Starting a nonprofit radio station from scratch is enough of a cliff to scale in the digital era – even more so when you’re doing it in a famed music mecca like Memphis. How do you capture the essence of the city that nurtured Stax Records, Sun Records and influential heavy hitters from Al Green to Elvis Presley to Three 6 Mafia? For the folks behind WYXR, a station at 91.7 FM that’s now in its third year, you keep your ears open – to the city’s musical past, present and to ongoing feedback from the community. “We want give every Memphian, and person who cares about Memphis, an opportunity to say whether they enjoy our programming,” says Jared “Jay B.” Boyd, the station’s program manager.
It seems like they’re hitting the right notes. From 2021 to 2022, the station enjoyed 50% audience growth. And on Saturday, Dec. 2, WYXR hosted its second annual Raised by Sound Fest. The 2022 fundraiser boasted an all-star salute to Memphis power pop icons Big Star, led by surviving founding member Jody Stephens. This year, Cat Power – whose Matador debut What Would the Community Think (1996) and breakout LP The Greatest (2006) were recorded in Memphis – headlined Raised by Sound, fighting through a cold to deliver an astonishing recreation of Bob Dylan’s infamous Royal Albert Hall concert from 1966. (Throughout the acoustic-then-electric set, Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson was grooving in the front row. Cat Power raised her fist in solidarity with the Democrat – who was briefly expelled earlier this year for participating in a gun control rally – more than a few times.)
Like the station itself, Raised by Sound Fest is situated in Crosstown Concourse, an old Sears distribution center that was transformed into a bustling hub of food, music and residential apartments in the late 2010s. The expansive space — which also houses the meticulously vintage Southern Grooves studio and the Memphis Listening Lab, a treasure trove for audiophiles — lends itself well to fortuitous run-ins. Prior to her acoustic solo set at the festival, Seratones singer A.J. Haynes chatted with Ari Morris, a mixer for Lil Durk and Moneybagg Yo. A few hours earlier, a WYXR volunteer ran into a supporter of the station whose son lives in Crosstown Concourse; she revealed she would be doubling her 2022 donation in honor of Shangri-La Records owner (and occasional WYXR host) Jared McStay, who died of cancer just last month.
The station officially launched in late 2020, but began gestating in 2019 when the University of Memphis approached Crosstown Concourse and The Daily Memphian, looking to shake up a university-affiliated jazz station at 91.7 FM. Robby Grant — part of the Memphis rock outfit Big Ass Truck, which formed in the ‘90s — initially got involved as a consultant, but was inspired to join the station as a founding partner; now, he serves as the executive director.
Boyd’s path to WYXR dovetailed with Grant’s. After returning to his hometown following a news reporter gig in Mobile, Ala., Boyd began writing for The Daily Memphian. Around that time, he was also drawing on his encyclopedia knowledge of local music history to create a playlist of Memphis-related songs for Crosstown Concourse. (People working in the building complained about hearing the same four-hour mix on repeat every day. To alleviate the issue, Boyd crafted a 21-hour playlist that’s now well north of 100 hours.) After interviewing Grant for a piece on the nascent WYXR, Boyd – who graduated from the same high school as Grant, just two decades later – began envisioning a more permanent role at the station. Before long, he became a founding partner and continues to operate as the station’s program manager.
His DJ connections (Boyd spins as DJ Bizzle Bluebland) and Memphis-centric record collection helped inform some of the people he brought in as WYXR hosts. Pastor Juan Shipp, for instance, released gritty gospel records on his D-Vine Spirituals label back in the ‘70s (those 45s now fetch a few hundred dollars on Discogs). But he was essentially a whispered legend in Memphis music lore until WYXR put him back on the air for a lively Saturday gospel program — marking a second coming of sorts for the cult favorite.
Grant tapped his network, too – which included some recognizable names in the indie music world. “We wanted Memphis connections and some bigger names because it draws attention,” Grant tells Billboard. To that end, Wilco’s Pat Sansone — whom Grant played with in the project Mellotron Variations — got involved as a host, as did one half of MGMT. “Andrew VanWyngarden went to the same high school Jay B. and I did,” Grant says with a wistful smirk. “His band — not MGMT — used to open for my band.”
With WYXR broadcasting live from a studio in Crosstown Concourse’s main lobby, some of the bigger names brought out curious onlookers to watch the action (separated by a soundproof window, of course). Olivia Cohen, who used to watch VanWyngarden’s show in the lobby as a high schooler, now works as the station’s membership and community engagement coordinator.
The station also inadvertently facilitated a marriage (between members of the DJ collective bodywerk) and an unlikely friendship between Memphis hip-hop legend DJ Spanish Fly and local EDM-trap DJ Madeleine “mado” Holdford. “She was so nervous [when she met him],” Boyd recalls. “But we put their [Thursday] shows back-to-back and now they’re fast friends. One night they were having a Christmas dad-joke contest. This is a 29-year-old white girl and a 52-year-old Black man who’s known as a godfather of hip-hop. There are grown men who are afraid of Spanish Fly.”
He also points to Khi Da Godd, a young DJ who “a year and a half ago thought no one else liked house music in Memphis.” Fast forward to 2023: He hosts a show on Saturdays and recently met genre pioneer Larry Heard. “He’s bringing out other kids, and now they have a network and they’re getting gigs. They’re self-sufficient in a way they weren’t [before]. They’re finding commonalities with each other. I see those social connections happen all the time.”
It’s easy to see how the station’s vibe – passionate but informal, anchored by hosts who are authoritative yet loose – fosters relationships. When Grant swung by a late-night underground rock show helmed by author/journalist Andrew Earles, the Hüsker Dü biographer grilled his boss on whether the Cat Power/Dylan concert featured an audience plant shouting “Judas!” at the appropriate moment (it did not). And late on Friday nights, hip-hop DJ Nicole Covington sometimes veers off into detailed detours on wrestling.
“Robert Gordon, who is a documentarian and rock writer from here — his whole thing is, ‘I’m messing up the whole time,’” says Grant of Gordon’s anything-goes Tuesday show. “It’s a little bit of a bit, but it’s also true. Especially late at night.”
“My show [can go] off the rails,” Boyd laughs. “We don’t micromanage whether [the music is] old, new or otherwise – it’s really about curating the people. There are plenty of DJs who play way more cutting-edge music than I do, and it’s all about their tastes, their intuition.”
As the station approaches its fourth year, the WYXR team is hoping to raise even greater awareness of the station within the demographically diverse metropolitan area. “I want more buy-in from the community,” Boyd says, adding that “some of our hosts had no idea that this format of radio and opportunity existed” before he reached out to them. In addition to hitting pockets of Memphis that don’t normally tune into community radio, an ongoing challenge is keeping existing listeners and donors invested in the station’s success. “We’re more than a radio station – we’re an arts and culture organization,” Grant says. “We are a nonprofit. We’re not commercial radio. We have about a thousand donors who give on a yearly basis and a couple hundred monthly donors. [Our job is] keeping them engaged and letting them know what’s going on at the station – because there’s so much going on.”
Raised by Sound Fest, of course, is a big part of that. “From a fundraising point of view, we try to line up sponsors a few months before. For the fundraising concert, we price the VIP tickets in such a way where we can make money – and it was a huge success,” Grant shares of the 2023 edition, which raised 60% more than the inaugural 2022 festival.
“This year felt like we settled into the groove,” Boyd agrees. “People are assured that we have their best interests in mind when it comes to demonstrating how music can move this community.”
“It’s figuring out how to scale smartly,” says Grant, who is realistic about the fact that the station is unlikely to boast another 50% listener growth rate as it moves into 2024. “We have a podcast network we’re working on expanding. We’re archiving shows, working on the website and apps. Not everyone listens to radio the way they used to, so we’re trying to meet people where they are.”
“Music is at the center of our culture,” says Boyd of Memphis. “Tulsa, Oklahoma might be a nice place to live — there are business magnates there, you can see music there — but the feeling that you own music and are part of a music culture? It’s an asset of [this] community. People feel like they have collective ownership of the sound and what it means to us. The way some families connect over food, we connect over music.”
WYXR covered Billboard’s accommodations during the weekend of the Raised by Sound Fest.