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Weekend music

Station to station: Downtown Radio dials in 2nd birthday

Tucson is a city that loves local and independent music. That's why you can see live bands and solo musicians playing around town nearly every night of the week, and why our airwaves play host to not just one but two music-focused nonprofit community radio stations.

The elder statesman of the two, KXCI, has been offering its signature mix of diverse, eclectic music, speciality programming and "talk"-based shows like Broad Perspectives Radio and Democracy Now for more than three decades.

What began as a modest operation fueled by optimism, volunteers and coffee has grown and blossomed over the years into a thriving community radio station which, thanks to a successful 2014 fundraising drive to upgrade the transmitter, now reaches over 30,000 listeners in the greater Tucson metro area. KXCI's most recent achievement addition is a Downtown-based "community studio" in historic Hotel Congress, which opened on Labor Day.

In contrast, Downtown Radio, which launched in September of 2015, is only a couple of years past that initial "coffee and optimism" stage. Downtown Radio is a low-power FM station, one of just a handful of such stations to be granted licenses in the last window of FCC approvals and one of fewer than 1,000 LPFM nationwide.

While the low-power radio band offers a rare opportunity for community broadcasters it also comes with its own set of challenges with a terrestrial broadcast range limited to 100 watts. In the case of Downtown Radio, that range extends through much of Downtown and Midtown as well as the University of Arizona campus.

Since LPFM stations also must, by law, be noncommercial in nature, they are subject to strict underwriting rules and cannot accept traditional advertisers. This means that Downtown Radio had an added challenge in its early days, convincing donors and underwriters that the station would attract a following, given its limited range.

But in its short time on the airwaves, the station has made an impact. At first the station could only be heard via FM radio at 99.1 FM, but even so, it built a strong local audience among Downtown dwellers and business owners before eventually expanding its reach to a greater audience via streaming at downtownradio.org.

The station has largely built its listener base on its unique "no hits" radio format and its focus on both established and upcoming local musicians. Downtown Radio plays mainly independent, noncommercial rock music with a specific mission to avoid overplayed, corporate rock playlists.

Instead, programming is chosen by an army of volunteer DJs (including this columnist and fellow TucsonSentinel.com contributor Ted Prezelski).

Daytime shows featuring a mix of new local and national artists, vintage indie, psych, garage and alternative rock, and lesser known tracks by well known rock icons. Nighttime and weekend shows follow themed or specialty formats pitched by DJs which range the spectrum from Goth to Prog to B Movie Horror Punk and all points in between.

Unlike most traditional radio stations, Downtown Radio's playlists are hand picked by the DJ on duty in the style of old school "free form" FM radio of yore, with the caveat that local bands must be featured at least a couple of times within each playlist whenever possible — and that no Top 40 hits or overplayed singles make the cut.

"We're the only local station to specifically avoid playing hits," explains the station's Program Director Jason LeValley.

LeValley also worked with one of Downtown Radio's underwriters, Jim Waters of Waterworks West recording studio, to offer The Downtown Radio Sessions, a series of live performance and interview segments with up and coming local bands. The sessions do a dual service - letting Tucson get to know its live music scene better while giving local bands a chance to record in an established, professional studio environment, some for the very first time.

In addition to the music programming that makes up most of Downtown Radio's content, Sundays are partially devoted to the station's other core mission — depression and mental health services.

"With [Sunday talk shows] The Depression Session and Heavy Mental, Downtown Radio offers mental health programming that no other station does," explains LeValley.

 "The station is a social experiment, in a sense," he adds "and it's proving to be successful."

Downtown Radio celebrates its second year on the airwaves this Friday at Saint Charles Tavern, just south of Downtown. The show, hosted by the station's Brian Taraz, aka "DJ Satan" will feature live music from Tucson "funk punk" band Shooda Shook It, retro pop band Lemon Drop Gang, Latin/Surf/Soundtrack artists Los Guapos and psych rock band Silver Cloud Express (featuring former members of local favorites The Modeens.)

Downtown Radio 2nd Anniversary Bash!, 9 p.m. Friday, Saint Charles Tavern

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It's album 'hatching' season

Remember a couple of months or ago when it seemed like every band in town was going on mini "tours" of the west coast and, in some cases, as far as Japan? Well, touring season is wrapping up which means it's time for the next collective stage in the local music "circle of life" — album release season.

This week's live record release shows include Steff and the Articles, HYTS and Bruja and the Coyote. Stay tuned next week for more, including Leila Lopez and Juju Fontaine.

  • Steff and the Articles album release show, 8 p.m. Friday, Club Congress (Downtown)
  • HYTS album release party, 7 p.m. Saturday, Solar Culture Gallery (Downtown)
  • Bruja and the Coyote album release show, 9 p.m. Thursday, the Flycatcher (Downtown)

Party at Ground Zero!

After 25 years, legendary funk, punk, ska band Fishbone is still "skanking to the beat," supporting the legendary Reverend Horton Heat on Tuesday night at the Rialto Theatre. 

The show is one of a number of national acts spending time in Tucson this week. Alternative rockers Modest Mouse are also coming to the Old Pueblo on Sunday, along with Jason Isbell and the 400 on Wednesday and Ben Folds on Thursday, all 8 p.m. shows at the Rialto. More notable bands are headed our way in the coming weeks, so stay tuned to this column.

Check your local listings

 Friday, September 15

  • Downtown Radio 2nd Anniversary Bash! 9 p.m. Saint Charles Tavern (S of Downtown)
  • Sera Cahoone 7 p.m. 191 Toole, 4 p.m. (Downtown)
  • El Tambó w/ Frontera Bulgalú and Mariachi Rubor 8 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Steff and the Articles w/ Infinite Beauties and Birds and Arrows 8 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Starbot w/ Heavy Hangs The Heart 8 p.m. The Loudhouse (N Tucson)
  • Texas Tragedy Rock Show 9 p.m. The Flycatcher (Downtown)

Saturday, September 16

  • HYTS Album Release Party 7 p.m. Solar Culture Gallery (Downtown)
  • Paper Foxes , M. Crane, Juju Fontaine 9 p.m. Sky Bar (Downtown)
  • Santa Pachita 9 p.m. Che's (Downtown)
  • Grateful Shred 8 p.m. The Flycatcher (Downtown)
  • Illenium w/ Codeko 8 p.m. Rialto Theater (Downtown)

Sunday, September 17

  • Tight Fright, Pork Torta, Free Machines, Bloodline Cadence 7 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Leroy Sanchez 7 p.m. 191 Toole (Downtown)
  • Modest Mouse 8 p.m. Rialto Theater (Downtown)

Monday September 18

  • Black Mass, Napalm Strike, Slack Bastards, The Sindicate 9 p.m. The Flycatcher (Downtown)
  • Thee Commons 8 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)

Tuesday September 19

  • Sugar Candy Mountain w/ Mute Swan and Casey Golden 8 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Reverend Horton Heat w/ Fishbone 8 p.m. The Rialto Theater (Downtown)

Wednesday September 20

  • Grunge Night: A Tribute to Chris Cornell and Other Fallen Stars 9 p.m. The Flycatcher (Downtown)
  • Toadies w/ Local H 8  p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit 8 p.m. Rialto Theater (Downtown)

Thursday September 21

  • Bruja and the Coyote Album Release Show 9 p.m. The Flycatcher (Downtown)
  • Spence, Fire By Rank, Curfew 8 p.m.The Loudhouse (N Tucson)
  • Dent May w/ Asian Fred and Karima Walker 7:30 p.m. Club Congress (Downtown)
  • Ben Folds 8 p.m. Rialto Theater (Downtown)


  • The Flycatcher, 340 E 6th St. (Downtown)
  • The Loudhouse, 915 W Prince Rd. (N Tucson)
  • Saint Charles Tavern, 1632 S 4th Ave. (S of Downtown)
  • Solar Culture Gallery 31 E Toole Ave. (Downtown)
  • Club Congress, 311 E Congress. (Downtown)
  • The Hut, 305 N 4th Ave. (Downtown)
  • Rialto Theatre, 318 E Congress St. (Downtown)
  • Sky Bar, 536 N 4th Ave. (Downtown)
  • 191 Toole, 4 p.m. 191 E Toole (Downtown)
  • Che's Lounge, 350 N 4th Ave. (Downtown)
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Downtown Radio's Jason LeValley

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