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LPFM finally launches in downtown Tucson

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In the basement of the Sinfonia building on Stone and Toole avenues, a dark structure encased by stone walls, cement flooring, steel beams and discarded furniture, a collection of a dozen or so people gather in a corner.

They pretend to be oblivious to the sound of the drummer who practices pounding rhythms from a location somewhere above, eventually joined by other bandmates in a brief musical assault that careens throughout the structure. Meanwhile, a train bellows its presence from just outside the building's confines.

But the leader of the group keeps chatting and remains focused on the issues he wants to address.

"We really have a chance to make something super cool happen in Tucson," he says to his core of volunteers.

From an outsider's perspective it looks more like the makings of a ritual sacrifice. Maybe for Jason LeValley, in some ways that's the case.

Nothing has come easy, but after more than four arduous years of paperwork, holdups, dropouts, uncertainty and delay, Downtown Tucson's Low Power FM station is finally on the air.

Band be damned. Train be damned. Distractions be damned.

The important thing: there's a radio signal broadcasting from 99.1 FM, and it covers a distance that easily encompasses downtown and the UA campus, perhaps as far as Grant and Country Club roads to the north and east and 40th Street and past I-10 south and west.

"I had no idea it would have taken this long, and all the work that has gone into it," LeValley says. "I started out with a couple other guys and was really hoping I could just be the music director of the station, but the other guys kind of fell by the wayside over time and left me holding the ball. I just kind of ran with it."

Their initial vision, and the vision LeValley helped to germinate, was to create an outlet for album oriented classic rock, a return to the days of the so-called AOR format that took hold when FM radio exploded onto the scene in the '70s. As time has passed the model has adjusted, but LeValley wants the station to focus on the depth of rock music available over the format's 50-plus years of existence.

"That means the classic rock era from the advent of the Beatles to the time where Nirvana came along and changed everything, and continuing to the present day," LeValley said. "When you listen to a commercial station it's generally classic rock or alternative rock, but this is just rock. It's assuming it's all the same. Of course there was going to be a sea change at some point because rock and roll is really meant for young people, and by the late '80s those early classic rockers were already turning 50 or so. Something had to change. Teenagers weren't going to continue buying Bob Seger records into the '90s and new millennium. Somebody had to 'turn the page,' and that happened with a bang when Nirvana's Never Mind came out."

Commercial radio continues to struggle with that distinction. Classic rock fans often prefer material pre-Nirvana. Those who grew up with Nirvana and the grunge movement view classic rock as archaic and stale.

LeValley hopes to blend those formats, and incorporate some sub-genres, while focusing on rock by familiar artists, but not through their familiar songs. The format will incorporate deep cut classic rock, deep cut alternative rock and a sprinkling of music from local bands.

Specialty blocks will take place as well, including a jazz show, a program featuring comedian performances and a funk show hosted by Stephen Boughton, one of the city's foremost experts in the genre. It's an example of the all-volunteer crew LeValley has cultivated to this point.

"Almost all the DJs scheduled have been handpicked by me for their musical knowledge and/or radio background," LeValley says of a volunteer staff that also boasts diverse professional experience, often in areas not entertainment based.

He anticipates an influx of on-air interest from others once knowledge of the station grows.

LeValley's radio experience includes stints with a college station at the University of Redlands and time spent at community radio juggernaut KXCI 91.3 FM between 1999-2002. He also possesses a background in mental health, where he has a master's in counseling. As a result, mental health awareness will be a focal point of the station's community mission.

"We're going to get the community involved first in that way," LeValley says. "But there are other causes worth inviting to be on the air. Youth on Their Own comes to mind. It's a great program that helps kids find some stability. The thing to do is just keep interacting with the community, keep evolving." Which is exactly what LeValley has done to this point, despite the seemingly endless hurdles.

"As long as we put the word out we're a community station and we want the community to be involved, I think it will continue to grow as a result," he says.

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