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Low-power St. Paul radio station tunes into the heart of Frogtown

20December 2021

For much of its history, St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood has been known more for the things it lacks — money, green space, well-paying jobs — compared to the rest of the city.

Yet, thanks to Philip Gracia, Katharine DeCelle and the other volunteers who make WFNU Frogtown Community Radio go, it has something most other neighborhoods don’t: an independent voice all its own.

Begun more than five years ago and broadcasting at about a five-mile range over 94.1 FM, WFNU-LP (Low Power) gives Frogtown residents a platform to tell their stories, play their music and debate the issues most relevant to their lives.

“It’s a place where people can come and be heard,” said DJ and station co-director Gracia while hosting his Friday program, “The Midday Escape,” from the station’s studio near the State Capitol. “We try to help them amplify their words … We try to be the little station that could.”

Said DeCelle, the station’s other co-director: “We show the good things that are happening here, too — Greening Frogtown, Frogtown Farm, the Victoria Theater.”

Giving underrepresented communities a stronger voice was the idea behind the 2010 Local Community Radio Act, a change in federal law that opened up the airwaves to nonprofit and educational organizations to apply for a limited number of FM radio licenses.

WFNU was the second St. Paul low-power station to go on air. WEQY in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood was the first, launching in 2015. Three other low-power radio stations have been granted licenses in Minnesota — Park Public Radio in St. Louis Park, the People’s Press Project in Fargo-Moorhead, and Two Harbors Community Radio on the North Shore.

In its brief history, Frogtown Community Radio has moved from a fold-out table inside the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent to a small space in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church to, six months ago, a suite on the top floor of the Capitol Ridge building. It offers programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with live programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Nearly three years ago, WFNU shifted from being a program under the Frogtown Neighborhood Association to being run by its own nonprofit, Frogtown Tuned In. DeCelle estimated that the station’s programming is about 65% music, 35% talk and community affairs.

Caroline Harthun-Wooldridge is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church and hosts a show on the station from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. every Wednesday — “The Woo Hoo Hour with the Preacher Lady.”

Unlike many of the more than 60 volunteers who work on-air and behind the scenes, Harthun-Wooldridge has a background in radio. She earned her undergraduate degree in broadcasting. She said she likes how the station not only “gives Frogtown its voice” but trains area residents in all aspects of radio.

On her show, which features residents sharing their personal stories, guests are asked to suggest five songs that inspire them. “It’s such a joy,” Harthun-Wooldridge said.

Wendell Ward — known as DJ WOW on his Tuesday afternoon show — has volunteered at WFNU since its beginning. Playing music by local artists is his show’s focus, but Ward said he also considers it his mission to help connect Frogtown residents with necessities — like food and toilet paper.

The nonprofit he helped launch, Feeding the Dream, gets food to families in need. He uses the platform of his radio show to let people know where to go for fresh food and other necessities.

“If it wasn’t for WFNU, Feeding the Dream would not be as effective,” Ward said. “This station really is making a difference. We let people know what is truly happening. We have the power of giving people access.”

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