For East Tennessee’s WDVX-FM, the nonprofit grassroots radio station broadcasting out of downtown Knoxville, 2020 kept on punching all the way to the bitter end.
The Christmas Eve snowstorm that made the countryside postcard-pretty, combined with the AT&T outage from the Christmas Day suicide bombing in downtown Nashville, knocked WDVX off the air temporarily as the year ground to a halt. The WDVX crew, led by station co-founder and General Manager Tony Lawson, did what they’ve done for the past nine months: They improvised.
Thanks to the station’s backup camper in Norris and the help of Spotify, they were able to keep broadcasting, and when the website was able to livestream the station to the rest of the world, they were met with a nice surprise, Lawson told The Daily Times this week.
“What was so heartwarming were some of the messages between Christmas Day and the Wednesday after, when we were down on the web for four or five days,” Lawson said. “They were just so incredible, people telling us how much they missed us and how they appreciated what we’re doing.”
That love, locally and in pockets around the world, has kept WDVX afloat in a year when COVID-19 killed virtually all of the station’s in-person live music events. Considering the scope of those pre-pandemic performances — daily on the “Blue Plate Special” that broadcast live from the Knoxville Visitor’s Center; weekly for the “Tennessee Shines” and “6 O’Clock Swerve” shows; and regularly at Knoxville and Maryville venues — the fact that the station made its budget for 2020 is nothing short of impressive.
And, Lawson added with a hint of pride, that was tallied before federal PPE loans, handed out as emergency COVID relief by the federal government, were included.
“We adjusted and started doing three-day fund drives instead of 10-day ones, and for the month of December, we just did a soft-pitch, year-end ask,” he said. “And then a couple of people said they wanted to donate $4,000 to us and suggested we put it up as a challenge to listeners, so we wound up raising $16,000 in December alone.”
That money allows Lawson and his staff, many of whom are unpaid volunteers, to keep the music on the air. And it’s allowed them to bring live performances to living rooms and smart devices even if COVID-19 prevents fans from gathering in person to listen: Starting Friday, the station will launch a “Live From Home” series that alternates between bluegrass and Americana acts. First up on Friday is a digital performance by the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. Next week, Band of Heathens will make its livestream debut.
“We were working on some things before the pandemic hit — a new website and launching a new video player on it that allowed us to do more video — but little did we know we were building the engine we need for now,” Lawson said. “As things have gone along in 2020, we’ve been paying attention to what’s going on with musicians and how much they’re struggling in this industry, and given our webcast and our reach, and our ability now with the new tools on our website, we thought, why not reach out to artists we know and have contact with and see if they would be interested in doing these shows?”
It works like most other digital events do in the time of COVID: Fans can pay for a digital “ticket,” watch the performances for a certain window of time on their devices of choice, and the revenue is split between WDVX and the performers themselves. Maryville’s Clayton Center for the Arts is one of the sponsors of the “Live From Home” series, and as it develops this year, Lawson hopes that perhaps one of the future broadcasts will be from the Clayton Center stage.
After all, that’s where the WDVX “Smoky Mountain Jamboree” concert series will return, once live music can safely resume.
“Our plans are to continue a weekly show that features these artists and local artists, too,” he said. “That’s how we’re headed into 2021, trying to provide live music for folks that they can watch in HD on our website, or if they have the capability, on their big screens or smart screens. And when the time is right, we’ll bring back the ‘Smoky Mountain Jamboree’ to the Clayton Center. We’re both excited about doing this, and we thank them for supporting and helping us do this series.”
Is it the same as attending a concert in person? No, but it’s live music — and for Lawson, spending the self-imposed quarantine learning how to broadcast from his computer to his home TV, and through his home sound system, has been an enjoyable learning experience.
“That’s one of the things that I have found that I have done a lot during the past year: I’ve learned more and more,” he said. “And that’s what I encourage people to do: learn! If you’re spending a lot of time at home, check it out and see what you can do with your system. I’m learning stuff I can do with my phone that I’ve had for two years.”