a modest, long hallway with offices and studios and a meeting room. The windows from the main air studio look out on the sidewalk; occasional citizens wander by and peer in. When I was there earlier this week a retired volunteer was doing ATC breaks, bathed in bright sun.
Tom Michael birthed Marfa Public Radio, doing the hard work of wrestling for the license and building community trust and input. As Tom said to me more than once, so many people in Marfa are entrepreneurs — people who know to get something done, they have to do it. That’s Tom. And, the people who rallied around the station to make it happen. If someone had a good idea for a radio show, good chance they would end up on the air.
The community part of the station grew with the station’s signal, an organic path that reached a pinnacle last Fall. The fund drive was ready to start until…
One afternoon, high winds jostled some old wires at a dusty house a few miles of out town. The wires shorted and sparked, and pretty soon nearby dry brush caught fire. In moments, the deadly black smoke of a fast moving wildfire signaled danger. The fire raced across the land, threatening homes and at one point shutting down the electrical grid for hundreds of square miles.
Marfa Public Radio suspended the fund drive.
And the station discovered a new role: its unique position to tell people what was going on across a huge swath of southwest Texas. Listeners and families converged on the station to help. People were calling in updates of road closures and firebreaks. County officials suddenly discovered Marfa Public Radio as more than a home of eclectic music and local DJs. The station was an essential lifeline to isolated communities. Tom and his crew broke into music programming with live interviews, citizen updates, critical info on road closures, water supplies, and evacuation centers.
After the fires died down, the fund drive started up again. Listeners responded. Marfa saw almost a 30% increase in pledges.
The station offers a creative mix of NPR programs, some show from PRX (American Routes, Sound Opinions and occasional pieces) plus a lot of local voices, styles and community. The afternoon I was there I met a local doctor showing up for his air shift.
Marfa Public Radio has also mounted some incredible local events: live music performances and benefits, a bike race, film showings.
Now, its reach is extending to Midland/Odessa a very different community but one that could use a dose of public radio. Tom and supporters have bought the KOCV signal from a local community college. He laughs and says the existing studios there are a bit ratty but he has ambitions to create a station that offers a similar mix of network content but also reflects the conservative, faith-based community it will serve.
That’s quite a programming challenge. Do you have ideas to share with Tom? Drop him and his staff a line at tom – at – marfapublicradio – dot -org.
(Marfa on PRX | Photos © John Barth)