On a recent Monday morning in a tiny storefront radio studio, DJ Huh What danced as if no one was watching — and enthusiastically played hip-hop and R&B music as if everyone was listening.
Of course, with a 3-mile broadcast signal radius, no phone lines into the studio and no market metrics to measure, there is really no way to know if anyone on the East Side of St. Paul is listening to the morning show on WEQY (104.7 FM). But that doesn't really matter. Not yet, anyway.
"This station is really just trying to give voices to the East Side community," said Huh What, whose real name is Shay "Glorius" Martin. He and fellow St. Paul Central graduate Nick "Mastermind" Mohammad coproduce this mix of music, news and commentary from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Welcome to the East Side's version of low-power radio enabled by the Local Community Radio Act, a change in federal law that has opened up the airwaves to stations like WEQY. The station, supported by the Dayton's Bluff Community Council and grants, began broadcasting in August. It relies on volunteers to make music playlists and host studio shows, and it leans toward the tastes of young African-Americans, although shows and music appealing to a broader variety of cultures are in the works.
But, in a neighborhood that has changed demographically over the years, from mostly blue-collar white to now 60 percent people of color, Brenda Reid of the Dayton's Bluff Community Council said WEQY is already giving air to people who have been underrepresented in Twin Cities radio. The community council holds the station's five-year license. Reid, the inaugural station manager, will hand that job to Martin come March 1.
"It allows an avenue for those who don't have access with the mainstream media to have a voice," she said.
Reid credits Carla Riehle, a former Dayton's Bluff Community Council board member, with spotting the opportunity in 2013 for a low-power radio license and the two-week window to apply. The application, approved in March 2014, envisioned "programming accessible to community members who might speak languages other than English, and would play music that reflects a variety of cultures," Riehle said in an e-mail.
In the license application, the council said that "local programming would vary throughout the week as broadcasts are undertaken in the different languages in the community, including, for example, Hmong, Spanish, Karen, Vietnamese and Ethiopian in addition to English."
But that hasn't happened, said Riehle, who has since stepped away from the project. She said she hopes a new board of directors will revisit the station's format.
Reid said a broader programming menu is evolving.
Not only does WEQY offer a hip-hop "School Bus Mix" of music early in the morning, as well as Martin and Muhammad's show, but a "Democracy Now" midday news show is planned, as are shows featuring jazz, public affairs and other issues, hosted by black and Hmong community members. Friday night's "Dead Air" features music of the Grateful Dead.
Martin said the Hmong, Latino and Somali communities that also make up the East Side already have radio stations and programs of their own. Still, he said, "Our door is always open to new shows."
But the 41-year-old longtime local hip-hop artist and DJ — who works with youth as program coordinator for New Lens Urban Mentoring when he is not at the station — acknowledged that WEQY's identity is one of "urban contemporary music." That's what many in the community wanted, he said.
'More than just a whisper'
Kaleem Alaziz, 18, a student at St. Paul College, volunteers several hours every week, creating playlists.
The former Simley High student said Martin and Mohammad's musical choices are "OK. There are people out there who like that stuff."
But he said young people want the music he is playing.
"I want it to be a station that's more than just a whisper. I want it to be something like KMOJ," Alaziz said. "The fact that it's low power right now is a disadvantage."
In the studio during their "To the East" morning show, Martin chooses the music while Mohammad, 37, who works as an associate director with outreach organization Minnesota Voice, reads news stories and offers commentary. They keep up a fun, lighthearted banter.
Neither of them is paid. It's a labor of love, they say, developing this new voice for the community.
Included on their playlist: "(Not Just) Knee Deep" by Parliament Funkadelic, "Grind Don't Stop" by Yung6ix and "White Horse" by Laid Back. Martin lobbies St. Paulites to fix the now-dark "1st" sign atop the First National Bank Building.
Neither has any idea how many people are listening. But Martin closes the two hours, as he has for months, with a wish.
"If you're blessed," he says to his unseen audience, "bless someone else."
James Walsh • 651-925-5041